what is contemplative meditation contemplating

What is contemplative meditation?

Last Updated:
January 5, 2020
Hunter Varnum

Meditation has been a tool used to facilitate deep thinking & self-reflection for millennia.  For many years, meditation & contemplation were used almost synonymously. Up until the last few decades, the term contemplative meditation would have been perceived redundant.

Today, however, the definition of “contemplative meditation” does serve a practical purpose.  To understand what contemplative meditation is and how to use it as an aid in promoting deep thought & inspiring insight, we need to discover the original meanings of the words contemplation & meditation.

The Latin origins of these two words will clearly define their similarities, differences and what it truly means to meditate contemplatively.

Contemplation vs. Meditation – Why All the Confusion?

To understand the distinction & confusion between contemplation vs. meditation, it’s important to understand their original meanings, and how they have been altered over time.  

The word contemplation is the combination of the Latin prefix “con” (with) and root “templum” (shrine, temple or sacred place). Temples & shrines were often at higher vantage points in the landscape, enabling one to observe or survey down below.  Combining its various root definitions, the word contemplation can be defined as the act of seeing or observing with the help of the divine.

The word meditate is derived from the Latin verb “meditor” (I think, ponder, reflect upon, consider, study, intend, plan, etc.), which has no direct spiritual connotation.

It’s clear from the original derivations of these two terms that their meanings have been inverted in recent history.  Contemplation is actually the more spiritually derived action, where meditation represents the more systematic, rational exploration of life’s many questions.

The recent distortion of these terms is largely due to the recent popularization of meditation in the Western Hemisphere via Buddhism derived mindfulness meditation.  Mindfulness meditation centers around the idea of non-attachment to one’s thoughts & feelings. Even though one is not supposed to think, reflect upon, ponder, consider or study anything other than the present moment in mindfulness meditation, it is this practice that re-popularized & obfuscated the term “meditation” in the late 20th century.

The widespread popularization of mindfulness has misled many into thinking that meditation is the practice of clearing the mind of all thoughts, when in fact, the true meaning of meditation is to purposefully engage in deep thought.

Consequently, the meaning of contemplation has been inverted.  Instead of its original use in describing a state of divine observation or inner listening, many misrepresent contemplation as a non-spiritual process of focused deliberation.

So, what is contemplative meditation then?  Well, following the definitions we just laid out for these two misunderstood terms, it’s actually quite simple.

How to Practice Contemplative Meditation

In order to understand how to practice contemplative meditation, it would benefit us to describe first what it would be to practice non-contemplative meditation.  

Drawing from our previous discussion on meditation and contemplation, non-contemplative meditation would be defined as focused reflection, thought or deliberation on a specific topic or question without the goal of receiving guidance from the divine or inner voice.

Following that logic, contemplative meditation can be defined as spiritually-centered observation or consideration of a specific idea, question or situation with the goal of receiving insight from the still small voice, inner wisdom or the divine.

Therefore, the purpose of contemplative meditation is to seek answers to specific questions from whatever your concept of a higher power is.

The practice of contemplative meditation can be used to assist in making big life decisions or throughout the day, as one wrestles with habits of thought & behavior.

By closing your eyes, taking a few slow and focused breaths, dropping into the heart, focusing on the question you have, asking your higher power for guidance and direction, and sitting in silence, you’ll quickly find that regular practice of contemplative meditation is vitally important to simple, certain and consistent decision-making.

Though you should practice as much as possible on your own, guided meditations, led by a professional facilitator, are some of the most powerful ways to engage in contemplative meditation. Guided meditation facilitators can choose the topic of focus for the meditation and ask targeted questions aimed to foster a deeply contemplative experience.

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