Reflection and contemplation are the two most important means for our inner journey. In very broad terms, reflection means careful thinking about an idea or opinion about something based on some observed facts related to our life as we live it. Contemplation is understood as “quiet serious inner thinking about something, especially in order to understand it better”. It is its own path finding method. One explores deeper and deeper levels of existence as he moves ahead in his spiritual journey. Another way of realization is through direct perception, - sometimes interpreted as awareness.
Initially, reflection and contemplation represent mental/psychological states or conditions that have different cognitive capabilities because they employ different mental faculties. While reflection is related more to mental concentration aimed at exploring the deeper aspects related to the object of reflection, contemplation is diving into those deeper aspects with relaxed or stress free mind without being indulged in emotions, imaginations and thoughts as they get fused together into a knowing medium as we move ahead with contemplation. It is going inside with open mind and open heart, with good intension to find the inner reality as it reveals itself to us. It is flowing with the reality without an active seeking, but rather opening oneself to reality. It can even be made a joyous endeavor. You can contemplate on love, on compassion or even on hate and find that it is not only stress-free but even joyous when you go deeper into it.
Reflection is first of all reflecting on one’s inner self. Reflection is the power of mind. It is the mind studying the mind when this power is turned back upon itself. Reflection is the first philosophical turning point in our life that we can use to live our life to its fullest potential. We then reflect on reflections and make the best use of the power of reflection. Reflection is mainly based on response, reason, interaction, connection and correspondence including physical response. Here we are the subject and experience is our object, and our spiritual progress depends on how we understand, interpret and make use of these experiences. This we do first by reflecting on these experiences whether they come from outside (thoughts, sense perceptions, colors, forms etc) or from within in the form of intuition. In the first case, reflection is governed by sense perception or by phenomenal world while in the second case reflection takes recourse not only to reason, intellect but also to the deeper levels of perception and intuition. Broadly speaking, reflection means arranging different thoughts in a particular way so that different or scattered thoughts are woven into something that gives us a right idea about something. We may use the faculty of reflection to reflect on what we have done in the past, and draw lessons from our past actions because reflection can be made a self-conscious endeavor. In fact, reflection starts first when we begin to revisit the experience we have gone through earlier experiences. When we revisit the past, new elements of understanding come into existence simply because the way we have trodden is no more unknown, and we have the option to correct it. It is here where reflection can help us in future or when we are faced with similar problems. But the more important aspect of reflection is to reflect on what is going on in our mind and heart, and make decision as to how best we could use these faculties not only for personal but also for common good. However, the more obvious part of reflection is basically visiting and revisiting the past and delving on the do’s and don’ts we went through in the past in order to chart our future course of action primarily through understanding.
Reflection is an attempt to turn inside i.e. an attempt into the world of thought, and the world of mind and heart. From this point of view, reflection means to revisit those thoughts or situations, to review the nature and content of those thoughts/situations and find out how best we can use the cognitive faculties of the mind to arrive at a synthetic view of life. Reflection is the first philosophical turning point in our life that we can use to live our life to its fullest potential. It can be understood as an act of redirecting the course of our usual way of thinking. It is dipping into the deeper meaning of our life and consciously ruminating on it until we become convinced that, somewhere along the path, we have to find out a way that is alternative of the linear way of thinking. Contemplation is one of the alternative ways, but reflection is the major turning point in our spiritual journey. Since reflection takes recourse to thoughts, ideas and concepts, it cannot go beyond them, and this constitutes the major limitations of reflection. Of these, concepts constitute the most important medium of thoughts and ideas or of philosophy, but the point is that we have to use concepts, live with concepts, but somewhere along the way we have to leave them behind lest we remain entangled or constrained by them as conception of something can never be that something. Conception of something is an approximation or an idea of that something. This is done by taking recourse to contemplation as the next higher level of self transformation. Reflecting on reflection must yield to contemplation when reflection cannot go beyond itself. Contemplation is first of all cleansing our mind and heart. It is “suspension of mental activity, withdrawal into the interior solitude in which the soul is absorbed in the silence of God”-Radhakrishnan. It starts when the mind is at a state of complete stillness; when there occurs an almost complete suspension of reflective powers and surface-consciousness. It is free from all forms of imaginations and reasons, but immensely receptive to the inner voice. Contemplation as a movement of consciousness towards the higher level really starts when one, in the stillness of the mind, is all in oneself, withdraws all his attention from the sensible world through “self-forgetting attention, a humble receptiveness, an intense concentration -Happold, is all set to be, to create and to embark on an inward journey. While through self-forgetting attitude one may overcome the ego, a humble and calm receptivity may lead one to self-merging or to a communion between him and what is above him. As is sometimes warned, this self-forgetting communion may result in one’s being submerged in an uninterrupted contemplation which said to be alluringly joyful if one is not aware of the pitfalls associated with these initially stress relieving experiences. He, therefore, must not stop there. He must go beyond them by overpowering these alluring ecstatic experiences by the soul power one gains through silence/manana which leads to contemplation i.e. when one is absorbed in the silence of God. He can then move ahead consciously for the transformation of man and his society or for establishing the harmonious equilibrium between man and Nature. Reasoning, reflecting and contemplating are intermediate stages of spiritual journey. Thinking on thinking can lead you beyond thoughts; reflecting on reflection can lead you to contemplation. Similarly, contemplating on contemplation can lead you to spiritual unfoldment by revealing different stages of knowledge. Here being absorbed in the silence of God does not mean absorbed in himself or self-absorbed.
Reflection is analytic as well as synthetic, but still mental. Reflection is thus a path finder, but reflection alone cannot bring down goodness into our life, although it can make us feel that we are following the right approach towards the goal of our life. Both the mind and the heart must be cleansed in order to bring the goodness into our life, and contemplation is the way to it. While reflection is an attempt to establish a contact between the outer and the inner reality, it is contemplation through which this contact is really established. While reflection is basically ruminating or thinking on thinking, contemplation starts when the mind is completely turned towards the inner abode of the soul, but is stress-free or free of all mental activities. Contemplation is sometimes described as a thought-free wakefulness where the mind is completely open to the inner voice, totally present and undistracted and ready to listen to the voice of the spirit. However, we cannot listen to the voice of God when the mind is restless, dissipated or given to the “noise in the head” using Eckhart’s terminology, but “when silence descends on the soul, its activities are joined to the silent creative power of God....Progress in silence is progress to the realization of spirit”. It is the stillness of the mind that leads us to contemplation when reflection gives in to contemplation. But contemplation as a passive thought-free wakefulness or an “absorption in the fruitful silence of God”, instead of progressing through silence leads us nowhere, and we cannot stop there. However, it is not contemplation per se, but the voice of the God one hears during contemplation or the silence that descends on the soul that leads to the realization of the spirit
Contemplation represents an altogether different level of existence. The most difficult thing to understand is that there is a qualitative gap between philosophy and religion, between the lower mind and the higher mind, between reflection and contemplation. Although our outward progress seems to be heavily influenced by the development of the human intellect, the reflective and observing intellect is not the most efficient means for that progress. The intellect is necessary, even indispensable initially, but we often fall prey to its logicality and cannot get away from it. Intellect is always involved in arguments, but the truth is above argument. Intellect is then the greatest hurdle for intellectuals as succinctly put by Sri Aurobindo: “Reason is the helper; Reason is the bar”. On the way to entering into contemplation one necessarily takes recourse to intellect together with emotions, imaginations, thoughts (reason, conceptions and perceptions), but these are abstractions in the path of spiritual development. They should not or cannot be suppressed, but they can be fused together into “something which embraces all of them, but which is none of them”. Contemplation is one of the meditative techniques we can use in this endeavor.
Contemplation is a positive effort aimed at improving our behavior and/or actions by transforming our mental capacity to higher levels of cognition. Contemplation is an inward oriented process and starts with some standard philosophical queries, one can perhaps say philosophical tips such as “what is reality and how can it be known through the direct experience of reality?” or “who am I?’ etc. Or we may contemplate on truth, justice, love, honesty etc. The end result of contemplation is finding the answers to such questions. In other words, through the act of contemplation we try to rise above our thoughts or to calmly review our thoughts, say: Am I the same person who was so angry a few moments ago? Was it right for me to get angry so easily? Is it the real I? A little reflection followed by contemplation will show that the two persons are not the same. We will then be able to know the real I. Here one enters into contemplation and explores its deeper levels through contemplation. Contemplation contemplates on contemplation.
Besides being positive, contemplation is cumulative. It is an essential constituent of meditation and so is an element of our inward journey. Although we may face ups and downs in the process of contemplation, it does not really back tract the path it has followed so far. It is thus a very powerful method of spiritual advancement. Contemplation transforms our lower mental faculty to a higher grade bordering with spirituality. It is the power that can be used as a medium to transcend the intellect and establish contact with the Higher Self. Only then can we be in a position to control all sorts of mental aberrations, unstable mental dispositions and vacillations including anger, hatred etc. It is not enough to be able to control anger and other mental aberrations, but the more important thing is to rise above all sorts of mental aberrations all the time, and remain unaffected by them. The corresponding mental state must be made ready for spiritual transformation. It is a process that starts with reflecting on reflections and understanding it through contemplation. Reflection and subsequent experiences constitute a cyclic process of reflecting on reflections that moves upwards in an ascending order. Reflecting on reflection reveals newer aspects of the power of reflection. While contemplation starts with thoughts and thought processes, we also come across contemplative moments when we rise above the whirlpool of our thoughts for a moment and look calmly within i.e. into what lies beyond thought. What is known through contemplation cannot be communicated through thoughts, and so when one tries to explain what contemplation is, he is simply attempting to tell what the contemplative has felt. But by itself, contemplation does not necessarily lead to final realization or spiritual transformation because contemplation is a process, a tool of knowledge, not the object of becoming, but the true contemplative participates in the Divinity through contemplation. While contemplation is journeying, some say a joyous journeying, its final object is realization of the Divinity or one may call it God. Therefore, although contemplation is a very powerful method of spiritual advancement it is often agreed that an attempt from below (from our side) and a grace from above is required for achieving the final realization. As we draw closer and closer to the truth, our thoughts become subtler and subtler and self-illuminated and finally thoughts are themselves transcended. We then enter into the domain of final reality where there is no need for relative truth, but it is contemplation that upgrades the quality of thoughts to the extent that they finally transcend themselves opening the door for self realization.