Exploring Exploration: Contemplation vs Inquiry
There are of course many ways to "explore" something. In the realm of the "subtle," (as distinguished from "concrete" or "empty/causal") both contemplation and inquiry are often used, particularly as spiritual practices in "spiritual" explorations. I've found it useful to make a distinction between contemplation and inquiry, though they are often equated, so here's my exploration of the difference, for whatever value that might be to you.
In a nutshell, "contemplation" is simply resting attention on a single object: a person, thing, situation, concept, emotion, sensation, and returning attention to that, when it wanders, and allowing whatever arises in awareness, to be noted. Inquiry, on the other hand, is the same thing, but with a question in mind, as a focus, a question to which attention is returned when it wanders, and noting whatever "answers" to the question arise.
Contemplation is NOT the kind of single-focus attention used by some meditators to "quiet the mind." In this kind of contemplation, there is no effort to quiet the mind. Simply quiet openness, in which busy-mind arises and operates, or not. The "yang" aspect is the returning to quiet openness of awareness, when attention is discovered to have "narrowed" or "wandered" but it's not the same as "I must not be thinking thoughts."Nor is it the same as the "thoughts are clouds passing in the sky" of mindfulness meditation, because whatever particular arises in contemplation is of interest; it's just something to make note of, however, not to mull about or think about during the time of contemplation.
I've found contemplation very useful for exploring places I feel stuck in my spiritual growth. For example, a long-term contemplation of the single word/concept "suffering" has yielded awesome insights and catalyzed wonderful non-verbal shifts.
Inquiry is more structured because of the grammar of a multi-word question. However, beyond that, it's basically the same. Attention rests, things arise and pass, the question gets repeated. Answers appear, and are noted, but not "chewed and digested." I have found inquiry to be very useful, also, with a different flavor, and different results, from simpler contemplation.
Both can be combined with writing, though inquiry lends itself to writing better. The challenge is that what arises in both inquiry and contemplation can be non-verbal, and can often be most useful to own's growth if left that way, rather than worded. However, a stream-of-consciousness writing of an inquiry can be extraordinarily useful, especially if the question is allowed to shift, flow, and morph into other questions, according to what arises. Pursuing a natural series of questions "down the rabbit hole" can unravel a lot of tangled thinking, in my experience!
The spiritual teacher Adyashanti called this distinction to my attention. Brief descriptions from his book The Way of Liberation, are these:
(These are isolated sentences excerpted from pages 26ff.)
To hold a question inwardly in silent and patient waiting....
Although rooted in stillness, inquiry is the dynamic counterpoint to True Meditation. Meditation is soft, allowing surrender, while Inquiry demands bold and fearless questioning.
...Inquiry belongs entirely to the realm of the soul, [rather than [my words] separate-sense-of-self-ego drives] that dimension of being born of stillness and light that seeks Truth for its own sake.
[The most-recommended inquiry question is Who am I? or What am I.]
Inquiry clears away misperceptions and illusions, making one available to the movements of grace.
Investigate each question slowly and deliberately. Place each question into the stillness of your being. Do not grasp for quick answers. Do not jump to conclusions. Instead, let each question reveal your hidden beliefs and opinions.
Bring each question the mind poses into the ground of stillness. Meditate on it, ponder it; take your time. Don't answer it with your mind. Be still with only the question. Be very, very still.
[Truth] is simply awaiting recognition.
Question your thoughts. Question your stories. Question your assumptions. Question your opinions. Question your conclusions. Question them all into utter emptiness, stillness, and joy. The keys to freedom are in your hands. Use them.
He goes on for several more pages about Inquiry.
About Contemplation, he says (pages 31ff.)
Contemplation is the art of holding a word or a phrase patiently in the silence and stillness of awareness until it begins to disclose deeper and deeper meanings and understandings.
[Contemplation transcends logical and linear thought, and opens us to wisdom and Truth as revelation.]
Take a short phrase as your object of contemplation and simply hold it in your awareness for some time. Do not analyze or philosophize about it. And do not get lost in your imagination either. Just hold the phrase in awareness. Then be still. Let its meaning germinate within you. Then bring the word or phrase back into awareness again. Hold it there for some time, then let it go and be still again. With a little practice you will get the hang of it and find your own rhythm.
He goes on to suggest many thoughts, phrases, words which are exceptionally fruitful for spiritual growth, using contemplation and inquiry.
What is your experience with these methods? Does the distinction seem useful to you? Comments invited below!
by Rev. Alia Aurami, Ph.D., Head Minister,
Amplifying Divine Light in All Church
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