Three Types of Contemplation: Reflections on Elder Ted N. C. Wilson’s Inaugural Sermon


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Like many others around the world I was surprised during his inaugural sermon Ted N. C. Wilson, the newly elected President of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, warned against “contemplative prayer.” “Prayer is a good thing and so is contemplation,” I mused. “What could be wrong with integrating them?”

But then I remembered that some people call any vacuum cleaner a Hoover, any small adhesive strip Scotch Tape, any photocopying device a Xerox machine, any little bandage a Band-Aid and any completely pedigreed horse a Thoroughbred. Perhaps, then, for me any sort of contemplation counts as “contemplative prayer” whereas for Elder Wilson this term has a much more specific meaning.

Internet searches confirm that this could be the case. It turns out that for many people the expression “contemplative prayer” refers to particular movements with identifiable leaders, books, practices, conferences, heroes, heretics and accounts of what ails our lives and how to fix them. Most of their adherents think of themselves as reinvigorating existing communities of faith instead of introducing rival ones; nevertheless, it might be helpful to make some distinctions.

Zooming back far enough to see the big patterns, we can identify at least three types of contemplation. “Atman [individual Being] and Brahman [universal Being] are One” is the mantra of the first option. From this point of view, which is more or less Hindu, “One” means “fundamentally the same.” For Christians it would mean something like, “There is no basic difference between God’s Being and that of all other living things.”

In Hinduism, contemplation is one of several ways of experientially overcoming the illusion that Atman and Brahman are fundamentally different. Psychological liberation occurs when an individual not only knows about this falsehood but actually feels sameness with all that is, so much so that the feeling of being something partially separate from the rest of the universe disappears in a flash of total integration and insight. The purpose of contemplation in this case is to make this experience possible.

Over the centuries Jews, Christians, and Muslims of all stripes have found this type of contemplation troublesome and I count myself among them. The problem is that it blurs the decisive difference between Creator and creatures. Paradoxically, describing ourselves as “parts of the divine” might initially sound like a compliment; however, in the long run this can erode the value of individuals because each one is seen as merely a part of the Whole to which it should experientially return.

Buddhism, one of Hinduism’s rebellious children, solves these problems with its intense and intentional agnosticism about Atman and Brahman. This is why it can offer a second type of contemplation as a wholly human activity with absolutely no reference to anything supernatural or spiritualistic. In this case contemplation in order to enhance serenity is sort of like lowering your blood pressure by eating less salt or strengthening your heart through vigorous and regular exercise.

My initial contacts with Buddhism were not positive because the forms of it I first encountered had been thoroughly mixed with non-Buddhist beliefs that stretched from animism to polytheism. For example, before I was old enough to go to school I lived for a while with my parents and siblings in a house built by Buddhists in which the floor of every room was a few inches higher or lower than the adjacent ones so as to trip the evil spirits. Although I doubt that the uneven floors succeeded in doing that, they repeatedly caused me to stumble and I didn’t like it! Only later did I learn that Buddhism as such has no interest in supernaturalism or spiritualism of any type.

Buddhist sages say that the benefits of their kind of contemplation are totally natural and they are right. Some of them practice this type of contemplation so intensely that they, like the Buddha, momentarily feel at one with everything else in “Enlightenment.” But this experience is very rare even among Buddhists and when it does take place it usually occurs for those who pursue it on a full time basis; however, even in this instance Buddhist contemplation has nothing to do with anything supernatural or spiritualistic.

It is understandable and indisputable that if you focus your mind on anything — it really doesn’t matter what — other things become less noticeable and this can be liberating and soothing. Stop in the middle of a stressful day and center your mind as completely as you can on any thing else and you will feel better. Do this on a regular basis and you’ll feel better still. Continue doing this for the whole of your life and your greater serenity will be evident to all. This is as natural and at least as beneficial as brushing your teeth after each meal. It therefore deserves no condemnation.

Quite a while before he died I asked my permanently bedfast father what he did all day. “I spend my time thinking about all of God’s blessings,” he swiftly replied. This allows us to introduce a third type of contemplation, one that is self-consciously Jewish, Christian and Islamic.

I am certain that my father would have found much true relief from the disease that slowly and mercilessly took his life if we had painted a small black spot on the ceiling over his head and he had concentrated his mind upon it as intensely as possible. I also believe that his relief was deeper and wider because he focused upon God’s blessings instead.

What we focus on does make a difference. Elsewise why would specialists who recommend contemplation as a form of therapy encourage us to concentrate on positive things? Is there anything more positive than centering one’s thoughts and feelings on God’s blessings? We ought to commend this type of contemplation even if to some it appears like either of the first two.

As is evident from frequent analogies, when Hindus say that “Atman and Brahman are One,” and Jews, Christians and Muslims say that “We can be ‘one’ with God,” they mean different things. The first type of contemplation suggests that each individual is like a single drop of water that should experientially return to the great ocean of Being from which at least for a moment it will no longer be distinguishable. Jews, Christians and Muslims report that being “one” with God is more akin to being a partner in a successful marriage. Far from reducing the individualities of each spouse, the marriage actually intensifies them in a way that makes it possible for both husband and wife to achieve more of their distinct potentialities.

This is why some people describe the results of the first kind of contemplation “reunion” and those of the third “communion.” Neither of these terms precisely fits the second type.

As evidenced by the following lines which are attributed to King David, the Psalmists knew from their own experience all about contemplation as communion with God a long, long time ago. We can too!

                  For God alone my soul waits in silence;
                      from him comes my salvation. 
                  He alone is my rock and my salvation,
                      my fortress; I shall never be shaken.
                                     Psalms 62:  1, 2 NRSV 

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2741