The Lost Art of Contemplation

The Lost Art of Contemplation

By Andrew Holecek

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In the break-neck speed of this modern age, slowing down to contemplate and meditate is increasingly difficult. But to fully incorporate the dharma we need to step on the brakes. The dharma is not fast food. It’s slow food. To ingest, digest, and metabolize the teachings properly we have to take our time and chew on things. The Three Prajnas, or Wisdom Tools, of hearing, contemplating, and meditating are designed to facilitate this embodiment of the dharma. They act as a “gnostic pedagogy” that separates the wisdom traditions from standard education, which leaves information stuck inside the head at the level of mere conceptual understanding.

Hearing is when we listen to or read the teachings, and it’s where the metabolic process begins. We start to take the teachings in at the level of the written or spoken word. Contemplating is the intermediate stage that is often skipped these days, as we race to the meditation cushion to begin “real” spiritual practice. But without properly digesting what we’ve heard, we can’t fully metabolize the teachings. The result is a host of “eating disorders” where the words of the masters never get fully into our system, and information doesn’t mature into transformation. Instead of getting spiritually full we just get intellectually fat, and jump around from teaching to teaching without integrating the material.

On a personal level, I love nothing more than to read a profound text and to reflect deeply on its meaning, downloading the words into my being. I then look around to see what the world looks like with this upgrade in my operating system, and things often appear different. The contemplation has “talked me into it,” and changes the way I perceive. A powerful contemplation can virtually talk me into reality.

We see things in terms of the way we think. We “thing-think.” By refining our thinking we refine our “thinging.” Padmasambhava said, “Changes in one’s train of thoughts produce corresponding changes in one’s conception of the external world. As a thing is viewed, so it appears.” We don’t see things the way they are; we see things the way we are. Neurologist Oliver Sacks lends support, “We don’t see with our eyes. We see with our brains.” Work on your brain and you’ll work on the world. It truly is a “mind over matter” event.

The religious scholar Jeffrey Kripal writes about hermeneutical mysticism, a practice where the map effectively becomes the territory: “Hermeneutical mysticism is a disciplined practice of reading, writing, and interpreting through which intellectuals actually come to experience the religious dimensions of the texts they study, dimensions that somehow crystallize or linguistically embody the forms of consciousness of their original authors. In effect, a kind of initiatory transmission sometimes occurs between the subject and object of study.”

Sudden leaps of insight take place when the understanding we’re working with becomes sufficiently close to reality that it collapses into reality, dissolving into direct (nonconceptual) experience. Sanskrit scholar Christopher Wallis writes,

Just as the asanas of modern yoga challenge our bodies, stretching them in new ways, repatterning and creating over time a whole new body, we can hold expanded understandings, “postures of mind,” that function to reshape our consciousness, creating a whole new mind. This mind is fresher, more open and more luminous, with a greater capacity for childlike wonder coupled with mature wisdom. It is also much more flexible and adaptable, responding appropriately to all kinds of situations. It is clear and strong, free of unneeded detritus. To attain this mind, saturate it with the words of the masters. But do not be content with understanding those words; work them into the very tissues of your being until your whole being vibrates with them.

The three wisdom tools work like a filtration and purification system, dripping distilled truth into your system until the teachings “become you” as pure incorporated gnosis. Hearing is the least pure because it’s the most conceptual. Contemplation begins the filtration process by becoming less heady and more embodied. You’re starting to work the material into your soma, chewing on it, working it over, even wrestling with it. Meditation is even cleaner than contemplation. It’s the final purification process where all concepts are filtered out and the teachings are fully assimilated, cleansed of all conceptual stains. This process is bidirectional, which means that when you leave embodied experience and run into your thinking head you increasingly stain things with concepts, soiling reality with your thoughts about it. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh writes,

We cannot hold the seeds of the Dharma in our intellect. We have to bring the teachings into our whole person and plant them in the soil of our store consciousness – [correlated with our body]. . . During the night our mind consciousness may rest and stop functioning, but our store consciousness continues to work. After the gardener stops working, the soil continues to work in order to help the seeds sprout and grow. Sooner or later, quite naturally, we will have a breakthrough. The flowers and fruits of awakening will arise from our store consciousness. Mind consciousness has to trust store consciousness, just as a gardener has to trust the land. Both roles are important. Remember, though, that enlightenment, insight, will be brought to you not by mind consciousness, not through your intellectual understanding, but through the deeper wisdom of your store consciousness.

The ancient Chinese scholar Xunzi wrote: “The learning of the petty man enters his ear and comes out of his mouth, the words have affected only the four inches between ear and mouth. Instead the aim for a wise man should be that learning enters his ear [via hearing], clings to his mind [via contemplating], spreads through his four limbs and manifests itself in his actions [through the embodied stage of meditating].”

The Three Prajnas are pervasive pedagogical devices in the Indic traditions, as exemplified in the Three Pillars of Vedanta. The Kashmir Shaiva master Abhinavagupta talked about how the right view, even as a conceptual construct, actively uproots wrong views like weeds, thereby “Clearing the field for the spontaneous sprouting of non-conceptual insight to reality,” as Sanskrit scholar Ben Williams shares. In Buddhism, the master logician Dharmakirti similarly discussed the process called “the refinement of concepts.” Professor Williams continues, “For Dharmakirti, yogic perception or non-conceptual apprehension of reality, is rooted in cultivation (bhavana) and is characterized as vividly clear. This cultivation is working with the Noble Truths (or any teaching) until one sees them directly, in an unmediated fashion. For Abhinavagupta, similarly, perception is refined through stages until it sheds its conceptual character in an utterly pristine and vivid apprehension of reality. For both of them, doing philosophy, particularly dialectically, is a profound tool of contemplation in this regard.”

Abhinavagupta also talked about suddha-vikalpa, a thought-construction that accurately points to reality, a “pure mental construct.” No vikalpa or thought can fully convey the truth, but it can act as a conveyor belt to truth, moving you into meditation and then into reality. As Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” Certain words and concepts are in harmony with reality, and you will feel the “click” in your contemplation when deep reflection aligns you into reality, which manifests as the coveted “Aha!” moment.

You will also find echoes of this approach in the Christian practice of Lectio Divina, or “Divine Reading,” a five-part process for getting personally immersed in the Scriptures: Reading (a passage slowly in the Bible); Prayer (engaging in conversation with God); Meditation (reflecting profoundly on the passage); Contemplation (resting in God’s presence); Action (stepping forward and doing likewise). Sometimes the practice is reduced to the four “R’s”: Read, Reflect, Respond, Rest.

I like the addition of the fifth step, Action, as did Xunzi, when he concluded by saying that the learning “spreads through his four limbs and manifests itself in his actions.” I would add a final “R” to the list of four: Reach out. Otherwise the teachings can get too precious, too pure in this purification process. To avoid this near enemy, it helps to start each session of contemplation with the aspiration that we’re not just doing this for ourselves. We’re doing it for others. It also helps to conclude each session of contemplation with a dedication of sorts, that we’ve done this work for the benefit of others.

Waking Down

The spiritual business often talks about waking up, which is a valid path for transformation. But it’s just as important to talk about the path of waking down. Spiritual transformation is another bidirectional process. If we’re not careful as we strive to wake up, we can slip off the path and into a thorny patch of near enemies that act as a form of spiritual bypassing. Spirituality then becomes sterile and disembodied. Escapist and otherworldly. (This is an issue with the mere philosopher, who stays safe, secure, and trapped in their cranial Ivory Tower.) Trungpa Rinpoche warned, “There is no way out. The magic is to discover that there is a way in.” Our gnostic pedagogy is one way in.

The Hevajra Tantra proclaims that “Wisdom abides in the body.” Deception cannot follow you into your body, which on a colloquial level is applied to things like lie detectors. For contemplatives, it’s deception-conception that cannot follow you into your body. In the teachings on the trikaya, or “three bodies,” the innermost body is called the dharmakaya, or “body of truth.” (The outermost physical body, the nirmanakaya, like deception itself, eventually decays and dies; the dharmakaya, being true, never dies. There is no “truth-decay” at the level of the dharmakaya.) As we’ve seen, deception-conception gets filtered out the more we digest and metabolize the teachings. Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Then speak from your body.

As scholar David Loy proclaims, the world is fundamentally made of stories: “We do not see our stories as stories because we see through them: the world we experience as reality is constructed with them. . . . The foundational story we tell and retell is the self, supposedly separate and substantial yet composed of the stories “I” identify with and attempt to live. Different stories have different consequences.” Bad stories pull us away from the truth, but well-crafted stories can transport us into truth. This is why good fiction can seduce us into nonfiction if the story is resonant with reality. Spiritual stories and contemplations engage a “repeal and replace” strategy: repeal stale bad stories that are not in harmony with reality, and replace them with fresh good stories that are. The most important principle for the wisdom traditions is that a story promotes awakening. “We transcend this world by being able to story it differently,” says Loy.

If you’re crafting a contemplation for your students, here are my Top Ten Tips for good storytelling. And if you’re contemplating a teaching, these ten tips will make you a better contemplative. Contemplation is a practice, and as with any other practice it can take a bit to get used to it. These ten tips will help you get the dharma into your system, where it will begin to transform you from within. Take them to heart – literally.

Top Ten Tips

  1. Make the contemplation resonate with you. If it doesn’t, massage the wording, without changing the meaning, until it does. If traditional wording (elephants and chariots) doesn’t resonate, “translate” the words into modern terms that do (Amazon and Netflix). Make it your own.

  2. Look up any words you don’t know, and then the etymology of the words. Become familiar with the literal meaning of the terms (neyartha, Sanskrit for “literal or provisional meaning”). Traditionally one would memorize the contemplation at this stage. Memorization is another lost art today.

  3. Ponder the meaning more deeply by allowing your mind to roam through associated ideas. Ask yourself, “How would I experience the world if I felt the truth of this statement fully?” Imagine how you might move through the world if you were living this truth. Transition from neyartha to nitartha (“true or definitive meaning”). This is the challenge that the Old Hag presented to the pundit Naropa, when he was humbled to discover that his supreme cognitive understanding did not mean fully embodied gnosis. Inspired and challenged by the Old Hag, Naropa left Nalanda University at the height of his intellectual powers to digest and metabolize all that he had ingested from his books, with the help of his radical guru Tilopa.

  4. When you start to get bored with the contemplation and think you understand it thoroughly, sit with it and meditate. Let it be a mantra. Getting it into your system requires repetition, almost like a mantra or dharani. Invoke the power of grace and blessing by asking for deeper understanding than you can get through the intellect. (If you’re a Buddhist, ask Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom and father of all the Buddhas, for help.) Then allow whatever arises to arise. If the meditation becomes stagnant, ask the deeper wisdom: “Is there anything more?” Sit and wait quietly.
    When you ask deep questions, like “Who am I?”, there often comes a moment of openness right after asking. In that gap lies the wordless answer. Keep revisiting that moment – by re-asking the question. Questions are more important than answers. (Socrates knew this well, which is what got him killed, but his methods of inquiry also seeded the Greek intellectual tradition that we still inhabit.) The Buddha is often referred to as the Divine Physician. I often think of him as a Divine Attorney. One who “leads the witness” with skillful questions and contemplations, inviting, coaxing, and prodding the witness into “confessing” or revealing the truth.

  5. For a few days or weeks, go to sleep with the passage you’re contemplating, wake up with it, and revisit it throughout the day. Sleep on it. Let the “gardener” of the storehouse consciousness work underground to process, digest, and metabolize the teaching. Deeper aspects of your being are at work while you sleep and dream. With our gnostic pedagogy, there’s more going on than meets the intellectual eye. The teachings are germinating below the radar of your conscious mind.
    Sleep scientists have discovered that sleep is far more intelligent than previously imagined. Studies have shown that your brain will continue to improve skill memories while you sleep (up to 35%), in the absence of any further conscious practice! A unique form of “night school.” Sometimes it helps to drop the contemplation, come back to it later after you have slept on it and more “yard work” has been done. Bottom line: if you don’t snooze you lose.

  6. Notice how you may even dream about it. Deep contemplation is a form of dream incubation. Sleeping builds connections between distantly related information that is not obvious during the day. Dreaming on it takes what you have learned in one setting and seeks to apply it to other settings stored in memory (via associative learning). Sleeping also moves information from the short-term memory storage of the hippocampus and consolidates into the long-term storage of the neocortex.
    I often take a nap after deep study and contemplation, as a way to consolidate short-term memory (naps as short as 20 minutes strengthen memory). During my three-year meditation retreat I would take power naps to invigorate the long practice sessions. I originally thought that this was interrupting my practice and therefore cheating, but the naps were actually downloading the practice into my system and facilitating learning. Conversely, if you suffer from a traumatic or unwanted experience, stay awake as long as possible to prevent this transfer and consolidation of memory. One reason PTSD is so intractable is because the memories are burned into your body. Neuroscientist Candace Pert says that your body is your unconscious mind, which has support in organ transplant cases. Some transplant recipients report memories consistent with the life of the donor, with heart transplants being the most powerful – a literal and figurative “change of heart.” Body and mind are “not-two.”

  7. If you work on the contemplation it will start to work on you. This is the crux of engaging the Lojong or “mind training” slogans, brief contemplations that are designed to chime into your mind, often when you need them the most. With contemplation practice you’re installing a host of “pop-ups” deep into your body-mind that will start to ping into your awareness at random times. You may be in a difficult situation when suddenly, magically, a teaching pops up in the nick of time. A gift from the guru – the ultimate teacher within.
    This tenet takes on particular importance in the bardo teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, where “bardo” means “gap, transitional process, in between,” and refers to the gap between lives. The installation of these pop-ups can go so deep into your body-mind matrix that it “subscends” the physical body and drops even further into the subtle body (using the dual principles of neuroplasticity – what you do with your mind changes your gross outer brain; and nadi-plasticity – deep contemplation can even change your subtle inner body, reconfiguring your nadis or subtle energy channels).
    When you die you will descend through the five stages of the outer dissolution (death of the outer body), then into and through the three stages of the inner dissolution (death of the subtle body). The wisdom teachings you have installed with your contemplations and meditations will be waiting for you in your subtle body – just when you really need them. The inner guru will greet you and take good care of you.
    It’s like simultaneously installing a GPS into yourself that will be there to calm your mind and inform you of your “position” in what could otherwise be a bewildering and disorienting journey. (For a rough approximation: there is anecdotal evidence of people who diet that sometimes report a dislodging of old memories when they return to a certain weight where the memory was initially planted into the body-mind. Even deeper, according to some tantras, memories of past lives are also said to be recorded in the subtle body.) You may forget, but your body remembers.

  8. Inquire into any resistance you may have to receiving the wisdom of the material being contemplated. Is the contemplation irritating you? As it drops further into your body, is it “getting under your skin” too far? Is the dharma starting to “get to you”? Are there contemplations that spook you, or invoke spikes of unease? Instead of digesting the material, are you suffering from indigestion? Do you find yourself thinking, “I just can’t do this,” or “I’m not smart enough,” or any of the infinite variations of poverty mentality? Notice those “think holes” but don’t fall into them.
    Some people get “notion sickness” with material that is hard to digest, and even “throw up.” This is one reason why the Noble Truths are called “Noble.” (A noble metal – gold, silver, or platinum – resists chemical action, does not corrode, and is not easily attacked by acids. That’s what makes it so noble. The noble dharma is also not easily corroded.) The dharma sometimes presents hard uncompromising truths that are not easy to absorb. But they’re only “hard” for the thickskulled ego, which is exactly what the contemplations are trying to bash in.
    These resistance syndromes tend to occur with deeper teachings like emptiness, or bardo yoga. When they’re fully understood, resistance and fear (which comes from a root meaning “fare,” as in “toll”) can be very good signs on the path. You’ve arrived at the tollbooth for growth. Contemplation is a mental yoga, and you’re feeling the stretch. Like any yoga, stretching may not be comfortable, but it’s good for growth. But don’t stretch too much or you may feel a snap, which is when you’ve gone too far too fast. Find the middle way between “not too tight, not too loose.” Work with the contemplation, but don’t overwork.
    With deep contemplations you’re getting closer to the truth (of egolessness and emptiness), and ego’s hidden defenses spring into action. The barbed wire and flamethrowers of resistance and fear are coming out in ultimate self-defense. Follow that fear in; don’t let it kick you back out. Fear is an affective expression of ignorance (we’re afraid of what we don’t know), which is precisely what the deep contemplation is beginning to penetrate. Fear is therefore a minion of ignorance, and can help you unearth it. If you really want to grow, “Follow Your Fear” – and it will lead you to the truth.
    I have witnessed students unload (throw up) on teachers when the material is too challenging, gets too close, goes too deep too fast, or starts to feel threatening. As the Surgeon General of spirituality warns: ingesting the dharma may be hazardous to your egoic health. The path is essentially deconstructive (nirvana, nirodha, nirvikalpa, nisprapanca and many other “nirs” and negations define much of the path to nonduality), and the surgical slicing (trekchö) sometimes hurts. The path is insulting and eventually devastating to the fully constructed ego. Deep reflection is therefore a death threat to ego, because it ultimately exposes the harsh noble truth that ego does not exist. The path is really death in slow motion, and contemplation facilitates that end.
    Chris Wallis writes, “Let the teachings be an ‘acid bath’ to dissolve the calcified structures of your identity, and your conditioned ideas about reality. Let them create porosity, movement, and flow. Let them open you to wonder. . . Come at them from every angle. Hold them up to your own experience. . . Ask yourself again and again: What might it feel like to abide in the wordless place this teaching arose from? What experience of reality might give rise to these words? Instead of answering that question with more words, simply explore the feeling that arises when you gently hold it in awareness.”
    As you investigate any resistance, you may discover a conflict of interest. The more evolved bandwidths of your identity that crave the truth may not be in harmony with your less evolved bandwidths that feed on fake news. Your devolutionary caboose may not want to hear the evolutionary truth. Understand the spectrum of your identity and the sometimes “bipolar” relationship to the dharma. Part of you longs to hear the truth, but another part of you doesn’t want anything to do with it. Be kind to yourself, stay the course, and be patient. It took a lot of “samsaric contemplation” to get so soundly asleep, it will take some time for the antidotes to wake us up.

  9. Don’t be afraid to let the teachings defeat you. Surrender to the wisdom. The dharma is the highest form of generosity, but it requires and even demands a correlative level of giving on your part – including giving in and giving up (your resistive ego). Make that surrender your offering back to the lineage masters. Release the defensive self-contraction and open to the teaching. Don’t try to outsmart the dharma, which is ego creeping back in to edit and co-opt the material. You can adapt the teachings (tip #1), but the near enemy of adaptation is appropriation and diversion, which results in classic spiritual materialism.
    As the poet Rilke put it, “Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.” Another near enemy here is just giving up, in the sense of not even trying, surrendering by quitting. What you need to quit is confusion, which is what the contemplation is designed to accomplish. Sometimes the contemplation can stun the conceptual mind into silence (like with koan practice), and conceptuality hits the ground with a thud. The contemplation has stopped your mind. You’ve been “checkmated.” The map has collapsed into the territory. Now you’re getting somewhere. Rumi said, “Silence is the language of God. All else is poor translation.” But we continue to “translate” and contemplate until we realize the ultimate truth of silence.
    The most advanced teachings are often the simplest. Let that simplicity defeat you. The modern complex mind doesn’t stand a chance against simplicity. Notice that the more advanced a teaching gets the less there is to say. At the highest levels, nothing can be said, which is why Wittgenstein whispered, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must pass over in silence.” This is where the contemplation, when brought to fruition, matures into silent meditation – our last wisdom tool. You’ve finally metabolized the teaching and it leaves you speechless.

  10. Drop it. Let the contemplation go. Self-liberate even the antidote. But observe how the wisdom you have internalized begins to perfume your life. Contemplation results in the teaching becoming fully absorbed at the deepest level. You know this has happened because you can explain the teaching clearly using language different from that in which you learned it. Now you’re ready to share it.
    An incorporated (in –“into;” and corporare –“form into a body”) contemplation is a living reality that transforms into a pulsating power within you. The teaching literally and figuratively “becomes you” (as in wearing attire that’s “very becoming”). Your mere presence starts to inform and transform others, without saying a word, because the word has become flesh. You can see and feel this in others who have done the work and metabolized the teachings, like The Dalai Lama, whose Tibetan name is Kundun, or “Presence.” You are now a representative of reality, and act selflessly on its behalf.

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Thanks so much for this, i am sure that i can put it to some good use! Thank you Andrew and thank-you Andy for posting it!! Ü


Beautiful and thank you for this great reminder to break the constant need for speed…I eat fast, I drive fast, I think fast…such a tendency towards impulsivity. Now, I can create a new way, to marinate and let my being steep.

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I loved reading this article. I am pleased to report that in the past two weeks I have committed to meditating (shamatha with focus on the breath) for a minimum of half an hour with up to two hours a day.

I noticed immediately an increase in lucid dreaming! And I wasn’t expecting this at all. I had finished listening to the Allan Wallace retreat that @KhyungMar posted awhile back and was confident in his instruction about shamatha.

I’ve been able to successfully stop a dream and put my hand through a wall and then my whole body. I also noticed a “shift” in perception prior to me putting my hand through the wall. It was akin to putting on glasses and noticing I could “see better”. It was like the moment it happened, there was a jolt, and reminded me of the black cat dejavu scene in The Matrix.

I can’t wait to share live with @Andrew during our next Lucid Dreaming class held once a month!

Anybody else notice the ability to lucid dream with a stronger mediation practice? I’m still blowj away as I haven’t been implementing any induction techniques, just practicing my ability to focus my attention on my breath and relax.

  • Chantal

@c_scerri Happy to read that your lucidity has increased. Alan’s „shamata tripod“ of relaxation, stability and vividness is indeed a major key to improving the lucid experience.


Thank you for sharing. I do notice when I follow the instructions and meditate before going to sleep. But I have been lazy lately, you inspire me to begin tonight!


Which retreat was that?

This one Barry :slight_smile:

This should take you to all of the recordings.

  • Chantal

Thanks . . . . . . . . . . .

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Does this open to the full 27 audio sessions?

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Did you listen to all 27 audio lessons?

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I can send it on Facebook Messenger no problem, it doesn’t link properly here for some reason…

Yes. It was a 6 day retreat and it took me a couple of weeks to get through it all.

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Wow, wonderful and inspiring! Looking forward to hearing more of what you are discovering.

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The one provided previously was a link to YouTube videos which I didn’t enjoy as much so I switched over to this version.

That one is here: The Way of Shamatha Retreat with Alan Wallace (1/26) - YouTube

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I hope you enjoy it!

I’m trying another way to link it…

You then choose The Way of Shamatha retreat provided by Vajrayana Institute.


Thanks. I’m hoping that anyone else wanting to follow this path will take inspiration from these postings. We can add this resource to the mix, as well:


Me too Barry :heart:

  • Chantal
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I also tried the YouTube videos but difficult to hear well.
How else could I access the retreat?

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