The Difference Between Concentration and Contemplation
I know several people who have been practicing meditation for a number of years. They seem to be sincere about their practice and yet they all display “unspiritual” qualities: one has an enormous ego that shows no signs of shrinking, another is obsessed with money and possessions, and so on. I don’t understand how this is possible. At some point, shouldn’t the effects of meditation begin to be apparent in our lives?
Yes, meditation will trigger a process of transformation if it is real meditation undertaken with a spiritual purpose. However, it often happens that meditation is treated as a mental exercise, not as a spiritual practice. In order to make meditation spiritual, the practitioner has to infuse it with spiritual fervor. When people practice sincerely yet fail to experience spiritual unfoldment, it is usually because they are caught up with the process of concentration, and concentration alone cannot help us transform ourselves.
Meditation is like a bird: it needs two wings to fly, and both of those wings need to be equally strong. One wing is a one-pointed mind, the other is constant awareness of the higher goal of life. One-pointedness is developed by practicing concentration; constant awareness comes through the practice of contemplation. Meditators who concentrate on the object of their meditation may develop a relatively one-pointed mind, but without spiritual awareness there can be no inner transformation, and thus no transformation in our behavior.
Meditation is like a bird: it needs two wings to fly, and both of those wings need to be equally strong.
What is the difference between concentration and contemplation? How does contemplation lead to spiritual awareness?
First let me define meditation. Meditation is the uninterrupted focus on one object for a prolonged period of time. All meditation begins with a simple process of concentration: focusing the mind on a given object. In time, as this focus becomes steady and the mind is no longer distracted by other thoughts, then concentration has become meditation.
A one-pointed mind is cultivated through constant practice. A good software programmer, for example, has a one-pointed mind because he or she has been practicing concentration—solving a problem by working out a series of minute details. That kind of one-pointedness or mindfulness makes a good software programmer, but it does not necessarily give that person the ability to withstand the storms of disturbing thoughts and emotions that have their origins in the external world or in the depths of one’s own mind. Spiritual literature contains numerous accounts of meditators who gain an awesome ability to concentrate either by practicing trataka (fixed gazing) or by focusing their mind on a compelling object. But even though this gave them great powers of concentration, they were not transformed. They remained prey to ignorance and the pains and miseries that ignorance breeds: egoism, attachment, aversion, and fear. Meditation—prolonged, sustained concentration—helps one cultivate a one-pointed, steady mind, but it is ultimately the contemplative aspect of spiritual discipline that enables the practitioner to channel the mental energy cultivated by meditation in a spiritually fulfilling and enlightening direction.
In other words, the one-pointedness of mind that comes from the ability to concentrate must be used to sharpen the intellect, but that sharpened intellect, in turn, must be used to understand the higher purpose and meaning of life. Meditation becomes a spiritual practice only when the aspirant contemplates the following questions one-pointedly and sincerely: Who am I? Where have I come from? What is the purpose of being here on Earth? Where will I go after I leave this platform? Whose footsteps am I walking in? What kind of footprints am I leaving behind? How much have I contributed to God’s creation? Am I wiser than I was when I was younger? Is there anything I must do so I will not regret leaving it undone with the last breath of my life? Have I done anything more than eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, and growing older? Through my asana, yoga, pranayama, and meditation practice, in the study of spiritual principles and the lives of the masters, how much inner contentment have I gathered?
Transformation requires contemplation, and contemplation is not the same as sitting for meditation. Contemplation is a tool for self-reflection and self-study, but it must not be tainted with worry and anxiety. If it is, it is no longer contemplation but degenerates into mere worry. Cultivating true contemplation, however, will infuse your meditation practice with spiritual fervor. Only then can you expect true and everlasting transformation from meditation.
Why is it said that the object of meditation is more important than the technique employed?
All kinds of meditation techniques have been invented and trademarked by various people. I have seen those calling themselves meditation teachers who prescribe meditation on an actor or actress or on a beautiful piece of artwork. Some tell their students to meditate on roses or some other enticing aspect of the natural world. I have even heard of teachers saying that the object of meditation has to be attractive, colorful, and engaging.
According to the sages, however, you become what you think, and that is why the object of meditation is more important than the technique of concentration on that object. If you meditate on roses, an actress, or some fancy diagram generated by a computer, how can you expect your mind to be infused with spiritual consciousness? How is that possible? You must first decide what kind of transformation you are looking for, and then search for an object which can induce that kind of transformation through its own inherent virtue. If the inward journey to the source of consciousness is the goal, then a divine object which is intrinsically connected with that source will lead your mind to that source.