How to contemplate – Part 3


Photography by Jorge Royan, Argentina

Awareness appears as a chain, each link being caused in some way or other

In this final part of the article, we’ll learn how to contemplatively explore awareness in terms of its causal nature. This means we’ll learn to see in direct experience that all objects of awareness come into existence due to the influence of other objects and sense contacts. Together as a sequential series, these appearances in awareness form links in a chain. As we learned in part 2, each link comes into being caused either by an impingement upon the senses, or by the previous moment of awareness. This means that awareness is not entirely free-floating; it’s not a mental faculty that’s completely open to control by the will. If it was, we would find that mental practices such as contemplation, meditation, and the sustaining of our concentration are easy, which they’re not. Such practices are however, very powerful, and their rewards immeasurable.

Awareness is not under the control of will alone; it can follow it’s own course too

As neither our best intentions, nor any force of will, can guarantee the success we seek in the practice, we sometimes get lost in trains of thought. Rather than be disheartened, we use it as an opportunity to learn more about the non-self nature of phenomena. We learn that not only is each object of awareness without self-nature (see part 2), but that each is caused by other phenomena – further proof that no object is self-like, or independently standing. So, subsequent to the distraction of some discursive chain of thought, we remark to ourselves how the passing phenomena that constituted it appeared conditionally as links in a causally dependent chain. What follows is an example of how we get lost in thought, together with the initial triggering and interspersed physical sense impressions which themselves perpetuate the chain:

We need not blame ourselves when we get lost in thought; it’s perfectly natural

We first became aware of a sound, then the non-verbal perception of there being a car outside, then the thought ‘It’s Frank, next door’, then a mental visual image of Frank peering over the wheel at his garage doors, then the thought ‘why’s he so damn fussy about parking so close to the door!’, then we felt our head tilt back as we exhaled sharply from our nostrils, then there was another thought: ‘I shouldn’t be so unkind to the old boy’, followed by awareness of another sound, then the perception of a car door slamming shut, then the thought ‘why the hell can’t Frank just close his damn car door gently’, then we noticed how our tongue is pressing itself against the roof of our mouth, then came the thought ‘Aaagh! – I’m supposed to be in some exalted contemplative state here, and yet look what I’m doing!’, and then we came back into presence.

It’s instructive to see how awareness can run regardless of our intentions

All of that was a causally conditioned chain of 12 qualitatively and modally discrete mental representations which in total lasted less than 20 seconds. We now deliberately interrupt the feeling of presence to reflect upon the whole in memory, carefully noting that each of those 12 links arose in successive dependence upon one another. Even link 8 – the awareness of a sound – was conditioned by the previous verbal thought which had drawn our attention to events occurring outside on Frank’s driveway. Link 1 was conditioned by the impingement of an auditory sense contact, and our coming back into presence after link 12 was itself conditioned by impingement of feeling our body contacting the chair. None of this series had any direct causal association with an imagined ‘self of me’; it all came into being by its own succession of direct causes.

Our imagined self so often subverts our better instincts in harmful ways

Even though the 20 seconds of that discursive chain of thought arose of its own causes, the entire sequence was in fact predicated upon, and constructed together with, a firm belief in a notional self-construct.  Taken as a whole, the series of events all was based on an affirmation of actively thinking in the self-interests of ‘me’. This is in spite of the fact that even in our previous exquisitely attentive state, we weren’t ever able to locate this ‘me’ and its selfish will which wants Frank to behave differently and shut up. Still, this doesn’t put us off at all, and the whole chain of conditioned responses is identified with this purely notional self-construct of ‘me’. This idea, as we now begin to see in contemplative reflection, is entirely mistaken. It’s also what is meant when speaking of the self as a narrative construct which embeds in us as erroneous belief.

Sustaining presence is our guardian against harmful self-interestedness

In actuality, and as we saw introspectively in memory, the entire sequence comprised phenomenal objects of awareness which were qualitatively and modally discrete. They occurred as the sense of ‘I am-ness’ was lost in weakened presence and the self-centrically willing ‘me’ identified with the conditioned sense contacts in an altogether unnecessary story about how justifiably annoyed it was, and how this was all Frank’s fault. It’s instructive to ask ourselves which of these two modes of being we preferred, and which was more likely to conduce to contentment – the one in which the ‘self of me’ was subdued, or the story? As the practice develops over time, irrefutable evidence builds that not only is the ‘self of me’ no more than a narration, but that our failure to understand this is the direct cause of much of our discontent.

Living contemplatively means we no longer inhabit a fictional world

We wrongly believe our narrative creations correlate to the actuality of our being. This is to say that we fictionalise ourselves. We embed in belief our narrations of what we are, and what happens to us. Whilst it’s altogether necessary to have reference points for our actions, to have a means of comprehending our particular place in the world at any moment, this needn’t be a fictional account. We accomplish this simply by not identifying appearances in awareness with the purely notional self-construct of ‘me’. It’s entirely unnecessary to do so; life will still happen, and in fact flows more freely in the abandonment of this identification. Rather than our existence being an obsessional and interminable process of self-betterment, we instead make of it one of life-betterment. This is both the purpose and result of contemplative living.

34 thoughts on “How to contemplate – Part 3

    • Hello Bert,

      Thank you very much for considering my words; I greatly appreciate it. And yes, there is a distinction that I, and others such as John Blofeld too, make between contemplation and meditation. This is detailed here if you wanted to read further: Briefly though, and doubtless as you already know, many others before me have written about the distinction between formal meditative practices and contemplation, though it’s true to say that the line between the two is to some extent blurred. The absence of any volitional effort aimed at concentrating the mind is, for me, the primary distinction, which is not to say that the mind does not settle into tranquillity of its own accord; it can, and in time, most certainly does as you may well know from any endeavours of your own in this arena Bert.

      As also you will know, many people struggle with meditation because of the frequent stress on concentrating the mind – the willed attempt to focus attention on a static object. At the outset, there’s the assumption that we are in control of our mind and body; and so it can be rather a deflating experience to discover that this is far from being the case. And often, whatever skill is developed in concentration remains not only hard to apply in everyday life, but also something of a stilted, contrived adjunct to proceedings whenever it is – it can actually be more of a hindrance than a help. After a lifetime of working earnestly and intensively in this area, I’ve concluded that a softer, more workable approach is better suited to the modern Western mind.

      Many thanks once again for your interest Bert.


      • It seems that according to this vocabulary I’ve been doing contemplation for a very long time, and barely ever meditated. What I have been taught as Samatha seems to also fall mainly into the area of contemplation – except that one starts with concentrating on the breath, for a short time.

        • Quite so Bert; and as I said, once there is an absence of any volitional effort aimed at concentrating the mind then for myself and others too, a conceptual distinction can fairly be made between willed and non-willed mental states. Both Samatha (calming the mind) and Samadhi (sustaining a one-pointedness of mind) are resultants of prior and running volitions. So there’s the introduction of volition as an agent for their coming into existence, and this activity may be thought of as being typical of most so-called ‘meditation’ practices. It does not matter of course, what we choose to call our practice, though I make the distinction between contemplation and meditation so as to disentangle what are often people’s prior conceptions over what is being attempted and what should be achieved.

            • I agree completely; ‘piti’ (blissful rapture) and certainly ‘sukha’ (pleasurable happiness) can attend unbidden within the minds of those well-practiced in mental culture, and perhaps at times also within some of those who do not. I would say that volition is a powerful tool that may be used in awareness practices to good effect, though the Western mind tends typically to wield its power too forcefully. Whilst it could be said that volition is the nearest thing we have to any agent of selfhood, it often acts negatively as an enforcer in the belief in selfhood itself as constituting a permanently instantiated entity within.

  1. Hariod, how are you, me Ole Fruit? I have waded through your work (shouldn’t you be charging for these tips?) and am eagerly awaiting the next chapter. Love this last one. Sometimes I forget to breathe – but never for long enough according to some. Your exercises and the way our thoughts process events really makes me question everything I do, but sadly I usually still do it anyway. Why is that, do you think? So waiting for the next bit, because there is only so long I can suck this raisin for!

    Greetings from a wild and windy Sussex. 🙂

    • Hello there looney one. Now, why aren’t you at work saving up for your new SL coupé? Anyway, you say you sometimes forget to breathe, which made me think that’s all that happens when we die a natural death – the body just forgets to carry on as an obligate aerobe. It’s probably a bit more complicated in truth though, and I don’t think anyone really knows what the moment of death is. This is cheerful, isn’t it? Anyway, you also say you question everything you do, then do it anyway. I’m rather like that myself at times, trusting more in instinct than any cranial shenanigans – it’s no bad way to be if you have a slow, old brain like mine. Maybe it just means you have a fine intellect that insists on letting itself off the leash, yet in essence you’re more of a feeling-oriented kind of person? Then again you may simply be looney, something we must not rule out. Thankyou for wading through my interminably turgid offerings my dear; I take a somewhat perverse pleasure in knowing that you would do so.

      Blessings on the day!

      • I hang on your every written word, breathing (that word again) in all of your advice. Me, I am a mere despot who needs salvation and am seeking the Man of Salisbury Hill (or thereabouts) to help me. On a whimsical note, rather than a serious one: your writings are very interesting and I love to read them. It makes a change from Frankl, who although a wonderfully gifted human being can be slightly morbid at times. Tally Ho!

        • Do you mean ‘Salisbury’ or ‘Solsbury’? I only know of the latter, it being some 25 miles to the North East of where I live here on The Waterlands. I’ve met Mr. Gabriel, if he is the ‘man’ you allude to, and very charming he is too. I think it was upon Solsbury Hill that he dispelled some or other Noogenic Neurosis of his. Hills are indeed good for that, as can be dreary shopping centres too though, and I recall being in The Dolphin Centre in Slough – c.1983 – and having an unlikely experience of love (not that kind, cheeky!), which arrived altogether unbidden. Thankyou for your kind words, which without let or hindrance have gone straight to my head.

          • You see I learn so much for you! I always thought it was ‘Salisbury Hill’, there being quite a few hills around Salisbury, but now you have put me right – again (sigh, sigh, and plenty of ellipses for effect). Now, another thing I have Googled today and found out is that Mr. Gabriel indeed claims the spelling as ‘Solsbury’. Although in my favour I was more into Rod Stewart and David Bowie at that point, being very sniffy at the Hairy Rage and certainly never interested in men with flared trousers, long hair, and smelling of something weird.

            P.S. Wild Boar stew tonight, is that socially acceptable to you, Guardian reader?

            • Yes, the ‘city lights’ said to have been seen by P.G. in the song refer to Bath not Salisbury, and Solsbury Hill is just across the main road from his place in Swainswick, to the North of Bath. David Bowie you say – any period in particular? A friend of mine was in his band, and I met him too once – D.B. not my friend, who I was already familiar with, you’ll understand. Rod, you may be surprised to hear, I have never encountered in all my days, which I feel quite likely is more a loss to me than him. I never really liked his music, but acknowledge he has a great voice. Wild Boar goes into the same camp as Rod, in that it’s never passed my lips.

    • I moderate everyone, so as to clean up typos and unintentional errors. For example, in your first comment you referred to me as ‘Harold’, and you were somewhat profligate in your use of the ellipsis – there are only so many ellipses in the world you know, so best use them sparingly. More generally, I find that tidying up comments renders them more readable for others, which seems a reasonable aim. One of the longest standing complaints on the comments in The Guardian is that the commenter can’t fix their own (inevitable) typos. I simply perform that function on behalf of others myself here. I have only ever once censored a comment (amongst well over 3,000 received so far), and that was only so as to save the commenter from certain embarrassment. I certainly don’t object to readers arguing with me, which they do quite frequently. TTFN, Hariod.

      • P.S. I just noticed you changed the spelling of your name – shame on you – it alters the feel of my responses, and I like to write on impulse.

        P.P.S. – It’s an SLK not an SL coupé. 🙂

        • Oh, you mad impulsive fool, you – get a grip on yourself woman. What an inspired guess on my part – you really are saving up for an SLK? I used to like the old W123’s (owned a couple) and the stacked headlight saloons that preceded them. Simple, with a massive great wheel and horn.

          • Yes, very Mr Blofeld – re: Mercedes W123. Point of Law, M’ L’ud. I am not saving up for one as I already have one and thought you were being sarcastic at my expense having seen a picture of me acting in rather a louche manner across the bonnet of it.

            P.S. Are you allowed to use the word “horn?” Please note – no ellipses! 🙂

            • I think I am allowed to use the word ‘horn’, though I was very careful to insert the words ‘wheel and’ into that closing sentence, it being otherwise accurate. Well spotted.

              P.S. What picture? Better send it to my email address so I can clear this matter up.

      • I had to google ‘ellipsis’, but I don’t mind admitting it. Yes, I do use a lot of them don’t I? But now you have told me, I shall refrain. After all, I only sell English courses, I don’t deliver them!

  2. I’m quite impressed and humbled by your acquired and cultivated knowledge into deep contemplation, Hariod! I don’t know much myself, other than curiously paying attention and not fully believing whatever I think I know! Wishing you a contented, relaxed moment. 🙂

    • Thank you David, for your interest here. Yes, it’s all about discovering the nature of thought, it seems safe to say. At the risk of sounding hopelessly Postmodernist and Relativist, I know nothing and believe nothing. How could I, unless I was thought itself? And thought doesn’t think I am. 😉

  3. First of all, this is a great post on the process of becoming contemplative, which is certainly something I need to work on. I spend far to much time being anxious, which means I am missing so much of what life has to offer.

    But what really concerns me is that even though I am following your blog, I am no longer seeing your posts in my email! Previously, I got an email whenever you posted something new. I had just assumed you had stopped blogging. I’m so sorry I’ve not been reading or responding to your posts, and will try to figure out what has happened. Sometimes, the ways of WordPress are mysterious indeed. But you write so well that I really don’t want to miss your posts!

    • Thank you very much for your interest here, Ann; I appreciate it, along with your kind sentiments. I haven’t posted anything here for a year now as I’ve been doing some more long-from writing and am keen not to get distracted too much in the blogosphere. I’m still reading others’ blogs, and am communicating here with commenters, of course, but for the foreseeable future I’ll remain focused on the next book. But again, thank you very much for your interest, and my very best wishes to you and yours. Hariod.

  4. Oh, good. When I saw this post I was worried I had been missing more. It is good to know you are simply concentrating on a different type of writing! Good luck with your book, and best wishes to you too!

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