Q: I’ve heard some teachers say that meditation is the best way to find spiritual fulfillment, while others say that contemplation is the way. What is the difference between meditation and contemplation? Can either or both lead to spiritual awareness, or enlightenment?

A: Let’s discuss meditation first. If you want to learn about meditation, you first need to know something about concentration. According to yoga, concentration means focusing the mind on one object. An undisciplined mind—the kind most of us have—tends to shift continually from one object to another. Steadying the mind by focusing it on one object helps you to gradually overcome this ever-wandering habit of the mind. With persistent practice, the mind is able to focus on one object for longer and longer intervals. When the mind remains concentrated on one object for a period of 12 breaths, this is called meditation. Thus, meditation can be defined as the uninterrupted flow of concentration.

Meditation can be defined as the uninterrupted flow of concentration.

The mind has an infinite capacity to think systematically, to grasp things that seem to be beyond ordinary perception, and to gain knowledge instantly. It has the power to command not only the body and senses but also the events that take place in the external world. Poor concentration—which stems from the mind’s own habits of unrestrained anxiety, craving, and attachment to its previous experiences—robs the mind of its infinite power. Without the ability to concentrate, the mind becomes weak and loses self-confidence and willpower. Meditation seems to be the only way to train the mind thoroughly and to bring it back to its natural state.

Meditation practice enables us to attain control gradually over the mental modifications (or thought constructs) that continually disturb the mindfield. Meditation is a systematic discipline for working with all faculties of the mind and organizing them in a manner that allows us to become more efficient and creative, as well as more calm and peaceful.

Because the mind is connected to the body and the external world, any valid method of meditation also includes other disciplines, which may seem unrelated at first glance. These include a healthy diet, exercise, and a disciplined approach to interactions with others. That is why practicing the following principles in a balanced way is said to be part of a meditation practice:

  • Yama: the five restraints—non-harming, non-lying, non-stealing, moderating sensual gratification, and non-possessiveness
  • Niyama: the five observances—purity, contentment, practices that bring about perfection of the body and the senses (acts that increase spiritual fervor), self-study, and surrender to the ultimate reality
  • Asana: physical exercises or postures
  • Pranayama: breathing exercises
  • Pratyahara: withdrawing the senses and the mind from external objects
  • Dharana: concentration
  • Dhyana: meditation
  • Samadhi: spiritual absorption, the culmination of meditation

All meditation begins with a process of concentration: focusing the mind on a given object.

A one-pointed mind is cultivated through constant practice. Good software programmers, for example, have one-pointed minds because they are constantly practicing concentration—solving a problem by working out a series of minute details. This kind of one-pointedness or mindfulness makes a good software programmer, but it does not necessarily give a 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 gained an awesome ability to concentrate either by practicing trataka (fixed gazing) or by focusing their mind on a compelling object. This gave them extraordinary powers of concentration, but 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 we contemplate 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, pranayama, and meditation practice, and in my study of spiritual principles and the lives of the masters, how much inner contentment have I gathered?

Cultivating true contemplation will infuse your meditation practice with spiritual fervor.

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.

Source: Inner Quest by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
Further Reading

The Royal Path: Practical Lessons on Yoga

by Swami Rama

An excellent accompaniment to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, The Royal Path is both a practical and informative look at the science, structure, and philosophy of Raja Yoga.

More in this Series

Inner Quest: Seeker’s Q&A