Relationship between contemplation and mindfulness
February 22, 2014 1:01 PM   Subscribe

What is the relationship between contemplation and mindfulness?

Over the last few years, I have learned more and more about concepts related to mindfulness and mindful meditation. It wasn’t until the last few months, and especially the last few weeks, that I have been intentionally trying to incorporate the practice of mindfulness into my everyday life. I do my best to not to let my mind wander into the past or worry about the future and in turn, I redirect my awareness to the present moment without trying to judge my thoughts and/or feelings. I have been practicing mindfulness while walking, eating, listening, and meditating. Also, there have been improvements in my attention and ability to be understanding things more clearly in the last few weeks which is exciting.

Obviously because we, as humans, have trained our minds since early on to believe that it’s okay to let our minds drift out to sea and ruminate, it’s inevitable that this will happen. And being aware and redirected the attention makes sense to me. But to what extent does contemplating about an idea or while generating new ideas/problem solving work with or work against the practice of mindfulness? By contemplation, I am not referring to letting the mind ruminate on the past or about the future, but I am talking about forming an understanding or an opinion about a thought and then maybe analyzing or evaluating it. Or how about contemplating while planning for the future?

If one is trying to be as mindful and present as possible throughout the day, how and when can contemplation be integrated into their everyday life? Sometimes contemplation can get one lost in a great thought and the mind may drift into a direction that satisfies that person and then reinforces a present sensation. So maybe they work together? When does contemplation and mindfulness not work together? I know I might be over-analyzing here but I'm more or less curious.

Responses to any of the aforementioned think-aloud questions would be greatly appreciated, thank you!
posted by jpritcha to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
It's pretty difficult to maintain mindfulness while fully engrossed in deep thought.

You could try to keep some attention on your body. Notice when thoughts start and when they end. If there are physical sensations associated with them, notice those. Notice if they seem to have any locality. Notice that even though you might be thinking about the past or the future, the thoughts themselves are still come and go in the present. Notice any moods or overall states of mind that might be related to your thoughts.
posted by adgl at 1:20 PM on February 22, 2014

My understanding is that mindfulness is about directed focus on the here and now. That includes your thoughts, I think. And there's a difference between future fantasizing, pie-in-the-sky escapism on the one hand, and actual introspection and/or creative thinking towards a goal on the other.

Letting your thoughts wander is what mindfulness corrects. Focused, directed thinking seems to very much be part of the practice, to me.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:27 PM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Also, one reason that I ask this question is because my career requires quite a bit of contemplation as I am strategizing and innovating a lot of the time. Maybe I worry that this psychological process does not reinforce the practice of mindfulness and weakens the conditioned effect I'm trying to create within myself in being more mindful in everything I do. But I like what was just said about directed thinking. That makes sense to me.
posted by jpritcha at 1:49 PM on February 22, 2014

One of the benefits of mindfulness meditation for me has been learning to recognize, "Ah, my attention has left the breath."

I find that I will also now notice, "Ah, my attention has left [thing I'm working on]," whether it's reading, working a math problem, writing code, etc. And I can use the same technique of noting that my attention has wandered and coming back whatever I want to be focused on. (Moreover, when I'm practicing meditation regularly, I find that have a desire to come back to the object of focus, whatever it is, which helps to break away from the distraction.)
posted by BrashTech at 2:01 PM on February 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

I asked a friend who practices mindfulness and who is successful in a demanding career how it is possible to remain focused on the present and still do the kind of future-oriented planning and goal-setting that must be required in that career.

She said that she sets aside time to plan (or set goals or strategize), and during that time her mindfulness practice centers on bringing her mind back and back, obviously to the plans themselves, and to "I'm planning now." "Now is this time when I plan." In other words, planning is what she is doing at that present moment.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 2:24 PM on February 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think the minute your brain goes into planning for the future, you are not, strictly speaking, in mindfulness anymore. You may be able to detach for some moments and observe yourself planning for the future, contemplating some idea - and what you may realize in that moment of mindfulness is that you have certain emotions and assumptions coloring your ideas of the future, or whatever you're contemplating. I think one of the best things about mindfulness is uncovering what you really feel, giving space for the feelings to breathe, then deciding whether or not to allow those feelings to guide you. It can be a great aid for figuring out problems as being able to observe your thoughts and emotions float by, you are able to see things a bit more clearly.
posted by ihavequestions at 2:43 PM on February 22, 2014

I think if you replace the word contemplation with the word reflection, you can find the nexus with mindfulness. Reflection is, in many ways, the application of mindfulness to past and (potential) future actions.
posted by Kerasia at 3:56 PM on February 22, 2014

I agree with Kerasia that, at least for me, these are related rather than mutually exclusive. Being mindful means being conscientious, and being contemplative similarly requires some sort of focus or awareness, otherwise it's idle thinking rather than contemplation.
posted by Dansaman at 6:01 PM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you're asking a good question that deals with very subtle distinctions.

In Tibetan Buddhism, mindfulness is the 'spy' that watches your thoughts. The analogy goes: if you are walking down the street holding $1000 in cash, you are focused on the cash. Then if someone starts walking behind you, you check every now and then to make sure they are not a thief intending to steal your cash. So your cash is your object of concentration, and peeking back every once in a while to see if the thief is still there is like checking to see how well you are guarding your object of concentration. You're "checking in" so to speak. There is an aspect of your mind that is watching the watcher.

So if the feeling inside is "I am focusing on planning for the future" then you are still mindful, since the little 'spy' is still there. You are in control of each time you change mental topics, move from one thought to another etc. You direct where the mind goes, not vice versa. You know the state of your mind.

If the feeling inside shifts into total absorption into the task i.e. there is no "I am" feeling anymore, you lose a sense of yourself and there is nothing but the topic itself then yes you have lost mindfulness (and have now dipped into the state of flow). So I think you lose mindfulness once you lose the sense of "I", a sense of checking in to see 'what are my intentions, how is the state of my mind right now, what am I focused on?' When you get too absorbed in your task.

By the way, getting 'lost' in a topic is not a bad thing. Again, in meditation the goal is to mix one's mind with the object, to become the object of meditation, so to speak. In fact, in meditation there comes a point where you mix so deeply with the object that the sense of "I" does disappear, and that's a good thing. This actually strengthens concentration since you are training the mind to be focused on one object only. What kills concentration is hopping from topic to topic in an unaware, unfocused way. ("multi-tasking" or "daydreaming")

Hope that helps.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:48 PM on February 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

I think it's just challenging, or maybe "advanced" is the right word. It's not as hard to be mindful of things to do with breath and body. I think it's harder to be mindful and watchful of thoughts. And it's especially tricky when you're letting out the reigns a little more on the thought-monkey so it can do some work — It's hard to keep a separated, 2nd-person view of that thinking that's going on. (I like St. Peepsburg's notion of the spy. You are not doing the contemplating. You're watching your mind do its thing.)

If you read Mindfulness in Plain English, it talks about concentration vs. mindfulness, which are two things you develop together in meditation, but they also have a kind of balance. Concentration kind of has to come first. You focus on the breath and nothing else. But as you get stronger at that, you can broaden your awareness to more of your sensations and experiences, and still maintain mindfulness a good amount of the time. Then sometimes you get too broad and lose it (or just have a more distracted day) and you can come back to more modest concentration, maybe counting cycles of 10 breaths. Thinking is a pretty broad level of mindfulness that depends on pretty strong "muscles" of concentration to stay detached and to keep coming back.

Anyway, though, you can practice it. And a good start is (a) while contemplating, to remind yourself over and over (maybe even set a bell) that you're contemplating and (b) to keep up sitting practice, and while sitting, if concentration is good, to try watching thinking happen in the same way you watch breathing happen.
posted by spbmp at 8:40 PM on February 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Mindful thinking is to be aware of sensations on the body and learning to ignore them. Contemplating is to learn there are irritants that come from outside of your physical system that irritate you and learning to ignore that poking behavior
posted by parmanparman at 11:31 PM on February 22, 2014

Mindful thinking is to be aware of sensations on the body and learning to ignore them.

That is the exact opposite of what I have been taught about mindfulness practice. Mindful thinking is to be aware, period.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:44 AM on February 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hmm, I think there's a distinction between "thinking" -- which for me is spiraling off and following one idea as it leap frogs to another and trying to come up with theories about how things work -- and contemplating which is very focused and limited in its scope. Contemplation is usually focused on some axiom which you already have granted to be true, rather than figuring out or solving some new problem. For example, I've spent dedicated time contemplating the fact that I will die, and my body is a transient vessel and that there will be a definite end to my experiencing of sensations and cognitions. It takes a quality of mindful awareness to delve deeply into this rather than to just "think" it as a fleeting thing and then move onto the next idea or craving for chocolate or whatever.

When I have contemplated death (or friendship, or love, or whatever) it is more like walking around and saying to myself, "There is a blade of grass. I get to experience this thing for a brief amount of time on this earth. I am taking a step. There is a tree. I will someday die." (etc., over and over.) Or "Here is a person. She is a web of sensations, desires and cognitions like me. We will both die. May she be happy." It takes a sort of concentration to dwell on or "contemplate" something like this because it's very easy to let your mind veer off onto a snack you would like to eat or a thing you need to do or a phone call you need to make.

There's good guided meditations you can listen to on Also I think metta is sort of a contemplation in that you are going over and over a certain pre-determined set of tenets. I think "thinking" in the typical sense of planning or scheming or solving isn't bad by any means. It's not that contemplation is an elevated form of "thinking." I think it's another creature altogether, which requires intentional practice. I've gotten some real fulfillment and gifts from it I think though.
posted by mermily at 3:38 PM on February 23, 2014

Just to add one more thing -- breath awareness (or whatever daily sitting meditation you do) is important as it cultivates the concentration and the ability to be present which I think in Buddhist practice is considered a necessary precondition to contemplation or mindful living in general. I think I disagree with the person above who said that breath/body meditation is the easy version and contemplation is harder. I think sustained breath meditation is actually very difficult and requires practice, and that it flows directly to contemplative practice.
posted by mermily at 3:50 PM on February 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

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