The Contemplative Program

Contemplation Study and Application Program

contemplative program

The contemplation of experience, the nature of it, is a meaningful exercise. It is an examination of our psychophysical makeup and can yield valuable insight into what it means to live happily or perhaps in anguish. Any such effort to be freeing ought to look into our minds, our bodies, and the world we construct or, as some would say, the world we inhabit. In the wisdom traditions, there is the practice of analytical meditation, and this form of looking into the nature of our experience isn’t hugely different. There is a purpose to this endeavor, and surprisingly, that might actually be to make our lives simpler and more efficient. To root our thoughts and actions in an ever-present background that affords our situated agency. This background, we might discover is intangible and yet ceaselessly unfolding. To access this background is perhaps more than uncovering fundamental awareness, it is discovering a space that is basic and constant. One could argue that this background is a construction itself, not hugely different from the objects that we usually interact with. However, in its tone, it is unencumbered by any specific characteristics, a ground without any attributes or measure. In simpler words, it is a silence, a spaciousness that allows generativity and flexibility. A basic space that unfolds our inner and outer worlds. 


The contemplation of the nature of our experience includes discovering this putative ground as well as all that superposes upon it. The superpositions could be our body, our mind or our environment, and our appraisal of this environment. It has been argued that our environment is not a given, that we participate in creating this environment. However, it is our appraisal of any environment that we find ourselves in that in many ways sustains and propagates it. It seems that any form of measure, while inevitable and often necessary, impacts where we are and how we act. This appears simple enough but could have immense implications on our situatedness and our sense of agency. From an evolutionary perspective, our presence and our interactions in turn change not only who we are but where we are. In looking upon our minds, bodies, and environment we chance upon systems embedded with systems. In disentangling this apparent complexity is coherence. In that way contemplation is simple. We watch the unfolding of events, inner and outer without commentary, until any form of structuring subsides. In that manner, we might come to behold the canvas that mirrors the ‘signals’ that constitute as well as enchant us. 


The study and contemplation of the nature of  experience, mind and reality has been attempted since antiquity. The program for the study and application of contemplation aims to look at these matters from an interdisciplinary perspective. We hope to create content (on a regular basis) on topics that not only merit but in many ways underlie the process of contemplation. We welcome you on this journey!

Contemplating our experience of the world

contemplation study program


In a paper titled “Fundamental Awareness: A framework for integrating Science, philosophy and metaphysics”, Theise and Kafatos propose that awareness is fundamental to the universe, not arising from the interactions or structures of higher-level phenomena. For centuries, this notion has been explored within the Vedanta and Buddhist traditions. There is a well-known practice that consists of the contemplation of the question, “What is this?”. Practitioners hold this question in mind, without really trying to find or articulating an answer. The questioning is the purpose and the practice. We seek answers all the time and stopping at the question allows us to let whatever happens unfold on its own accord. Doing this reveals the primacy of awareness. From infancy, we begin to question and examine our experience of the world. Whether it is the crystallization of our views that determine our experience could indeed be an important avenue of exploration. In their paper, Theise and Kafatos discuss the principle of complementarity which in many ways suggests that phenomena are only incompletely accounted for by any one view. That our experience begins with awareness is a tenable position to adopt. The authors of the paper mentioned suggest that the cosmos can be seen to derive from awareness rather than being suffused by it or giving rise to it. That all views and experiences are nothing but a knowing within the awareness Ness that is the ground of existence. 


Contemplation Focus 

A view is in many ways a measure. Some form of measure is central to our experience of the world. What happens when we suspend measure? Experientially, that is stepping into the unknown. We define ourselves and our world through measure and many would argue that suspending measure is not possible. If we were to do that, would bare awareness be leftover? Or is awareness itself a function of measure?  

Contemplation: What might experiencing the world mean?

Amongst the most favored, scientifically testable theories that discuss the mechanics of our perception of reality is representationalism. According to representationalism, the content of our sensory experience is mediated by a representation which is an internal physical state, for instance a neural state in our brains. Sensory experience results from some mapping between the physical structure of the internal state and the perceived structure of what we experience. According to this theory, when a sensory representation is caused in the right way by the external objects that it maps to, then we are experiencing the external world. If a sensory representation playing the relevant role arises for some other reason, then we are not actually perceiving the world but are imagining, dreaming, hallucinating or harboring an illusion. Opposed to representationalism is another scientifically tractable theory known as the sensorimotor theory of perception (Reagan & Noe, 2001) 


The sensorimotor theory proposes that perception is directly related to understanding. It states that we can perceive only what we can understand and that perception is an active process of the understanding engaging with the world. This is not some abstract, intellectual understanding but a practical knowing-how-to-do or a fundamental knowing how to act and interact. For example, we can perceive a table to be a table by understanding which actions or interactions a table affords. Even the most basic percepts such as color, shape, tone of sound, smell, touch etc. are to be understood in terms of a practical understanding of the possibilities of the interactions that such stimuli allow. So perceiving color certainly requires having the correct sensory apparatus to be able to pick up on color but more than that, it requires a practical understanding of the types of sensorimotor interactions that are allowed by external properties of the relevant type. This type of sensorimotor knowledge could very well be implicit, deeply enmeshed with the structure of our more explicit knowledge. So, perception is an interaction, an act of interrogation. Many argue that the structure of experience is not inevitably private, that the structure of experience is the structure of the actions that our perceptual coupling with the world makes available to us. Therefore, they are perfectly amenable to objective testing. In fact, there is no aspect of experience that cannot be studied from the third person. 


The body-mind-world account of perceptual experience argues that we have access to the world, that our experience is not just a representation, and that our access is mediated by our understanding of it. Perception could be construed as a process of sense making that does not necessarily preclude the presence of a world ‘out there’. What is the ‘inner’ then? Contemplation of this question might reveal that there really is no distinction between inner and outer. Experience whether inner or outer is a process of interaction such that the knowledge that underlies such interaction is necessarily structured into it. What I can see is what I know how to interact with and similarly what I feel is also what I know how to interact with. 



What again is the inner? What is the outer? Experientially speaking, is there a clear line of demarcation between the two? What is knowing and what is the known? What is the difference between the two?

Considering the experience of objects


The world of everyday objects can just as easily be ground for contemplation as abstract ideas. In fact, in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, there is an emphasis on staying away from abstraction and focusing on the simplest, most immediate object, that of the breath. Even the most mundane of objects can be endlessly fascinating. The tree, the table, the glass of water. There is an inexhaustible richness to the world that we can experience. This richness can be both a source of joy and the subject of study and exploration. For instance, we could ask what it means to perceive form. What is it like to be part of the world of objects and things? In the article discussed below, the idea of perceptual presence is explored. Perceptual presence is understood to be a distinctive mark of normal conscious perception that perceived objects are experienced as actually present in one’s surroundings.


Oblak et al, look at perceptual presence from a first-person perspective. They highlight certain characteristics of the perception of objects that are present in what we see as the observer independent world. These include the fractal structure of detail which means that the amount of sensory detail that can be obtained from objects appears to be inexhaustible. They mention that objects appear as occupying a certain part of space, i.e., they appear to be relatively denser than unattended space. This, they term the structure of lived space. There is also what is known as affordance awareness, i.e., objects explicitly allow or disallow specific bodily interactions. Affective resonance is another characteristic that refers to the experience of the overall atmosphere of experience intuitively feeling as if coincident with actual reality, i.e., veridical. That is, objects appear obvious and unremarkable. When something goes wrong, however, the experience is felt as strange or surprising. Thus, with perturbation, there is dissonance.




In many ways, our experience of the world of objects begins with perception. Perception is a central consideration in almost all contemplative traditions. What is seeing? What is hearing or touching? Contemplation of just this much can be immensely absorbing. We take our discernment of form and definition for granted. Just a little bit of reflection reveals this very discrimination is the basis of almost every facet of our lives. We could indeed stop at seeing, hearing, or touching. That could very well be the foundation of mindfulness which is a popular preoccupation. Turning our attention to the act of perceiving, to the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ of experience can be remarkably stilling and surprisingly insight generating. Doing so takes us to the ground of experience and all of this begins with a nonconceptual regard for the objects around us. Focusing on the ‘how’ of experience dissolves the boundary between subject and object. Attending to the mere presence of objects can even reveal the structuring that we employ to explain or interpret thoughts and emotions, which is often the source of our anguish or even illness.

Structuring our experience through conceptualization

Learning to question the structure of our experience yields many benefits. For one, it impacts the finality we ascribe to what we are seeing, hearing, touching, thinking and feeling. The attenuation of the givenness, the import or significance of whatever we might be experiencing orients us to the mystery of the unknown. We can reduce the intensity of any distress we feel and become open to a reality that lies before we think, conceptualize or even sense or supposedly recognize. Great energy becomes available when we do this. In the article presented below, the author discusses what is in a concept. Our view of the world and the positioning, relevance and interpretations of what we perceive are mainly determined by our concepts. We have discussed previously how we perceive only what we can understand and interact with. The detection of a quality-particular like say ‘blue’ is different from ‘this is blue’ or ‘the color blue’. Anything that comes after the bare detection is conceptualization, many would argue. In many ways, all processing is conceptualization. 

Buddhist scholars have argued that the recognition of ‘this is blue’ comes from our exclusion of the category of ‘nonblue’. This process of exclusion is employed in identifying any object that we come across. A chair is deemed so because we exclude ‘nonchairness’ through our processing. The world of flux, of constant arisings and ceasing thus becomes compartmentalized into categories and classes. Into discrete objects and even definable thoughts and feelings. We structure our experience through concepts. Conceptualization makes recognitional, attentional and imaginational activities possible. 

In examining conceptualization, we come face to face with the precedents of our conditioning, our beliefs and our mental formations and fabrications. In an article titled "What's in a concept", the author suggests that it is possible to attenuate processes such as selective attention and conceptualization to access a non-conceptual way of being. Doing so might be seen as an unburdening, a way to revitalize and refresh us. 


Contemplation of the Nonconceptual

In the information and stimulus full life that most of us lead, accessing a nonconceptual way of processing our experience can enhance creativity as well as well-being. A simple and effective way of doing this is by observing whatever we might be experiencing, be it a feeling, thought, memory, image or physical event such as an object or sound and just exploring what came before what we are observing.

For instance, we could ask, 'what comes before thinking?' Similarly, what comes before seeing or hearing? What comes before the seeing of an object? Or the arising of an image or memory? Is it the sense of there being an observer? What comes before that?

Doing this is possible no matter what we are engaged in. Any activity, thought or feeling can be the ground for this kind of contemplation. It is an efficacious way of freeing ourselves from rigidity and inflexible or unwholesome views, ways and beliefs.

Contemplation of Suffering or Not Knowing this Suffering

With wholesome contemplative practice might come a ridding of ingrained thought patterns and predilections. This facilitates the dawning of insight into the workings of person and phenomena. The adoption of a stance of not knowing could perhaps allow the establishment of a sense of contentment and even wonder that energizes all activity.


Sit at times with the questions " what do I seek?" Why do I seek?

Contemplation of suffering or insufficiency need not be either a harbinger of hope or joy but just a simple reminder that our suffering is as much part of our lives as is anything else. Often a quiet recognition of this truth brings a sense of peace to allow viewing incongruence and dissonance with patience and fortitude.