Self-reflection: exposure, contemplation and embodiment

Self-reflection: exposure, contemplation and embodiment

The art of self-reflection is the central endeavor of spiritual cultivation. It includes three main aspects: exposure, contemplation, and embodiment.

Exposure means making contact with ideas that spark the process of self-reflection. Exposure can happen in many ways: reading books, listening to lectures, making a connection with a teacher, observing nature, and so on. Exposure is exciting and fresh. The inception of new possibilities usually is. Yet every honeymoon period wanes with time. Although exposure is absolutely necessary, it only reaches skin deep. The genuine value of exposure is that it ignites contemplation.

It takes courage and perseverance to touch the depths of anything, especially the human heart. The movement from exposure to contemplation is no exception.

We can easily get caught in the trap of reading stacks of spiritual books, attending endless seminars, and otherwise accumulating a head-full of  theoretical knowledge. Getting stuck in the exposure phase is like never leaving the buffet line. We overeat and then suffer from spiritual indigestion. At some point, we must stop and digest what we have already consumed. Digestion is less exciting than consumption; however, this is how value is extracted and assimilated.

Contemplation, in its early stages, is the ability to entertain an idea without accepting or rejecting it. It is something akin to holding a baby bird in your palm. With great interest and care, you begin to observe closely. The purpose of contemplation is to see things in a fresh way. Premature acceptance of exciting ideas closes the hand too forcefully, crushing the bird. Premature rejection of confronting concepts pushes new possibility away; the bird gets dropped.

The first lesson we must learn in the art of contemplation is to calm down. We have to take ideas in fully, digest them slowly. There is no rush. We do not have to accept or reject. We do not have to label “good” or “bad.” There is another option beyond the duality of choosing this or that. We can simply remain open.

The process of contemplation entails closely observing our own beliefs. The objective is not to acquire a host of new ideas per se, but to find out if the ones we hold dear have any relationship with reality. One of my teachers said it nicely: “Losing ignorance is much better than gaining any wisdom.”

One of the benefits of properly conducted contemplation is that it exposes our own confusion. Contemplation shines the lamp of awareness into the dark rooms of our belief systems. Light can only expose our ignorance; it’s up to us to toss out assumptions and beliefs that are not representative of reality as-it-is.

Although contemplation can bring clarity, it is easy to mistake lucid theoretical understanding for embodiment. Mental certainty of spiritual truth is quite different from realization. It takes courage to move from contemplation to embodiment.

The risk of getting caught in contemplation is that one formulates lofty theories and then stands behind them, aloof from the living moment. This is a common mistake among so-called “advanced” spiritual seekers. Unchecked contemplation can render a person dharma- intoxicated. Blindly adopting spiritual axioms will do the same. This means we have taken on a particular view—usually one that espouses transcendence—and have placed that view between ourselves and the immediate situation of everyday life. Shrouded in spiritual ideals, and armed with objective understanding, a seeker can become distant from immediacy.Untouchable.

This is a common obstacle on the path.

Studying an atlas is quite different from walking in the forest. At some point, we have to fold up our map of concepts and step onto the path-less path. Teachers and teachings can only point in a general direction. We have to step off and trust life itself. With the firm ground of self-honesty under our feet, a profound recognition dawns.

We realize that, despite all of our learning, we actually know very little.

A sense of wonder returns. Freshness. This is how self-honesty and contemplation work together. At the end of the day, contemplation clearly reveals that to satiate our innermost longing we must go beyond concepts and preconceptions. Contemplation must lead to embodiment.

Embodiment is warm and intimate, totally engaged with the immediate situation. To move from contemplation to embodiment, we have to drop our guard. The cloak of self- protecting concepts is disrobed. We become vulnerable. We feel. Contact with life reaches our bones. Embodiment means being fully alive and available. It requires that we remain open to whatever arises.

This might sound fantastic in theory. In real-life application, however, living like this can be quite confronting. It dismantles our built-up mechanisms of protection. It breaks our cover, messes with our cool. It exposes ego’s hiding scheme. Nevertheless, if we are to become real human beings (Chinese zhen ren), we have to take the leap from contemplation to embodiment.

Perhaps Dogen Zenji says it best: “Enlightenment is intimacy with all things.”