Contemplative thinking: Action-oriented contemplation

This short article describes contemplative thinking as an embodied process. To do so, we must go beyond the old cliche that mind and body are of a different order. Evolutionary psychology and neuroscience have made it clear that much of our functioning in the world depends on “bottom-up” implicit processes, as opposed to top-down cognition.

So what I am proposing here is that contemplative thinking is a form of virtual exploration. That is, instead of physically interacting with a situation, we are simulating the situation in our mind and contemplating what happens.

What unfolds is similar to what happens when we encounter a new situation in the physical world. It is a process that involves three phases. To make this description more vivid, I am using the example of Wyle-E-Coyote dealing with cliffs. So here are the three phases illustrated with images from the cartoon:

contemplative thinking

Disruption: Unless we pause, we tend to keep going on the same track with our blinders on. Think about the cartoon situation of the character walking off the edge of the cliff, not realizing they’re no longer on firm ground.

contemplative thinking

Orienting: We make a deliberate effort to pay attention to our body, not just to thoughts. Not that thoughts are bad… But we’re depriving ourselves of much of our processing ability if we cut off our body.

contemplative thinking

Allowing a felt sense to emerge: Instead of trying very hard, as if we were trying to squeeze ideas out of a tube, we gently allow ‘felt sense’ information (e.g. intuition, hunch, insight) to come up from inside.

‘Contemplative thinking’ occurs naturally. What helps us get better at it is to observe it when it happens, so that we become more aware of it.

Listen to a conversation with David Rome to find out more about contemplative thinking.