I have read that the higher forms of prayer lead to contemplation. My question is how prayer differs from contemplation.
Do these words really mean anything to you? If they are just terms that you want to define, you will never understand them.
Prayer and contemplation really refer to the same thing. They converge. They may begin with what appears to be a different view, in a different place, but they come together as they must because they refer to the same capacities that we have as humans, those same few capacities that we are able to exercise.
To pray is to ask. I have things that I want. Very quickly, I learn the limitations of asking other people. I may therefore inwardly ask God or the Universe, someone or something I have heard or read about who is reportedly more powerful and more charitable than other humans. At first, I probably only ask for what I think will be pleasing to me or to others I have a connection to. But perhaps it may occur to me to consider, who am I asking? Over time, this may become a serious question.
A serious question, one that I can ponder, always contains its own answer. Such a question gives rise to looking. As Rumi says: “The looking is a trace of what we are looking for.”
Is someone really there to hear my prayer? Perhaps I may begin to wish for a relationship with this mysterious someone. This possible relationship may become more important to me than the satisfaction of my wants. Can I find in my inner experience those thoughts, sensations and feelings that inform me of this one that I seek? Can I find in myself the evidence of the other? By its effect on me, can the other be known? The qualities I adopt in order to bring me closer…do they not reflect the qualities of the one I seek?
This is the secret of real prayer. I discover that the qualities of the one I seek are reflected in me. What I can know of Him is His trace in me. “Know Thyself” was the advice inscribed on the wall at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. More exactly, as Ibn Arabi says: “He who knows himself knows his Lord.”
To contemplate is to hold. I have some experiences that are precious to me. I wish to enter these experiences fully, to contemplate them to the exclusion of all else. Can this be done? I find that I must learn how to relinquish the thoughts and sensations that are not the ones I wish for. I also find that perception and attention must become subtle enough to discern and hold the essential qualities of the experience I seek to immerse myself in. I discover that the sensations of my experience have a feeling behind them that I can access. In contemplation I reflect that feeling. Then I know it.
Both prayer and contemplation relinquish the ordinary self I know in order to share in something greater. Both are made possible by the law of reflection.