Contemplative places: watching and listening

Contemplation has been defined as thoughtful or long consideration or observation. In the East, Christian contemplation has been associated with spiritual transformation. “The process of changing from the old man of sin into the new born child of God and into our true nature as good and divine is called theosis.” The process has often been described by the metaphor of a ladder, with the acquisition of the state of hesychia or peace of the soul being the summit where the person is said to reach ‘Heaven on Earth’.

Perhaps the purpose of a public contemplative space might be to give visitor glimpses of ‘Heaven on Earth’? What might such a space look and sound like?

Natural spaces are most often associated with a sense of restfulness and peace. Water can create a sense of calm, while beauty can promote a sense of wonder.

28 thoughts on “Contemplative places: watching and listening

  1. Tom Turner

    Contemplation is a very important role for gardens – not for all gardens, but for some gardens.
    In the east, the best known contemplative gardens are those made by Zen Buddhists. But since the Zen idea derives from China it is likely that there were contemplative gardens in China. Zen is a Japanese version of Chinese word Chán 禪.
    In the Christian west, the cloister garth is the most visible example of a contemplative green space.
    It is regrettable that places for contemplation have, more or less, disappeared from the repertoire of those who make public space in cities.

  2. Christine

    It is interesting to think of stationary and ambulatory contemplation in designing a public space.

    The philosophers path at Kyoto University is a path lined by cherry blossoms made famous by two of the university’s preeminent lecturers.[ ]

    New York has Jerusalem Grove and Battery Labyrinth created on the year anniversary of September 11 for healing, reflecting and honoring memories. [ ]

    Is contemplation something to be undertaken as a solo activity or as part of a group?

    The Buddhist monks of Arunachal Pradesh are contemplating, as a group, in an elevated location.
    [ ]

    1. Tom Turner

      The various ‘faith communities’ have rather taken over meditation, which is slightly different from contemplation. Christian meditation seems to be about the relationship between man and god and Buddhist meditation is about how to attain nirvana. But contemplation derives from the same root as temple and is older than the organized religions. Daoist contemplation took place without temples: the inspiration was nature herself.
      Perhaps the time has come to ‘reclaim’ contemplation from the organized religions and refocus the activity on ‘the nature of the world’ and the ‘nature of Nature’ – which has retained its significance in garden design.

  3. Christine

    You are right meditation is different to contemplation. In meditation ‘something’ is meditated, whereas in contemplation ‘nothing’ is contemplated.

    Perhaps there might be a way to illustrate this distinction within the design of a garden or public space?

    Elvis Presley built a mediation garden at Graceland in 1964 supposedly as a place for Elvis to ‘contemplate’.[ ].

    1. Tom Turner

      Well! I knew Elvis was The King, but I did not know of his contribution to garden design. So I had a look and found ‘the inside story’:
      ” As many fans know Bernard Grenadier was my brother in law and he and my sister, Anne, designed and built the Meditation Garden when Elvis requested he build something beautiful and peaceful for him to go to, to just think and meditate when he needed to.
      That area had originally been a broken down birdbath and the columns that were there were all rotted and peeling. The grass was weed ridden.
      My Brother in law got the stain glass from Spain, the curved wall that held them was made of bricks made in Mexico and the small statues that were in the Garden came from Italy. He turned that small bird bath into that huge fountain that featured fourteen different sprays as well as the colored lights and the torch pots placed around the fountain.
      The first night Elvis saw it when we had just returned from Hollywood he wanted to see it by himself, when he came back into the house he had tears in his eyes. He hugged my brother in law and sister and told them he had never seen anything as beautiful.
      The following Christmas I had a custom statue made of Jesus to give to Elvis from the MM which also had great meaning to him in his religious beliefs.
      After that Elvis asked my brother in law and sister to completely redo his bedroom upstairs.”

  4. Christine

    Understanding spiritual landscapes and gardens involves consideration not only of the ‘natural’ as we usually understand it, but also the ‘cosmic’ or ‘supernatural’.

    Feng Shui is a good example. [ ]

    Feng-Shui is considered to be part of the study of geomancy (influencing settlement patterns in southern China, midland Nepal, northern Vietnam):

    “Feng-Shui is a dai concept of human harmony with the cosmos (light and wind) that is achieved through proper alternations in the natural environment (land and water). The basis is that cosmic forecasts that influence human beings for good or evil exist in every location. Homes, gardens, feilds, and forests of different kinds are located with respect to the directions of wind and light, and relative to one another, to satisfy the rules of feng shui which ensure harmony.”
    [See ‘Sacred Forests, Secular Forest Policies and People’s Action’ published in the Journal of Natural Resources Vol 31, 1999].

  5. Tom Turner

    I used to have a very sceptical attitude to the word ‘spiritual’ but have retreated from this position and no see the word as a useful opposite to ‘material’ when thinking about human motivation. Outdoor space provides some material benefits but I have to agree (a little reluctantly because of lingering scepticism about ‘spiritual’) that it also provides non-material benefits.
    Feng-Shui was and is intended to produce material benefits, such as good luck and good fortune. Perhaps it was also intended to produce ‘peace’ and ‘harmony’ but doing something to obtain these qualities is on the borderline between spiritual and material benefits – it is a bit like paying for a good head-massage!

  6. Jerry

    I have not do much research on Fengshui, but I appreciate the ideas of Buddists: they see the world as multi-dimensional. This means that the ‘real world’ it more than what we can see using our eyes. Only the wisest people could connect with more than 3 dimensions and have more spiritual talent! Back to Fengshui, some people argue that it is a type of science which could be explained by mathematics.

  7. Grant

    The best meditation i found is the Buddhist (i think) theory to live in the moment, not to worry were you are going or were you came from, but just be in wonder of the present.

    So a garden to be in the moment and be designed with that in mind would benefit us all.

    Personally tend to do when driving, suddenly notice everything around me. rather than a fuzzy clock watching spin that life normally delivers.

    So i wouldn’t tag the sense of calm with anything. Just puts all into perspective. Hard to do mind you in our busy world! So a specific place to practice would be good.

    As far as i know all the Holy books refer to the moment in one way or another.

    No straining to attain as you are in the moment. Especially good with a cup of tea.

    That my pennies worth to the debate.

    1. Tom Turner

      I doubt if Buddhists would agree with your characterisation of their attitude as ‘living for the moment’. To me it sounds more like a Great Gatsby philosophy than a way of preparing for Nirvana.

  8. Grant

    Ha Ha, well wasn’t too sure, only remember talking to an ex Buddhist monk in Nepal (who happened to be our Mountain Bike leader, great Guy). He went into the whole thing about, this is your lot in this life, just do the right thing and who knows what will happen next time around. There was a real acceptance of this is my lot in this life, a case of what ever will be, will be, so don’t worry. The moment is were we live.

    Also i heard on Radio 4 a great programme called Something Understood ,normally written by Mark Tully, listened to it for years, (early hours Sunday mornings) to the point he did one edition on the importance of living in the moment and related it to Buddhism. So i can’t say for sure, but Mark Tully said so!

    And Gatsby was the child like way of living for the moment, rather than living in the moment, in my opinion.

    As usual gone way deeper than i intended at 10;30pm GMT. But thats what one would expect on, Cheers Tom.

  9. Christine

    Mindfulness in Buddhism is more than a one word concept.

    When speaking of ‘mindfulness’ or living in the moment, the Dalai Lama speaks of the three marks of existence:
    1. emptiness [ ],
    2. unsatisfactoriness [ ]and
    3. impermanence [ ].

    Living in the moment has other meanings in Christianity.

    It is closer to being attentive to all that passes in the present, rather than being attached to the past or the future.

    The saying is ‘Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam’. One description I found says “when open and attentive to the moment, a profound sense of Presence becomes manifest.”
    [ ]

  10. Tom Turner

    The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are:
    1. Suffering does exist
    2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires
    3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
    4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path
    Escaping from ‘desire’ is therefore central to Buddhism and if ‘living for the moment’ is interpreted in this way then it is most definitely a Buddhist attitute and has nothing to do with the Great Gatsby.

  11. Christine

    It is interesting that the Dalai Lama also spoke about the need not to be attached to Buddhism!

    Attachment and desire is usually associated with the idea of pleasure. It seems not simply pleasure, but a type of pleasure which is labelled craving pleasure. “By desire, Buddhists refer to craving pleasure, material goods, and immortality, all of which are wants that can never be satisfied.”

    Perhaps the concept referred to here is ‘Sred pa’. [ ]

    “The Buddha concluded that putting our energy in grasping for temporary pleasures is not only useless, it creates many problems, also karmic actions which we had better avoided.”

    What consequences? From one’s ‘Sred pa’ arises attachment, then possessiveness and then defensiveness from which can arise lies, arguments and conflicts. (Perhaps, this illustrates the Dalai Lama’s comment on attachment to Buddhism.)

    Gosh, Tom…that is an incredible challenge! How would you incorporate this knowledge into a landscape design?

  12. Grant

    The saying is ‘Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam’. One description I found says “when open and attentive to the moment, a profound sense of Presence becomes manifest.”

    Great quote Christine, pretty much what i was trying to say in my clumsy way.

    Indeed how would one incorporate this into a design?

    So to get the ball rolling, i was thinking about the times when i (personally) am most at ease, comfortable in my own skin, oblivious to any one judging and not judging others. Just at peace in the moment.

    Certainly outside, the sound of water. Movement, glistening of the sun on water, the hum of bee’s, the chatter and song of birds, scent of flowers, laughter of friends and family, all of this focuses us on the moment. Though we need valleys and mountain tops, to understand calm and serenity (or at least the value of it).

    Personally a beach with lapping waves, or a flowering meadow with the buzz of busy insects and swallow swirling chattering in the air…..Bliss

    As for striving, if one can side step the seduction of materialism, then this little story sums it up

    The spanish fisherman story, A fisherman returns to his family early afternoon with just enough of a catch for them to enjoy. He put his feet up and takes in the beauty of the bay. An American approaches him and says, after looking at the size of his nets. ‘Man if you had bigger nets you could catch more, sell the excess to invest in a bigger boat, get even bigger nets, catch even more’ , he continued frothing at the mouth, ‘you could buy more boats, employ other fishermen, get it on the stock market keep building, then sell it all for a tidy profit, then retire to a small fishing village, catch just enough for the day and take in the beauty of the bay………

    I have never earned much money doing gardens and yet am the envy of most of my city friends, which proves the point. Some of the braver ones have actually chucked it all in for a higher calling. A case of the eye of a needle.

    The conclusion I have come to in recent years is the importance of sharing. A case of the old Christian (and I am sure all the other faiths) ‘What ever you sow you reap’,

    Apologies started to ramble,

    Natural flowering meadows with views of the Kentish country side.

    A clip from the Film ‘A Canterbury Tale’ by Powell and Pressburger

    Sums it up perfectly……bliss

  13. Christine

    Grant thank you for the clip and your thoughts on bliss. It is true, as in the tale of the Spanish fisherman that it is easy to get caught within a circular argument for happiness!

    Sharing seems to be an under-rated and perhaps a misunderstood practice?
    [ ]

    Is it possible to share something with someone 1) without taking the possession from them and 2) without possessing it yourself 3) without exhausting or diminishing its existence?

    For example, who is the one who is sharing (something they have) and who is the one who is shared with (the invitee)? What happens when the claims to first possession or rightful possession are contested etc?

    Tom as the perfect gardenvisit host I imagine you have quite a bit to say on sharing virtual space!

    Would be fantastic to do an experiential exercise on sharing for landscape, architecture etc students…

    1. Tom Turner

      ‘Sharing’ with the non-human (eco-centric) world is rather different from ‘sharing’ with the human world (as in a traditional town square) and ‘sharing’ online is something different again. I was asked yesterday ‘why do you spend time blogging?’ and did not come up with a good clear answer, except of course that I enjoy it. But I still have the explanation I was given in the very early days of personal computing ‘for the pleasure of communicating with an alien intelligence’ (ie a non-corporeal intelligence).

  14. Thomas Mickey

    Christian contemplation according to Catholic religious orders like Dominicans and Carmelites rests in the awareness of God that comes through a life of detachment and prayer. I think the garden offers the opportunity for that as well. Being present to the garden and not attempting to control it, letting go as it grows, freeing oneself from attachment to it, all lead to a contemplative state.
    I see a connection between the garden and contemplation. When allowed, though it may not be religious, it frees the person for oneness with God, the Universe. All else is left behind. It’s a goal for us mortal gardeners.

  15. Christine

    Hearing on the news that children were being eaten by lions as they lay down to sleep in Somalia, and the posting news item on birds crashing into buildings and trees because of fireworks, as well as the recent polar bear death of Horatio Chapple [ ] and the famous death of Steve Irwin by a stingray reminded me that sharing space with nature can be quite complex.

    “In the weeks following Irwin’s death, at least ten stingrays were found dead and mutilated, with their tails cut off, on the beaches of Queensland, prompting speculation that they had been killed by fans of Irwin as an act of revenge. However Bill Turner, chairman of Queensland fishing information service Sunfish, said the claims were ridiculous. “To tie this into what happened with Steve is just ridiculous,” he said. “I’ve been seeing this for the 50 years that I’ve been fishing.” [105] Michael Hornby, a friend of the late naturalist and executive director of Irwin’s Wildlife Warrior fund, condemned any revenge killings. “We just want to make it very clear that we will not accept and not stand for anyone who’s taken a form of retribution. That’s the last thing Steve would want,” he said.

    Although Thomas’ description of the relationship between the garden,the gardener and contemplation suggested to me that perhaps there is a model to resolve even these seeming complexities.

    Tom I enjoy blogging too: and a one-way conversation would certainly be much less rewarding than the interaction of multi-part conversation. Hmmm, an alien intelligence? Vivre la difference, it is productive of so many insights! So I suppose that answers the question of the benefits of a shared virtual space.

  16. Tom Turner

    I agree with Thomas that a garden is a good place for Christian contemplation but I also think that the subject of Christian contemplation tends to be God rather than Nature. In fact my idea is that the older (animist) faiths were about Nature and the newer (Axial Age) faiths were about relationships between people and between people and God. Modern faiths, perhaps, aim to embrace both. Modern gods tend to be of immaterial beings – so perhaps they could join in web conservations, or perhaps they already do.

  17. Grant

    Hi All,

    Sharing, yes you are right Christine sharing on the face of it seems easy, but when the veil of beneficiaries is removed then all we are left with is a feeling of unease as to who actually benefits and whether its no more than self interested manipulation.
    I have thought long and hard over the years about this paradox, and have come to the conclusion that sometimes we give out of self interest, but give non the less, and sometimes we do give with the goal of being truly altruistic (a good way is anonymously). Either way is sharing what we have to another.

    So what is the best way? With thought about the consequences, your attitude not of boastfulness but of humility (ie here but the grace of God etc). Anonymity, though if one has a faith, one could argue that that person will always have their own interest at heart. But does that really matter?

    So if you believe that humans are ultimately driven by the selfish gene, then self interest will be at the core of ‘sharing’, though with that knowledge then one could really test one’e self for true altruism.

    The bottom line is that why bother judging this or that, just do it, you’ll feel better and it may well encourage the receiver to give to someone else in need.

    And what better way than sharing knowledge (even if its a bit misguided in my case, sometimes).

    (Just had Spitfire fly over, a reminder of the ultimate sacrifice).

    Thomas, yep gardens seem to slow people down, and if you really want to think, you want to be in a pleasant environment, often by the sea or on land in natures bosom. It works.

    Tom there is a movie in that, Maybe the ‘small still voice’ is now the ‘plain anonymous comment’
    Just off to catch a plane and see a Mr Spielberg.


  18. Christine

    It would be wonderful to design a garden to illustrate the difference between attachment and detachment, which seems to be the central aspect of what you are saying Grant about sharing from alturistic motives.

    It is interesting how the Dalai Lama explains compassion and loving kindness:

    “Compassion is said to be the empathetic wish that aspires to see the object of compassion, the sentient being, free from suffering. Loving kindness is the aspiration that wishes happiness upon others.”

    And how he explains how attachment can lead to negative consequences:

    “…we experience a sense of closeness toward people who are dear to us. We feel a sense of compassion and empathy for them. We also have strong love for these people, but often this love or compassion is grounded in self-referential considerations: “So-and-so is my friend,” “my spouse,” “my child,” and so on. What happens with this kind of love or compassion, which may be strong, is that it is tinged with attachment because it involves self-referential considerations. Once there is attachment there is also the potential for anger and hatred to arise. Attachment goes hand in hand with anger and hatred. For example, if one’s compassion toward someone is tinged with attachment, it can easily turn into its emotional opposite due to the slightest incident. Then instead of wishing that person to be happy, you might wish that person to be miserable.”

    The Dalai Lama also gives an example of how thinking of self reduces your horizons, while thinking of others expands them:

    “…the moment you think only of yourself, the focus of your whole mind narrows, and because of this narrow focus uncomfortable things can appear huge and bring you fear and discomfort and a sense of feeling overwhelmed by misery. The moment you think of others with a sense of caring, however, your mind widens. Within that wider angle, your own problems appear to be of no significance, and this makes a big difference. If you have a sense of caring for others, you will manifest a kind of inner strength in spite of your own difficult situations and problems. With this strength, your problems will seem less significant and bothersome. By going beyond your own problems and taking care of others, you gain inner strength, self-confidence, courage, and a greater sense of calm. This is a clear example of how one’s way of thinking can really make a difference.”

    So in a sense, there is a real benefit to be gained from thinking of others, perhaps this is the sort of self-interest you were thinking of in the first example?

    You are right, giving is wonderful in every circumstance if someone in need benefits. And perhaps like children we all need to learn to share as adults a little by little until it is easy for us:

    “Children are just learning that it feels good to give and that it’s fun to share with friends. You can sow the seeds of sharing by encouraging these displays of generosity and by gently discouraging your child’s less-charitable impulses.”

    Tom, perhaps an exercise in sharing might best done in a community garden by children and adults taking turns in growing and sharing produce that they have cooked? So with the attachment and detachment garden we also need a community garden and outdoor kitchen/dining area.

  19. Grant

    Fantastic, Christine, my respect for the Dalai Lama has increased ten fold. Well considered thoughts and conclusions, the two phrases we used to use on site about clients attitudes was either ‘small world syndrome’ or ‘big picture people’ to explain their attitude towards us and the contract. The narrow minded small world syndrome were obviously much harder to work with due to the fact that they could only see the world evolving around them, so a different tactic would have to be engaged, whereas the big picture client was always a joy to work for, along with being appreciative of your effort, and thus you would happily go the extra mile, so simple really always amazed me why more people don’t do it, then if it was as simple as that we would have no need for psychoanalysts!

    The first paragraph, never really thought of that, but yep so true. So with that knowledge you could catch your self and stop the mean thing when temptation arrises. Though personally as i get older the effort required to be mean just does not seem worth it, the old rule of ‘don’t let the sun go down on your anger’ works best, and anyway making up is always nice.

    And yes there is even benefit to self interest when giving, though the ‘widows mite’ shows its not how, but the proportion and the way we give. (whether financially or emotionally). Though we all have bad days and are grumpy and mean, just have to recognise that in each other, forgive and laugh it off, a bit of good old English self deprecation does the trick normally.

    Brill idea, can see a scheme there!

  20. Tom Turner

    I wonder how the ’small world syndrome’ vs ‘big picture people’ relates to other personality classifications
    – extrovert/introvert
    – rational/irational
    – perceiving/judging
    – Type A/Type B [ Type A: impatient, achievement-oriented; Type B: easy-going, relaxed]

  21. Grant

    I see were you are coming from Tom. Though thinking about all the people/clients i know all who are big picture or small world, they could all fit in either of the above camps, as mad as it may seem, even though on the face of it it would seem obvious and logical that certain traits would favour B/P or S/W.

    My personal favourite definition (though a bit of a generalisation i suspect).

    Democrats, B/P, consequences world politics

    Republicans S/W, isolationist tendencies, especially the ‘Tea Party side of the party (makes me laugh always get a picture of ‘that Woman’ at the Mad Hatters tea party, some would say that truth is stranger than fiction…..)

    I like the perceiving/judging, perceiving is very much about reading the situation first, then forming a judgement on the facts that have been obtained, whereas the judging first is classic S/W (the old saying that when you point ‘the finger’ one pointing, three pointing back at you and one to heaven, a case of the log in your own eye).

    I think when designing any space ‘the big picture’ is remembering that not all people are like you or me, some are messy, some loud, some considerate etc, really difficult, but then if it was easy we would do a two week course in LA rather than 4 years (inc MA) plus another 2 for Chartership!

  22. Tom Turner

    Grant, I find Democrat/Republican, and most other aspects of American politics hard to follow. They should all be believe in democracy and they should all believe in the republic. And they should all be liberal too, remembering that ‘liberal’ comes from ‘liber’ meaning ‘free’. Surely American is ‘the land of the free’: so why do so many Republicans hate ‘liberals’? To come back to gardens, do you think there can be a Democratic design, a Republican design, a Socialist design or a Liberal design? And to come back to the above photograph, does the design have a political dimension? Is it small world? Is it big picture?


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