The word contemplation usually brings to mind someone thinking deeply about something. Perhaps similar to pondering something, or meditating upon a thought or subject matter. But this modern meaning is not what the word used to mean.
In a religious context, contemplation meant something quite different. The word itself comes from the Latin contemplatio meaning “the act of looking at,” and contemplari meaning “to gaze attentively, observe,” or “to mark out a space for observation.” It also has as a root the Latin templum, meaning “piece of ground consecrated for the taking of auspices, building for worship of a god.” In spirituality, the word contemplation meant “a form of prayer or meditation in which a person seeks to pass beyond mental images and concepts to a direct experience of the divine.” In other words, it was a way of using one’s mind to go beyond thought and enter the temple of the mind and directly experience God.
Plato thought that contemplation was important. Wikipedia notes, “Plato thought that through contemplation the soul may ascend to knowledge of the Form of the Good or other divine Forms.” Plotinus thought that contemplation was “the most critical of components for one to reach henosis,” or mystical oneness, unity, or union with fundamental reality. Aristotle thought that contemplation was the highest activity of man, even how humans ought to live, more precious than money (even limitless value), to be honored above all things, and “the more humans engage in contemplation, the closer they are to their gods and the more perfect will be their happiness.”
In Christianity the word contemplation was also known by the Greek word theoria (θεωρία) meaning “contemplation, speculation; a looking at, viewing; a sight, show, spectacle, things looked at.” One was attempting to look at or have a vision of the Divine, or God. This word theoria also meant the state in which one actually was viewing God, or uniting with God, through the process of theosis. In such a unified state with God, one could then properly “contemplate” God, or come to know God directly, which cannot be done through normal rational thought processes.
In Eastern Christianity contemplation is done through the practice of Hesychasm, meaning “stillness, quiet, silence, rest,” a form of contemplative prayer that ceases using the senses in order to directly experience God. It is related to quietism.
In Western Christianity contemplation is often associated with mysticism, or the direct apprehension and union with the Divine. In fact, until the sixth century, in the Latin Church contemplation (contemplatio) was the word used for mysticism, the divine union sense of the word mysticism being more modern. In contemplative prayer (also known as centering prayer), active mind activity is curtailed, which is sometimes called “a gaze of faith,” or “silent love.” This is sometimes done by the repetition of a word or phrase, similar to a mantra.
So traditionally, contemplation did not mean to think deeply on a thought or subject, but to not think at all, to clear the mind of thought, so as to perceive realities beyond thought. It might be what we would consider uncontemplation today. It was a form of meditation with a content-free mind, in order to have a direct awareness of God.