Berit Østbye interviewed by Halvor Eifring
She is not quite a typical 90-year-old. Last year she published a book of poetry, the fruit of five intensive years’ labour. When the book was finished, she rewarded herself with an Acem communication course, on the last night of which she read aloud from the collection, in a clear, authoritative voice and with a distinctive flair for the dramatic. She is now in full swing writing a novel. And hopes she can be reconciled with her mother.
In the interview, she immediately takes control: “I want to tell you about when I first learned to meditate. You can edit afterwards.” It was in the 1970s. She had not thought that meditation was for her, but a friend took her to a lecture by the founder of Acem, Are Holen, and she was struck. “His facial expressions and sense of humour made me laugh. I saw everything he said in my mind’s eye. I decided to join in the way forward.”
In the prison yard
Meditating didn’t come easily. At the first summer course she felt that she was back in the prison yard at Bredtvedt prison, where she had been held in German captivity during the war, while guards with machine guns kept watch from the bridge. In Berit’s mind, the guidance groups turned into interrogations. In captivity, she once took an overdose of painkillers to avoid being coerced into revealing things that could put others in danger. Now the memories came back forcefully. “With me everything is full on. I never operate at a low temperature!”
It took time to realize how meditation brought up things she needed to work through. At first she became angry with the instructors and regarded the other participants as stupid. “I hated everything about Acem.” She debated whether she should continue to meditate, but luckily she found great enjoyment in the evening lectures, and she did not give up. In addition to the daily meditations, she has since participated in yoga, a cooking course, a dream course and various communication courses.
“Meditation has taught me to deal with pain. Do not push it away, but be in it! Go into the situation instead of taking sleeping pills or leaving a group where you feel uncomfortable. In this way meditation has become a practical aid in my life. It calms me and teaches me to accept myself as I am, in full light of bothmy strengths and weaknesses – such as my talkativeness! Someone put it so well in a lecture at a summer course: ‘You must take the child inside you, and sit it on your lap. ‘ ”
Several decades ago she shocked many of the participants in a communication course by declaring to a large group, “I don’t like people.” At that time, she was rebellious, an angry child full of rage, but also despair. There is no way of knowing whether she can thank meditation or her old age, but today she is no longer quite so angry. “Now I dare to give in to the love and warmth inside me. I have become milder and more peaceful.” She begins to list the people she appreciates: a good friend, grandchildren, friends in Acem. “So this has probably changed. Meditation is a reconciliation activity. You meet yourself and work through the conflicting material inside you.”
Refreshing your life
This time at the course she enjoys interacting with the other participants in the communication group. “When I came into the group, I immediately placed all the others in relation to myself. There’s my grandson, and that man over there is my father, and she is my friend who died in Paris, and had brown eyes just like her. But that one,” she says, pointing in another direction, “he is impossible to place, he will place himself. He is one of those who refuses to come in when mother says that dinner is ready. I immediately got a warm feeling for the whole group and said so right out. The group has helped me to refresh my whole life.”
When she was very young, Berit nearly died from infant cramps. She had been tightly swaddled and screamed until her face turned blue. “I was full of protest from the very beginning. As if I was born with this tremendously powerful emotional life.” In meditation, she has been afraid that approaching these issues would suffocate her. “My fierce wildness may well be a bit too much for others at times, but it’s not very easy to be me either. It seems that I always have to shout at once. I was once the given the label ‘ego-strong’. I think this was scary, because it isn’t far from ‘egoist’.”
Out of time
In the poetry collection she has just published, the end of life is a recurring theme. She makes no secret of her joy of life: “Being alive / something / quite unique.” Or the paradox that the more she understands, the nearer she is the end: “Slow decay / racing with / growing insight”. And the grief over what was not to be: “Out of time / back into the earth / so much unsaid.”
“There is little time left to settle my accounts. I wish I could forgive my mother, because I think it would be good to go to the grave as a reconciled person. It is not that difficult, if only I were willing. But I would rather bear grudges against her, be the injured party. Some kind of overwhelming power has to bring me to my knees. I often think that it is death, but I would so love to have it finished before I die. What did she do to me? She threatened me and my brother, telling us that she would drown herself because we were screaming so horribly. Donned her black robe and went out and locked the door. I was five, my brother two years younger. He began to cry, but I decided never to let myself be subdued and threatened. That position is not easy to give up. I have talked about that in the communication group, too.”
The drama of life
At the time during the war when she was prepared to take her own life in order to save others, she glanced out of the small window at Bredtvedt prison and up into the winter sky. “The starry sky above me and the moral law within me” she had read about in the preparatory course in philosophy. “I take conscience seriously. Being clear is a moral challenge. To admit everything and not to conceal anything. I also connect Acem with morality and ethics. ”
For some decades she travelled extensively for both the Foreign Ministry and the UN, but then she became ill and was retired on a full pension. “I was divorced and the children were grown up. Suddenly I had become a free woman with enough money. So then I began to write.” Her first novel was published when she was fifty. And a few years later, she accepted the invitation to Are Holen’s talk on Acem Meditation. Now she has been meditating for 40 years. “Life is totally changed,” she says – and thereby illustrates that one thing has not changed, that the urge to paint life in large and often dramatic brush strokes has not abated at all over the years. Fortunately, a wry smile is never far beneath the surface.
Translated by Eirik Jensen