By Carl Henrik Grøndahl
It started with an experience. The last half of the 1960s was a period of open exploration, with large cohorts of young students from the post-war generation entering universities, seeking to change the world with their utopian and revolutionary dreams and ideologies. The people who started building Acem had come across a method that challenged inner dogmatism and narrow-mindedness – a sound-based meditation that facilitated change.
However, the method was dressed in strange and exotic clothing, based on an eastern worldview. Acem was among the pioneers who started the complex task of transferring meditation into a modern western setting. What were the basic components that made the technique work? How could these be disentangled from their traditional religious background? What were the theories and concepts that could help the meditator in his or her journey of personal discovery? The resulting psychology of meditation is probably Acem’s most important cultural contribution.
Today, what used to be a small Norwegian student association has become an international organization, with courses across the world and books published in a number of languages, including the three most widely spoken: English, Spanish and Chinese. In long meditations, a German may discover how wartime traumas have been passed down from earlier generations, a Spanish meditator may seek an existential orientation that is independent of a church many have lost faith in, an Indian may find alternative visions of meditative realization, and a Chinese may begin to reconsider ingrained norms of Confucian strictness.
Acem’s terminology is sometimes picked up by others. The Norwegian word for a free mental attitude, “ledighet”, is now being used by sports instructors. The novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about “metathoughts”. Acem is not engaged in political demonstrations or in the media buzz, but has left its footprints in perhaps more sustainable ways. One effect of Acem Meditation, not to be underestimated, is its contribution to public health. It is a self-administered method for stress management and the prevention of psychosomatic disease, improving people’s mental fitness.
Acem Meditation is also inner training in democracy. For the essence of democracy is a mental attitude, where contradictions are allowed to coexist, where the unknown is faced without fear, and where the polarities running through our societies are part of every one of us rather than something we can stand aloof from and judge from the outside. Such experiences from meditation influence the direction of our lives. Change is less dependent on our beliefs, opinions and dreams than on what we actually do – our mental attitudes as expressed in action.
That is why Acem takes an active role in our time. Again and again, Acem has challenged the limits of political correctness. In 1973, long before his superstar status, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet made his first journey to the West from his exile in India. Politicians refused to meet him, and young Maoists demonstrated against his presence. In Norway, the humble plan was for him to meet local Tibetan refugees. Acem arranged for him to also meet with politicians, professors and bishops, and arranged a lecture with him at the University of Oslo, where the large lecture hall was filled to the brim. Sixteen years later, when he came back to receive his Nobel Peace Prize, Acem’s secretariat in Oslo had a central role in the practical arrangements.
When the Acem House in Oslo opened in 1978, it was announced as a smoke-free venue. At the time, many smiled and found the decision bizarre, quite in contrast with attitudes that have since gained worldwide popularity. When the Norwegian media monopoly was finally broken in 1982, Acem swiftly made use of this opportunity for free speech, and also played a central role in the negotiations that secured the basis for the life of new local radio channels. In 1984, Acem saw the potential of Salman Rushdie’s writings, many before the fatwa made him world-famous, and invited him to speak at its cultural seminar near Oslo.
At 50, Acem’s material basis is solid enough to allow further growth. In contrast to most Scandinavian organizations, it is not based on taxpayers’ money. Instead, young meditators spent more than a month each year – day and night – to collect items for recirculation at annual flea markets in Oslo in the 1970s and 1980s. The results were good, and the surplus was spent and invested with care. In 1978, the mayor of Oslo formally opened the Acem House there after volunteers had spent two years restoring and refurbishing an old assembly house, digging out tons of clay to make space for group rooms in the basement. As an active cultural arena run without public funding, the house provides a good illustration of Acem’s contributions to society since 1966.
At the heart of this lie values of modesty and moderation. Acem’s means have been acquired through hard work and are spent with caution. One example: Leaders at Acem’s annual training course in interpersonal communication at Halvorsbøle receive no payment, but instead pay for their own meals and accommodation. These idealistic attitudes make it possible to maintain the low course fees and the wide availability of Acem’s activities.
Compared to many of the cultural impulses originating in the student movement of the 1960s, Acem has acquired a strikingly solid foundation. The people who have spent a lifetime developing the organization are now approaching retirement. The generation shift is well on its way. There are plenty of tasks for those who are willing to sail Acem through the next fifty years. According to the experience of those who built the ship, people who only live for economic profit tend to remain poor. Acem provides a community in which talents and potentials may find their outlet in ways that may prove useful both for the individual and for all who appreciate the values that have been created during Acem’s first fifty years.
Translated by Anne Grete Hersoug and Halvor Eifring