An empty mind: Will meditation help us attain that state?

by Torbjørn Hobbel

Everyone who meditates – whether with Acem Meditation or another technique – has to deal with thoughts. People who have tried unsuccessfully to meditate often say, ”It was too difficult. I was unable to get rid of my thoughts.” This article offers some reflections on thoughts in meditation from an Acem perspective and compares them with Buddhist views of meditation. The manner in which thoughts are dealt with during meditation – and the understanding of their importance – makes Acem Meditation different from most other meditation methods.

Some time ago, I read a Buddhist magazine published in the US. Three famous Buddhist teachers from the East and West responded to questions from readers. One question went like this:
I have been a Buddhist for more than twenty years and I’ve done a lot of meditation practice. But I have never experienced any real peace or absence of thoughts in my meditation, at least for more than brief moments here and there.

The questioner felt somewhat disillusioned – no real progress despite the wonderful teachings and all the good practice. A sadness surfaced in the form of a natural doubt: What is the point of it all?

The problem of thoughts

Everyone who seriously practises any meditation technique has to deal with the problem of thoughts, probably with an underlying expectation of achieving complete peace of mind. Bearing in mind that this is a common challenge for all meditators, let us briefly look at the answers given by the three Buddhist masters from the perspective of Acem’s psychology of meditation.

Two of the teachers try their best to reassure the meditating Buddhist. They emphasise the importance of continuing to meditate, even if beneficial effects aren’t always apparent. Benefits will definitely become manifest, they say – at the moment of death, if not before. The problem is that it takes a very long time to achieve what they call deprogramming of the mind. So their message is: Do not give up! They don’t really go into the problem of thoughts in meditation, and they seem to share the questioner’s underlying assumption that one day the thoughts will miraculously be gone.

The third teacher – a woman from the West – writes that the practice of meditation always has an effect, but not always what we anticipate. According to her, it is unrealistic to expect to experience emptiness of mind, and she advises the meditator not to hold on to the thoughts, but let them go by returning to the meditation practice: ”As to not experiencing the absence of thoughts: None of us do. Just let them come and go, like the scenery from a train window.”

This answer has much in common with how one deals with thoughts in Acem Meditation . Acem’s psychology of meditation refers to thoughts as spontaneous activity, which highlights a very important characteristic of thoughts in Acem Meditation: that the thoughts come spontaneously, without any act of will on the meditator’s part.

The thoughts are not the problem

In their different ways, all of the teachers’ answers are helpful, but from an Acem perspective they all overlook important aspects of the question.

A significant difference between Acem Meditation and other techniques is that in Acem Meditation, we let thoughts come and go as they will. When we become aware that we are thinking, we go gently back to repeating the meditation sound. Without effort or concentration, the sound is brought into the centre of our awareness. It is important for beginners in Acem Meditation to understand that correct technique does not involve struggling against thoughts, but rather the opposite – allowing them greater space and freedom. One should repeat the meditation sound while also accepting the presence of thoughts. This is what we refer to in Acem Meditation as a free mental attitude.

It may take a little while to establish such an attitude, and the problem may recur over and over again at deeper levels of the meditation process. Considering how difficult this aspect of meditation is, practitioners are entitled to ask another question: Why is it so important to allow thoughts to come and go freely, and not to regard them as disturbances?

The importance of thoughts

In Acem Meditation, thoughts are not just something we have to live with. On the contrary, they play a very important role and are an integral part of the meditation process from both a short- and a long-term perspective. We meditate when we repeat the meditation sound, and we also meditate when we are lost in thought, in what is called spontaneous concentration. Understanding this intellectually helps us not only to meditate with better results, but also to recognise a fundamental aspect of human psychology.

Among other things, the spontaneous activity of the mind expresses residues from the recent or distant past. The thoughts are parts of an inner rearrangement that takes place during Acem Meditation. They represent underlying currents in our consciousness that surface when the mind is more open and receptive.

This is why Acem encourages meditators not merely to resign themselves to reluctantly accepting thoughts in the hope that one day they will suddenly go away. On the contrary, they should be welcomed with understanding and sympathy along with the gentle repetition of the meditation sound. Allowing the mind to flow freely during meditation makes it easier to release psychological residues and the deeply rooted tensions associated with them.

In a sense, then, the question of how to attain an empty mind is the wrong question. The real challenge – for beginners and experienced practitioners of Acem Meditation alike – is how to deal with spontaneous mental activity during meditation. Finding an answer to this may help us to grow beyond our personal limitations and live a richer life.

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