By Halvor Eifring

Everyone who has learned Acem Meditation knows that meditation is not about emptying the mind, as many others tend to believe. The challenge is to become friends with everything that spontaneously emerges in consciousness. Restlessness, tension, and ruminating thoughts may be experienced as garbage in the body and mind, but often hide a sparkling diamond. This kind of experience is supported by old meditative traditions.

The myth that meditation empties your mind of thoughts is associated with the rhetoric surrounding concentrative meditation and some forms of mindfulness. These often employ subtle pressure to keep thoughts at a distance, though usually without much success. Spontaneous thought is at worst treated as an enemy, at best as a friend who is not particularly welcome.          

In nondirective meditation, as discussed in Acem’s new book The Power of the Wandering Mind, we welcome all kinds of thoughts, fantasies, images, emotions, moods, and impulses in the body as well as in the mind. Acem Meditation shares this principle with several other meditation methods, both modern and traditional, many of them surrounded by spiritual ideas and practices that are completely different from the neutral meditation psychology of Acem Meditation. In the seventeenth century, a Chinese Buddhist monk compared the stream of thoughts to wild cats and pointed out that it’s impossible to use one wild cat to tame another.

Difficult friendship

It usually feels good to set the wandering mind free, but not always. Regardless, it should be treated like a friend, but how can we become friends with a wild cat?

Experience from meditation guidance shows that it isn’t always easy. At the beginner’s course in Acem Meditation, we learn that what matters is not how we feel or think in meditation, but what we do and how we repeat the meditation sound. In other schools of meditation one may hear similar views, such as: «any state of mind is a meditative one.» Nevertheless, the most common questions brought up in guidance by Acem meditators typically reflect unhappiness with the spontaneous activity of the mind: trivial thoughts, restlessness, boredom, and bodily or emotional pain. These aren’t easy to make friends with.  

And what’s the point? Why shouldn’t we choose methods that are claimed to empty the mind of such thoughts and feelings? This question can be answered on several levels.

Everyday thoughts

First of all, an increasing number of scientific studies shows that the spontaneous stream of thoughts has several positive functions in everyday life — even if it sometimes makes us forget what we are supposed to do. It makes us relax and recover. It breaks our fixed patterns of stress reactions. It makes it easier to meet challenges in the present based on experiences from the past and to think creatively about the future. Finally, it brings us deeper into contact with our emotions, and this makes us more empathic and sensitive toward others.

The results of this research are extensively reported in the new book. They provide a good reason to befriend the wandering mind.

Traces from the past

In addition, nondirective meditation provides effects on a different level. A research article thoroughly described in the book shows how brain areas associated with spontaneous thoughts are more strongly activated in Acem Meditation than during ordinary rest, and even more so when meditation is practised with a free mental attitude rather than with concentration. Similar results have been found with other forms of nondirective meditation.

Interestingly, the study looks into which areas in the brain’s so-called resting state network (or default mode network) are activated. These areas support our access to memories from the past and help us to process feelings and emotions. Thus, the spontaneous thoughts of nondirective meditation differ from the daydreams of everyday life not only in intensity but also in depth and substance.

The new book points to a long history of Eastern and Western meditative traditions that have seen similar processes unfold. Meditation gradually changes the fundamental tone of the mind.

Experience indicates that what happens, at least in Acem Meditation, is that unresolved and formative psychological issues from our near and distant past are brought closer to the surface of the conscious mind. In this way, they can be more easily processed and modified. Unconscious mental traces from a formative past may have limited our self-expression, often without our awareness, but now approach consciousness and gradually loosen their grip on us. Nondirective meditation starts processes that may change important aspects of our lives — if we continue to develop our friendship with the wandering mind even when it brings some discomfort. 

Ugly garbage

We tend to believe that trivial thoughts, restlessness, boredom, pain, and unpleasant feelings indicate that we don’t meditate deep enough, because it feels as if we are moving on the surface. In reality, it’s the other way round: it’s when we are approaching deeper levels of consciousness that resistance typically enters into our meditation. It’s as if the door to the mind’s treasure chamber is covered with ugly garbage rather than the shining invitations we were hoping for.

And who wants to embrace a garbage heap? We may feel an urge to get away, and without guidance, the result tends to be less meditation. Worst-case scenario, it ends with the whole meditation project being skipped.

Similar feelings of resistance are well known both from modern psychology and from old meditative and contemplative traditions, such as “the dark night of the soul” vividly described by Saint John of the Cross. In comparison, the resistance that can be experienced in Acem Meditation is mild.

Even advanced meditative traditions have at times taken resistance more at face value than seems reasonable. Both in the East and the West, past teachers or masters have regarded spontaneous thoughts not as friends but as enemies, more specifically as demons who intend to bring us away from our meditative or contemplative endeavour. What we now see as thoughts in the mind were imagined to stem from external demons. As a curiosity: the word fiend now usually refers to a demon or devil, but originally simply meant ‘enemy.’    

The road toward friendship

In Acem Meditation, such a hostile attitude won’t get us anywhere. Our challenge is rather to become as close friends as possible with even those parts of the stream of thoughts that we would prefer to be without.

We might perhaps think that the key to such a friendship lies in actively and deliberately embracing the difficult thoughts and feelings, but that’s not the case. If we try, we could easily end up like the Chinese monk’s wild cats who, while attempting to calm each other down, instead start chasing and fighting each other—as enemies rather than friends.      

Actually, we all received the key to such friendship at the beginner’s course. It lies in the repetition of the meditation sound with as much free mental attitude as possible. So simple, and yet at times so difficult.

One problem is that we are often blind to what we really are doing in the difficult phases of meditation. We don’t see that some of the impulses that are on their way toward the surface make us distort the way we repeat the meditation sound. What we believe is the free mental attitude may have elements of force and concentration without our being aware of it.

As a result, we hold those impulses at a distance and avoid getting in touch with them. On the way to further progress, regular practice, long meditations, and guidance dialogues may be of great help. We gradually learn to be present in ourselves in a way that allows us to repeat the sound so softly and gently that there is also room for impulses that are approaching consciousness but have not yet found a definite form. That’s where the road ahead lies and where we can find the key to the treasure chamber. And who knows what kind of diamond awaits us there!

Translated by Anne Grete Hersoug

Language editor: Ann Kunish

The Power of the Wandering Mind: Nondirective Meditation in Science and Philosophy. Edited by Halvor Eifring. Dyade Press, 2019.
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In fifteen chapters, experts in neuroscience, medicine, psychology, philosophy, and the humanities share groundbreaking perspectives on how nondirective meditation interacts with brain and body, mind and culture.