Counseling and Values recommends Acem Meditation

“Empirical support for its use with clients”

counselingAmerican counselors often make use of various meditation techniques in their clinical practice, most often mindfulness-based stress reduction and acceptance and commitment therapy. An article in the journal Counseling and Values presents other techniques, including Acem Meditation. Based on scientific studies that provide evidence for positive effects, the presented techniques are judged to be promising and useful. Common effects include relaxation, stress reduction and the reduction of negative psychological states, such as depression and anxiety.

According to the authors, a broader selection of meditation techniques would make it easier to find methods that fit the individual client’s needs. This would strengthen their motivation to practice the technique systematically over time. Some specifically wish for a non-religious method, while others prefer a spiritual or religious technique. The focus of the article is to present techniques that are not yet as widely known in the US as mindfulness and TM.

Well-documented and secular

Acem Meditation is decribed as a well-documented method, based on scientific studies, mainly within the area of biomedical research. The authors would also like to see studies of Acem Meditation that include self-reports, i.e. where the participants complete forms that are commonly used in research. This would make it easier to compare with the results from studies of other techniques. Nevertheless, the article maintains that “the extant literature on acem meditation provides empirical support for its use with clients”. Actually, a study of Acem Meditation based on self-reports is actually currently being conducted in Norway, and the results are expected to be available soon.

Meditation may be categorized in various ways. Goleman claims that all techniques increase mindfulness and attention. Certain characteristics distinguish between techniques, and these may represent important nuances in the meditator’s practice. The three method presented in the article are Jyoti meditation og Centering Prayer, both of which have religious or spiritual aspects, and Acem Meditation, which is described as “a form of secular meditation grounded in psychological research”. The article concludes that “if a client comes from a nonspiritual background or is adverse to spiritual perspectives, acem meditation may be appropriate in that it does not adhere to any religious or spiritual beliefs or practices”.

Wider selection

A considerable change has taken place in the attitude to meditation, from a predominantly sceptical attitude in the 1930s to a mainly positive attitude nowadays. Meditation has obtained an established position in the social sciences. Significant effects are documented for those who practice a method, according to the authors. Counselors want to provide suitable techniques for their clients, consistent with the clients’ wishes. They need a wider selection than the few techniques that are most widely used. The article is a contribution to draw attention to other methods, and Acem Meditation represents a potential, new choice.

Below follows the main description of Acem Meditation in the article:

Acem Meditation

Although many meditative practices are rooted in spiritual or religious practices (e.g., centering prayer, jyoti meditation), some have been designed secularly. Acem meditation is a practice that was designed by Are Holen in Norway during the early 1970s as a form of secular meditation grounded in psychological research (Davanger, Holen, Ellingsen, & Hugdahl, 2010). Holen began his experiences in meditation through learning transcendental meditation, which eventually led him to develop acem meditation. Acem meditation has similarities with other types of meditation, including mindfulness meditation and transcendental meditation, in that practitioners allow thoughts to generate freely in the mind and pass through consciousness. Acem meditation is often described as being “taught and explained in non-cultic, psychophysiological terms” (Solberg, Holen, et al., 2004, p. CR97), making it a type of meditation that may be palatable for individuals who are adverse to spiritual or religious connotations. Acem meditation is currently taught around the world in small-group classes.


Acem meditation is a nondirective form of meditation (Xu et al., 2014), whose purpose is to allow thoughts and feelings to flow freely. Acem meditation takes place in a quiet and undisturbed room. A meditation sound, or mantra, is used in practice. The meditation sound is described as a nonsensical and multisyllabic combination of vowels and consonants (Davanger et al., 2010). The meditation sound should be free of any meaning to the individual, other than it being a personally created sound. The meditation sound allows for practitioners to remain in practice, with the sound being mentally repeated throughout. The meditation sound is repeated effortlessly and with rhythm through the practice of acem meditation to induce and sustain relaxation to help freely generate thoughts and feelings (Lagopoulos et al., 2009). When acem meditation practitioners notice their mind wandering, they should gently return to the meditation sound. After learning acem meditation, practitioners are encouraged to engage in 20- to 30-minute sessions twice per day, or one 45-minute session per day.

Acem meditation is taught in a series of courses, with a beginner’s course being the most commonly offered course (Acem International School of Meditation, 2015). Acem meditation was started in Norway and has become popular throughout Scandinavia (Solberg, Holen, et al., 2004). In the United States, the only available center in which to learn acem meditation is in New York City; the center offers a beginner’s course over 2 days, with 7 to 8 hours of practice offered over those 2 days. The Acem International School of Meditation does not offer online-based or book-based practice and stresses the importance of learning the practice in person. Advanced courses and retreats in Norway are also offered to beginning or experienced practitioners. It should also be noted that practitioners of transcendental meditation and other nondirective mantra meditations will be more adept at transitioning their practices to acem meditation compared with individuals who do not practice meditation.


Although there are some barriers to learning acem meditation in the United States (e.g., only one center available for learning acem meditation from an experienced practitioner), it has considerable empirical support. The majority of research on acem meditation comes from the biochemistry and neurology fields, making the research on acem meditation more in line with biomedical research than counseling or psychological research.

The extant literature on acem meditation provides empirical support for its use with clients. For example, Xu et al. (2014) studied the use of acem meditation compared with rest and concentrative meditation with functional magnetic resonance imaging. These authors found that the use of acem meditation increases responses in areas of the brain (i.e., parahippocampal gyrus and amygdala) that are linked to episodic memory and emotional processing, possibly making the practice of acem meditation beneficial to clients dealing with trauma. In a similar study, Davanger et al. (2010) found that acem meditation leads to increased activation in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with attention and memory. Davanger et al.’s findings could be used to infer that acem meditation may be helpful with clients who have attention or memory-related issues (e.g., attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). Other researchers have found that the use of acem meditation could lead to lowered cardiac risk through increased heart rate variability (Nesvold et al., 2012). Similarly, Solberg, Ekeberg, et al. (2004) found that the use of acem meditation can lower heart rate, which induces relaxation.

Thus, the published outcomes of acem meditation do not yield many self-report measures, but rather imaging and biological measures (e.g., Davanger et al., 2010; Solberg, Holen, et al., 2004). The type of research that permeates the empirical support of acem meditation distances itself from counseling and psychological research by not being found in major counseling or psychology journals. Therefore, the evidence behind the use of acem meditation is not readily available to practicing counselors. Furthermore, the research competencies and language are different from what is taught in counselor education programs (e.g., Heppner, Wampold, & Kivlighan, 2008). The research on acem meditation could benefit from an increased use of self-report measures, thus putting it more in line with other types of meditation that have used mostly self-report measures to purport effectiveness of practice.

Daniel Gutierrez, Jesse Fox, and Andrew W. Wood:
“Center, Light, and Sound: The Psychological Benefits of Three Distinct Meditative Practices.” Counseling and Values, October 2015, Volume 60, pp. 234-247.

Anne Grete Hersoug


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