By Turid Suzanne Berg-Nielsen
What it is
Existential contentment is neither complacency nor bliss. It does not entail the absence of adversity in life nor negative emotions and thoughts. It is not an emotion at all, more of an attitude – a sense of meaning and purpose, an anchoring when waters are rough. Contentment also allows for an openness to experience and acceptance of the pleasures and pains that the tides of time bring ashore.
And what does all this have to do with meditation? Everything.
How to do it
We start with closed eyes while being comfortably seated. Our attention is directed inward, away from all the trivial, annoying, or interesting distractions that easily leave our minds with an input overload. It is quieter on the inside. For half an hour we retreat from clamoring surroundings to encounter the inner world – which also has continents to be explored.
What to do after closing the eyes? With absolutely no strain whatsoever we repeat the meditation sound as learned at the beginner’s course (Holen & Eifring, 2013) – a neutral act performed with a neutral object, simple and straight forward, no abracadabra, nothing mystical or enchanting; just a plain way of granting the mind a rhythm that is different from the flustered pace of everyday life; just a way of letting the neutrality open the mind to enable it to hear the barely graspable hunches dwelling within.
The ease of the meditation act allows spontaneous thought to come and go. In between reproducing the sound, the mind may wander freely, wherever the wind blows. Most of our mind-wandering lies below the level of full awareness, but it is neither random nor pointless. The thoughts that emerge contain lots of emotional material (Fox & Koroma, 2018). Processing of the overload of impressions from our daily lives takes place, not before our eyes, but behind them. Whatever we do while meditating, we should not fall for the temptation to influence the flow of mind-wandering. Hands off, do not steer or manipulate which thoughts or emotions may pass by. Let the brain go where it needs to go, and that may be in another direction than we wish. Our conscious interference with the flow will hamper the processing. And without the processing, stress builds up.
What about rumination?
Having repetitive negative and depressing thoughts is called rumination. Such thoughts tend to monopolize the mind, leaving no space for anything else. It is almost like a labyrinth, once you get in, you lose the big picture and have no clue where to find an exit. What elements of Acem Meditation – an effortless, relaxing technique – can do anything at all with rumination?
The blue and orange circles are the spontaneous activity going on in the mind while we meditate. In this case, the meditator is ruminating, with angry and revengeful thoughts, or maybe the opposite: self-accusations, feeling unworthy and shameful or having endless worries about the future. Notice the black line surrounding this difficult content, it locks it in, representing the negative labyrinth. The light blue outer circle contains the thoughts that are beyond the threshold of awareness. So, what happens with this gloomy preoccupation when we Acem–meditate?
When we sit down to meditate, we might be stressed, discouraged, and feel that we have no free mental attitude whatsoever. Don’t worry about it, just repeat the sound without any strain, and the free mental attitude will come along. And this attitude helps us adjust the repetition of the sound towards less striving. There is a nice interdependence between the two, the sound and the attitude: The neutrality of the sound helps us obtain a free attitude, while the repetition of the sound without a free mental attitude is more or less worthless. The combination of the two transfers a degree of neutrality to the enclosed area in the mind, where the negative thoughts are temporarily thriving. The combination becomes a soft corrective to the negative thinking – and mark my words – this happens by itself without suppression or avoidance of the negative thoughts. The light, easy, flexible repetition of the sound done with a broad-minded, receptive, and open attitude – that is our instrument. We play that instrument while we listen to the sound we are playing.
The effect of this “music” also sets other processes in motion. Notice in the figure below that the free mental attitude has colored the inner circle pale green where it used to be orange, the content of spontaneous thoughts. Sad or angry thoughts may still be present, but their “shading” has changed, they are less intense, less all-consuming, less agonizing. With the expectation that all negative thoughts should go away, there will be a disappointment. But if we see that they will not necessarily disappear, only affect our behavior to a lesser degree, then we will really appreciate Acem Meditation. Like all good music, it doesn’t erase but mitigates the pain.
Like all good music, it also opens up mind and heart. In the figure below, the black line has become dotted, permeable. The labyrinth of negative thinking opens up. And what seeps through the cracks into awareness? The peripheral thoughts, the divergent thinking that has dwelled in the
outskirts of our awareness, thoughts, and ideas that are not written in capital letters and fly in our face but whisper softly in our ear – alternative thoughts to the negative ones. It could be something like: «Ok, I might have a feeling of inferiority, after all, I’m used to that, having had it since childhood. But does that really have to stop me from doing what I would like to do with my life?»
Mainstream psychology often claims that the solution to negative thinking is control. However, control and suppression of mental contents drain our energy and seldom work in the long run (Eifring, 2019). Battling an unwanted part of ourselves creates an inner conflict. Civil war often brings more loss than gain, even when it occurs underneath the skin. Handling our own negative thoughts and difficult emotions with acceptance doesn’t solve all problems but is a better starting point for behavioral change. Acceptance doesn’t mean we have to like something we don’t like; it doesn’t mean we have to welcome something which is unwanted. It is just acknowledging that it is there. Acceptance is ownership.
Whether the thoughts are difficult and negative or invigorating and useful, they are part of us. “Spontaneous forms of thought enable us to transcend not only the here and now of perceptual experience, but also the bonds of our deliberately-controlled and goal-directed cognition; they allow the space for us to be other than who we are, and for our minds to think beyond the limitations of our current viewpoints and beliefs.” (Fox & Koroma, 2018). There wouldn’t be much creativity without negativity. Where would art, literature, music, or drama be if we should censor all negative thoughts? If we try to manipulate the spontaneous flow during meditation or even observe it with a conscious mind, we’ll lose the flow. If we try to blacklist thoughts we do not want, we will also lose the good ideas, the new thoughts, and the afterthoughts of everyday episodes that help us digest impressions and process emotions. Negative thoughts can make us appreciate more the good things we have; they can make us psychologically more mature, and they make us more empathic with others when they are down. We cannot always have the good without accepting a portion of the bad. And that is what life is about, isn’t it? When adversity comes along – which it always will, it also sparks reflection. What is the meaning of this, how can I go on, what shall I make of this, how can I live my life differently? Existential contentment may evolve from such reflections – with a little help from a silent repetition of our neutral sound.
Eifring, H. (2019). The power of the wandering mind. Nondirective meditation in science and philosophy. Oslo, Dyade Press.
Fox, K., Koroma, M. (2018). Wandering along the spectrum of spontaneous thinking. Dreaming, meditation, mind-wandering and well-being. ALIUS Bulletin 2.
Holen, A. & Eifring, H. (2013). Acem Meditation. An introductory companion. Oslo, Dyade Press.
Top photo: Ommund Øgaard