By Øyvind Ellingsen

Øyvcind EllingsenThe brain’s natural resting state is not a void or an absence of thoughts, but a spontaneous wandering among thoughts, episodes, images and feelings (1). Usually only 50 % of us are aware of them, but if we ask people at random, we learn that we all have such activity 30-50 % of the time, also when we are preoccupied with other activities.

The spontaneous stream of thoughts is reduced during tasks that require concentration, and increases during routine activities and rest. During the practice of Acem Meditation, a free mental attitude often increases the spontaneous activity of the mind.

Mental simulation and processing
Recent research has opened exciting perspectives on the functions of the stream of thoughts, and sheds light on how the brain works during rest and meditation. A research group from Harvard University claims that the brain recycles experiences and impressions from past events and connects them in new ways to find answers to unanswered questions, e.g. how others think and react emotionally, and how we might respond in new situations (2).

how to respondIn this way, the brain uses available capacity to work through residue from past events, “read” other people, find creative solutions and prepare for the future. This function is called mental simulation, and is in line with our experience with Acem Meditation. The spontaneous activity is a mental process that reduces stress and facilitates reflection about our self-perceptions and characteristic ways of being.

Default network
The mind’s spontaneous stream of thoughts originates in a network of nerve cells in areas of the brain that are more active during rest and meditation (1-5). These areas are called the default network because they are activated when the brain is not occupied with sensory or goal-directed activities.

One part of the network (the hippocampus), which retrieves memories from past experiences, is located in the memory area of the temporal lobe. Another (the prefrontal cortex) is located in the executive center for analyses and decisions in the frontal part of the brain, and evaluates the personal significance of the impressions, as well as how we ought to respond.

meditatorAlert and mobilization
A third area (the amygdala) is located near the memory center and belongs to the brain’s alarm system. Without any thought processes involved, we make a quick, preliminary risk evaluation of the impressions, and activate an alert whenever anything threatening or suspicious is detected. The body’s defenses are mobilized, and stress reactions are activated. Simultaneously, warnings are sent to the executive center, in order to evaluate whether specific actions are necessary for protection against threats to our body and self-esteem. This area is activated during Acem Meditation, and is probably involved in the working through of stressful experiences and negative self-perceptions.

Neutral focus
The key to coping with stressful thoughts, bodily tension and challenging emotions during meditation is to shift the attention to a neutral focus: the meditation sound. This releases a marked relaxation response in the body, and often increases spontaneous mental processing. The lighter and gentler one repeats the meditation sound, the more relaxation – and the more free flow of thoughts and spontaneous working through of residue.

Stressful thoughts
Even if we practice the technique correctly, we will from time to time meet the challenge of meta-thoughts in our meditation. These include negative evaluations of our meditation, as well as negative self-perceptions that influence our meditation without us noticing. When we become aware of them, they are more easily processed and worked through.

talking togetherThe problem is that we don’t necessarily identify them as part of the stream of thoughts, but rather accept them as truths – not only about our meditation practice, but also about ourselves. It is as if the negative thoughts get under the radar and attack our self-esteem at vulnerable spots, without our awareness. This is likely to reduce our free mental attitude and the effect of meditation. Through guidance, where one discusses the meditation in order to optimize the practice, meta-thoughts are more easily identified.

Metacognitive shift
The most challenging aspect of distracting thoughts and feelings during meditation is to accept that they are present, in order to let them pass through the periphery of our attention with a free mental attitude. This usually requires a new understanding of our practice – from a diffuse feeling that something is wrong, to acceptance of a negative mood as part of the stream of thoughts. This is a metacognitive shift that usually contributes to better self-esteem in meditation as well as in daily life. What we previously perceived as negative may now seem normal and more neutral.

Working with the mental attitude
In theory, it seems simple to cope with meta-thoughts. In practice, the first step is to become aware what the discomfort in meditation is about. This requires that we to some extent can open up to negative thoughts and feelings, such as low self-esteem, despite our basic spontaneous tendency to keep discomfort at a distance.

As biological beings we resist feelings of discomfort. By nature and through culture we have defense mechanisms in order to avoid psychic pain. Often, the expectation that something may be uncomfortable is the strongest stress factor, and thus the most important obstacle to obtaining a metacognitive shift.

The first step towards seeing ourselves in a new perspective is to accept what feels like a disturbance with a certain curiosity about what it might be. This helps us include things that don’t fit into our understanding of what meditation and daily life should be like: our way of being, appearance, priorities, important choices, emotions and impulsivity – from the small things in life to a larger perspective.

Being able to feel unrest and stressful thoughts without struggling to keep them at a distance or do something about them is basic training in coping with stress, towards a more nuanced self-perception. The technique helps us find a new, more neutral focus where our attention may rest, and thereby enable acceptance with a free mental attitude, without struggle.

Understanding meditation
Research on brain function makes it easier to understand how Acem Meditation works. Repetition of the meditation sound with a free, accepting mental attitude opens for the spontaneous stream of thoughts, and intensifies the processing that enables a metacognitive shift. Through guidance we may become more aware of how negative thoughts influence our self-esteem, and their impact will thereby be reduced. In a short-term perspective this gives us more energy, and in a long-term perspective it contributes to personality development, and helps us make better use of our resources.

Translated by Anne Grete Hersoug
Language editor: Ann Kunish

1. Mason MF, Norton MI, Van Horn JD, Wegner DM, Grafton ST, Macrae CN. Wandering minds: the default network and stimulus-independent thought. Science 2007, 315: 393-395.

2. Buckner RL, Andrews-Hanna JR, Schachter DL. The Brain’s default network. Anatomy, function and relevance to disease. Ann NY Acad Sci 2008, 1124: 1-38.

3. Davanger S, Ellingsen Ø, Holen A, Hugdahl K. Meditation-specific prefrontal cortical activation during acem meditation: an fMRI study. Percept Mot Skills 2010, 111: 291-306.

4. Engström M, Pihlsgård J, Lundberg P, Söderfeldt B . Functional magnetic resonance imaging of hippocampal activation during silent mantra meditation. J Altern Complement Med 2010, 16: 1253-1258.

5. Hasenkamp W, Wilson-Mendenhall CD, Duncan E, Barsalou LW (2012) Mind wandering and attention during focused meditation: A fine-grained temporal analysis of fluctuating cognitive states. Neuroimage 59: 750-760.