by Maria Gjems-Onstad
Contemporary culture has a tendency to idealize demands and strong expressions of emotion. It is as if the stronger the expression, the more justified the demand or the emotion. Acem Meditation counteracts this tendency and helps us to find better compromises between our own needs and the needs of our surroundings.
In Acem Meditation, as in everyday life, we have a tendency to treat feelings of need or want as though they were justified demands. Emotions that appear are often given a ring of absolute truth. However, both the meditation technique itself and the framework within which the technique is taught contain elements that counteract this tendency to treat our demands and strong emotions as though they were absolute and justified.
Groups or individuals that are seen as weak — because they have no power, little money or low prestige — are often encouraged to press their demands. They are less often encouraged to increase their own efforts to make personal changes.
In countless newspapers, advisers’ columns often tell people to listen to their own needs. The predominant political approach tends to support this mentality, and so do the theories of many psychologists. When one encounters people who have participated in awareness groups, one often hears, “I have realized that I adapt myself too much to others and suppress my own feelings.” It is far less common to meet someone who says, “I have realized that I demand too much, and that I am too preoccupied with myself.”
Many meditation movements promote a similar attitude to the one discussed above. Their focus is on what individuals feel, or how pure, spiritual or refined their consciousness is. This focus easily becomes an individualistic approach that ignores social conditions. From such a perspective, responsibility for others may be experienced as a disturbance.
Are strong emotions true?
Many people, especially those who grew up in the 1960s, tend to favour strong emotional expressions. More nuanced expressions, ones that leave room for ambivalence and personal reservations, are perceived as weak or vague.
This is a tendency which romanticizes the primitive element. Emotions that appear in regressive states, such as dreams, are thought to be more original and true. These, it is said, are more justified. One might, for example, say to one’s partner, “In my dream, it became clear to me how hurt I feel!” – as if the dream itself were proof that one had been wronged.
Strong primitive emotions are less ambiguous and, therefore, easier to relate to. For this reason, they can be thought of as truer and more sincere. The truth is, however, that most emotional matters are so complex that, to understand them fully, one has to allow for the existence of nuances. Even if this approach appears to make the whole question more complicated, it is still necessary.
Our culture’s tendency to idealize demands and strong emotions forms the cultural ballast that we carry with us, and it appears in the various moods which express themselves in our meditation. To a large extent, these moods are manifestations of unresolved mental issues. In order to induce a process of personality development, meditation must be able to provide a contact with the irrational.
In essence, our character traits are compromises between our own needs and the need to adapt to our surroundings. Bringing up a child involves setting limits. The child has to relinquish its own needs and, because of this, experiences a sense of privation. For any number of reasons, such compromises can be painful. For instance, the establishing of limits may occur too late and therefore come as a shock to the child, or the limits may have been imposed without sufficient consistency or clarity. In other cases, the child may have been forced, at a certain point, to relinquish too much, or perhaps the limits have been set in too aggressive a way.
All children have, to varying degrees, experienced feelings of privation. Sooner or later, these feelings reappear in one’s meditation, not as memories of childhood events, but as emotions tied to present circumstances.
When we explore the emotions and moods that take shape in meditation, we enter into our inner world, a world that does not necessarily relate in any way to external reality or social issues. The emotions we experience in meditation often give us, instead, a deeper understanding of ourselves and how our perception of the present has been shaped by earlier experiences. The strong imperative moods that our contemporary culture identifies as our most sincere and justified states of mind, are often those which have been distorted by our own past experiences. Understanding this can reduce our tendency to construe the feelings that occur during meditation as absolute truth.
Performance and guidance
There are also elements in the actual performance of meditation that counteract such a tendency. Actively pursuing moods and emotions instead of returning to the repetition of the meditation sound represents a psychological hang-up, a kind of concentration that leads to stagnation and not to growth. Most meditators have experienced this temptation in their own practice when they encounter a feeling that appears so important to them that they are reluctant to return to the repetition of their meditation sound. Returning to that repetition, even under the influence of strong emotions, is a sign that one is able to relate in an active way to one’s own impulses, that one can mobilize his or her efforts to seek an adult presence and not simply be overwhelmed by those impulses. When our repetition becomes supple, and we have established a free mental attitude, strong feelings can appear without having to be suppressed. If we can achieve this goal, then we have learned to live with our emotions and feelings of privation in a new way.
In the performance of meditation, the meditator should be more concerned with what he or she is actually doing than with the achievement of any particular feeling or state of mind. In guidance, therefore, a practitioner of Acem Meditation must work for a long time with technical questions, with such issues as how he or she should repeat the meditation sound in different situations. Only when this focus has been established can one begin to use a guidance session to discuss the content of one’s meditation. With the help of an instructor, one can then begin to explore his or her inner world and find those elements that distort one’s experience and turn emotions into imperative states of mind. Our goal is to become aware of feelings of privation and other unresolved problems without turning them into demands that we feel must be met. By allowing such feelings to come into view, without being passively overwhelmed by them, we may be able to reconcile our own inner conflicts and create new and better compromises between old feelings of privation and the pressing demands of the outside world.
From Acem International Newsletter No. 1 2002
by Maria Gjems-Onstad, a Clinical Psychologist from Oslo, Norway, and a Meditation Teacher in Acem.
Translated by Nina Tjomsland and J.G. Hubbard