New doctoral thesis on nondirective meditation

From the beginning of the Western philosophical tradition, the quest for self-knowledge has been central. We must know ourselves as human beings and our place in the world and in interpersonal relationships, i.e. how our lives should be lived. This was the point of departure when Mattias Solli recently defended his doctoral thesis in philosophy. 

Focus on meditative practice

In his thesis, Solli discusses how nondirective meditation may increase self-knowledge. Both his supervisor and the opponents were enthusiastic: “Vividly written, intriguing and very interesting reading,” writes the committee that assessed his thesis at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim.

The first time Acem Meditation was the subject of a doctoral thesis was in 2004. Then, medical doctor Erik Ekker Solberg documented that the method contributes to relaxation and that long meditations increase the effect and capacity for achievement and stress management. Solli’s philosophical thesis is the second to focus on this meditative practice, and the first to do so based on qualitative analyses in the Western philosophical tradition.

How did you get the idea to base your philosophical doctoral thesis on Acem Meditation? 

“The idea emerged gradually. I had been practicing Acem Meditation for a long time before I started the project. I had read philosophy with a focus on the meditative, but in the beginning, I only included a few issues from the meditative perspective, and then indirectly. However, as the work proceeded, I included meditation fully and noticed that it opened a vista for many interesting discussions that I otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to go into.

“It should be emphasized that the thesis is not about Acem Meditation as such, but nondirective meditation in general. For me, it has been interesting to study the transition from the traditional Eastern understanding of meditation and the secularized, nonreligious, and scientifically based understanding of meditation that emerged in the Western part of the world, both in Acem and in some other contexts. Although Acem (by far, in my opinion) seems to be the most developed secularized version, other versions also touch upon important aspects of the meditation practice.”

What was it like for you to work on the project? 

“I have had a strong belief in the project from the beginning. But it has also been very demanding, involving some quite deep dives into self-doubt and low self-esteem. I am lucky, however – I had my family and support from my meditation practice. The basis for my understanding of meditation comes from Acem. I can’t imagine being able to complete the thesis without such access to insight into nondirective meditation, which I wouldn’t have been able to acquire otherwise. Besides, to enter into a meditative process has provided access to new ideas and perspectives.”

A central aim of the thesis is to document similarities and to establish a dialogue between Eastern meditation practices and Western philosophical traditions. What did you find?

“In the Western philosophy tradition, we don’t find any meditation practice that corresponds to what we practice in Acem Meditation. The question of self-knowledge, however, is both an ancient and a current theme. I start with two modern traditions that keep the question alive: philosophical hermeneutics (Hans-Georg Gadamer) and phenomenology (Maurice Merleau-Ponty). Hermeneutics may be described as a philosophy of understanding. It sheds light on what takes place when we understand something – when new knowledge, insight, or understanding emerges. Phenomenology, on the other hand, has good concepts regarding the relationship between body and consciousness, influenced by psychoanalytic theory and behaviorism.

“What do we see when we introduce meditation practice into these philosophical traditions? On the one hand, meditation communicates well with central aspects of the philosophies. The thesis provides close analyses of the role of the meditation sound, the use of attention, and the change processes that meditation stimulates. On the other hand, meditation doesn’t quite fit into any of the philosophies in isolation, but apparently hovers somewhere in between them. The problem is that this in-between space is both difficult to articulate and full of gray areas with sliding transitions. Because of this, however, meditation stimulates a discussion of what this in-between space is. By causing friction, it makes visible which areas of each tradition remain underdeveloped, which is what happens when philosophy becomes too abstract, or when it simply omits something without even mentioning it.

“For instance, philosophical hermeneutics displays a certain resistance toward describing too closely what we do in order to understand something. Describing action is associated with the thought “Do this, and you will understand.” This thought harbors a false ideal, according to philosophical hermeneutics. We can’t force understanding to occur, by decision or by will, simply by doing something in advance. There is undoubtedly truth in this perspective. It resembles the meditation process: we cannot repeat the sound in a fixed way, and then expect to ‘understand’. That said, we also know that the meditation process ultimately boils down to what we do. Nondirective meditation is about doing. This is emphasized in Acem in particular: we learn to let go of the need to understand during the action itself, i.e., while we practice. Thus, the meditative practice makes us aware of a certain shortcoming in this philosophical approach to understanding – an underdeveloped aspect, which is not sufficiently elaborated. Philosophical hermeneutics becomes a little too abstract, and the need to evoke resources from phenomenology becomes apparent. Phenomenology, on the other hand, has its own underdeveloped aspects, which are also highlighted by the meditation practice.”

How is the doctor of philosophy feeling today? 

“I am relieved and happy about having completed the process. And it’s great fun to have a new title!

“I am in the process of preparing new projects that are not directly concerned with meditation. I look forward to testing whether the concepts and terminology that I have developed in the thesis can be put to good use in other contexts.”

Mattias Solli is an instructor in Acem Meditation. 

Translated by Anne Grete Hersoug

Language editor: Ann Kunish