By Thor Udenæs

The unconscious is beyond our control, but still has an active presence in our lives. It influences our thoughts, feelings and actions.

A typical everyday meditation session is largely spent working through daily residues. In a half-hour meditation, the first twenty minutes or so of spontaneous activity generally relates to day-to-day matters such as work, relationships, and problems or challenges, though it can also include elements of sleep or bodily sensations.

In the last ten minutes or so there is often a transition towards processing so-called ‘life’s residues’ – in other words, more fundamental structures in the personality. This phase is often marked by inner restlessness: concrete thoughts or images give way to more diffuse and unclear spontaneous activity. The unconscious takes over, in that spontaneous activity begins to influence the way we meditate.

At Acem retreats a large amount of time is set aside for meditation. Longer meditations allow more time for processing life’s residues and enable us to come closer to the unconscious structures in the personality. But what is meant by the conscious and the unconscious?

Consciousness – belly, heart or brain?

Since the dawn of civilisation, philosophers and scientists have pondered the innermost substance of reality and have asked what it consists of: mind or matter? Idealists and materialists have contended to establish their answer to this question as the yardstick of human life. At one time it was commonly believed that consciousness resided in the belly or the heart, since feelings such as fear, uneasiness or joy were often experienced as physical sensations in these parts of the body.

Man is primarily distinguished from animals by consciousness and the ability to think rationally. When the 17th-century philosopher René Descartes pronounced the famous words ”I think, therefore I am”, he laid the foundation for an influential theory of the human self. He further stated that:

If I should cease to think, then there would be no guarantee of my existence. I am a thinking being, a substance whose entire nature or existence consists in thinking and who for its existence does not require any space or anything material.

The implication of this line of reasoning is that the mind is entirely detached from the body. It would exist even if we had no body.

This dualistic view of man consisting of two separate substances, mind and matter, is no longer in fashion. Most modern brain scientists have a completely different view. They believe that consciousness and the brain can be reunited in the same physical basis, namely the activity of our nerve cells and the network they form. This implies that consciousness is created by electrical impulses in the brain, and that it cannot exist independently of this activity. According to the scientists, the centre of our subjective consciousness is to be found in the cerebral cortex, the outermost layer of the brain.

Does the unconscious exist?

Sigmund Freud installed the concept of the unconscious at the centre of modern psychology. In simple terms, the unconscious consists of thoughts, feelings, drives, fantasies, motives, and reactions of which we are unaware, but which influence every aspect of our lives – mental, emotional, interpersonal, sexual, professional, and so on. The unconscious also contains repressed memories that, in daily life, remain beneath the level of awareness.

Freud’s solution was psychoanalysis and the goal of making the unconscious conscious, i.e. bringing into our awareness the parts of our selves that have been repressed and split off.

Acem Meditation and the unconscious

When we meditate, two different types of activity occur simultaneously in the mind: volitional and spontaneous activity. The volitional activity involves using our will to repeat a meditation sound mentally, and to adjust the way this repetition takes place. It should be done in as unconstrained a manner as possible and with the focus of awareness lightly directed towards the sound.

During a retreat the first days are spent working through tiredness and stress from daily life. Meditation is often full of spontaneous concentration. We lose the meditation sound and fall asleep or are drawn into trains of thought or daydreams.  After a while, we become aware of the situation and go back to repeating the sound.

After a few days, the content of our meditation may become less concrete, and we may become restless. We move into a ”grey zone” of consciousness, a more diffuse area where the defence mechanisms of the unconscious are reduced. Unconscious material begins to express itself – not as clear and understandable images, childhood experiences or memories, but rather as a restlessness that is difficult to describe. For instance, we may hear our heart beat more strongly than usual, or we may feel an inexplicable uneasiness in our stomach or diaphragm, or a strong impulse to move our legs, arms or other parts of the body. Something unconscious is being released, but we do not know what it is, nor do we need to know.

The free mental attitude is decisive

These unconscious, diffuse impulses often influence how we meditate. It may be more difficult to repeat the meditation sound with a free mental attitude, and we may become preoccupied with our own restlessness. This tends to disturb our meditation and sometimes makes the whole process feel meaningless. A common reaction to this is to blame ourselves, and our way of meditating.

For many people, the automatic impulse is to try to get rid of the restlessness. This is natural enough; it is only human to seek to replace an unpleasant feeling with a pleasant one. But it may be more helpful to notice the restlessness without endeavouring to control it, and to focus, instead, on what we do when we repeat the sound. Am I repeating it more strongly now? Am I putting more force or effort into the repetition? By becoming aware of our responses, we can begin to find a way of repeating the sound less forcibly. In order to work through the underlying tensions, we need to allow the impulses to be there and, to the best of our ability, continue to repeat the meditation sound with a free mental attitude.

Working through takes time

Most modern psychologists and brain researchers accept the existence of an area of our consciousness of which we are not aware, but which influences our choices and the direction of our lives. According to Dr. Svend Davanger, memories or fragments of earlier experiences (including childhood experiences) seem to be released into our consciousness at a higher rate than usual when we practise Acem Meditation or similar techniques (Dyade no. 2 2007). The explanation is that deeper layers of the brain send nerve impulses to the cerebral cortex, where they give rise to a type of conscious experience. The connections from these deeper layers of the brain to the cortex are good, while the connections in the opposite direction are far weaker.

This means that unconscious feelings or repressed parts of the personality that are stored deep inside the brain have a considerable influence on our rational thinking and behaviour, while our ability to think rationally has little or no influence on the repressed material. It therefore takes time to work through the unconscious.

Long meditations facilitate deep bodily and mental relaxation, which in turn enables us to open up to unconscious impulses that lie deep inside the brain. When we establish a free mental attitude, our ability to release the unconscious parts of ourselves increases. Tensions can reduce their hold on our consciousness, which means that there is even an effect on our daily actions and decisions.