By Maria S. Gjems-Onstad.

In weekend retreats, through long meditations, guidance, and conversations, issues often come into focus that apply to several participants. In the weekend course referred to here, what we might call “mechanical” meditation became a topic.

We meditate mechanically when our repetition resembles how a machine could have repeated the sound. Our repetition becomes somewhat automatic; one might say that it goes on autopilot. A picture might be that it is as if a robot sitting on our shoulder is doing the repetition, rather than us. In repeating the sound in this way, we lose part of our contact with what is happening in the meditation. We become less aware, and therefore also less responsive, both to the internal environment in which we are repeating the sound and to nuances in the performance of our meditation.

Everyone in the guidance group knew that in order to open the mind in meditation, repeating the sound with a free mental attitude is important. During the weekend, several of the participants discovered that although they knew this on one level, they nevertheless became aware that they were repeating the sound in a way that hindered the openness they wanted to facilitate. By talking about their own meditation in the guidance groups, they were able to see their own performance in a clearer light.

What is “mechanical repetition”?

In a “mechanical” repetition of the sound, we are not present in the moment. Our attention only captures part of what is going on in our mind. The repetition follows, for example, a fixed and predetermined pattern, and we do not adjust it to the constant shifts that take place in our mind. “The sound buzzes along and goes by itself, like background music.”

Lisa was at a retreat for the first time, and described her meditation as follows: “In the beginning, I repeat the meditation sound a little rapidly, then gradually I let it become slower and slower and preferably a little quiet.” She had a clear expectation of how the meditation would proceed – and so it was. This, however, limited what she could let go of in her mind.

Another participant, Peter, had adopted a particular way of repeating the sound: a little staccato, with a certain degree of strength and determination. This required control, and therefore also became limiting.

George, a man in his 40s, said, “I would rather not have the meditation sound and thoughts at the same time.” The tendency to make rules, such as dividing the elements of meditation into different spaces in our mind, is another way of narrowing one’s consciousness.

Some of the participants were also very invested in including all the syllables and being very precise and correct in how they wanted to think the sound. Peter stated that in order for the sound not to disappear in the chaos of thought, he had to make sure that he at least pronounced it correctly – again a control maneuver that narrows consciousness.

Mirror images

The way we meditate often mirrors how we behave in everyday life. Lisa said that in social contexts she often, if she felt shy, had some fixed topics and lines she would use. Peter told the group about a wedding where he had a woman sitting next to him with whom he felt very inferior. In this situation, he became more confident and assertive than he really felt. Describing one’s own meditation practice often leads to thoughts about how we behave in everyday life as well which it is fruitful to share and reflect upon.

Some participants felt that meditation had become a kind of duty. While part of you wanted to meditate, because it is a good thing to do, another part wanted to do something else – go out and exercise, look at your phone, etc. Still, a sense of duty makes you sit there. The way you meditate can then become relatively mechanical. Several participants talked about how on weekdays they also tended to regard a number of activities as duties, e.g. making dinner, contact with children and family.

Why is it like this?

Most people meditate a little “mechanically” at times, while for others this becomes more of a consistent style. One reason is that nondirective meditation activates our defense mechanisms. Lise wanted to conceal her shyness, and Peter his feeling of inferiority. Both had developed mechanisms to protect the vulnerable and shameful parts of themselves. Repeating the sound with a free mental attitude opened up a channel to what was vulnerable – which also activated avoidance strategies in them.

An open attitude also provides a space for quieter, more peaceful moods, which we, paradoxically, also protect ourselves against. The encounter with the quiet and peaceful dimension can be something we want, but can still be provocative. In this respect, man is a conservative being. We want, but we also protect ourselves against, change.

Between the spontaneous and the volitional

Meditation is an arena in which the spontaneous and the volitional parts of the mind meet. The challenge is to reconcile these two dimensions of the mind and allow them to coexist. Peter was in a difficult but exciting period at work, which may also give him new opportunities. He became very involved in thinking about the different aspects of the job situation. That is perfectly all right as long as the thoughts come spontaneously, but when he chose to continue thinking these thoughts when something else also spontaneously wanted to enter into his consciousness, it became a limitation. The whole situation aroused a great deal of emotion, but he chose to focus only on his work situation. By sharing his meditation in the guidance group, he also became able to get in touch with the fears it aroused in him. After he allowed the emotions to express themselves, the meditations became freer. He felt anxiety and tension over his new situation, but also anticipation and a sense of joy.

We consciously or unconsciously use our attention to regulate what we want to leave in the center of awareness and what becomes more peripheral. The meditation sound with a free mental attitude is the tool we use to open the mind. When we start meditating, the meditation sound is therefore in the center of awareness. At the same time, we try to open up to what is more peripheral in our consciousness. We might say that we try to become aware of the inner climate or mood in which we are meditating. In comparison, you can think of a social situation, where you talk to a person, are engaged in the conversation, while also being aware of the mood in the room. On the one hand, you are influenced by the mood, on the other hand, perhaps you also contribute to the mood that is already there.

What are we repeating?

The meditation sound is not a physical sound; it is more like an echo of something we have heard before. We can compare it to a song or other sounds that we retain memories of in the mind. The repetition will optimally vary from a fairly correct “enunciation” to something more subtle, where the sound we repeat is not necessarily identical to the sound we once received from the meditation teacher. The sound will sometimes change, maybe a syllable disappears or a diphthong becomes a little distorted, which is actually perfectly all right. In quieter periods, it is natural that the repetition is more subtle. It is essential to cultivate a certain tolerance for subtlety in order to allow contact with the quieter parts of the spontaneous activities. This is especially important on longer retreats.

The meditation sound is a composition of vowels and consonants, perhaps diphthongs in a specific rhythm pattern. Its most important quality is that it is neutral so that it does not lead the mind in a predetermined direction. In contrast, meditation in religious contexts, where the meditation object often has a specific meaning, is supposed to lead the mind into specifically religious contemplation.

Lisa was excited about the meditation sound she got in the beginners’ course. Peter, on the other hand, said that he did not like his sound very much. He associated it with the name of a boy he had a complicated relationship with in his youth.

Associations such as Peter’s are not important, and often disappear over time. In this respect, Lisa was no luckier than Peter. The effect of the meditation sound goes beyond the “like – or not like” dimension. There is no basis for saying that the person who gets a meditation sound he or she likes very well, is luckier or has a greater chance to benefit from meditation than the person who is given a sound he or she does initially not like very much.

The most important criterion for the meditation sounds is that they are neutral. Psychological associations often disappear relatively quickly. However, long experience has shown that some sounds have a greater opening effect on the mind than others. An “open” meditation sound, repeated with an open and inclusive attention, helps us in meditation to come closer to something in ourselves.

How to “de-mechanize”?

Perhaps what is most important is to become aware that your repetition has acquired a certain mechanical or automatic character. Often becoming aware of this will in itself change something. You become a little more aware that something is a little dead, not so alive. A greater awareness of how the sound sounds, its nuances, and the interplay between the sound and other things that are going on in your mind, may be enough to reinvigorate and “enliven” a somewhat mechanical repetition of the sound. When you discover that something in your meditation performance is not free enough, it is important that you do not begin to concentrate in order to change it. Consciously making an effort, “now at least I’m not going to be mechanical”, does not work. Part of us will flourish better with a free mental attitude, and it is important to be able to allow access to this resource in our mind.

When Lisa relaxed her expectations of how meditation should proceed, her meditations became both more unpredictable and more exciting. What did she think of now? As Peter eventually gave up his somewhat staccato way of repeating the sound, his meditations became more filled with emotion. For him, it was helpful to think that he should let the sound into his body. “The body never lies,” as he put it. He said he rarely cried, but during meditation, tears rolled down his cheeks. Afterward, he felt relaxed and calm, more confident that the working through processes would take their course. George began to think that the meditation sound and thoughts could be present in his mind at the same time, which was a relief.

“De-mechanizing” the way we repeat the sound means that our repetition can include more of what is present in our mind. This often makes our meditations more “lively”. Our meditations will change, sometimes containing more uneasiness, but often also more joy. Openness creates life. New feelings or ideas or ways of looking at things may emerge. They may disappear again, but often leave traces in consciousness that enable them to return to the surface. Openness often provides a contact inwards with a more basic sense of satisfaction.

Translated by Eirik Jensen