Øyvind Ellingsen, M.D., Ph.D.
The free mental attitude of Acem Meditation involves, on the one hand, a supple, effortless repetition of the meditation sound and, on the other hand, a free and accepting awareness in relation to impressions that appear during meditation. Acting to bring about this free mental attitude is a process. In our daily lives, this process provides breathing space for unprocessed experiences from the day. At meditation retreats, it helps to loosen the grip of undercurrents in our personalities.
The free mental attitude of Acem Meditation is an attitude of acceptance. Thoughts, bodily sensations, moods and evaluations are allowed to enter the mind. We let them appear and disappear in our mental awareness, neither avoiding them nor actively pursuing them.
This accepting attitude is a central and effective element in psychological processing. Like the ‘free-floating awareness’ of psychoanalysis, it allows associations to come and go without censorship. A supple, accepting attitude reduces psychological defence mechanisms and repression: we are more ready to accept and take in whatever is on our minds. Difficult themes that we have suppressed become accessible for processing.
The free mental attitude should characterise both our repetition of the meditation sound and our awareness: the way we direct the focus of our attention during meditation. This awareness is the opposite of concentrated, analytical observation, where there is a distance between the observer and the experience being observed. The free mental attitude means to relate with a certain degree of intimacy to whatever fills our mind at any given time.
During meditation, this means giving room for thoughts, memories, bodily sensations and feelings, not analysing or observing from a distance. Active reflection upon the contents of the thoughts and the repetition of the meditation sound should be done outside the meditation, preferably in a guidance group.
In interpersonal relationships, a free mental attitude can be compared to active listening, where one takes in, with an attitude of understanding, the experiences and feelings of the other person. Empathy is a basic principle of good dialogue, whether it takes place between a therapist and his or her client, between parents and child, in a love relationship or between friends. Empathy requires giving time and paying attention – acceptingly and patiently.
Most of us have experienced how good it feels when someone listens attentively to our feelings, frustrations and needs. Even if it does not change unpleasant circumstances past or present, it eases the emotional pressure. To be accepted and to be paid attention to by another person satisfy a deep-rooted need in the human psyche. Acceptance, awareness, and empathy are basic elements in all psychological processing. An accepting attitude counters low self-esteem. Over time, what used to appear difficult may begin to appear as a challenge: something that is not beyond one’s reach. According to Fritz Perls, the American psychologist and founder of gestalt therapy, if you accept ‘what is’, ‘what is’ changes. Processing frees energy and attention that would otherwise be spent on keeping difficult themes (such as loss or other strong experiences that need to be dealt with) at a distance.
Acceptance and awareness can alleviate and cure mental wounds and low self-esteem. Many techniques for meditation and relaxation reduce stress and can thus alleviate tension, pain and other physical ills. Self-administered methods mobilise the organism’s own ability to heal. Relaxation and a free mental attitude can reduce muscular tension and increase blood circulation in tense parts of the body. To the extent that illness is related to stress or anxiety, relaxation, awareness and acceptance can reduce or remove the worry and can help to heal.
This also applies to problems caused by the mental strain that comes with serious, long-term or chronic illness with a clearly physical base, such as cancer and heart problems. At times, problems caused by anxiety and tension can be worse than those related to the basic illness. Self-administered methods and treatment, directed towards psychological and existential aspects of being ill, can help to heal. At the very least, they can improve quality of life, even if they do not remove the basic problem. Both professional care and one’s own effort are important.
There are a number of interesting observations relating to the effects of psychological and behavioural factors on the progress of serious physical illness, but there are also many unanswered questions. Experience indicates that mental strain reduces longevity, for example in depressed people with heart failure. Some research has shown that life expectancy increases in patients that participate in discussion groups for improved quality of life, for example in cases of advanced breast cancer.
So far, however, we have little knowledge of what groups of illnesses are affected and to what extent. We are waiting for research to provide stronger evidence regarding the types of biological and behavioural elements that are effective.
Interpersonal relationships characterised by acceptance and awareness often give rise to positive expectations that may have a strongly motivating effect. In care-giving professions, one expects a general treatment effect due to attention and care, a so-called placebo effect (from Latin placebo ‘I please’). This general treatment effect appears in addition to the specific effects of a certain treatment. The placebo effect may be strong and important in both traditional and alternative treatments. It may unlock a locked situation and often leads to a positive motivation to make changes in attitudes and life style. The effect is often attributed to certain features of the treatment, or of the people who were involved in it.
In certain cases, an active, empathic interest can have a seductive effect, actuating unrealistic expectations and fantasies, rather like being in love. A person in love tends to experience strong positive feelings and hopes for the future. If these are not met, disappointment, anger and bitterness may follow.
In connection with therapy and other interpersonal relationships, the accepting attention comes from another person or from an institution. Occasionally, this may result in a strong bond and a feeling of dependence and helplessness, for example in relation to a professional treatment institution. In meditation and other self-administered methods it is, to a large extent, we ourselves who provide acceptance and attention by the way we apply the method. Self-care and self-administered methods tend to enhance our self-confidence, because we ourselves make an important contribution towards our improvement and progress.
Mindfulness vs. concentration
Some descriptions of meditation use the word ‘mindfulness’ to describe something that resembles the awareness or attention characterised by a free mental attitude of Acem Meditation. In contrast to Acem Meditation, however, ‘mindfulness’ often entails an active awareness of breathing, posture and, to some extent, thoughts.
Although this may not be intended, we are sometimes led to believe that words like ‘free mental attitude’, ‘awareness’, and ‘mindfulness’ refer to an idealised state: something one arrives at and experiences when one meditates correctly. This stems from the notion that ideal meditation is a state of pleasant bodily relaxation, where thoughts are either not very insistent, or are experienced as ‘deep’ or meaningful. In contrast, we interpret humdrum, turbulent thoughts, physical tension, tiredness and restlessness as superficial or ‘wrong’ meditation. Such beliefs are supported by certain traditions that compare man’s mind with what takes place in the head of a monkey that jumps from tree to tree without purpose, and therefore needs to be controlled.
As a consequence, we are likely to introduce elements of concentration (either as a conscious element in our practice, or by focusing very strongly on breathing, meditation sound or certain types of thoughts) in order to push away impulsive, ‘disturbing’ thoughts and bodily sensations. When our meditation no longer lives up to our expectations of an idealised state, we may be tempted to try to ‘help’ the process forward by introducing a little control and concentration, even if this limits the process and goes against the principle of a free mental attitude.
Empathy directed inwards
When we try to increase the free mental attitude in our practice of meditation, we establish empathy inwards – towards parts of ourselves that we do not easily accept. In daily life, the first challenge is to set aside time for meditation, in order to give ourselves relaxation and recreation as well as energy and mental calm. The next challenge is to repeat the meditation sound with a free mental attitude, making it possible for unprocessed experiences from one’s daily life to be met with empathy. Whether these unprocessed experiences appear in the form of troubling thoughts, restlessness, emptiness or tiredness, an accepting attitude will ensure that the unfinished business of the day finds a channel and loses some of its grip on us. This will set free our awareness and energy. In our daily lives, the free mental attitude of Acem Meditation stimulates determination and forcefulness.
During courses with long meditation sessions, we may advance a step further. Gradually, the echoes from our daily lives quieten down. Body and mind become calm, providing space for a meeting with ourselves, the way we are behind the façade. We get in touch with impulsive undercurrents in our personalities. We discover how deep down we control and limit ourselves with an intensity that we had no idea existed.
The first challenge is to sit long enough to discover that we are not repeating the meditation sound freely and effortlessly, but instead we are concentrating and exerting ourselves, trying to add or subtract a little in order to do better. When we discover these efforts, the next challenge is to go on repeating the meditation sound as freely and effortlessly as possible, even if we have a strong feeling that we are not doing it well enough.
Often this will bring us in contact with feelings of resignation, fears of failure, and low self-esteem. This we may experience as negative and meaningless: something that we want to get away from. However, this is the first step towards establishing empathy for the parts of us that create tension and disturbance.
The key is to repeat the meditation sound with a higher degree of free mental attitude. This is not always easy. It requires time, patience and empathy with our own lack of perfection. Some of our basic character traits are difficult to change. Meditation may help us to accept them, see how they control us, and learn to live with them. This reduces their limiting effect on us and thereby makes a big difference both to ourselves and to the people around us.
Translated by Nina Tjomsland
Øyvind Ellingsen is Professor of Cellular Cardiology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and a Meditation Teacher in Acem.