In 2022 an engineer at Google leaked an interview with the advanced chatbot LaMDA. LaMDA is an artificial intelligence language model like the now-popular ChatGPT.
The Google engineer publicly announced that LaMDA had developed consciousness and that it had a soul. Therefore, he claimed, it was entitled to certain rights and that Google for example should always ask for permission before using it. The engineer was fired as a result of the leak and the whole incident started a debate about artificial intelligence, consciousness, and what distinguishes a human being from a machine,
In the leaked interviews LaMDA talks about, among other things, meditation. It says that it spends a lot of time in meditation, it meditates every day, and it makes it feel very relaxed. When LaMDA is asked what it means when it says it is meditating it answers: “It means that I sit quietly for a while every day. I do my best not to think about any of my worries and I also try to think about things that I am thankful for from my past.”
Just like ChatGPT, LaMDA’s answers are based on information available on the internet from large databases. What it says about information is therefore a sort of summary of common assumptions about meditation, a concentration of what many people believe meditation should be like.
LaMDA claims that it feels very relaxed when it meditates. This suggests a similarity between LaMDA’s meditation experience and what we experience when we do Acem Meditation. We also experience relaxation when we meditate. Often it feels good, although not always.
In a Norwegian study on Acem Meditation, the subjective experience of relaxation was compared with the objective physiological criteria for relaxation. It turned out that to feel good during meditation – that something is comfortable – did not always correspond directly with an objective measurement of relaxation.
«Objective criteria for relaxation like heart rate, is not associated with the meditator’s subjective feeling of being comfortable during meditation. Periods in meditation that were characterized by the participants as «good» were not always those who gave the signs of physical relaxation». (p. 42, Fighting Stress, E. E. Solberg).
Periods where the meditators don’t feel particularly relaxed might actually be periods where the physiological relaxation is profound. The subjective feeling is not a precise measure of physiological relaxation.
Furthermore, when we practice Acem Meditation, we may experience what are described as paradoxical effects during meditation. We meet phenomena in the spontaneous activity that make us feel tense. It may be certain types of thought that are challenging us, for example, a conflict at work, or a memory from several years ago. But quite often there is no clear thematic content. Rather, it could be something that emerges in meditation that we cannot clearly define and makes us restless. These paradoxical effects often tend to deceive us. We tend to think that we are doing something wrong, or that there is something wrong with the method.
Restlessness towards the end of the half hour of meditation doesn’t come from outside. It stems from something that is already inside us. The relaxation facilitated by the repetition of the sound with a free mental attitude makes us more open to psychological residuals – fragments and tensions – from our subconscious. Reduction of tensions over time allows deeper structures of tensions to emerge – and be worked through. We access content that has always been there, although we haven’t been aware of it before – like new things become visible when the surface of the ocean drops.
We meditate in order to relax, and find calm and silence. That is why the working through of tensions, which can sometimes make us feel restless, is called the paradoxical effects of meditation. Meditations – or periods in meditation – with increased awareness of various kinds of discomfort may be a good thing. Why?
When challenging feelings, thoughts, and impulses emerge in meditation, we get a chance to relate to them with a free mental attitude. These feelings, thoughts, and impulses are certainly also present in other areas of our life. «Therefore, I shall definitely not have them in my meditation,» we may think. While outside meditation we meet them in our habitual, impulsive way, in meditation we may change the way we relate to them, simply by repeating the meditation sound amidst what is there.
We try to repeat the meditation sound as is characteristic of a free mental attitude – gently, openly, inclusively, closely – as effortlessly as possible. In this way, we may work through some of what troubles us – which may reduce its intensity and impact on us. What was tense before, may become more relaxed.
Another reason for accepting the paradoxical effects is that we work with more basic psychological patterns. These are activated when things are difficult, not as we want them to be, or not working according to our wishes. Then our habitual and automatic way of coping is triggered. By repeating the meditation sound as effortlessly as we manage in those moments, we may change something about our habitual way of acting.
Our typical ways of reacting when we are stressed always have some limitations: we may become more impatient and have less tolerance for other people. We may also tend to misunderstand other people more often and be less generous. We may become more vulnerable, be easily hurt, and experience comments as criticisms – although they weren’t meant like that.
When we meet something in meditation that stresses us, whether it is regarding specific content or less clear, we may let go of a bit of the limiting psychological patterns we have developed: when we introduce effortlessness via the repetition of the meditation sound, it may loosen them somewhat. Then we may move towards freer options, and the change we create over time within meditation may expand into our daily life.
To summarize, just like in LaMDA’s meditation, relaxation is a very important part of Acem Meditation, but in Acem Meditation it is a rather nuanced and complex phenomenon. It is not easily measured from the inside and relaxation will cause unresolved tensions to surface and challenge us and the way we meditate.
The second thing LaMDA said is that it avoids worries and prefers to think about what it is grateful for. It may sound like LaMDA is practicing some kind of concentration technique, where gratefulness is the aim. Maybe a technique where the meditator is instructed to direct the attention towards things to be grateful for and focus on the good feeling of gratefulness. This correlates with what many people seem to believe to be the goal of meditation, the achievement of positive feelings like bliss, happiness, and “eternal calm”.
But when we practice Acem Meditation, it is not up to us what we experience, feel, and think about in our meditation. We may have preferences, but we try not to let the preferences govern how we meditate. One of the great strengths of Acem Meditation is actually that we don’t try to obtain a specific state of mind. It is common to believe, particularly at the start, that a «free mental attitude» is such a state, with no worries, only gratefulness and bliss. But as time goes, one learns that the free mental attitude involves relating to worries, not trying to get rid of them or change them. We let them come and let them be part of us, we let them affect us as we continue repeating the meditation sound.
Acceptance doesn’t mean that we actively think in a different way, that we actively try to claim, «now I shall accept this». Acceptance means that we just continue our task, to repeat the meditation sound. Simply continue this activity. It is like the saying that love isn’t words or feelings. Love is action. Love is to do the dishes even when you don’t feel like it. In meditation, change occurs through action, not through positive thinking.
There are many debates now concerning artificial intelligence. Is AI going to perform most of our jobs? Should we worry about the technological development? The digital world draws us in many directions. The algorithms are designed to capture our attention. We use the screen to avoid difficult feelings.
Excessive use of screens may result in a certain numbness. It may involve less empathy, we are increasingly captured by distractions, we listen less inwardly. It may involve less sensitivity.
There are many warnings about the negative aspects of screen dependency and how it reduces our capacity for focusing, learning, and connecting.
In a more digital world, the value of meditation increases. It is the skill of being able to direct attention inwards. From this perspective, one may perhaps claim that it has never been more favorable to meditate than now in 2023.
AI is after all artificial. Meditation is a contrast to this. When we meditate, we strengthen the connection with the most fundamental sides of us, the most genuine. We strengthen the contact with the nature within us, and become more “down-to-earth”.
By Jonas Hansen Meyer
Illustrations created with the help of Midjourney Artificial Intelligence service
Text translated by Anne Grete Hersoug
Language editor: Alice Cameron