By Jonas Meyer
There are several ways to perceive our contemporary society, but one perspective, which makes sense to me, is that we live in a culture of comparisons. In such a culture there tends to be a split between the positive, which we prefer to talk about, and the negative, which we rather keep at a distance. In contrast to this, Acem Meditation helps us meet the existence as it actually is. Through the technique, we become more firmly grounded and anchored within, while living in contemporary society with all its demands, ideals and distractions. Meditation facilitates our development in a different way than the culture around us.
Negative implications of comparisons
What does it mean that we live in a culture of comparison? The development of new technology has made it possible for people to compare themselves with others in several new ways – particularly through social media. When we open Facebook, we probably don’t think: “Now I shall compare myself with the others.” But that is what we actually do. Social media keep us regularly updated with the life of others: their holidays, their meals, and their new jobs.
Many have warned against too much comparison, from the Stoic philosophers and the apostle Paul in the New Testament. Scientists also tell us that too much comparison with others may have a negative impact. An American study
from 2014 suggested a possible association between how much people compared themselves with others and how often they felt depressed.
People who used a lot of time on Facebook, seemed to be strongly impacted, and a possible explanation might be the ample opportunities for comparison with others. A more global effect is described by Pankaj Mishra in the book Age of Anger. He suggests that comparison may contribute to the anger towards the West in some parts of the world. When one compares one’s own quality of life with that of those who live on the other side of the world, bitterness and rage may be evoked.
Social comparison and PR
Since Festinger introduced the theory of “social comparison” in the 1950s, scientific studies have investigated the phenomenon. The theory claims that individuals evaluate their own opinions and skills by comparing themselves with others, in order to reduce their uncertainty about themselves. This is a basic human characteristic and not negative as such, but it is interesting that insight from this theory has been used in PR. A lot of PR makes use of the basic human trend to compare themselves with an ideal. PR presents the perfect, good life, the perfect lifestyle, the perfect body, and may contribute to a split between the positive things we like to talk about and the negative ones we prefer to hide.
Whether you have visited Facebook today, watched PR on the internet, or seen PR posters while walking outside, the comparison culture has affected you. Cultivated global citizens may perhaps claim that they are aware of this, and that they will not be influenced, but we tend to be more impacted than we understand. In current society, people compare themselves – consciously and unconsciously – with others more often than those who lived 20, 30, 100 or 200 years ago.
The angry monkey
When the second monkey then receives an upgraded reward – a grape – the first monkey gets angry. He throws away his cucumber and starts banging the glass wall of his cage. He refuses to accept a less valuable reward than his neighbor. His anger is justified. He was treated in an unfair way. The aim of the study was to explore this. But the experiment is also an example of how comparison may evoke dissatisfaction. If the first monkey had received his cucumber without seeing that the other one got something better, he would have been as happy as before. His anger was evoked only when he understood that the other monkey got something better than him.
The monkey video presents some perspectives that are relevant for meditation. At times, when we meditate, we may feel a bit like the first monkey. When meditation is not the way we want it to be, we may perceive it as a deficit or lack of reward. We feel that we get cucumber, while we wanted grapes. We get restless and “shake the cage.”
The message in the monkey video is not that we shouldn’t react in a reasonable way when we observe unfair treatment. We naturally do that, and Acem Meditation may contribute to both being empowered to act, and to more inner calm. But in meditation, there is no unfair spontaneous activity. You cannot send a complaint about your spontaneous activity to somebody demanding that he or she can change it. You always get the spontaneous activity you need.
We all have meditation ideals. These may originate from something we have heard others say or write about meditation, or perhaps from something we have experienced before, for instance during the idyllic retreat that special summer.
The book The Power of the Wandering Mind (Eifring, 2019) describes the Default Mode Network (DMN) in the brain. The DMN includes the parts of the brain that are activated when we are at rest, and it forms the basis for the wandering mind. Acem Meditation facilitates the DMN. The more we interfere with the DMN and try to control it, the more we disturb the processing and integrating effect of the DMN in the brain. The processing effect of meditation increases when we let the spontaneous activity come as it comes, without trying to control it. In this way, we allow unfinished fragments in the mind to emerge and bring residual experiences a step closer to processing and integration. The more we try to obtain something, for instance pursuing a meditation ideal, the more the effect of meditation will be reduced.
To live with metathoughts
In meditation, we may at times act like our own enemy. We may get ideas about our meditation practice that interfere with the flow of the spontaneous activity. We may feel that the spontaneous activity is not calm enough, understandable enough, easy enough to grasp, or exciting enough. These are metathoughts, which are not only thoughts about thoughts. A metathought involves an evaluation of our meditation, usually a negative one, which we believe in, without objections. It is an evaluation that does not allow for nuances. Metathoughts and dissatisfaction in meditation nearly always involve an element of comparison. We compare our meditation – the cucumber – with the ideal meditation we want – the grape. If we believe in the metathoughts, we may become indifferent and think: “I don’t care.” We may start to repeat the meditation sound in a distant and remote way. But a more common response is to mobilize. We are deceived by the unspoken comparison with the ideal and start to disturb the spontaneous flow, for instance by using a bit of force, or by trying to get away from the lack of clarity, and by making an effort to shape up. We use active concentration to try to change the situation. We act like the monkey in the video. We shake the cage and demand something else.
A basic principle in Acem Meditation – and an important source for growth and progress – is to accept and live with the metathoughts, but abstaining from acting on them. It is helpful to recognize the impulse to act, but at the same time to let the critical thoughts just be a part of the spontaneous activity – to continue to repeat the meditation sound without suppressing the metathoughts, and without acting on them. This is not passivity, but activity that yields more leeway for our own spontaneity. This way we are not deceived by unattainable ideals.
This form of practice enhances integration. Emotions, thoughts, and evaluations are allowed, without trying to make radical changes on the level of activity. Active concentration would involve suppression and pushing things away. Meditation is an exercise in standing one’s ground in the culture of comparison and its ideals. What you do is good enough. You continue your practice amid the storm. Thus, the development that is facilitated through meditation is radically different from what the rest of our culture stimulates. Acem Meditation may serve as a correction to the excessive and unhealthy tendency to comparison.
The comparison culture may induce a split between the positive and the negative. Likewise, we may observe a split in people’s experience of their meditations. We wish for silence, bliss, and harmony, and are dissatisfied when the wish is not fulfilled. Sometimes when I read about meditation techniques, I get envious about the results others seemingly obtain. One technique promises to “transcend normal levels of consciousness to go into a different realm and experience blissful Divine energies.” Another technique describes it this way: “Meditation allows you to come in touch with your core being, pure consciousness, which is ever free, luminous, and filled with limitless joy.” It sounds fine. But when I sit in a daily Acem Meditation, I may at times feel that I only get the cucumbers while others get the grapes.
We human beings have a tendency to remember stories rather than facts. To be able to enter “another sphere” and enjoy “bliss” and “pure consciousness” is a story. You are disappointed when meditation doesn’t give you what the story says. If one is stuck with such a story, one has a meditation problem. The spontaneous flow doesn’t follow an established recipe or road ahead.
The point here is not to criticize other meditation organizations, but to highlight one of Acem Meditation’s strengths – its capacity for confrontation. The practice of Acem Meditation is a silent confrontation with life as it actually is. Acem Meditation is usually comfortable, with relaxation, silence and calm. But not always. In order to get the positive effects of meditation over time, one has to accept the good with the bad. This is a common experience among those who have practiced long meditations. They go through different phases. Calm and restlessness alternate. And if one has a comfortable meditation one day, the next day may be somewhat different. Acem Meditation presents us with the whole specter of our selves – not only the ideal.
This silent confrontation is also part of Acem’s Training in Interpersonal Communication. Here you are part of a group with experienced leaders and give each other feedback. The aim is not to just praise or give support to each other through positive comments, but to bring about a more realistic understanding of how you are functioning together with others.
This realism is also part of Acem’s understanding of meditation. Probably, no other school of meditation has so clearly verbalized the phenomenon of resistance in meditation. This down-to-earth attitude was one of the reasons why Acem broke with the TM movement in the early 1970s.
Meditation habits for the young generation
A current discussion in Acem is how best to communicate the importance of regular meditation for young people. We may ask whether it is more difficult for the young generation today to establish daily meditation habits. If this is so, several explanations are possible. We live in a time with many distractions. The comparison culture makes us habitually focus on something outside us, and not inwards. Frequent use of screens may have a negative impact on the brain and its capacity to focus and be attentive. I recently talked with an author who had visited many schools during the last 20 years. His impression was that the attention span of the students had been markedly reduced.
For a generation with an even stronger influence from the comparison culture than earlier, sitting down to meet what actually is there, and trying to work with the challenges the way they are, probably has become more difficult.
Silence amid the noise
When we realize that Acem Meditation isn’t a feel-good technique, it may at first initiate a somewhat unhappy feeling. Meditation doesn’t give comfort or instant reward every time. If we want to make use of the processes Acem Meditation initiates, we have to accept all the different parts of it – both the silence and the restlessness. Acem Meditation is a training in existential confrontation and teaches us not to compare, but to interact with the spontaneous activity. Then we must let go of some of our meditation myths and ideals – for instance, the idea that meditation will empty the mind of thoughts, that everyday thoughts in meditation are valueless or that restlessness is meaningless.
When we meditate, we try not to treasure certain states of mind above others. This is, of course, easier said than done, for several reasons: a hierarchy of values that select parts of the spontaneous activity as more valuable than others may quickly lead us to dismiss the only moment we have – which is here and now. If we say no to certain parts of the spontaneous activity, we also say no to those aspects of ourselves that need to find an expression right now. Then we miss the chance for processing, for reconciliation, depth in our lives, existential training, but also the possibility for silence, calm and insight – in short, many valuable moments. In Acem Meditation, we try not to dismiss the meditative cucumbers. We may say that there are two paths in meditation towards silence: One is to try to keep the noise away. Then we are driven by an ideal, to empty the mind of thoughts, to calm things down. This presupposes using some degree of effort. And if one should succeed, the contentment would be of short duration.
The other path is to develop a free mental attitude towards the noise – to see the noise not as a disturbance. To be present in what emerges in the spontaneous activity is to be present in our meditation, but in a different way than we are often able to see. Silence may presuppose a sensitivity and subtlety that conflicts with pursuing a specific ideal. By pursuing silence and the ideals that the “perfect PR texts” promise, we may miss out on the silence that is actually there, in the way it presents itself in the moment.
Pankaj Mishra: Age of Anger (2017). Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Juggernaut Books. ISBN 978-0-374-27478-8.
Halvor Eifring (ed.): The Power of the Wandering Mind (2019). Dyade Press. ISBN 978-82-91405-55-1.
Social Comparison theory: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/basics/social-comparison-theory
Translated by Anne Grete Hersoug