Focused or Nondirective Attention

By Øyvind Ellingsen

Lars closed eyes

Shifting the mode of the mind is a common feature of various types of meditation used for stress management and personality development. In this article, Øyvind Ellingsen discusses similarities and differences in the ways mindfulness and Acem Meditation achieve such a shift.

In mindfulness, focused attention directed toward the breath and other body sensations is the basic training for reducing stress, mind wandering and negative thoughts. Acem Meditation is practiced with a nondirective mode of attention that allows spontaneously occurring thoughts, images, and sensations to emerge and pass freely. Using a meditation sound induces a marked relaxation response and facilitates emotional processing.

Awareness, Breath and Body
Mindfulness is not a single technique, but a family of practices with the common purpose of directing the attention away from mind wandering. Its purpose is to reduce rumination over events in the past, worries about the future, and negative judgments of who one is at the moment. The aim of the basic exercises is to train the mind to focus the attention on breath and other body sensations or sensory experiences.

The main mindfulness method is breathing meditation (see details below). Daily practice is recommended, partly as a 45-minute seated meditation, and partly as a 3-minute breathing space whenever one encounters stress, anxiety, or negative thoughts.

Other important methods include body scanning and yoga-inspired stretch and movement. Moreover, a variety of exercises are used in everyday life to become aware of, and change, habitual patterns of thought and behavior.

Common to these methods is the attempt to become aware of the “here-and-now” experience. What are you experiencing? What are your thoughts and emotions? What are the underlying reflections, self-assessments and impulses to react? And importantly, how does it feel in your body?

Sound and Free Mental Attitude
Acem Meditation belongs to a family of practices that uses a meditation sound to facilitate relaxation and an open, accepting attitude towards thoughts, feelings, and other experiences (see details below). Similar methods include The Relaxation Response, TM, and Lars open eyesClinically Standardized Meditation.

Acem Meditation is preferably practiced daily, either as two 20-30 minute sessions, or as one continuous 45-minute meditation. The technique is simple. It requires no practice outside the meditation sessions, and can be combined with meditative yoga and breathing exercises, and with most mindfulness practices.

The basic principles of Acem Meditation are easily learned through a few hours of instruction. Instruction and guidance emphasize how to adjust the practice when challenged by stress, drowsiness, negative thoughts, and other distractions – using a relaxed and nondirective mode of attention (see below).

Follow-up courses and retreats provide a social setting with opportunities for exchanging experiences and reflection on meditation-related issues.

Focused Attention
An important goal of mindfulness practices is to reduce the mind’s tendency to wander away from the present moment where we can make a difference, and into memories of or fantasies about past and future events that we cannot influence.

This is often achieved by directing the attention on how it feels in the body and what we experience via our senses in the here-and-now. Gathering awareness in this way is often referred to as focused attention in mindfulness practices. Over time it may help us realize that thoughts, fantasies, and judgments are ideas produced by the brain on the basis of past experiences, and do not necessarily match the reality of here-and-now.

Each time we rediscover this, an important change takes place in the way we understand our experiences and thoughts. We see ourselves from a different perspective, and make a so-called metacognitive shift.

We may for example realize that some of our worries and negative self-assessments are greatly exaggerated. This helps us become less caught up in stress symptoms, chronic pain, and depressive moods.

meditating womanNondirective Attention
The basic principle of Acem Meditation is a free mental attitude that reduces the mind’s tendency to become mired in stressful and negative experiences.

This is done by resting the attention on a neutral meditation sound. The mind can take a break from its usual way of functioning in everyday life. It shifts to a relaxed mode of attention that allows episodes, everyday images and reflections, sensations, and emotions smiling womanpass freely in its periphery. Opening the awareness to the spontaneous stream of experiences is called a free mental attitude or nondirective attention in Acem Meditation.

The combination of relaxation and openness to all experiences of the present moment is important. It helps us realize that it is possible to cope with stressful and challenging situations without being overwhelmed. Stress tolerance increases; one becomes more robust and energetic.

Breathing Meditation
In mindfulness practices, awareness of the breath is the basic vehicle by which to focus attention. It starts by paying detailed attention to how inhalation and exhalation are experienced within a specific area of the body, usually in the abdomen. Gradually the focus may expand, including all elements of breathing. The attention may also encompass other body sensations, sounds, and eventually the whole field of experience.

Whenever distracted by thoughts, memories, or judgments, one simply notices how the focus has shifted, and returns gently back to the breath. The main objective is to increase the awareness of the present moment.

Sound Meditation
Acem Meditation and similar techniques use a meditation sound to induce relaxation and facilitate a free mental attitude. The meditation sound consists of a few syllables without linguistic or symbolic meaning. It is repeated mentally, with minimal effort and intensity, without vocalizing, and acts as a neutral and relaxing focus of attention.

This triggers a characteristic relaxation response, both physically and mentally. Muscles relax, breathing and heartbeat slow down, and the brain enters a resting mode. The focus of attention becomes more relaxed and opens up towards experiences that are often unnoticed or beyond our awareness.

A spontaneous stream of thoughts, impressions, and body sensations are allowed to emerge and pass in the periphery of the mind. Episodes, images, and snippets of thoughts may capture the attention temporarily. When recognizing that awareness has drifted away from the meditation sound, one redirects the attention to it – quietly, without effort.

Allowing the mind to spontaneously shift, from the meditation sound to the stream of thoughts and other experiences, is an essential part of nondirective meditation. The main purpose is to increase the free mental attitude.

Dag yoga laughMind Wandering as a Challenge
Even though mind wandering is a normal activity – something brains do – it is perceived as a challenge in most meditation practices. Irrespective of method, the focus of attention inevitably drifts away from time to time. Whether we concentrate or relax, the awareness will eventually shift from the meditation object and into associations, reflections, images, sensations, and sometimes drowsiness.

In mindfulness meditation it is sometimes Spanish laughdifficult to meet the spontaneous mental activities with kindness and curiosity, as prescribed by the basic instructions. Instead, we often find ourselves striving to avoid drifting away. Why? Several factors seem to be in play.

Most obviously, the discomfort of apparently irrelevant, irrational, superficial, and stressful experiences is something we want to escape. But even neutral, relaxing, and pleasant content of mind wandering may be experienced as a challenge – perhaps because it is perceived as a deviation from the goal of the practice.

In mindfulness, there is a strong expectation that mind wandering will taper off when met with the right meditative attitude. When the mind wanders a lot, it is easy to become restless and impatient, blaming oneself for not being sufficiently aware of the present moment.

Drowsiness is a related challenge. Even though it is a natural consequence of relaxation, it is often felt as an obstacle to correct practice. Because it contrasts the intention of being fully alert in every moment, drowsiness is perceived as a deviation from the goal of mindfulness.

Some mindfulness practices advise preventing tiredness and staying focused by adopting a posture that supports alertness, such as sitting without back support during breathing meditation.

Spontaneous Activity as Mental Processing
If mind wandering is a normal activity of the brain and an inevitable part of meditation, why not accept it and explore it as part of the practice?

Recent research suggests that the brain’s natural resting state is not an absence of activity, but rather a spontaneous mental process that utilizes available capacity to recycle past impressions – partly to understand past events, and partly to simulate social scenarios and possible chains of events, as a preparation for the future. This is probably an adaptive response that underpins the processing of emotional experiences and reduces stress.

Allowing the mind’s spontaneous activity to emerge and pass freely is an important part of Acem Meditation and similar techniques. This is facilitated by the nondirective mode of attention, where the awareness rests with gentle repetition of the meditation sound.

Accepting mind wandering, drowsiness, body sensations, restlessness, and other emotions as part of the practice, relieves the tendency to strive and struggle during meditation.

Roy meditating plus taxiNegative Thoughts and Cognitive Therapy
The aim of mindfulness practices is to become aware of automatic patterns of thought and behavior – and let go of them, so that they no longer contribute to unnecessary stress and suffering. This approach has much in common with cognitive behavioral therapy, and has been proven effective in standardized training programs for specific patient groups.

Eight weeks of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy after depression reduces recurrence, presumably because attention training helps to break a vicious cycle of rumination and self-blame that predisposes to relapse. Similar programs for Roy meditating plus busmindfulness-based stress reduction reduce pain and the use of medication in patients with chronic muscle pain and other stress symptoms.

In mindfulness, the stream of thoughts and other spontaneous activities of the brain are often marked by warning signs. Even though mind wandering is a ubiquitous and normal phenomenon with many aspects, it is somewhat indiscriminately portrayed as a gateway to rumination and depressive thoughts. This might be justified in the context of depression and chronic pain, but probably not in normal psychology.

Stress Management and Creativity
Acem Meditation is based on the notion that the mind’s spontaneous stream of experiences not only contains negative judgments that distract and limit us; it is also an important source of impulses and creative resources that motivate and enrich.

The paradox is that the challenges of mind wandering often obscure its positive effects. By opening our field of awareness, we let stressful and unresolved issues emerge and pass in a relaxed and accepting atmosphere. This releases emotional pressure and contributes to an important change of perspective. Stressful experiences and negative habits of the mind will not completely disappear, but they will lose much of their power and become less limiting.

Acem Meditation uses a single basic technique that induces physical and mental relaxation during practice. This improves the quality of sleep and reduces muscular tension, anxiety, rumination, and other stress symptoms in everyday life.

Similarities and Differences
Mindfulness and Acem Meditation provide effective stress release and offer an opportunity to change perspective, if practiced regularly several days per week. Both methods shift the mode of the mind, from goal-oriented activities towards a more direct perception of here-and-now. Basic mindfulness instructions use focused attention on the breath to enhance the awareness of experiences of the present moment. Acem Meditation is based on a nondirective mode of attention that allows the spontaneous stream of experiences to emerge and pass freely, while resting on a neutral meditation sound. Practicing these methods in parallel requires extensive experience and expert guidance, otherwise both processes may slow down. Body scan, stretch, movement, and other mindfulness exercises are compatible with Acem Meditation.

mindfulness table

Copy editor: Ann Kunish
Photos: Torbjørn Hobbel, Ole Gjems-Onstad, Halvor Eifring


Øyvind Ellingsen, MD PhD, is Professor of Cellular Cardiology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), a Consultant Physician at the Department of Cardiology, St. Olavs Hospital, Trondheim, Norway, and is currently Head of the Department of Circulation and Medical Imaging. He is an initiator in Acem School of Meditation and is also familiar with mindfulness practices.