Morals, moralism and meditation

(pdf version: KLUG-#756714-v1-Morals_moralism_and_meditation2)

Eirik Jensen

Morals, moralism and meditation

Does Acem Meditation weaken  our moral inhibitions? Or is there a morality in Acem Meditation? If so, in what sense, and of what kind?

Acem Meditation is more than relaxation and increased energy. It is an introspective activity that can touch us at deep levels, if we choose to invest sufficient time and effort in practicing the method. In various ways meditation can then lead to a reorientation of our basic attitudes towards existence, including what we consider to be moral and immoral. This article discusses certain points of contact between the moral and the meditative realms. The purpose is to clarify certain ethical implications of the meditative practice. [1]

Church conference on meditation

We shall begin with history. In 1978, some meditating contributors to Acem’s journal of ideas – Dyade – were invited to participate in a church conference on various forms of meditation. The arrangers were sympathetically interested in hearing more about the phenomenon of Acem-meditation.

However, after we had explained how Acem Meditation is practiced, and the principle of the free mental attitude that is essential to the method (that is, that we in Acem Meditation are to allow thoughts, feelings, images etc. come and go in our minds as they will), an objection was raised. One of the participants – a clergyman –  described a problem that he had encountered in his spiritual guidance: A seaman had called upon him and open-heartedly told him of certain terrible things that he had done. The participant did not say what these misdeeds were, but it seemed clear that they had consisted of serious and violent criminal acts. The seaman was now tormented by feelings of guilt – which seemed appropriate in light of the misdeeds he had described. It seemed clear that he had called upon the clergyman in order to get rid of his feelings of guilt, by in this way obtaining the forgiveness of the church.

The clergyman felt that this was problematic. For was not guilt precisely the feeling the seaman ought to have when he thought about what he had done? Would it not on the contrary be quite immoral to contribute to the removal of these feelings of guilt? For is it not the feeling of guilt that distinguishes us from animals and psychopaths and makes us moral beings?

Does meditation remove the feeling of guilt?


And the question the participant further raised was this: What would have happened to the seaman if he had taken part in a course in Acem Meditation? He would probably have encountered his feelings of guilt in his meditation as well. He would then have been taught not to dwell on these clearly appropriate feelings of guilt, but to let them pass by dealing with them with the free mental attitude, as if they were on the same level as ordinary neurotic hang-ups. So that they gradually could disappear. For Acem Meditation does not distinguish between tension which is neurotic, and tension which is an appropriate expression or consequence of blameworthy actions or behaviour. And does this not lead to moral nihilism?

This is an objection against Acem Meditation which may strike many who have learned and practice Acem Meditation as rather artificial – a sign of a lack of understanding of how the method works, and of a certain lack of psychological understanding as well. There is a rather simple answer to the objection: in Acem Meditation you are neither to cling to nor to push away what comes into your mind. The seaman should not meditate in order to get rid of his feelings of guilt. He is not to push them away if they enter into his mind in meditation, no matter how long they may choose to be there. And if they have become a life theme, as they apparently had for the seaman, there are reasons to believe that they would be present in his mind quite often, and quite strongly, in meditation as well. But in meditation he is not to cling to his feelings of guilt either, at the expense of other thoughts that might also be present. Doing so would prevent the seaman from gaining greater self knowledge and insight through meditation into the forces that in the past had led him to perform his terrible misdeeds.

The fear of opening Pandora’s Box

This clarification was also communicated to the clergyman, but it did not appear to comfort him to any great degree. And I think the clergyman’s objection is more interesting, and an expression of conceptions and concerns more universally held, than can be satisfied through the kind of basic information that we gave him at that time. Although experienced meditators will not likely recognise the development of a greater degree of “immorality” in their personalities as being a typical result of Acem Meditation, the objection touches on common conceptions of the danger that is generally perceived to be connected with involving oneself in introspective processes. In Christian circles, it is not as common today to use biblical imagery in the way some did in Norway in the 70s: Creating a free mental attitude and openness in the mind, without immediately filling it with Jesus, is to invite the devil to exercise his influence on the undefended soul. But the conception undoubtedly still exists. And you do not have to make use of biblical imagery to recognise the fear – that this unguided and undirected kind of introspection means letting go of the inhibitions that prevent us from doing what we might have an impulse to do, but which would be immoral: punching our boss in the face, throwing ourselves at the most sexually attractive woman on the bus, robbing the bank and solving our financial problems once and for all.  The idea of introspection may create anxiety – the notion that delving into one’s inner mind with openness is like opening Pandora’s Box: You never know what will then come out, only that it will be impossible to put it back again afterwards.

These notions are not only expressions of misconceptions that can be cleared up through rational argument or empirical investigation. The fact that they have found their expression in mythology (Pandora’s Box is of course from Greek mythology) shows that they are more fundamental than that. It may therefore be worthwhile to examine them more closely. If I am right, they are not only connected to ideas that we may have about introspection and psychological processes, but also to conceptions of what morality is, and how we ought to deal with our inner life and the rest of existence.

But what should I do with my jealousy?


We encounter these conceptions – the psychological as well as the moral – in our meditation. And they are related. An example: A woman – let us call her Jane, comes to us for meditation guidance and explains that she has problems in her meditation. She is in a relationship with a man, let us call him John. In meditation, Jane relives images of episodes that have occurred recently with John, and which make her very jealous. The situations themselves appear to be rather neutral and mundane – John happens to talk to another woman about ordinary matters, or he is reading a book, and would rather continue doing so on that occasion than talk to Jane.

Jane regards her feelings of jealousy as being far too strong and inappropriate in light of what really is taking place in these situations. We may fundamentally agree with her. I shouldn’t have these jealous feelings, Jane thinks. They sour the relationship and make life difficult, even though she tries to hide them and not to act upon them. But in her meditation, the jealousy becomes more intense. It presents itself with a strength that is almost overwhelming. Better if the jealousy had not been there, she thinks. She wants to expel the jealousy, actively rid herself of it. She spontaneously perceives this as being the “morally” right thing to do. For after all, the jealousy not only torments her, but creates difficulties for John as well.

Me or not me


Jane has a need to identify herself actively with the “Jane” – the partial self, as the self-psychologists say, that is in control and understands what is appropriate and reasonable, and to distance herself from, even dissociate herself from (make into not-Jane) the “Jane” who feels the jealousy that she regards as childish and irrational.  Jane wishes in other words to alienate herself from these feelings, and to make the person who feels them someone else than the “proper” Jane. Although she is probably not able to deny completely that she feels jealousy, it would for example relieve some of the pressure if she could say: “I was apparently not quite myself when I felt all of this”.

Jane experiences her undesired traits as invasive and disturbing – as if they came from some other place than the Jane she is identified with. In this sense she is no different from all of us. We are often uncomprehending when faced with these undesirable traits in us – we would prefer them to be “not me” – and that is what we want them to remain. If they despite our wishes have moved so close to the surface of our consciousness that we can not avoid being aware of them, the impulse is nevertheless to get away from them, avoid them, make the feelings again “not us”, as the self psychologists say.

Complying with such messages is something that is spontaneously felt to be morally proper, even if it conflicts with the principles of correct meditation. (There are also other kinds of spontaneous evaluations which may present themselves in meditation, and which may also have other kinds of “moral” overtones).

However, in meditation the active repression of or distancing oneself from feelings that present themselves is a breach of the principles of correct meditation. In her meditation Jane is not to repress, but rather to permit these difficult feelings to express themselves – the principle of the free mental attitude in Acem Meditation. It would then appear rather logical to draw the conclusion that correct meditation is an “immoral act”, that is, the opposite of developing greater moral insight. And although we may explain again and again to Jane that this is not the case, this will not change the spontaneous perception which Jane has of her self, and the spontaneous judgements which she makes of her self. Jane perceives that the principles of Acem Meditation are in conflict with her spontaneous morality.

Usually the thoughts that pass through our mind during meditation are relatively mundane, and not difficult at all to deal with in an accepting manner. However, from time to time the thoughts and feelings that express themselves there may not necessarily be so easy to accept. From time to time we may all of us have experiences in our meditation that resemble those of Jane. It may be that we become aware of impulses or feelings about ourselves that cause us to feel shame or guilt. Or we may have thoughts about who we are, or who we are not, what we have done, or have not done, that can be connected with feelings of regret, or that we have little value.

Acem Meditation provokes the spontaneous morality

We may easily identify these judgements as being “moral” judgements of aspects of our outer or inner life. Becoming aware of them is usually unpleasant. Such judgements are therefore usually connected with an impulse to expel these aspects of our self. The basic instruction in Acem Meditation therefore constitutes a provocation against this spontaneous morality, and the spontaneous judgements of what is valuable, and not valuable, that are integrated parts of us.

Note that the attitudes of Jane, and the Christian clergyman, at first sight appear to be exactly the opposite. For Jane encounters something in her meditation – jealousy – that she spontaneously wants to go away. She experiences the jealousy as an “immoral” feeling. The “morality” inside her tells her that she should rid herself of the jealousy. The clergyman, on the contrary, sees something that expresses itself spontaneously in the seaman – feelings of guilt – and which he wants to remain there. “Morality” tells him that the seaman should hold on to these feelings, and not permit them to go away.

Common to both, however, is that they can not accept that allowing spontaneous processes in the mind to express themselves freely in meditation, unhindered by “moral” judgements such as these, may be morally proper. They both hold the view that one’s inner life is to be governed: The parts that are perceived to be morally acceptable are permissible, and the others are to be expelled. Jane wants to repress the jealousy, for it is morally reprehensible. The clergyman wants the seaman to hold on to his feelings of guilt, as this is morally proper. Although the clergyman does not draw the conclusion explicitly, the implication is clear: He is not to allow himself to experience more closely the thoughts, feelings, associations, sensations, memories and so forth that are not feelings of guilt, and that the clergyman regards the release into awareness of which to be immoral (and that are not therefore necessarily easier to become aware of than the guilt).

The underlying conception


The picture of morality that underlies the conceptions of Jane and the clergyman is, I think, something like this: Morality consists of values and norms that become part of us through socialisation – what we call the process of internalisation. Through this process, morality takes its abode in us, and becomes a faculty of the personality which regulates our internal and external behaviour. From there, it passes judgement on our inner impulses, and represses those that are unacceptable, and encourages those that are valuable. Through internalisation we make the sanctions of our parents and society – their rewards and their criticisms – our own. We become ashamed, or feel guilt, if we do something wrong, and we feel good, or proud, if we do something well or proper.

These feelings are part of a kind of internal reward and punishment system that helps us to control our behaviour. Part of us usually identifies itself with these feelings and judgements. (Whereas another part of us identifies itself with the impulses).

In our inner life, these “moral” feelings meet the more primitive or fundamental drives and impulses, of greed, desire, aggression, lust, envy, and so forth. The “moral” part of us allows these impulses to express themselves to the extent that we perceive them to be in accordance with the dictates of morality, and repress or expel them to the extent morality dictates that this is necessary.

This is the ideal. But the will, or morality, is not always strong enough. The impulses are at times permitted to choose instead, and we succumb to temptation, or lose control, and do things that are wrong: Quarrel with our wife, jump into bed with our secretary at the Christmas party. Or laziness decides over us, so that we choose to watch the football game every Saturday rather than being with our children.

The divided mind


We perceive in this a conception of the human condition. It is a conception of a divided human being. On one side stands morality, which wants go watch over and decide, and on the other side the impulses, which want to express themselves freely. Man is here involved in an internal struggle with himself. Or perhaps we rather perceive a picture of two human beings in one, or two selves in one: a “moral” self, and an impulsive self. At times one is in control, and other times the other, depending on which is the strongest at any given moment. And we identify with the one, and distance ourselves from the other, and at times the opposite: the “goody-goody”, the impulsivity calls the moral part of us, “boy scout”, “goody girl”, “the moralist”, “the pointed finger”. Or, if it is on the defensive: “unforgiving”, “far too strict”, “unfeeling”, “psychopathic”. The impulsivity wishes to tear down, escape, can’t stand all of this constant unsparing, unforgiving, judgemental evaluation. “Sin”, the morality calls the impulsivity, or “egoism”, “greed”, “completely uninhibited”, “unfeeling”, “psychopathic”. The impulsivity makes the morality indignant, or apprehensive, or afraid, or aggressive. And this reaction can be just as driven, just as spontaneously uninhibited, as the impulsivity that it denigrates.

The symbiosis of the moral and the immoral


These poles in the person can at times live in a kind of symbiosis, where the morality gains renewed energy the more it can catch a glimpse of an impulsivity that can only be controlled and dealt with through the utmost vigilance. And where the more the impulsivity is watched over, the stricter it is dealt with, the more imperative it becomes for it to go underground, where it can live its exuberant, voluptuous, greedy, insatiable, evil, delicious and sinful life completely undisturbed – in the fantasies of the unconscious, or in more indirect and concealed modes of expression. Or where it feels so repressed that it must rebel, and completely dethrone morality, refuse to listen to it, reject it completely. In this way both sides can gain validity in their very reaction against the perceived implacability of the other.

The mind becomes like a village in the south-western part of Norway, known for its prevalence of fundamentalist Christians, or the American bible-belt, in which the inhabitants divide themselves into the moral and the depraved. And where it has almost become a cliché to point out that the ones who appear to abide most by the moral law, also live secret and often sinful lives. Such as the preacher, who stands out before his congregation as a paragon of virtue and the guardian of morality, but who whores on the side. And the most successful manoeuvre the impulsivity can make, is when it can disguise itself – exactly – as morality. Which not only expresses its drives in secret sex life (in thought, word or deed, it is apparently equally sinful), but if full openness, as when he in righteous rapture describes the hellish torture that awaits the sinful. For sexuality can take other forms. The seduction of his congregation that the preacher performs can be just as sexually satisfying, just as driven by impulse, as the more naked form of rape.

But most of us no longer live in a south western village in Norway, or in the bible belt of America. We do not recognise this picture as applying to us. We do not recognise this self recrimination. Not in this way.

Has morality disappeared?


No, perhaps not. Rather more characteristic of our time is the absence of the picture of the morally virtuous and the depraved. We can no longer stand this morality, all of this moralising, all this moral splendour. We find satisfaction in pointing out the hypocrisy in all of this. But this morality is still present in anti-morality, not directly, but indirectly, as the perceived motive for the move away from explicit morality. The moral language is still that of the fundamentalist; it is precisely for this reason that we say we can no longer stand using it. Instead we shove it aside, and allow the morality of the impulses to take over: The need to satisfy one’s wants trumps other considerations.

This does not mean that we no longer denigrate ourselves. Our self-condemnations are perhaps more indirect then in the old days. But they nevertheless have their own peculiar “moral” overtones. And perhaps because of the very fact that they lack the clear language that earlier times supplied us with: “sin”, “depravation”, and so forth, their modes of operation become even more difficult to discern.

Although not necessarily always, or even to the same degree, most of us will at times experience that these poles – rule and impulse, morality and inclination – stand in a state of tension in relation to one another. And if not always, then nevertheless rather often, morality will consist of steadfastness in the face of fancy, temptation or just regular laziness. We will be able to recognise this inner conflict in many connections, including meditation.

It is therefore not a human being completely without conflict that I wish to develop as an alternative for Jane and the clergyman. The meditative and moral misconception of Jane and the clergyman does not consist in acting on the basis of a conception of the human condition in which morality and impulse stand in opposition to each other (although it may be connected with a tendency to believe that in saying this, one has said what is essential about morality and impulse). It is rather the psychological and moral consequences that they draw from this contradictory relationship that are worth examining more closely.



Send the immorality to Siberia!


The consequence that is drawn is briefly this: there is a “moral” – a valuable – part of me, and an “immoral” part of me – a part that is without value, or that even has negative value. What I ought to do, is to become as far as possible at one with, position myself on the inside of, the “moral”, the valuable, part of me. I should in relation to my “immorality” do the opposite, that is, make the “immorality” into something other than me, position myself on the outside of the “immoral” part of me. What I should do is send my immorality into exile, to an inner Siberia, so that it no longer bothers me, yes, is not longer even experienced as being me.

This characteristic movement that the mind makes, in extension of such a way of thinking, can occur from both poles, each with its own peculiar form of “moral” justification. The “super-ego”, to use the psychoanalytic term, will spontaneously try to expel the impulses that it judges to be unworthy, inappropriate, stupid, dangerous, disgusting, or whatever – and with a kind of implicit moral justification: Who do you want to be – someone who contains this? But the impulses have just as much their own form of morality, which also wishes to expel the bad conscience, or the second thoughts, or doubt: Why is it always me who should take into consideration the needs and feelings of others? Why can’t I too be allowed to satisfy my needs? (This kind of morality is often called narcissistic. For more on narcissism, see Dyade nr 3, 1990 – Our secret greatness.)

Either – or

My point does not depend, in other words, on the specific content the morality, or moralities, are filled with that are present in the picture. It is rather the conception of these two poles of the self – on the one hand the moral, or what identifies itself with the moral and expresses the moral and the valuable, and on the other hand the amoral or immoral or non-valuable, which is characteristic. And where the demand is for the self to take sides and position itself on the outside of this other part of the self as if that self were a different self, that expresses an ethics and a psychology that is worth examining critically.

A moral attitude consists, according to this view, in perceiving the world in a specific way, in a characteristic perspective. What is characteristic of this perspective is the alienated attitude that is assumed in regard to important parts of human life – to our subjective longings, drives, needs, worries and anxieties, doubts, second thoughts, sensitivity to others – from what the other perspective regards as inappropriate, disturbing or irrelevant when we are to perceive the world “morally”.

An example: Paul is a truly believing social democrat. He is a member of Parliament, represents the Labour Party, and has been taught to respect and identify with social democratic values: equality, solidarity, collective justice – the social values.

His mother, who is now 75, has toiled through a long and hard life. The toil has made its mark on her not only psychologically, but physically as well. She has a bad hip. And if she is not operated on quickly, and is given an artificial hip joint, she will for all practical purposes become an invalid. But she is at the very back of the queue for such operations.




Jump the queue?

Paul is confronted with a dilemma. As a member of Parliament and of the Health Committee, he has good contacts in medical and hospital circles. He knows that it would be a relatively easy task for him to help his mother jump the queue. No one needs to know.

Paul also has another alternative. He earns enough as a member of Parliament to be able to afford sending his mother to a private hip clinic in England.

None of the alternatives are social democratic. But Paul is concerned about what is right, what is moral. He reasons as follows: I have my mother. I love her, I love her very much. She deserves a better fate that to become bedridden. And it is a sorry state that society can not afford to offer her anything better.

These are my personal feelings. They are strong and authentic enough. But there are many thousands of sons who have mothers in long hospital queues. And the queue is arranged in the only just way – those who have the same needs are treated based on their seniority in the queue. This principle of justice must override my personal feelings. I must feel solidarity not only with my own mother, but with all mothers in hospital queues. Do they not have a claim to the same respect and empathy and care as my mother? My feelings for my mother are in this context a poor guide, a manifestation of my imperfection as a social democrat. For I feel the qualms of conscience.

My bad conscience is not good. It is something subjective that disturbs me – makes it more difficult to think from a detached position – justly, clearly and based on principle. If I am to adopt a moral position in this choice, I should detach myself as much as possible from these feelings. They are inappropriate when I am trying to see the problem from a moral perspective.

If he allows his mind to express itself spontaneously in meditation or in any other way, Paul again encounters these qualms, these remainders or reminders of old bourgeois morality. Immorality, he thinks – get rid of it. It is only in the way. This is a part of me that is immature, that I should distance myself from, make into not-me.

I would claim that Paul’s reasoning constitutes a transgression in the name of morality. He is inflicting moral harm on himself, his feelings for his mother, and on a feeling that seen in a different perspective, can equally claim to be a source of moral sensitivity. Paul’s attempt to make himself insensitive to the moral qualms that “morality” subjects him to, can just as well be described as a blindness to a cost of this morality that he is unable or unwilling to recognise. (And it should be possible to believe this without necessarily implying that Paul therefore has no choice but to help his mother jump the queue or send her to England.)

It is not difficult to understand the driving forces that bring such a psychological manoeuvre into play. Conflicts such as those Paul experiences, where one has to choose between values or principles that appear to be almost inviolate, and consideration for one’s nearest family or friends, or quite essential personal interests, are extremely difficult to endure. (Among the most terrible misdeeds the Nazis performed during the war, was forcing people to make such choices as a cynical kind of entertainment, in order to see what they would do, for example giving a father the choice between torturing his own daughter, or, if he refused, becoming responsible for the shooting of 100 innocent people). We can understand that for the most of us, it is in certain extreme situations such as this scarcely possible to do anything but alienate oneself from part of oneself in order at all to survive. But it is something else to prescribe taking this step generally in the name of morality.


The alienated morality


The characteristic alienation that is inherent in this “moral” perspective that we adopt in regard to ourself or others, is easiest to understand when we are confronted with aspects of ourself or others that are difficult to accept. It is more surprising that this alienation also can characterise positive relationships between human beings. In an important and interesting article (“Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality”, in Philosophy and Public Affairs), the American philosopher Peter Railton discusses issues that are tangential to the questions we are discussing here.

“To many, John has always seemed a model husband. He almost invariably shows great sensitivity to his wife’s needs, and he willingly goes out of his way to meet them. When a friend remarks upon the extraordinary quality of John’s concern for his wife, John responds without any self-indulgence or self-congratulation. ‘I’ve always thought that people should help each other when they’re in a specially good position to do so. I know Anne better than anyone else does, so I know better what she wants and needs. Besides, I have such affection for her that it’s no great burden – instead, I get a lot of satisfaction out of it. Just think how awful marriage would be, or life itself, if people didn’t take special care of the ones they love.’ His friend accuses John of being unduly modest, but John’s manner convinces him that he is telling the truth this is really how he feels.”

Railton says that what is troubling to us here is not so much what John says, but rather what he does not say:

“Anne might have hoped that it was, in some ultimate sense, in part for her sake and the sake of their love as such that John pays such special attention to her. That he devotes himself to her because of the characteristically good consequences of doing so seems to leave her, and their relationship as such, too far out of the picture – this despite the fact that these characteristically good consequences depend in important ways on his special relation to her.  She is being taken into account by John, but it might seem she is justified in being hurt by the way she is being taken into account. It is as if John viewed her, their relationship, and even his own affection for her from a distant, objective point of view – a moral point of view where reasons must be reasons for any rational agent and so must have an impersonal character even when they deal with personal matters. His wife might think a more personal point of view would also be more appropriate, a point of view from which ‘It’s my wife’ or ‘It’s Anne’ would have direct and special relevance, and play an unmediated role in his answer to the question ‘Why do you attend to her so?’”

Must morality be distanced?

The “moral” perspective that John takes, perceives the situation from the outside, objectively, rationally and impartially. It is interesting to note that almost all moral philosophers have held this to be one of the most essential characteristics of the moral perspective. There is nothing in what John says that is unreasonable. There are no norms or values that he advocates that we immediately want to disagree with. Nonetheless John’s attitude towards his wife appears to us so alienated, so impersonal, that we feel a need to say that John lacks something. And what he lacks has important moral qualities. Qualities that disappear when a “moral” attitude such as John’s is adopted.

The moralistic attitude


There are important differences between Jane, the clergyman, Paul and John. But there is also something they deeply have in common. What is common to them all, is that they in the name of “morality” choose to position themselves on the inside of the “good” part of themselves and on the outside of the other. In this way they wish to become better, more virtuous, more valuable. But it is not difficult to sense that the result is the opposite – they become more alienated, more split off, more impersonal in relation to what is a deep part of their own person. The attitude that they advocate, perceives itself as moral. It is more accurate to describe it as moralistic.

The moralistic attitude is more concerned to dissociate itself from, than to improve, more concerned to express the moral judgement, that to change.  Its concern is primarily to express the evaluator’s deep difference from what she condemns. (This is clearly an inadequate analysis of moralism. Am I a moralist if I condemn Hitler’s crimes, if I am not at the same time concerned with changing Hitler? It is nevertheless characteristic that the moralist is generally implicitly concerned with placing herself in an advantageous position compared to what she is condemning. If I condemn Hitler primarily in order to convey that I am not like him, I am a moralist.)

Meditation integrates


The meditative attitude is different from the moralistic attitude. It listens, accepts, perhaps even more – it integrates. It receives – that which is difficult and provocative as well. In this lies not only its liberating potential. There lies in this a different attitude to what is genuinely human.

In investigating through meditation our tendency to dissociate ourselves from what is in us, there lies a possibility gradually to alleviate our own alienation, thus becoming more whole as human beings. If Jane is to make any progress in her struggle with her jealousy, she must in a deeper sense be able to recognise the jealousy as being her own. If the seaman is ever to attain greater insight into what drove him to commit his misdeeds, and who he was when he committed them, he can not only remain in his own self condemnation, where he condemns himself away from attaining deeper knowledge of the connection between the misdeeds and who he is. If Paul is to become a more whole and integrated human being, in a moral sense as well, he must be able to take in and become aware of the dark side of the values he identifies with. And if John is ever to attain insight into who his wife really is for him, he must be willing to delve into his own murky subjectivity.

The ethical resonance


In this lies part of the insight into morality that Acem Meditation can help us to attain. It is a form of insight that does not necessarily provide us with clearer or more concise answers to which norms should be applied in exactly which situations, or the exact position of various values in the value hierarchy. It is a form of ethical knowledge that is not to any great degree based on guidance from the regular ethical formulae such as: Love thy neighbour as thyself, or the greatest happiness for the greatest number, or human life is the highest value. The ethical insight that meditation cultivates, is by nature more personal, more personally experienced and lived through, and is more directed towards the development of one’s own integrity and ability to discern on the basis of oneself the difference between right and wrong.  In practicing to accept earlier dissociated parts of oneself, one gradually develops a more complete self, and thereby also a person with greater resonance, in an ethical sense as well.

It is difficult to have rock hard opinions as to whether quite specific moral values are developed in such an open, non-directed process. Experience nevertheless tells us that typically, an increased ability to empathise with others develops. Seen in a self-psychological perspective, this appears natural – the integration through meditation of fragmented partial selves can be understood as exercises for a partial self in taking in, tolerating and being able to listen to the perspective of a different partial self. The distance from increased empathy with a previously dissociated part of myself to increased empathy with another person is not so very great.

Distance or the free attitude?

Nevertheless: Doesn’t the moralist still have a point? Granted that the moralistic attitude is an expression of alienation, an expression of an insincere, inauthentic, unintegrated form of morality, or rather, of a morality in form rather than content. But what does the meditative alternative consist in? Only in letting go, it appears. But if you let go all of these impulses, and let them take control, don’t you then become a victim of your own spontaneity? What is Jane to do, according to the meditative morality, when she feels her jealousy (which you admit is exaggerated)? Is she merely to let it go and scream and shout at John, slam the doors, weep and cry and make scenes and a circus every time he speaks to a member of the opposite sex? Is that any more moral? Shouldn’t Jane distance herself from this jealousy, shouldn’t she come to her senses?

Implicit in the practice of meditation lies an important distinction. In Acem Meditation you are not only to let go and meet what expresses itself with a free open attitude. You are also to repeat the meditation sound with a free open attitude. You are in other words to act. And in this act, the attempts of the spontaneous part of the mind to take control over your actions, to capture it and close it off, are to be met, not with struggle and combativeness, nor with surrender, but by listening. This constitutes training in listening to, feeling, becoming aware of, without becoming controlled or overwhelmed by what you are listening to. It is to learn through experience that there is a difference between becoming aware of an impulse and being controlled by it – a difference between having a fantasy or thought and expressing it in action. For Jane: A difference between feeling jealous and acting it out. And this is also an important moral distinction. It is this difference that is the principle of the free open attitude in Acem Meditation.

The training takes place in your own meditation. Constantly you experience that you become caught up in your own spontaneity, both the parts of it that enrich, and the parts that muddle and distort. And this spontaneity is of course the same that controls you, whether you want it to or not, in the rest of your life as well. For the jealousy that Jane feels does not disappear, of course, if she positions herself on the outside of it. On the contrary, it is then given a greater opportunity to influence her life through the unconscious – unseen, making its imprint on her life, stealing happiness from her as well as the ability to enjoy a trusting and giving closeness to another. The “immorality” in us does not disappear, in other words, merely because we distance ourselves from it, just as our sense of morality does not immediately automatically disappear if we choose to indulge in our impulses.


Inner democracy

Meditation is in other words to bring together forces and voices within us which in their spontaneity drive us in opposite directions: That wish to possess exclusively and force all else away. Meditation is in other words an attempt to create a form of inner democracy where dictatorship or imperialism or totalitarianism previously has reigned. There is in this sense a substantial kinship between the meditative project and what some recent philosophers – notably the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas – have regarded as the paradigm of ethical community between human beings: Communication without coercion. And seen in the self-psychological perspective, the analogy is even more close: The task in meditation is to bring together various partial selves, enable these to come into dialogue, where they have previously been split off and have had to occupy the field alone.

In meditation the moralistic impulse is therefore not allowed to reflexively condemn away what it can not accept. Its voice is heard, but not necessarily obeyed. The same applies to the imperative impulsivity. It too is heard, is allowed to express itself. But it is not permitted to completely occupy the field alone either – to expel the second thoughts, one’s conscience, the empathy with others, the other voices that can also be present in the mind. What precipitates as a result of such a process can not be predicted with any great degree of certainty. It is not the development of categorical imperatives that is the purpose of the meditative project. More important than the result is that the attitude that precipitates is something that the practitioner can vouch for with more than only parts of herself. It is not the fragmented, idealised morality that meditation cultivates, but that which is a personal concern, and as such moreover a concern of the whole person.

We need moralism too

We are of course far from completely integrated, perfectly enlightened human beings any of us, neither those of us who meditate. There will therefore always be a need for the form of morality that is not only based on the completely reflective and enlightened knowledge, but which is instead based more on minimum requirements for social intercourse, sanctioned by punishment, or moralising. And moralising will always serve a necessary purpose as a ritual demonstration and affirmation that the moral law still validly applies. Nevertheless, moralism is still a defective form of morality, and a form which because of its very reliance on  the distanced stance, can serve to consolidate its anti-moral counterforce. The moral reflection that Acem Meditation invites us to take part in, is in principle different. Its challenge is primarily to examine one’s own life, one’s own life style, behaviour and actions, and listen – attentively, sensitively, respectfully, openly, but also with a certain independence and analytical distance –  to the voices from within that have something to say about this.



[1] Meditation and ethics are also discussed by Anders Lindseth in Dyade nr 2 1991, The ethics of meditation, and by Halvor Eifring in Dyade nr 2, 1980, The container of the self. The perspectives  in these articles are different from those of the present article.


  1. kaifm

    Interesting article, Eirik!

    “For the jealousy that Jane feels does not disappear, of course, if she positions herself on the outside of it. On the contrary, it is then given a greater opportunity to influence her life through the unconscious…”

    This reminds me of discussions we often have in groups in India when people talk about feeling restless in their meditation. Usually, people do see that the restlessness is present not just in the meditation, but in life too, even if it is not in exactly in the form of restlessness.

    The example of the clergyman is though-provoking. My understanding of the Christian confession is that it helps one talk about the darker side of the psyche, give it a label (sin or evil) and in a way recognise it as an active force within oneself – all of which is cathartic and conductive to self-knowledge.

    Finally, I ask myself whether I have become more moral since I started meditating some years ago. I think I have a greater sense of what I consider moral while I was comparatively indifferent to reflecting on these things earlier. However, at times what I consider moral would not be considered so by many others.

    For instance, when it comes to how close young couples should be before they marry, my feelings on the matter are different from those of my Muslim friends. But I also think that their feelings emerge from a vision of the human condition that is as profound as the meditative one. It does seem that two totally valid systems of morality can exist which are contradictory to each other. That is perhaps one of the biggest problems of an increasingly pluralistic world, where there is no “one” truth.

  2. Eirik

    Thanks for your interesting thoughts, Kaif. I think your observations regarding contradictory moral systems support the attitude that I think meditation facilitates – that is, that the systems must then have an on going conversation with each other, much as the various “voices” that express themselves in our meditations must be allowed to speak, and to be listened to, with respect and acceptance, without any of them being permitted to take over the entire field. Difficult, yes, but the alternatives are surely worse!

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