When past, future, and fantasy are parts of the present moment
By Maria Gjems-Onstad
Have I remembered to buy oat flakes for breakfast?
The meditation sound is present, but with only a little bit of free mental attitude.
There was a strange girl outside my door at work. She reminded me of a friend from primary school.
I feel tense in my shoulders. It’s as if the meditation sound is inside these tensions, and I am relieved when I can let go of some of the tenseness.
I remember when we were stealing apples in the neighbor’s orchard with the boys in the road where my friend lived. Those boys were daredevils. One of them is now a dermatologist. My friend was also a daredevil – and she was more outspoken than I.
I am trying to repeat the meditation sound more gently – isn’t it still more tense than it should be?
I am thinking about the warm-up party in my apartment next Saturday. I love those events.
This stream of thoughts may look disorderly, like a random mix without meaning. In daily life, we don’t attach much value to such “confused” thinking. What about meditation? Research on nondirective meditation indicates that meditation techniques that allow thoughts to come and go freely have more profound effects for relaxation and stress relief than do directive techniques – i.e. concentration techniques. Let’s take a look at the inner experience and the psychological implications of these findings.
Discontinuous thinking in psychoanalysis
Logically, there is no obvious connection between oat flakes and my childhood playmate. Is this the way our brains function? Giving room to spontaneous and fragmentary impressions has been seen as beneficial by professionals in several areas. The psychoanalyst Ernst Kris coined the phrase “regression in the service of the ego”, which is simply to include whatever comes spontaneously to our awareness, no matter what; take it as it comes, discontinuously, in a non-chronological order, as a fragmentary stream of impressions and thoughts. He emphasizes that, beyond relaxation in the moment, this also gives the acting, executive part of our personalities a beneficial rest. It may increase our access to creativity – which may occur unexpectedly and be experienced as stimulating. In other words, when we welcome our more childlike sides, this may vitalize the adult, executive parts of our personalities. Kris maintained that this plays an important role in creative processes.
Discontinuous thinking in everyday life
Kris’ perspective is not unique. The Swedish priest and author Thomas Schödin describes a situation that is well known to most of us. You are going to tell a friend something about a person, and suddenly you’ve forgotten the person’s name. “You know, the one….who is the mother of ….who lives across from… ”. You try hard to concentrate in order to remember the forgotten name, but your mind is totally blank until your friend says, “Just forget it, it isn’t that important.” Relieved, you tell the story, and let go of the concentration, and find that the name may suddenly come back to you. It’s as if the effort and concentration block the memory; it’s only when we let go of it that there is a sense of release. In the same way, after a good night’s sleep, we may find a solution to a problem that appeared unsolvable. After some hours of dreaming in the fragmentary world of sleep, new solutions become available.
Searching for the here and now
In our times, many people wish they could be more present in the moment and slow down the pace of their lives rather than always hurry ahead, constantly ready to check the latest text message. Living in the here and now has almost become fashionable.
But what does it mean to be present here and now? It is often associated with sensations – what we see and hear and feel in the moment. Being present in our sensations helps us to relax. It also helps us to focus more adequately on the external world. However, does the here and now include our inner landscapes, all the things that emerge in the vicissitudes of our streams of consciousness? What is most valuable in meditation: when I notice the stiffness of my neck, when I try to repeat the meditation sound more gently, or when I think of my childhood friend or the Saturday night party?
Let’s look again at Sjödin. His favorite place is on his couch. He claims, “When I lie on the couch, it is as if past and present are intertwined, with memories and dreams mixed together. A person at rest is more open to memories. When resting, he stretches towards the future, only to discover that the future comes to him, like time always does.” The moment is something beyond here and now, he concludes. This resembles the experience with Acem Meditation.
What is the here and now?
The present moment is not only linked to what we perceive from external reality, but also to the person who has the experience. The following situation is a good illustration: two people have been together on the same trip, or to the same cinema or party, but give different reports of their shared experience. Why? The experience and the memory of it depend on personal history – both the past and the present. Your knowledge, former experience, vulnerability, and degree of openness contribute to the quality of the present experience.
If the instruction for meditation was to focus on your sensations in the here and now – how you sit, how you repeat the meditation sound, what you notice in your body – then the span of awareness in your meditation would become restricted. The opposite would be to open up the awareness to the variety of impressions and impulses. Fragments that come may appear to be without any connection to each other, but they are not without importance. The image of the friend from the past may represent something of current actuality. In order to benefit from meditation, however, one need not grasp the connections. The mechanisms that provide the effects are not based on intellectual understanding. What is important is to accept the spontaneous stream of thought – what we might call the expanded here and now.
Let the unconscious surface
This approach to the spontaneous stream of thoughts may resemble dreaming. At times the random thoughts are so disconnected and improbable that we may think we must be dreaming. This can illustrate the interplay between conscious and unconscious impulses that seem to be intertwined and emerge together.
This is a nonverbal process in which words are not important. The mind is filled with images. We do not necessarily think about the friend from the past, but may see her, like an image. And we do not necessarily perceive the whole person, but perhaps just catch a glimpse of her facial expression, the way she walks, or looks at me, exploring, inviting.
Freud used the term primary processes for thought processes that resemble the way we used to think as children, before we developed nuanced language skills. This kind of thinking is fragmentary and filled with images, more like an impressionist or modernist painting than a naturalistic one. The stream of thoughts and the images in meditation have a lot in common with dream and fantasy. One purpose of the expanded here and now is to bring the unconscious to the surface and get some release from the underlying tensions.
Open, free awareness facilitates the process
To let these fragments come, we must use our attention in an open way. From daily life, we know that our attention may function in different ways. In a relaxed moment, while we are walking, doing routine activities, or enjoying social contact with others, our attention is open, and impressions come freely. When we are presented with difficult tasks or are in a situation we perceive as threatening, we restrict our attention and its focus becomes more narrow. This happens spontaneously.
In Acem Meditation we aim at an open attitude, in a setting that facilitates the kind of thinking that drifts back and forth between seemingly unrelated issues. We repeat the meditation sound with a free mental attitude, and just let other things be the way they are. We perform an activity with the aim of letting the spontaneous, fragmentary and even subconscious impulses emerge. The repetition of the meditation sound helps us enter an inner space where the conscious and the unconscious are intertwined and flow together. We are closer to our resources, our inner contradictions, and our limitations. In Sjödin’s terms, we let go of our struggle and strenuous activity and switch to a mode of being that is not goal-directed.
Skeletons rattling in the closet
However, the unconscious is no innocent thing. If we let it in, it can enter forcefully. At times, it will dominate our conscious awareness. Suddenly we may feel trapped – only thoughts and chaos, no meditation sound, captives of our own inner world. Is that wrong? No, this is the right way to meditate, and an important part of the meditation process. Letting these impulses emerge provides release and is important for the further processing of residual stress and tension. If we try to restrict our minds to the sensations in the here and now connected to what we perceive of the outer world, we miss out on other aspects of consciousness. On the surface, everything seems to remain quiet, but there are still skeletons rattling in the closet.
As you sit there, something fascinating happens. The boundaries of the present moment are expanded. A wider span of impulses – even contradictory impulses – are included and integrated. The worry about not having bought oat flakes comes together with a good mood linked to the exciting memory of a childhood friend. Amidst all this, you repeat the meditation sound. Sometimes it is part of the inner turmoil, sometimes it brings with it an inner peace, as a quiet center in moments of storm.
Copy editor: Ann Kunish