By Are Holen
For young people, development is primarily about growth, about conquering the ”world”, while reconciliation is more important in the later stages of life. The focus of this article is reconciliation and how Acem Meditation may contribute towards this end via introspective sensitivity. To meditate strengthens the links to those aspects of the psyche that are not shaped by history and that are anchored in an inner freedom and autonomy; the changes have implications for the individual, for fellow human beings as well as for society; they add a dimension of integrity, genuineness and responsibility to the human interactions.
Meditative starting point
Working with the free mental attitude or attention in Acem Meditation can bring more freedom into parts of the mind that otherwise would be limited, closed or suppressed. Neurophysiological changes during meditation can be measured quantitatively and display significant de-stressing effects in the body and brain. Psychological limitations, however, are better explored by qualitative approaches or personal experiences. Regular meditation processes impressions from the recent days, but also structural aspects from the past, unresolved issues that can undermine the ability to deal with challenges in life. The relaxation of the autonomic functions of the nervous system continues beyond the meditative sitting. They are extended into the day and add some strength, health and vitality to existence.
The repetition of the meditation sound in relation to the spontaneous mental activities during the meditation is a training of the ability to identify and deal with what goes on in the mind at various levels. In this way, we may gradually get to know parts of ourselves and thereby increase the introspective capacity. This improves the ability to regulate inner impulses, needs, thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Even though we never change completely or become perfect or without psychological limitations, we expand our ability to manifest more in work and/or in relationships. Gradually, we find better ways to express and gratify needs, strivings, emotions, and longings.
In sum, regular practice of Acem Meditation promotes an incremental personality development, which, somewhat simplified, includes two main components:
- our capacity to grow, to make fuller use of our potentials
- our capacity for reconciliation and maturation, to modify and accept our limitations
In this article, the emphasis is on reconciliation, the concept itself and central experiential aspects of this self-psychological phenomenon. In some detail, we will analyze what reconciliation involves and how it is related to Acem Meditation.
As indicated above, personal growth helps in the interaction with fellow human beings as well as in studies, work or spare time. Regular meditation stimulates the emergence of creative resources and the inner emotional balance towards the self and how we experience the world in relation to, e.g., nature, art and cultural expressions etc. In addition, new qualities in the relations may manifest, e.g., in the interaction with children, adolescents, partner, other adults, and the elderly.
Reconciliation involves the processing of a person’s spontaneous, self-psychological structures, i.e., the relationship we have to ourselves, in the me–me relationship. This includes inner values, emotional investments, inferiority and shame aspects, hopes, and actions aiming for needs, goals or dreams. We may have reasonable, rational and realistic goals, but also unrealistic and quite irrational ones.
Usually, pursuing hopes and dreams when they seem to be within reach bring out energy in people – be it in relation to love, education, career, money, sports, realizing ideas and its like. When we are young, such dreams are more intense than when older. In adolescence and early adulthood, they are often a major driving force towards growth and achievements in such as studies, career and relationships. However, if such dreams seem too far out of reach, they may lead to a sense of failure, inertia, depression, or to compensatory strivings. Growth and efforts to realize goals and dreams tend to predominate the first parts of adult life, whereas the relevance of reconciliation goes up with age. Both processes take place simultaneously at any point in life, though to varying degrees in the different phases.
Moderation or irrationality
When moving past adolescence or early adulthood, when a person has reached some of his goals, the intensity of the hopes and dreams tend to go down to some degree. The person usually becomes more realistic, and he develops balanced ideas about who he is and what he can accomplish, without seeing this as a failure or a defeat. The person is more mature and reconciled.
However, this moderation does not necessarily take place in every aspect of life. Some pockets of irrationality may remain unaltered, usually within one or a couple of specific areas. Their irrational goals and desires are invested – consciously or unconsciously – in special achievements, pursuits or experiences that are believed really to make life worth living; they are supposed to bring ultimate fulfilment, success, happiness and redemption. Perhaps the person feels that he or she must do something «great», or be adored, admired or loved in very special ways.
Dreams and longings like these are often self-psychological residues from early childhood extended into adulthood; they were necessary means to protect the vulnerable self in the child against painful intimidations, feelings of being small and insignificant, abandoned and/or powerless. The longings derived from such residues remain hidden and unchanged from childhood into adulthood. Typically, they may are dormant for a long time before they may be pursued. They can be expressed through various manoeuvres aiming to ward off the pains associated with the vulnerable or dreaded self of childhood. In adulthood, such persons may have a reiterated urge to seek frequent affirmations or to be excessively dutiful in ways that exhaust them and their environment. However, such attempts are never fully successful. They are compensatory strivings aiming to fulfil dreams or longings derived from a background characterized by trouble and/or neglect.
Pursuing irrational goals and values may involve actions that to others clearly seem senseless, risky or obtuse. The persons involved may take big risks, make strange priorities, act without judgement and involve themselves with suspicious persons, projects or undertakings. In some cases, they put everything in one basket – and lose, perhaps again and again without learning; the underlying longings are too strong, unrealistic and narrow-sighted.
What is reconciliation?
Reorientation of values
In essence, reconciliation is about acceptance of changes that come with age and circumstances, but also acceptance of the present and the past, what has been good and bad, what have been victories and defeats. Reconciliation involves acceptance of the physical decline that comes with age as well as acceptance of the more marginal positions in society and family that the person will have with age. Reconciliation is not about giving up, but rather about reorienting oneself and coming to terms with existential solutions and situations – with what has not been reached, with one’s personal flaws and insufficiencies, suffering and failures, but also achievements and personal qualities. It is about being able to accept losses in health, capabilities and relations, i.e., modifying the inner and outer expectations, and still maintain a reasonable level of self-esteem and contentment. This presupposes tolerance for differences – both human and material – and an ability to accept that our needs are not always met in exactly the ways we may wish. With successful reconciliation, a person is content despite some regrets. This requires a capacity to find workable existential compromises and to deal with losses. The importance of the dreams, hopes and strivings of younger years are gradually replaced with modified realism and modest expectations. In this context, reconciliation is the opposite of intimidation, denigration or insults when facing the unavoidable changes of the life cycle.
Reconciliation involves an increased ability to relate to those things in life that cannot be controlled, such as one’s «destiny». Instead of ending up frustrated or bitter, the person adapts to the situation and tolerates human differences without problems, also when comparing himself with others – even when the others are younger, more attractive, cleverer and more capable, more impressive, or more skilful. This is done spontaneously without feelings of inferiority, low self-esteem or envy, i.e., without having the lower self-images activated.
Reconciliation is also about the ability to let go of personal irrational investments and idiosyncrasies. The person reorients himself towards new and age-adequate, relevant goals and finds meaning in them. This requires flexibility and compromise, if not in every area of life, then at least in the central ones. He goes for common solutions that may last beyond his lifetime, and that are independent of him and his narrow personal preferences.
Reconciliation is about reducing the psychological investment in our personal importance, and to give greater prominence to the next generation, to community, posterity and culture. It is about adopting a broader, altruistic dimension that supports the common good in a larger context than the me, myself and my immediate surroundings. Reconciliation involves realizing that we may not be the most important person in the world. We are reconciled with the human condition of being imperfect, and with our ageing and future demise, and with the fact that one day we will be gone forever. «In a hundred years everything is forgotten», to quote freely the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun. We may begin to see the relativity of our personal and contemporary contributions and opinions, values and ideals held by our culture, of what is modern or “politically correct” right now. To some degree, we may develop a perspective characterized by universality, by what in a deeper sense may be of value to many, also those of other cultures or historical chapters.
In the next paragraphs, we will exemplify some specific areas of life in which reconciliation may be seen as existential challenges.
Reconciliation in relationships
Reconciliation can take place between people or within one individual only. It can take place between groups of people. In this way, reconciliation can happen between father and son, boss and employee, between neighbours, religious or ethnic groups that have been in conflict and its like. The disagreements may be major or about trifles, preferences, rights, fights over turf, provocative actions, opinions or attitudes. After reconciliation, the animosity abates or disappears; emotional investments in previous positions dampen. The claims soften, or they are withdrawn, e.g., regarding delivery, behaviours, views of life, money, etc. Reconciliation makes a person more generous and less absolute. This stands in contrast to the prior narrow and intolerant views and values held, which at that time were regarded as “reasonable, fair and righteous”.
Reconciliation and self
When we are not reconciled with ourselves, we tend strongly to dislike, or we are ashamed of aspects of ourselves, things we have said or done. This may also involve problems with accepting some of our body parts or personal characteristics related to such as heritage, intelligence, talents, skills or looks. Reconciliation softens the intense and self-denigrating emotions towards the self; we readily accept ourselves with more ease.
«Life is a losing game». This may refer to difficulties in being reconciled with experiences of loss; it may be the loss of a person due to death, loss of a relationship due to divorce or abandonment, or by the partner’s degenerative disease, but also the loss of personal health, of an organ or a bodily function, the loss of a position at work or in society, or the loss of a social network after moving, retiring or fleeing as a refugee.
A major loss always implies losing something that used to be important to oneself, but perhaps taken for granted until the relevant object disappeared. The importance of the lost object was perhaps not recognized before the loss. However, deprived of the lost object, the person may feel empty or devastated. Life may seem temporarily or permanently without meaning. Normally, it takes time to recover from such a loss; the person has to undergo a process of mourning or grief to become reconciled with the loss.
Some people, however, never manage to get over their losses. In such cases, the loss represents a major fall and signifies a diminished sense of meaning and value due to strong links, dependence or adherence to the lost object. Parts of the person’s identity was linked to an object that is now gone; its absence is a major blow to the person’s self.
Age as an insult
With increasing age, all will have to face various types of losses. Most of us manage them reasonably well; we do not feel a need to conceal signs of the ageing in body, mind or health. However, for some, such losses may precipitate major crises. In this context, ageing itself may be taken as an insult. Then ageing and what it entails activates low and painful parts of the self. The results may be bitterness, a sense of injustice, perhaps even a persistent exasperation towards the young, healthy and successful people who live a life the elderly person no longer is a part of or never had access to.
One of the earliest existential confrontations of this kind is the mid-life crisis. Cognitively, one always knew, but only now will the person realize with some shock that ageing and deterioration also is going to include him. The person may realize that he no longer is quite young, attractive or fit, we will not live forever, and we will probably not die in good health, but from disease and weakening. The mid-life crisis is the first emotional encounter with our incipient deterioration, imminent ageing and future death.
The next crisis may come when approaching or entering retirement, when we no longer hold a job or a position in society. Often, this coincides with impaired health and/or decline in cognitive functions. We may be slower in our dealings. We even can become dependent on help and support in ways that earlier were unheard of, looked down upon, but that now are necessary and feel humiliating.
Sometimes the crisis is not precipitated by retirement or weakening, but rather because our life partner or companion gets ill and dependent, or even dies. This may go against the original, unwritten relationship «contract» about who was to be strong and who is to be the needy one in the relationship: «You are supposed to take care of me, not the other way around!». When the partner or companion needs continuous help and support, on a subtle level this may be felt as a kind of betrayal.
In the previous paragraphs, we have shed some light on growth and reconciliation. Now we will look at aspects of Acem Meditation and its significance in relation to reconciliation.
Meditation with a free mental attitude
The relationship between the free mental attitude and the spontaneous activities implies a fundamental acceptance of whatever passes through the mind, whether it is comfortable or uncomfortable, morally acceptable or objectionable, etc. The free mental attitude involves training in a non-judgemental acceptance. This is the essence of reconciliation. The free mental attitude establishes contact with inner issues and lets them manifest in ways that foster mental reflections and processing through acceptance of what is encompassed by being a human in its totality – be it shining, neutral or dark.
The free mental attitude is far more tolerant and oriented towards compromises than what is «politically correct» or based on a narrow political, religious or cultural consensus, which tends to want to punish, ostracize or condemn any deviations. The free mental attitude opens our lives to a variety of expressions, impulses and choices; it represents an overarching attitude allowing diversity and broad compromises as well as a variety of existential expressions.
Metathoughts and blindness
In Acem Meditation, working with the metathoughts, i.e., thoughts about our thoughts, is of help in becoming more aware of the unrecognized, narrow perspectives and hang-ups in our value systems and our self-psychological structures. During meditation, the point is not to reach a specific state of mind, but rather to go with the inner flow. One-dimensionality and preoccupations with certain states of mind limit this outcome. Such limited orientations are usually derived from irrational and unprocessed issues and expectations built upon assumptions that specific experiences will free us from discomfort and existential suffering.
By means of the free mental attitude or attention in Acem Meditation, we may with ease let go of fixations and instead allow alternative approaches that are characterized by acceptance and wide compromises – first in meditation, and subsequently in life. This feature of Acem Meditation underlines that the technique is a kind of existential training cultivating attitudes of generosity, acceptance and growth, without becoming spineless and indecisive, though without failing to distinguish good from bad. Manifesting these perspectives by being a regular meditator can contribute towards a deeper sense of value and meaning – also in new contexts and in the different phases of life.
The central working principle and challenge in Acem Meditation is to establish reiteratively a free mental attitude or attention in relation to whatever enters the mind. This attitude is democratic and allows a dynamic free flow of thoughts, feelings, images and bodily sensations. With time, the free mental attitude fosters an introspective sensitivity that provides freedom for processing whatever resides and moves within on ever deeper levels. Moreover, it can contribute towards recovery from inner alienation shaped by the irrationality of unresolved psychological issues and their links to anxiety, depression, compensatory efforts, futile dreams, and unrealistic ideals. Regular meditation moves the mind towards increased self-insight and existential realism and maturity in the dealings with the self and the world.
Expansion of the free mental attitude into new areas and levels of the psyche brings progress and moment-to-moment adjustments towards incremental growth, also in the external life. Success in establishing the free mental attitude is not achieved by submission or obedience to one definition, authority or idea, and not by obeying orders or blindly accepting external conclusions or instructions. Moreover, it is not achieved by opposition or angry protest, but rather by solid inner anchoring and mature compromises.
A free mental attitude is built from within; a renewed inner ability to be grounded even in cases when we follow the “crowd”. A person will not always know right away what he wants and what is right, but when a person is reasonably well anchored within, the chances are higher that he will take the necessary time and reflection to arrive in time at better choices in life.
In a deeper sense, to establish reiteratively the free mental attitude during meditation is a training of the capacity to remain anchored within during changing circumstances and thus realize what is moving within without hiding or twisting anything to fit idealized values. Over time, meditating expands internally what may be called «existential honesty» – a genuine, unmanipulated and uncompensated understanding of the self.
Regular meditation increases our introspective sensitivity on various levels and the independence of the self – not in ways that make us more vulnerable or insensitive, but rather less overshadowed by external influences or inner irrational strivings. Incrementally, regular meditation makes a person stronger and more autonomous, less other-directed, more freely present and less steered by mass pressures, crowd manipulations, and less tagging along with others.
In general, Acem Meditation leads to more interpersonal strengths, deeper self-understanding and a capacity to represent one’s individuality, and still find adequate compromises when dealing with others in contemporary society. Moreover, introspective sensitivity and processing contributes towards improved relationships at home and at work, but also towards self-understanding, reconciliation, improved performance and productivity.
In its more than 50 years of existence, the Acem organization has provoked some individuals and groups. Considering the nature of the internal processes that Acem’s activity instigates, it would have been surprising if such responses did not occur at times. More importantly, however, Acem has been of considerable help and support to many more. Through regular meditation and contact with Acem during longer or shorter periods in their lives, many people have progressed – professionally, interpersonally and internally. Moreover, the manifestations of meditation have had ripple effects beyond the individual, i.e., on society.
The impact has been soft, yet clear in stimulating reflection, afterthought and dialogue. In addition, Acem has been involved in cultural exchanges – through lectures, seminars, and retreats, but also via dissemination of periodicals, books and sound files. The focus has persistently been on issues that help a person meditate better and on meditative process issues, i.e., existential topics relevant to contemporary society.
Translated by Anne Grete Hersoug
Are Holen: Psychology of Silence: Perspectives on Acem Meditation. Oslo: Dyade Press, 2016. Are Holen & Halvor Eifring: Acem Meditation: An Introductory Companion. 2nd edition. Oslo: Dyade Press, 2013.
Amazing Article! I really like the content of blog that perfectly represents different aspects of the meditation in life ! “”” meditation .
A great description of the challenges and possibilities of aging- not far from Ericksson´s model of development and its last stage; integrity vs despair. Being a soon 69 year old psychologist (retired 50%) and long-term meditator, just back from a weekend in Paris with grown-up kids and 2 enthusiastic and intense grandchildren, I really felt in my bones what the article describes…(but it was so fun and illuminating at the same time)
But I have a some thoughts about the role of Acem meditation in all of this: other non-directive meditation methods like Dr. Bensons relaxation Response and Patricia Carrington´s CSM (Clinically standardized meditation) contributes in the same way as Acem meditation when it comes to develop a basic accepting attitude to the different challenges and changes in life, according to subjective self-reports from meditators and patients. But both methods doesn´t lay any importance on longer meditations – on the contrary, both Benson and Carrington warns against the “over-use” of meditation ( don´t fall in the trap of ; “if one pill works, swallowing the whole can must be even better”). Still, people benefit from these two methods in the same way as Acem meditation contributes to a better life, but without going “deeper” in longer meditations. It´s sort of “enough” with a daily practice 15-20 minutes, once or twice a day – no more, no less. Any thoughts on this?
Another interesting area is the difference between psychotherapy and Acem meditation (and non-directive methods in general): as far as I have understood it, Acem holds the position that meditation is not to be confused with psychotherapy. But the inspiring article above describes a psychological/existential process that is a very, very common theme in classical, deep going psychotherapy, specially when it comes to change ones attitudes towards thoughts, difficult emotions, moods . Interestingly, CSM was partly developed with the “help” of Patricia Carringtons patients in her clinical work – so the border between non-directive meditation and at least some forms of psychodynamic/cognitive psychotherapy is quite fluid I think.
Anyway: thanks for a really insightful article!