Arild Brandrud Næss on deepening retreats

IMG_7185Arild Brandrud Næss was only 17 when he learned Acem Meditation. Now he is twice as old, but has continued his habit of daily meditation. Over the years he has also participated in a number of retreats, starting with a regular summer retreat, but soon switching to deepening retreats.

“I was eager to go more deeply into the meditation process and see what it was like. From what I had heard, deepening retreats sounded fascinating. And so they were.”

Arild is now back in his home country of Norway after two years at Toyota Technological Institute at Chicago, where he was working on his PhD dissertation. We met him last summer at the international deepening retreat at Halvorsbøle, Acem’s retreat center near Oslo, Norway.

Arild NæssResistance and speech recognition
Arild is approaching the completion of his doctoral work. He is clear about one thing:

“I wouldn’t have done what I am doing today if I hadn’t practiced meditation. This might seem strange, since the connection between mathematics and meditation isn’t so clear, but something about learning to meditate made technology studies a lot more appealing to me than they were before. The meditation process has taught me a lot about the value of pushing myself a bit further in the face of resistance. I don’t think I would have embraced the challenges I encountered if I didn’t meditate.”

His research is in the area of language technology, specifically in speech recognition, which involves both computer science and linguistics.

“Being able to interact with electronic devices with our voices instead of through keyboards or other awkward interfaces opens a whole new realm of possibilities – both in terms of how we use these machines, but also how we think about them. It’s also crucial for people who are blind or have other disabilities that inhibit them from using traditional computers. And when you try to teach a computer to understand what we say, you really start to appreciate what a fascinating and complex phenomenon human speech is.”

Arild NæssShe’s beautiful
When Apple introduced the program called Siri on the new iPhones a year ago, they brought speech technology to the mass market for the first time. This was great fun for people like Arild, who do research in this area.

“It’s neat that I can lift my phone and just say ‘Tell my girlfriend I will be 10 minutes late’, and it will send my partner Julie a text message telling her this. So the iPhone can interpret some normal sentences in a good way. It has its limitations, though. If I say ‘Tell my girlfriend she’s beautiful,’ then the message Julie receives will just read ‘She’s beautiful.’ Which may make Julie wonder who I have in mind.”

Worries seen in a different light
When we ask him what it is about deepening retreats that makes him come back time and time again, he says:

“They have a different, more profound, effect compared to regular retreats. On deepening retreats, meditation digs deeper. You can feel a little worn out at the end, but eventually it’s really refreshing.”

Arild also appreciates the effect of deepening retreats on his tendency to worry.

“Whatever worries I might have when I arrive on a deepening retreat, no matter how big they seem, by the end of the retreat they no longer seem so bad. It’s not that they disappear, but I see them in a different light, somehow – as if I can see my own problems a little more like I see the problems of other people. When I get back to the daily grind, that feeling eventually slips away again, of course, but some changes have come to stay.”

Interview by Anne Grete Hersoug
Language editor: Ann Kunish