BreivikThese days Norwegian media are hardly concerned with anything but the trial against the man who killed 77 mostly young people in and near Oslo last July. On the 5th day of the trial, he told the court he wouldn’t have been able to carry out these atrocities if he had not been meditating regularly since 2006, when he claims to have started planning the terror acts. He described meditation as a way of de-emotionalising and dehumanising himself, to enable himself to kill, and to “hammer” away his fear.

Meditation, martyrdom, prayer, martial arts
Not exactly a good advertisement for meditation! He also mentions the martyrdom of Al Qaida Muslims, the prayer of Christians (!), and the martial arts (bushido) of Second World War Japanese soldiers as ways of overcoming one’s fear of killing. What he calls meditation, it turns out, is somewhat peculiar, as it consists in walking around in circles while listening to (or rehearsing from memory) “trance” music.

Practising Acem Meditation and, I suppose, many other forms of meditation make you more sensitive and empathetic, not less. But this is hardly the form of meditation the mass murderer practised. It is tempting to point to the fact that some forms of meditation (like Acem) build on a free and open mental attitude, where thoughts and feelings are allowed to come and go, so that inner sensitivity increases, while other methods build on concentration, the eradication of random thoughts and feelings, and are geared towards specific goals rather than an open-ended process. The killer undoubtedly practised the second type. Even that, however, would hardly have made most of us as completely insensitive towards the pain we inflict on others, as was the case with him.

Cruel meditations
The mass murderer has been judged by one psychiatric team to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia, and by another team to suffer from a narcissistic and dissocial personality disorder (close to what used to be called psychopathy). His version of meditation is, I’m sure, unique – and uniquely evil. But there are elements in the way meditation is described in some traditions that may have stimulated his way of thinking. Many meditative traditions ascribe to the idea that random thoughts and emotions should go away, and in some cases this has been linked to an idea of the meditator as a superhuman, almost Nietzschean, being – beyond good and evil. Many forces within Japanese Zen, for instance, used this ideology to support the cruel warfare waged by the Japanese Empire before and during the Second World War. In China, meditation has been linked to both Sunzi’s “Art of War” and the more modern semi-Machiavellian idea of “Thick Face, Black Heart”.

In the end, of course, “meditation” is just a label that may be used for virtually any existential or psychological method, whether for good or for evil. Most of all, the Norwegian mass murderer reminds us that we need to look behind this label if we want to know the effects of a meditative practice.