By Halvor Eifring

Wang LishaSound plays a central role in many forms of meditation, including Acem Meditation. What is it about sound that stimulates relaxation as well as psychological and existential processes?

Sound and the ability to hear sounds are central to human life. The fact that dogs hear better than we do and we see better than they do may trick us into believing that eyesight is more central to humans than hearing. However, it is often said that the loss of hearing is much more traumatic than the loss of eyesight, and gives a greater degree of isolation. It is also said that hearing, along with the tactile sense of having one’s hand held, is the last sense to disappear as we pass into death.

Levels of consciousness

Scientists have shown that people who enter into a coma or have apparently lost consciousness, such as during an operation, at some level still perceive what is being said around them. When they regain consciousness, they can’t recall what was being said, but they act on it, for instance by avoiding people who said nasty things about them while they were presumably unconscious. So sound speaks to levels of consciousness that go beyond our everyday awareness.

That may be part of the reason why sound is one of the most commonly utilized objects of meditation, and why some people argue that meditating on sound gives more profound effects than does meditating on, say, visual images, body sensations, or the breath.

Lee MillerUses of sound in meditation

Sound may enter into meditation in several different ways. In naturalistic meditation, you may meditate on the sounds of nature, such as the sound of trickling water from a stream, river, or waterfall, the sound of the wind through the grass and trees, or mindfulness exercises that consist of taking in any sound from the surroundings, including both the beautiful sounds of birds singing and crickets chirping and less remarkable sounds such as the noise of ventilation systems, traffic, human voices in the distance, or perhaps your own breath.

In some Buddhist meditations, the sound of your own breath is made into a specific meditation object. It is closer to the inner dimension, but still tied to the physical body. It can be found in the intersection between body and mind, and between spontaneity and control, since you can both let your breath go by itself or influence it purposefully.

Even when the meditative focus apparently lies on meaningful utterances, such utterances are often repeated just as much for their sound value as for their literal meaning. This may be the case with the constant repetition of the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” in the Orthodox Church, and with the the half Sanskrit, half Chinese phrase “Na-mo A-mi-tuo-fo” (meaning “Hail, Amitabha Buddha”) in Chinese Buddhism. It is even more obvious when Christians use Greek phrases such as “Kyrie eleison”, Hebrew phrases such as “Hallelujah”, and Aramaic phrases such as “Maranatha”, without knowing what they mean. In many Buddhist temples in Japan, the Heart Sutra is recited every morning in Chinese, a language few of the monks understand.

Wang LishaNo meaning, no melody

In contrast to such religious phrases, the sounds used for meditation in Acem have neither open nor hidden meaning elements. They consist of syllables composed of consonants and vowels, sometimes diphthongs, and with a specific rhythmic pattern. In this respect they also differ from typical Indian mantras, which usually have some kind of open or hidden semantic or symbolic connection to Hindu deities or gods. Acem’s meditation sounds are designed to be linguistically, emotionally, and symbolically neutral.

This neutrality is important, because it is linked to the principle of a free and open mental attitude, in which all thoughts and feelings are allowed to pass freely through the mind. Repeating sounds with a meaning could easily become a kind of self-suggestion, in which you actively bring your mind to a predetermined destination and block out things that do not fit with that goal. In Acem Meditation, the point is to open the mind for whatever is there and let the meditation process take over, bringing you to destinations that you could not have conjured up in your imagination beforehand.

Another aspect of this neutrality is the lack of a specified melody or intonation pattern. In Acem, one and the same meditation sound may be pronounced with a rising intonation, a falling intonation, or an even intonation – in this context the melody is unimportant. We know from music that melodies have strong emotional associations. Acem Meditation is designed to reach a point behind and beyond all the feelings that music may evoke. Neutrality may sound a little dry, but not when it is coupled with the sensitivity that allows all these feelings to exist and even reaches further depths of the mind.

Personal meaning

Even without semantic meaning and musical melody, various sounds still have varying effects on us. We know this from the language of poetry, where rhythm, rhyme, and other sound effects are often more important than the literal meaning of the words. We also know this from the famous linguistic experiment with maluma and takete, two meaningless sound combinations that turn out to invite quite specific associations when people are asked to pair them with visual figures (see Acem Meditation: An Introductory Companion, 2nd ed., p. 82).

The linguistic, emotional, and symbolic neutrality of meditation sounds does not mean that they are neutral in a personal sense. We see that when, after years of meditating, a person is given an enhanced meditation sound – often a longer and thus richer sound combination than the fairly simple sound he or she was given at the beginning. It varies how people react to this, beyond the challenge of getting used to repeating a new and more complex sound. Some people are delighted and feel that the new sound helps to bring up new personal issues in their meditation. Others notice a sense of resistance. In either case, the change in sound brings with it changes in the meditation process.

In one neuroscientific experiment, meditators were asked to do two different things: first to repeat their meditation sound, then to repeat an equally neutral sound that was not judged to be particularly meditative: liskebrøkk. The difference showed up on the images produced by brain scanning (fMRI). The specific areas that repeating a meditation sound activated were not activated by the other sound.

LeeroyInner sound

In fact, of course, there is no physical sound when you practice Acem Meditation. It can be compared to a piece of music that lingers in your mind after you have heard it. In meditation, you do not produce the sound with your speech organs, and you do not hear it with your ears. It is all in your mind.

What you also discover as you go along is that even when everything is quiet, there is a range of different ways of repeating a sound, from a sub-articulated, almost physical mode, as if you are preparing your speech organs to utter the sound, to different degrees of mentalization. And when you have a choice (which you do not always have, since effortlessness is paramount), you seek to repeat the sound in the way that is least bound up with your tongue, lips, throat, breath, heartbeat or any other physical sensation.

While physical sound is produced by vibrations in the air and the ear, no such vibrations are involved in a mental sound. This does not reduce its effect on body and mind. On the contrary, it makes the effect of the sound even more profound and liberating. It is as if we are rediscovering what a sound is – not only physical vibrations, but also an inner response to these vibrations. It is this response – without the physical vibrations – that meditation cultivates.

Copy editor: Ann Kunish