By Thor Udenæs
We cannot control what comes to us spontaneously during meditation. Our focus is the volitional activity, the meditation practice itself. When we practice with a free mental attitude, we create a sort of mental freedom within us, where impressions, feelings, and fantasies can flow freely.
“In my meditation today, I was thinking of the fact that I’m not quite satisfied with my job, and why I’m still there. I feel as though I need to make way for a change, to begin a new chapter in my life.” This is how one person in a guidance group described his experience after a long meditation. Another continued: “I am too absorbed in my work. I work too much, and I’m worn out and often fall asleep during my meditation”. A third person in the same guidance group described that he had too many mental images during his meditation that all had a bit of a dark and mellow undertone, and that he experienced loneliness. Yet another person said: “I was into something creative in today’s meditation. I came to realize how to solve a problem that I’m dealing with. Spontaneous thoughts with another perspective on the problem just popped up!”
These are just a few examples of how meditators may describe how they experience their meditations. It also illustrates what the stream of consciousness may include. The flow of thoughts during meditation often consists of fragments from present or past life situations. It may reflect simple or complicated problems from daily life, memories or moods, feelings, sleep, anxiety, or restlessness. It may also include a creative flow that will bring you in touch with unresolved issues and make room for new perspectives that are less rigid and more open.
A free stream of wandering thoughts
The stream of thoughts, or the stream of consciousness, is the substance of meditation, and is characterized by spontaneity and freedom. We do not decide what approaches us when we are sitting there. Our focus is the volitional activity, the meditation action itself. When we practice it with a free mental attitude, a sort of mental freedom is created within us. The impressions, feelings, bodily sensations, images, and fantasies may flow freely.
The meaning of the stream of thought has been studied and compared from meditative, psychological, and neurological perspectives. In simple terms, it may be said that modern brain research is starting to confirm the experience of meditation – namely, that the natural resting state of the brain is not to be empty of thoughts, but rather a stream of thoughts that wanders freely.
A hundred years ago, when Sigmund Freud formulated his theories of the unconscious, there was no access to today’s technology to study how the mind and brain function. One of the cornerstones of Freud’s psychoanalysis is a free-floating attention and free association. Freud used therapy and experiments to identify the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious. He developed a method that allowed the patient to understand the unconscious by talking about – verbalizing – all the associations, thoughts, and emotions that move through the mind. This way, the patient can understand how the unconscious influences his behavior in daily life, and thus gain insight into his decision-making, and why he acts as he does.
The source of actualization
For almost 50 years, Acem has been teaching a meditation practice that is both similar to and different from psychoanalysis or psychodynamic therapies. An important aspect in Acem Meditation is that the mind’s spontaneous activities should be allowed to pass as freely and uncensored as possible when we meditate. To achieve this, there is in the method a “volitional activity”, a conscious action of the meditator. This action consists of the mindful repeating of a meditation object with a casual and free-floating attention. When you do, the mind’s spontaneous activities such as thoughts, feelings, images, body sensations, anxiety, etc. pass undisturbed. However, in opposition to psychodynamic therapy, Acem Meditation does not consciously reflect over the content, because that would restrict the free stream of thoughts.
In Acem Meditation, the spontaneous activities or stream of consciousness is not first and foremost key to an intellectual understanding of unconscious materials. Rather, the purpose of the free stream of thoughts in meditation is a form of release of internal stress, which is followed by the actualization and modification of unconscious behavior patterns. Actualization in meditation means that inner tension is released and part of the unconscious is activated. When an unconscious trait is allowed to emerge in meditation, it can be modified and processed. Thus, it opens up an opportunity for change of fundamental issues within the meditator. Such change never occurs automatically, however, because it is always the meditator who must actively change his behavior in everyday life.
In a guidance group, you are free to describe fragments from your meditation. You may not remember everything, and that does not matter. What you have might be an image, a mood, or a feeling. By verbalizing the content of your meditation, you will approach what was there. By talking about the stream of thoughts afterwards, you may discover new associations to the content. The group leader will try different ways to help you find further associations to the theme that has been your focus, by asking follow-up questions.
Brain research has advanced rapidly due to fMRI technology. This technology allows study of how various parts of the brain are activated when meditating. The concept of a “default mode network” – a kind of basic network – was defined by the neuroscientist Marcus Raichle (see interview with him). Whereas the focus previously has been brain centers (for vision, speech, movement, etc.) and association areas of the brain, a new focus in neuroscience is networks in the brain.
From a meditation perspective, it is interesting that the default mode network is active when no external task (reading, counting, etc.) requires our attention, and is passive when we do something that requires our active focus. When we are resting or not doing anything in particular, this network in the brain is activated. Studies indicate that autobiographical memories, i.e. our own personal experiences, are activated. A recently published study on Acem Meditation indicates that with “non-directive meditation”, i.e. meditation techniques based on a free mental attitude, the activities in the brain’s default mode network increase most. This suggests that the areas involved in emotions and self-awareness are activated relatively strongly.
Meditators’ descriptions of their meditation, as illustrated at the beginning of this article, indicate an association to one’s life history and self-awareness. When we relax in meditation, thoughts and feelings about ourselves in the present and the past are activated. These thoughts may also contain evaluations of our selves linked to our self-images in various situations. Thus, it would seem that Acem Meditation, through the relaxation response, opens for increased activity in the brain’s default mode network, followed by an opportunity to work through unconscious tensions that are often tied to our psychological life history and our self-images.
The tool we have in this process is the free mental attitude. The acceptance, openness, and inclusion/integration of the free mental attitude are prerequisites for a free-floating stream of thoughts. The means to create the free mental attitude is through the repetition of the meditation sound in your mind. A light and easy resting focus on the sound is what creates the opening of the mind and increases activity in the brain’s default mode network.
Translator: Simon Bihagen
Copy editor: Ann Kunish
Nice article, I agree. My teacher doesn’t encourage us to talk about what we experiened during meditation for this reason – pay no heed, she says – doesn’t matter what your experience is.
I agree that the free stream of thoughts during meditation is a form of release of internal stress – although it doesn’t feel like that to most :D you only find relief AFTER the meditation in so many cases.
Wonderful article though. I’m sure it will be an eye opener for many because so many think that we’re lost in bliss when we’re meditating.