By Maria Gjems-Onstad
I meditate, think of ideas for a new project at work, and on what might be an appropriate present for my sister-in-law. I must remember to buy new screws for the garden chair. I learned a nice exercise for my abb muscles at today’s exercise session. Suddenly I am caught up in thoughts about a text message I am going to send to a former classmate and an invitation I must decline. How can I avoid offending her? And the meditation sound is gone.
When the meditation sound disappears, this is not a deliberate choice. In the psychology of meditation, this is called spontaneous concentration. I am conscious in the sense that I register much of what goes on in my mind, but I do not fully understand what drives my mind in a specific direction. Something unknown intrudes with a certain drive.
Dreams and other inadvertencies
We recognize this from daily life. We are aware, and yet we are unconsciously compelled to act in unintended ways, as with slips of the tongue and other inadvertent mistakes.
Our dreams at night have a similar quality. When we dream, many things take place in our minds, but we are not consciously making choices. We are driven by forces of which we are unaware. Something from the unconscious receives a discharge.
In the following I will look at parallels between spontaneous concentration in meditation (forgetting the meditation sound) and dreaming. Both phenomena provide a kind of release which appears to be beneficial for our mental health. But while dreams are wrapped inside our sleep, spontaneous concentrations lie in an area of our consciousness in which we have been meditating with a free mental attitude. This allows us to develop a freer attitude towards the forces that influence us. So while the pressure of the unconscious in everyday life induces us to make mistakes, the pressure in the meditation leads to “mistakes” from which we may benefit.
Let us first look at why it is considered beneficial to create an opening for discharge from the unconscious.
According to most psychological theories, unfinished experiences, tension and conflicts reside in the unconscious. Psychodynamic theories focus on the way such forces have a drive towards entering consciousness and therefore exert a dynamic influence on the mind. Such influences can result in mistakes and oversights, but also contribute to difficulties in concentrating, sleep problems, anxiety, etc. These forces lie outside the will, in an area with its own particular dynamics, and we cannot simply decide to get rid of them.
We may compare the unconscious to a pressure-cooker seething with energy. The more stressed we are, the less capacity we have to deal with the pressure from within. But the dynamic forces that well up towards the surface need release, such as in meditation and dreams. Otherwise the pressure from the unconscious will lead to increased unrest, mistakes and symptoms.
The magic of dreams
At night such discharge takes place through dreams. Recent research has shown that when certain centres in the front part of the brain are destroyed, we do not dream, and wake up constantly throughout the night. Without the required release that dreaming provides, we are not able to make full use of the recreation that sleep offers.
In other words, when we sleep, unfinished material filled with tension is brought closer to the surface. Our defense mechanisms are also partly “sleeping” and not “on guard” in the same way as in waking consciousness. So when the impact of the unconscious increases in intensity, instead of waking up, we slip into a dream, where some of the unfinished emotionality is disguised so that we can tolerate the content.
The magic of this is that conflicts are transformed into something the dreamer does not have to acknowledge, and which therefore does not interfere with sleeping. A sleeper who retains the normal ability to dream wakes up much less often than a person who lacks this ability.
A no-man’s land
To repeat a meditation sound with a free mental attitude releases spontaneous thoughts and impressions, and reduces the influence of the defense mechanisms. But when unfinished emotional material rises to the surface of consciousness, the defense mechanisms become more intense again. (In our usage, defense mechanisms include most of the mental strategies used to reduce the influence of the unconscious.)
In meditation, defense mechanisms express themselves as various ways of reducing the free mental attitude, including avoidance (“think non-provocative thoughts”), struggling (“try to push parts of the stream of thoughts away”), focusing on details (“think about insignificant details in order to distract yourself”), putting other things into one’s mind (“try to think specific thoughts”), losing focus on purpose (being so unfocused and clouded in your awareness that provocative thoughts disappear), etc.
This shift between free mental attitude and avoidance takes place in a field where conscious and unconscious impulses intermingle, and where we sometimes have conscious control and sometimes not. This is a kind of no-man’s land, where various forces act against one another. When the unconscious takes over the arena, and the conscious will is temporarily put out of action, we lose the meditation sound. After a while we become aware that the sound is gone. The challenge is then to take it up again, as near to the spontaneous stream as possible, not pushing away the impulses that have surfaced. This shift in domination between the conscious and unconscious can be likened to a dance, in which both partners must contribute. Spontaneous concentration is necessary in order to create space for the impulses, so that the meditator can make progress.
When we dream, our brain activity differs from waking consciousness, with more emotions and images, and less logic and normal chronology. Memories from different time periods appear in new contexts. Powerful imagery and emotionally laden fragments, are often coupled with unusual detail. The dream seems to be incomprehensible, but hides important unconscious conflicts.
In the no-man’s land where we lose the meditation sound, something similar takes place. We often think of daily trivialities, but as the unconscious begins to make its influence felt, thoughts may become split up and fragmented. We tend to experience the content as insignificant and making little sense. “It’s just thoughts that come helter-skelter.”
Although a dream may seem incomprehensible, it can sometimes make us think of things that may be important in our lives. There are different ways of trying to understand and interpret dreams, but for obvious reasons, this can only be done after the dream is over.
In Acem Meditation, we should never try to go for any particular content (“Now I would do well in thinking about my relationship to my mother”), or attempt to analyze the content while we meditate. We should have a neutral and accepting attitude to the content. Whatever comes by way of impulses and thoughts, our task is to repeat the sound with as much free mental attitude as possible.
Nevertheless, the thoughts that have been present in meditation, in particular on longer retreats, may provide us with associations that tell us something about our lives. They are connected to unconscious conflicts that express themselves in spontaneous concentrations. We should never analyze the contents of meditation when we meditate, because that would disturb the spontaneous interaction between the unconscious and the conscious. On retreats with long meditations, though, we may sometimes benefit from reflecting about the content of the thoughts – after meditation, not while we meditate.
Meditation is an important training ground, since we approach parts of our minds where the unconscious takes over. It differs from both dreams, which are cast upon us, without our being able to register what happens, and daily errors such as slips of the tongue, which occur abruptly, when we are not very much aware in the moment and often quite stressed.
In meditation, we attempt to be present, though we can never grasp the precise chain of events just as the unconscious is taking over. In the rear view mirror, we see much of what has played itself out. We cast a ray of light into an otherwise obscure no-man’s land. This is what we work with in meditation guidance.
A typical guidance session may focus on what happened prior to the spontaneous concentration, when the meditator is affected by defense mechanisms and experiences various “disturbing” phenomena: boredom, restlessness, agitation, etc. Gradually we approach the area where the attitudinal influence of the unconscious is so strong that we eventually lose our “grip”, i.e. the meditation sound.
Another typical guidance session focuses on the way in which we resume the repetition of sound after a spontaneous concentration, when the influence of the unconscious is still strongly present. Do we try to resume the repetition of the sound with a kind of intensity in order to correct our mistakes? Or do we avoid the challenge and draw the process out by thinking that I must give myself some time or compose myself before I resume the sound? Am I compelled by a sense of duty, by a need to evade or by a need to find pleasure? Am I goal oriented? The variations are endless, and we all use different strategies, though each person has some dominant ways of dealing with the challenge.
Often, guidance and reflection may shed light on our way of responding to great pressures in our daily life .
Don’t “help” the process
A dream is not planned, not wanted, and the same is true of a spontaneous concentration. After reading this article, you might be tempted to try to lose the sound, “since this is so beneficial”. You want to be in this fertile no-man’s land, and may decide that now it is about time to drop the sound. In doing so, however, you will restrict the space in which the unconscious can play itself out. If you decide to drop the sound, there will be no true release. You cannot gain conscious control over the unconscious, only prepare the ground for its expression. In meditation you do this by repeating the sound with a free mental attitude, and then letting what happens happen.
Systematic vs. natural event
Dreams and spontaneous concentrations have similarities, but are also different. In dreaming, we are close to and influenced by the unconscious – when we sleep. In meditation we are close to and influenced by the unconscious – when we are awake.
While the dream must be considered a chance occurrence, spontaneous concentration results from systematic efforts to increase our free mental attitude. The dream is a form of mental hygiene. Spontaneous concentration is, in addition, a clearing of new ground. One release paves the way for new releases. The fact that we are awake when spontaneous concentration takes place, facilitates a stimulating encounter between the free mental attitude and unconscious influences. Losing our meditation sound is the fruitful result of this encounter.
Translated by Eirik Jensen