This week I went to a guidance seminar led by Acem’s founder Dr Are Holen. A young woman in the audience raised a question regarding the mental repetition of the meditation sound, which is a central element in Acem Meditation. When she first learned the technique, she found it easy to practise, but now she was in doubt. Would it be best to sub-vocalise the sound, almost as if she wanted to say it aloud? Or would it be better to think the sound in her mind without any attempt at clear enunciation? The first solution would make her feel sure that she was repeating the correct sound, while the second solution would feel more relaxed.
More subtlety, less certainty
In his answer, Dr Holen pointed to the fact that her practice had provided her with a choice she did not have before. She was now able to repeat the meditation sound at a subtler level, with less of the heavy-handedness involved in sub-vocalising the sound. But this would bring her into a frame of mind with more nuances and subtlety, but less clarity and certainty. She kept vacillating between the two solutions.
Blurring of focus and periphery
One way of understanding her dilemma is as different modes of attention. When the meditation sound is articulated in a distinct manner, there is a strong focus, and the contrast to the thoughts passing by in the periphery is quite clear. When the sound is repeated as just a mental impression, without sub-vocalisation, the focus becomes lighter, and the contrast to the fleeting thoughts in the mind’s periphery is easily blurred. Impulses in the periphery of our consciousness, bordering on the unconscious, are given more room.
Hearing with the mind
Her dilemma may also be understood as regarding different modes of sensation. The meditation sound is based on the sense of hearing, though it is not heard by the ears, only by the mind. Sub-vocalisation brings the sound closer to the physical sense of hearing, almost as if it were heard by the ears. This may increase our feeling of distinctness and certainty, but also keeps us on the surface, tied to our physical body. The less our body is involved in the repetition of the sound, the more freedom the mind has to move deeper.
A wider sense of self
Yet another way of understanding her dilemma is in terms of her sense of self. In her almost physical repetition of the sound, her self awareness is narrow, largely restricted to what she is doing, spontaneous impulses merely acting as inconsequential appendages. The more subtly mental her repetition becomes, the more her sense of self spans the entire person, both what she is doing and what she is thinking, feeling and sensing – with her mind as well as her body. The wider span of her self awareness provides a richness and fullness that is largely absent when the narrow sense of self dominates. The scope of her awareness may even move beyond the self, to a larger whole of which the self is but a tiny part.
From goal to process
Our everyday frame of mind is typically associated with a certain level of stress or anxiety, often linked to our search for tangible goals. Acem Meditation moves in the opposite direction, as physical and psychological relaxation reduces stress levels and goal-orientation gives way to process-orientation. This may provide access to parts of the mind that are beyond reach when our mental functioning is geared towards distinctness and certainty.
But let us be realistic. The option that had become available to the young woman at the guidance seminar will not always be there when we meditate. It is easy to idealise a frame of mind where the sound is repeated gently without bodily involvement, and where the scope of our awareness and sense of self is widened. But striving to reach that ideal may easily lead to the opposite result. Instead we need to accept that the meditation sound is often closer to physical articulation than to a light mental impression. There is little we can do about that, apart from sticking to our habit of daily meditations supplemented by long meditations and retreats from time to time. Deeper relaxation may bring us closer to the option of entering a subtler frame of mind.