‘Meditation’ is a generic term as broad as, say, ‘sports’, covering a diverse range of practices using different methods and aiming at a variety of objectives.
Central aspects of the meditation phenomenon are outlined below, with the purpose of identifying the shared and differing characteristics of various meditation practices and putting Acem Meditation into perspective.
Some form of meditation can be found in almost all cultures, in both the East and the West. Even people who have not learnt how to meditate probably have some experience of naturalistic meditation, by which we mean a meditative state of mind that occurs spontaneously when someone is in the right mood or the right place. Generally, such states are induced by calming, soothing or beautiful sensory experiences. When you are looking into a fire, listening to a waterfall or enjoying the deep silence of nature your consciousness may start to flow freely, time may seem to stop, and you may feel that you simply exist.
In the modern world, naturalistic meditations tend to be non-religious, although in animistic cultures they may be experienced as moments of connection with the universal soul or spirit. Naturalistic meditations are usually relaxing and enriching, fulfilling a widespread human longing for union with the wonders of nature. However, their potential as a means to self-knowledge and personality development is limited. Since such moments occur spontaneously, they cannot be scheduled in advance, and in modern life it can be difficult to create conditions that are conducive to them. If naturalistic meditation is the only means of refining the mind, much time may be spent in waiting for it to happen.
Increasing numbers of people seeking the benefits of meditation nowadays learn systematic practices rather than relying on naturalistic meditation. The advantage of systematic meditation is that it can be undertaken whenever is convenient, whether regularly or occasionally, and depends for its success less on circumstances than on skills and understanding.
Differing goals of meditation
In general, people may want to meditate for two different reasons :
In the first case, meditation is a goal in itself. The meditator takes a passive, receptive role, giving himself up to an intense and possibly intoxicating experience in the hope that it will prove fulfilling. An ‘experience orientation’ of this kind can lead to introversion or a desire for meditative states that is virtually like an addiction. Regular life is seen as trivial while the contrasting meditative states are regarded as having the utmost importance and meaning. This orientation may also encourage emphasis on the indoctrinal role of a teacher or guru. Instruction is often delivered in an emotional manner, making heavy use of symbolic and figurative language. Candles and incense may be used to create a potent atmosphere.
By contrast, the second approach to meditation focuses on what it does, its benefits, and how it alters a person’s internal make-up and capacity to handle life. ‘Change-oriented’ practices of this kind see meditation as a means to an end – a way of pursuing long-term goals such as improvements in health, working life and relationships. There is an expectation that change will occur gradually, through regular daily meditation and a deep understanding of psychological structures and meditation practice. The orientation of Acem is of this kind.
An experience orientation seems more common in the present day than an orientation towards change, perhaps because focusing on the experience in itself requires less commitment to regular and challenging meditation practice. In the ‘experience orientation’ there is a certain pull away from everyday life and society, while in the change-oriented practices the opposite inclination is emphasized.
The meditation vehicle or object
All types of practice involve a ‘meditation vehicle’ or object that helps accomplish the goals of meditation by turning the mind inwards. Such vehicles can take a wide variety of forms, from internal mental operations, to bodily functions such as breathing or movements, to zen koans, prayers, sounds, mantras, objects or symbols. Methods of using meditation vehicles also vary. Some involve intense concentration, imaging or free association; others involve emptying the mind or allowing the thoughts to wander. Directed or non-directed thinking, and the presence or absence of emotions or moods, may also be factors in the use of meditation vehicles.
Almost all types of meditation provide physical relaxation to a greater or lesser degree. Muscles relax; blood pressure is lowered; skin resistance increases, and so does the peripheral distribution of blood. These changes are associated with bodily rest and have been amply documented in scientific studies.
There are two basic types of relaxation: closing and opening. Closing relaxation often creates a feeling of well-being but detaches the mind from underlying issues. Such relaxation may be obtained by active concentration or directed meditation techniques, or even from narcotic drugs, alcohol or benzodiacepins such as Valium. Opening relaxation, on the other hand, facilitates balanced access to unfinished unconscious processes, and thus modifies mental structures and their influence on perceptions and actions. Such relaxation can contribute to what some psychologists call ‘regression in the service of the ego’. This involves a shift in mental functioning towards greater freedom, more spontaneity, and an increase in self-accessing and self-accepting behaviour.
Use of attention: Directed versus non-directed approaches
We now come to one of the most essential distinctions between meditation practices: the difference between what we may call (1) directed techniques (or concentration techniques), which tend to be strongly state oriented, and (2) non-directed techniques, which tend to be process oriented.
The act of concentration is inherent in directed techniques, while a free-floating state of mind is characteristic of non-directed approaches.
The various schools of meditation give specific, yet very different directions about the use of attention during the practice. They may vary from intense concentration at one end of the spectrum, to mindfulness somewhere towards the middle, with free mental attitude at the other end.
In concentration techniques, the point is to stand porter at the entrance of the mind and allow nothing undesirable to get in. Often the goal is to get rid of all thoughts.
The various kinds of Buddhist meditations such as vipassana, chan and zen meditations are often referred to as mindfulness meditation. However, mindfulness is not a unified concept; it comprises a spectrum of mental attitudes ranging from the highly focused and concentrated, to intermediate attentiveness, to some states that resemble the free mental attitude of Acem Meditation.
Directed methods aim to achieve control over pre-defined functions, such as relaxation of the right arm or leg. Involuntary mental activities like thoughts and feelings are viewed as distractions, and one of the goals of directed meditation techniques is to keep these below the level of awareness.
Examples of directed practices include:
In non-directed techniques the mind’s spontaneous activity is a central element of the meditation. Rather than suppressing this stream of consciousness, the aim is to gain access to it by relaxing control. At the interface between willed and involuntary activities, by relaxing into your breathing or the free flow of your consciousness, you may be able to enter fascinating and revitalizing areas of your psyche. Only a non-directed approach enables this kind of work with the unconscious. Goal orientation has a tendency to interfere with these processes.
Examples of non-directed techniques include:
In TM the vehicle is a mantra. The breath is usually the vehicle in mindful meditation. The core elements of Acem Meditation are the meditation sound and the stream of consciousness, consisting of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, memories, etc.
Directed and non-directed techniques are suited to different purposes. If help is required in mastering a specific problem or attaining a particular goal (for instance, overcoming pain), directed or concentration techniques are best, as these can be designed to meet specific needs. If the aims of meditation are broader – achieving self-insight, increased awareness of the unconscious, and eventually personality development – only non-directed techniques will be effective.
Religious versus non-religious techniques
Another fundamental distinction is between contexts for meditation, whether religious or non-religious. Historically, most kinds of meditation originate from religion, for example from Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism or a guru cult. Today, however, meditation is generally understood in terms of psychology rather than religion and is often practised without commitment to a particular faith. Some people argue that religion subtly introduces a goal orientation to support the tenets of its belief system, and that deep psychological insight and growth can therefore only be attained in a neutral, non-religious context.
Some versions of yoga and of zen meditation are practised outside a religious context nowadays, but Transcendental Meditation is strongly associated with the cult and cosmology of (Maharishi) Mahesh Yogi. In this respect it differs significantly from Acem Meditation, which is not connected to any particular set of religious beliefs.
To sum up, Acem Meditation can be described as a systematic, non-directed, non-religious approach to meditation which is based on the use of a simple combination of sounds and release of the spontaneous activities of the mind. The point of Acem Meditation is to create a mental climate of acceptance that stimulates the spontaneous unfolding of consciousness. This involves an opening relaxation of the body and the mind, and research indicates that higher levels of physical and mental relaxation are achieved through Acem Meditation than through techniques such as progressive relaxation. Acem Meditation is strongly process oriented, rather than geared to specific experiences and goals, but it is highly effective, both mentally and physically. Even irregular practice achieves results, but profound processes of change require daily practice over the course of months and years.