At the frontier

Wandering inside our area of mental freedom

By Carl Henrik Grøndahl

Into the wilderness The free mental attitude is a central concept in Acem Meditation. But what is it? Let us wander along a few paths and see what we meet.

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The free mental attitude is not a feeling – neither of wellbeing nor of complete calm. Not a state, either. The free mental attitude is related to action, the way we do something: sense, think, speak, act.

The first time we take the wheel of a car, we probably do not drive with a free mental attitude. We are unable to conduct a lively or thoughtful conversation at the same time. The requisite mental resources are not yet available. Inexperience, a lack of confidence and a consciousness of lurking dangers all serve to close off the mind. It takes training and practice to master the technicalities sufficiently well to navigate the traffic effortlessly while simultaneously talking about the riddles of existence. Only then are we able to perform the act of driving with a free mental attitude. Of course new situations may still arise that are beyond our control, in which case we are drawn outside the area where we can act with a free mental attitude. We become irrational and may do stupid things.

The flow zone

Most of the time we try to live our lives inside our area of mental freedom – where we act instinctively and without anxiety or self-doubt. Here we can be constructive and creative. A football trainer once called it the flow zone. From time to time we find ourselves outside this area, however, in situations where we are much less certain how to behave. Afterwards self-critical thoughts may churn around inside our heads: the stupid things I did, what I really should have said, why didn’t I retaliate! When we are in the middle of it, we do not have sufficient access to the free mental attitude in thought, speech and action. This comes to us only afterwards, when the moment has passed.

Stress shrinks our area of mental freedom. When we are tired or under pressure, things we are usually able to do with a free mental attitude become strained and awkward. Nice to feel, then, how daily meditations act as a vacuum cleaner, clearing away the silt that clogs up our minds.

A life unlived

The fear of losing our mental freedom sometimes makes us avoid new activities and situations. Instead of taking on new challenges, we stay at home or stick to our familiar routine. As the years go by our area of mental freedom is gradually reduced. The world becomes smaller, and so does our zone of free and easy mastery. Perhaps this explains why people who constantly rise to new challenges, such as actors, retain their vitality even when they get quite old. Actors live a life at the frontier of the free mental attitude, learning huge numbers of lines by heart and training themselves to overcome attacks of stage fright.

A life controlled by the fear of ending up outside the area of mental freedom risks becoming an empty routine and a life unlived. Our limiting psychological baggage oozes up into our actions and reactions, depriving us of the ability to act with a free mental attitude. Confronting this baggage is called actualization, and it happens whenever we venture outside our comfort zone.

Actualization

Actualization is the meeting with our frontier. It generally makes people feel bad about themselves to begin with, and no one could endure living at the frontier – pushing their psychological boundaries – all the time. Nevertheless, if we are to expand our area of mental freedom, we must seek out the frontier in order to break new ground. That is what Acem Meditation – and especially long meditations – does.

What life can inflict upon us uninvited, we seek out in meditation. By acting with a free mental attitude in the repetition of the sound, we gradually move the frontier of our mental freedom zone. Actualization in meditation can take many forms. It can stick to the sound and make it more difficult. It can pick a quarrel with the repetition. It can plant metathoughts in our mind about how laughably inadequate we are. It can come as silent resistance that makes us irregular in our meditation habits or leads us to give up altogether.

It does not feel comfortable to be at the frontier: it disrupts our notions of a pleasant meditation and a good life. But that is where we must go, if we want to enter new territory. In long meditations this expansion of the frontier is much more methodical and accessible than in the complexity and confusion of daily life, where we have to cope with other people’s claims, demands and investments in us. When we reach our frontier with our repetition of the sound, we trigger the whole usual alarm system. We react spontaneously and without mental freedom. We struggle, fuss, flounder, accuse, get angry and feel inadequate. The traffic is so intense and so confusingly dangerous that all attempts at driving with a free mental attitude are in vain.

Change

That’s the moment when change becomes possible. Instead of submitting to inner turmoil, we can try to respond in a relaxed manner and find our way back to repeating the sound with a free mental attitude. Like life itself, it isn’t easy. It requires will power – but will power with a free mental attitude. And it is possible – over and over again. For the opportunity to act with mental freedom is always there, as part of our resources. And that is how we open up new areas in our inner wilderness.

This also implies that we must fine-tune our understanding of what acting with a free mental attitude means. Is it only a cool, untroubled thing in fine weather and favourable wind conditions – with no heat and no troublesome emotions? Hardly. We can even have a free mental attitude when we are angry. There is a big difference between an angry person who acts with a free mental attitude and one who doesn’t. The person who acts with a free mental attitude is in touch with the forms the anger takes, and is aware of the reactions the anger evokes. This person is not filled with undercurrents of rage that actually stem from other relations and situations. The angry person who does not act with a free mental attitude, however, is someone we probably know all too well.

Acceptance

During actualization periods in meditation, when we reach the frontiers of our area of inner freedom, what we are looking for is the mature and generous person – the person who can be levelheaded in the midst of troubling distortions. In other words, acting with a free mental attitude implies magnanimity and sobermindedness – and not least a basic acceptance of our imperfections.

Something in us wants to chase away all that disturbs and ruins our meditation – to struggle with it and choke it out. When we repeat the meditation sound with that attitude, there is no freedom, only conflict. This kind of conflict changes nothing. It only conserves the frontiers of our area of mental freedom. Acting with a free mental attitude produces change, because it accepts that the grating, jerking, annoying and unwanted are also a part of us. This is what we are seeking when we sit there at the frontier of our mental freedom, struggling with the repetition of a sound that does not always behave the way we would like it to.

Photo: Jamie Harris

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