Theory of the “Naturals,” Five Key Definitions

A Course in Meditation

by Theodore K. Phelps © 2007

-from Chapter 8, “The Naturals” selected quotations

Definition #1 "Meditation"

Can we make a sufficiently broad definition for … the formal sitting meditations that have long anchored the great religious and spiritual meditative traditions? It is not easy. Here is my attempt: (I number the five definitions presented in this talk).


the act of engaging an agenda of mental and bodily actions or postures, usually minimal and repetitive in form, designed to influence the direction of attention, usually inward, or the content of thought and perception, in order to refine subtle functions of body and mind or to express or participate in a subtle reality. Phew! That’s a mouthful—and a mindful. Clearly, teachers wouldn’t use this definition to teach people how to meditate. It is an academic definition attempting to include a wide range of methods while excluding programs that most of us would not consider meditation. It defines a big tent.

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Definition #2 "Meditative Function"

Long before people invented the acts we call meditation, nature or the Creator built something into human physiology and psychology that would make meditation possible. This wiring might have been in humans from the beginning, before civilization and before any culture we have a name or history for. Regardless of its history—maybe it arrived only 5,000 years ago—we have it inside us now. We have it regardless of upbringing, culture, religion, or philosophy. What is it?

Within minutes of starting a non-striving form of meditation—it works best with that kind of meditation—the body slows and the mind opens and settles down. A complex, intelligent, and effective function arises as naturally as sleep, given the right conditions. The function has been studied scientifically for several decades and is often called the “relaxation response,” a term coined by Herbert Benson, M.D. of Harvard Medical School in the mid 1970s. I call it the meditative function and will explain why in the third talk (Chapter 8).

It is our second definition:

Meditative function:

a suite of natural processes of the human mind and body, distinct from those of waking and sleeping, that arise naturally during periods of intentional non-striving, generally while sitting in non-striving forms of meditation.

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Definition #3 "Nature-supporting Meditation"

The meditative function can emerge slightly during quiet moments without our giving it a name, caring about it, or even knowing about it. But like all natural functions, it takes time to fully blossom. In this case, it takes 10 or 15 minutes of uninterrupted, intentional sitting with eyes closed or lowered.

Those conditions rarely exist outside of meditative settings. Also, the conditions that most support and encourage the meditative function do not appear equally in all methods. The higher the degree of personal control, the lower will be the natural effect.

I like to think of the meditative function as a patient, highly respectful servant or employee who will only enter the boss’s office when invited or allowed to do so. Therefore, methods that best support and encourage the meditative function invite or allow the meditator to get out of the way and let nature work.

They have these features:

  • Clear intention to be in meditation.
  • Ease in the body. A safe setting. Sitting comfortably.
  • Ease in the senses. Eyes closed or lowered. Quiet.
  • Ease in the ego. Not competing with nature.

Notice the theme? Ease pervades meditation methods that support and encourage the meditative function. Since not all methods do this with equal efficiency, I give a name to the ones that are good at it.

It is our third definition:

Nature-supporting meditation

meditation methods with prescribed mental and physical actions that support and encourage the meditative function.

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Definition #4 "natural meditation" (lower case)

A nature-supporting meditation might not have the meditative function as part of its conscious design or aims. Its traditions and purposes may be elsewhere. But its method, or the way the person holds that method, must provide the conditions of ease in body, sense, and ego. For example, a meditation might be a “training the heart” method with repetition of a thought about God’s mercy. If the method is handled with ease, the meditative function will turn on, even though the meditator has interests that lie elsewhere.

When a meditation method is designed to support the meditative function, its designers intentionally keep the method spare. This is because any flourishes can snag the meditator’s habits of personal striving.

So, here is our fourth definition:

natural meditation: (lower case)

a meditation designed specifically and minimally to be a nature-supporting meditation.

-page 192

Definition #5 "Natural Meditation" (upper case)

The nature-supporting method I designed, Natural Meditation, was intended specifically for culturally neutral, non-religious, self-paced settings such as A Course in Meditation. I designed it to be welcoming for people who want to avoid practices based in foreign cultures, philosophies, and religion. The method is especially minimal to avoid cultural snags. It has what is needed to support and encourage the meditative function, but nothing more.

Natural Meditation: (capitalized)

a specific form of natural meditation designed in 1994 by Ted Phelps for use in a non-cultural teaching method by the same name. I will return to these ideas in more detail in my next talk and present a way of classifying meditation based not just on what the teachers say, but on what actually happens with the meditator.

-page 196