The Natural “Meditative Function”
A Course in Meditation
by Theodore K. Phelps © 2007
-from “Day 3” pp. 63-66
Please note: we offer this text for your information, not as a replacement for a course of instruction. Because the text comes directly from the book, a few references do not make sense without having the rest of the book.
The following text is part of the seven-day course currently available only in the book. This following text is theory. The course consists of a good mix of theory and practice.
Ted Phelps says for this website:
My experience tells me that most of us, when first approaching meditation, especially from a western perspective, think it will be something we ourselves accomplish, just as it would with nearly anything else we must practice.
I also encounter very few people, even meditating teachers and monks and nuns, who have heard the amazing facts about the natural process we are here calling “the meditative function.” These facts arose quietly and beautifully in the last half century from science. They actually are not well appreciated in the ancient wisdom traditions — sources that we must credit (and thank) for inventing sitting meditation and bringing it forward to our times.
We can also largely credit the passion and detailed attention of a single, once quite well known meditation master, working in the west in the 1960s and onward, who came from India. He knew something very specific and valuable happens when meditation is done naturally. He induced many scientists to study it in the early 1970s and to publish in the world-respected scientific journals.
And from there, we can now see something that he saw, but never really named. His devoted followers have worked hard to promote it, but always tied to just their own highly controlled organization and method, as if they invented it in a lab. But the meditative function belongs to all humans as a birthright. Learning to activate and use it in our lives is just learning to, as if, push a “button” that is already installed in us, yet hidden or poorly understood.
The upshot of it is what we keep saying from top to bottom here on the Natural Meditation website and courses: we can let nature do the details. We can let nature meditate within ourselves.
The Meditative Function
The Meditative Function
The term “meditative function” refers to a suite of natural processes of the human mind and body that arise naturally during periods of meditation—as long as the meditator takes an open, receptive attitude.
Personal striving, such as trying to make the meditation be deep or concentrated, holds back the natural process, just as it would the sleep process. This function happens naturally, but only in periods of intentional non-striving.
Most people do not have occasion to set up a period of intentional non-striving, and when they do, it generally doesn’t last more than a few moments. That is why this natural function generally appears only when people meditate.
It makes sense, then, that people who don’t meditate would think that people who do meditate have highly unusual talent and skill. In reality, much of what happens when we meditate comes out of nature and is readily available to all of us.
The effects of this function appear simultaneously in the mind and body, summarized as follows:
Mind: Effects of the Meditative Function in the Mind
Effects in the Mind
- Opens and becomes expansive.
- Deepens and becomes inclusive.
- Rests and becomes quiet.
Body: Effects of the Meditative Function in the Body
Effects in the Body
- Relaxes and becomes warmer and softer.
- Rests and lowers the metabolism and blood pressure.
- Heals and cleanses and releases stress.
Science and the Meditative Function
Science and the Meditative Function
When scientists have studied this, they have seen it as being distinct from waking, dreaming, and sleeping. The masters of ancient India saw that, too. So, some have felt that the process deserves a distinct name. Herbert Benson, M.D. of Harvard Medical School called it the relaxation response in the mid 1970s and told the world about it in a bestselling book by that name. In Chapter 8 [available in the book], I explain why I consider “meditative function” to be a more accurate and balanced term.
If it weren’t for the hundreds of studies done on the physiology of meditation during the last quarter century, we probably wouldn’t have such a strong sense that something complex is happening to us during meditation. We would not know about subtle changes in the brain, nervous system, hormones, and blood.
Instead, we would just notice that the mind and body relax and settle down and would think, “That makes sense; I am just sitting still; naturally I will settle down a bit.”
A traditional Zen concept, for example, sees the turbulent mind as being like a pool of choppy water, incapable of clearly reflecting reality. Zen sees quiet meditation as allowing the waves of the pool to settle down and then to better reflect reality.
The meditation studies in the last 35 years have shown that much more goes on in the meditating body and nervous system than a simple settling down. For example, although we consume less oxygen when we meditate—as would be expected of someone at rest—we consume less oxygen than we do even at the point of deepest rest during a full night’s sleep. The metabolism drops to a point beyond what people ordinarily experience.
This occurs naturally with just a few minutes of meditation and without our trying to make it happen, or even caring about it. That was a groundbreaking finding made in 1970 by Benson and physiologist Robert K. Wallace, PhD. Since then, several dozen studies have looked at this phenomenon and corroborated the Benson/Wallace findings.
Other studies have also shown reduced tension, greater blood flow, and reduced blood pressure. Meditation lowers the blood concentrations of chemicals associated with stress, such as blood lactate and the hormone cortisol. Meanwhile, the blood levels rise for the calming hormones associated with wellbeing, such as melatonin and serotonin.
Dozens of researchers in recent decades have found patterns of brain activity during meditation that are distinct from those found in waking, dreaming, and sleep. Electrical brain frequencies in the range known as alpha and theta increase during the practice of meditation. Meditation also generates an unusual synchronization and coherence of brain activity across its various parts, an effect that has been scientifically associated with creativity.
Of course, the essence of meditation lies beyond these studies of physiology. While nature is taking care of us physiologically, it is also allowing our inner being to open and blossom. Meditation practice inspires growth of the person, the spirit, the creative mind, and the loving heart.
Many methods aim at building wisdom by directing thought toward subtle concepts, such as death, the unity of all living beings, the love of God, suffering, and compassion. Yet, amazingly, nature will also build wisdom for us, without our directing attention in specific ways. It does it during the same process that lowers metabolism, clears out cortisol, and synchronizes brain waves. When sitting within nature’s embrace, we can allow even the most profound kinds of inner growth to come into us organically over time.
I know it can sound as if I am saying nature will take care of everything you might have on your personal growth to-do list. Of course, it can’t do that. But meditation in the natural style can open us to integrated, holistic growth.
Only a source that is holistic and integral can create that in us. Nature has that quality. Human endeavor, by contrast, is almost always focused on one thing at the expense of all else.
Meditation methods based on focused striving, such as visualizations, can produce beneficial results in directions we have previously selected as needing attention.
A natural meditation, in contrast, takes no prior position about where we need to grow. It lets a natural process run its course. Natural processes exhibit an ancient intelligence that knows far better than the conscious mind what is needed and knows when and where to focus resources for growth.