In his book, A Course in Meditation, expert meditation teacher Theodore K. Phelps defines meditative function as:
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. – A Course in Meditation, p. 188 (read 1st 34 pages online – PDF)
The meditative function is physiologically and psychologically real. It isn’t a philosophy or aspiration. It is solid enough to be measured in physiology labs. – p. 188
It has been measured and analyzed in many ways by many scientists, dating back to Dr. Herbert Benson’s 1970’s pioneering study of the relaxation response (Benson-Henry Institute definition). Instead of relaxation response, Phelps uses the term meditative function because he sees “the need for a name that reflects more accurately all that goes on during meditation.”
I prefer the Phelps term because of the way that people use relaxation response as the name of a clinically established state of rest interchangeably with the name of a particular kind of exercise (which includes mantra meditation). People use relaxation response to elicit the relaxation response.
We don’t digest digestion. However, we do engage or activate a natural function via the act of meditation similar to the the idea that we activate the function of digestion via the act of eating. Digestion involves some processes going on long after we’ve stopped eating … all day, in fact, always. So does the meditative function.
We should be clear on what Dr. Benson is talking about. His clinical treatment and research facility, The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine (BHI) at Massachusetts General Hospital says in its FAQ:
The relaxation response was defined by Herbert Benson, MD, in 1974 when he found that there was an opposite state to the stress response (the fight-or-flight response). The relaxation response is a state of deep rest that changes the short- and long-term physical and emotional responses to stress (e.g., decreases in heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension). Methods to elicit the relaxation response include meditation, mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, tai chi, and yoga.
What is meditation? Ted Phelps gives this definition:
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. – p. 177
He does not leave you wrestling with that! Phelps explains at length every part of these complex definitions, in plain language. In reader-friendly, gentle, teaching style, Phelps’ book gives a full education in meditation, with training and help for developing and sustaining a meditation habit and practice. The book includes a comprehensive history and explanation of meditation and the meditative function, with a focus on nature-supporting types of meditation.
He defines nature-supporting meditation (or natural meditation) as:
Meditation methods with prescribed mental and physical actions that support and encourage the meditative function. – p. 190.
Phelps offers examples of natural meditation methods, ones that “invite or allow the meditator to get out of the way and let nature work.” (I added the hypertext links in this list. They are for information only and do not represent endorsements of anything said on those websites, except the last one). The list from Phelps’ page 195:
- Zen’s Shikantaza (c. 1250, Japan)
- Transcendental Meditation (c. 1956, India) [designed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi]
- Acem Meditation (c. 1966, Norway)
- Relaxation Response (c. 1974, USA) [the style designed by Dr. Herbert Benson]
- Centering Prayer (c. 1974, USA) [formulated by Father Thomas Keating]
- Natural Meditation (1994, USA) [designed by Theodore K. Phelps]
The book refers to scientific evidence of mental and physical benefits of natural meditation. It explains why and how you can and should arouse your natural, built-in meditative function, for holistic health and wellness.
The meditative function is not something you create. It is something working within you already, a natural process. Natural meditation supports and expands application of this process.
As a trusted authority and master on the topic, Ted Phelps has given the world a book that will become a classic on the topic of meditation, if the world is sane enough. Buy the book for your local library, and share natural-meditation.org and this blog post.
Phelps is founder of the not-for-profit organization Natural Meditative Initiatives (natural-meditation.org), where you can get a FREE, self-paced course in Natural Meditation, to use online or download. His approach is culturally neutral (not religious, not theological, not doctrinal, not tied to a special philosophy, and not needing yogic physical practice) and independent — not affiliated with any other meditation-related teacher or organization.
It will be a better world when this book becomes mandatory reading for every high school student.
What do you think?
Have you read the book? Taken the free online or downloadable version of the course? Studied with Ted in other ways?
Do you practice meditation? Do you want to start now? Do you plan to buy the book? Been to the website?