In this chapter, we will introduce meditation as a general subject and show how Natural Meditation fits into the larger picture of meditation in general.
Meditation is a big topic. If we could collect all the books written about meditation, it would surely fill a library—much of it old, much of it brand new. The volumes would speak in every language. Some would be crumbling ancient texts and others would be freshly minted. Some would be on papyrus and some on CD ROM. Some would be secured in air-conditioned glass cabinets and others would be a click away on an Internet computer. People in every culture, in every time, it seems, have been interested enough in this topic to record their ideas, probably trying to capture it, save it, and deliver it safely into the hands of their children.
If you know one thing about history and civilization, you know that human culture is widely varied. You will not be surprised to hear that ideas about meditation are a complex garden of variety. Each represents a particular people, culture, or philosophy, expressed in a particular time and place. So, no one can accurately answer the question "what is meditation?" and speak for all. The same is true here. We speak from within the current "information age" culture, but bring a widely inclusive viewpoint to the subject of meditation because we see the meditative process as something that is built into the human nervous system and already naturally owned by each of us, regardless of ethnic origin or personality type.What is meditation?
The word meditation has many meanings. It is like sports, covering a wide world of activities from the casual, spontaneous, and unregulated to the formal, scheduled, and rule-based. Leaving aside the meditations that are casual, like sitting by the ocean and thinking, what remains are the meditations that are designed, scheduled events. These usually are defined by men and women in long traditions of meditative culture. They are prescribed methods, involving the body and mind, that alter the object or direction of attention for an extended, formal period.
A meditation of this kind usually consists of a single person, or a group of people, sitting with eyes closed or lowered and remaining silent for specific periods, doing something specific with attention. A typical Zen sitting, for example, lasts 24 minutes and is done on a cushion or chair with back straight and eyes lowered. Attention is oriented to something specific, often nothing more complicated than the movement of the breath. Some methods involve outward rituals (bells, incense, scriptural readings) derived from the cultures in which they were born. Almost all involve internal rituals or programs that focus or redirect the individual or the group’s attention. Often, but not always, the redirection is inward.
Daniel Goleman, behavior science writer for the New York Times and Psychology Today notes that, "In some respects, every method of meditation is like all others, like some others, and like no other...all meditation systems are variations on a single process for transforming consciousness. The core elements of this process are found in every system, and its specifics undercut ostensible differences among the various schools of meditation." [The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditative Experience, p.102, Putnam, 1988]
The kind of meditation you will be learning here, Natural Meditation, works in a direct, uncluttered way with one of the most valuable of the “core elements” Goleman refers to. Natural Meditation is designed to nature’s specifications, rather than those of culture or religion, and it aims directly at delivering an effective experience of a unique function of the human mind and body. This function heals, rests, rejuvenates, deepens and expands and it can come into play within the first few minutes of a non-striving type of meditation. We will call it the meditative function.
Natural Meditation does not use elements from culture, religion, and philosophy because they are not necessary for the full experience of the meditative function and they present barriers to learning and participating in meditation for many people. It should be done in a comfortable, sitting position with back support, as you have in a chair or couch.
What do you do in meditation?
What people do during meditation ranges across the psychological map. Here are a few summaries of the internal attitudes or postures used in meditation:
Natural Meditation is a blend of being, mindfulness and repetition. But that makes it sound like a juggler’s feat, which it certainly is not. It is easy to learn and to do because it rides on a natural process and flows with the mind, not against it. It is very graceful and accepting.
Natural Meditation is less about what you do and more about what you allow nature to do for you. This is what we mean by saying it elicits a “meditative function.” Within minutes of starting a non-striving form of meditation—and, it must be this kind—the body and mind automatically turn on a built-in function that creates the environment, or foundation, of the meditative experience. The body metabolism slows, and the mind opens up and settles down. During this process, the mind and body work in the background to repair and rejuvenate themselves. This complex, intelligent and effective function arises as naturally as sleep, yet works on a different set of mind/body issues than does sleep.
Why do people meditate?
Given the variety of methods, it is not surprising that people meditate for a wide variety of reasons. The motivating factors tend to fall in these categories:
People meditating within strong meditative traditions may have all four of these motivations at work, while those who pick up meditation as a life-enhancing skill usually focus on heath. Improving health is a primary motivation for doing Natural Meditation because it is designed for experiencing a natural healing process of the mind and body. Since it is culturally and philosophically neutral, it does not directly aim at wisdom, but the meditative function is an invaluable aid and incubator for the development of wisdom. Then too, it is enjoyable, which helps with the day-to-day motivation necessary to make time for it.
Meditation is popularly linked with the now-common words guru and enlightenment, and it has a reputation for being an unusual activity, suited for an introspective, quiet person, and only mastered by spiritual athletes. But, that is a misleading stereotype that has begun to change in the West during the last generation as meditation has moved a lot closer to home. It has earned a reputation as an aid to modern, active living. Like health food, jogging, and alternative medicine, meditation is often credited with increasing energy, creativity, sexuality, intelligence, coordination, assertiveness; decreasing headaches, weight, hypertension, stress, and smoking.
Although it is great that meditation is now being seen as having “a little something for everyone”, it is important to remember that meditation is a very deep well. You can easily draw up some water from time to time to satisfy the needs of the day, but drawing it every day, year after year, does more than satisfy a thirst. It becomes what psychologists call transformative practice. Here’s a short list of the kinds of personal attributes associated with meditative development. Since few people feel they are even close to fulfillment in any one of these, anything that offers to improve all of them, even if just a little, is worth looking into.
Enthusiasts might go a bit over the top in promoting meditation as a cure-all, but this much is pretty nearly common sense: Anything that sharpens and energizes the mind and body has to improve just about everything that a person experiences. Meditation works on the inner person, which is the core of experience. All thoughts, feelings, and sensations pass in and out through that core of experience. You know the impact that feeling grumpy and tired, or sick and weak has on your day—how it diminishes each moment and also has a way of compounding things, setting you up for more trouble throughout the remainder of the week. So, anything you can do to keep yourself on the happier, brighter, healthier side of life makes a big, compounded difference. Over a decade, the difference is immeasurable. There are now hundreds of scientific studies on the effects of meditation, and they sweep across a wide range of disciplines. There are many amazingly complex changes in body chemistry and brain, heart, and lung functioning during meditation as well as a full suite of psychological, health, and social improvements that come in gradually with regular practice.
The way these effects are understood and talked about varies among the meditative traditions. In the terms we will use here, these effects are the product of exposure to the meditative function. Just as water, when swallowed, travels to all parts of the body, the restorative effects of deep rest and an opened mind penetrate all aspects of life.
TwinTraining Effects: Aerobics & Meditative Awareness Sports produce conditioning as an automatic by-product. When you play basketball, a very active sport, you not only run and dodge and throw, you also raise the rate of your heart and lungs. The effect of that physiological change is a conditioning of the body called the “training effect.” Over time the body becomes better, not just at basketball, not just at sports, but also at all sorts of things needing endurance. Even chess. In addition to the noticeable performance boost in major activities, hidden physiological improvements affect the whole body. The tissues absorb oxygen more efficiently and the heart and lungs deliver it more effectively. The sum effect of this is greater alertness, health and endurance.
Meditation also conditions the body, mind and heart—not just the heart that beats in aerobics, but the heart that beats in love and caring. Meditative conditioning is a long-range effect that keeps on coming year after year, for decades and for a lifetime. Meditative conditioning and aerobic conditioning are twin processes that lie dormant in everybody until they are engaged through knowledge and skills and the will to keep up a regimen of practice. Aerobics is elicited when we get up off our seats for about 20 minutes and raise the metabolism above normal levels. Meditative conditioning is elicited when we get off our feet for about 20 minutes and lower the metabolism beyond normal levels.
Doing Natural Meditation
A session, or “sitting”, of Natural Meditation is timed and usually lasts 20 or 25 minutes. Sittings are done in a chair, or on a couch or cushion, or even in bed. The sitting posture supports deep relaxation without being slouched. During the sitting, the eyes are closed and a specific thought or word—one that is kept the same from sitting to sitting—is gently recalled. This type of meditation aid is called a mantra, which is a term from India.
Natural Meditation uses gentle, unfocussed repetition to ease the mind out of striving and to allow it to open into transcendence. It is this method, and not the mantra, that allows the meditative function to come forth. The method is gentle, unforced, and almost transparent. And simple as that sounds, most people need to have it explained several times and from several angles before they feel they have sufficiently understood it. This is why Natural Meditation instruction is carefully constructed and takes longer than might seem necessary.
Learning most introductory styles of meditation, including Natural Meditation, can be accomplished in one or two sessions with a tutor, and the basics can be presented in a pamphlet. But, even when you learn with a tutor at your side, it is hard to absorb everything that is important for a good launch . It takes time to let the ideas come alive in the mind and heart, and it often requires critical thinking (i.e. intelligent questioning). This kind of thinking is greatly aided by having the ideas presented in print.
That said, there is nothing wrong with sitting down right now and having a meditative experience. Here is a short guide for that. You can also find audio aids for introductory experiences at the Natural Meditation Initiatives website.
A MEDITATIVE EXPERIENCE