Introduction to Meditation
A Course in Meditation
by Theodore K. Phelps ©
-from "Open House" pp. 19-34
Web readers please
note: this text is offered for your information, not as a replacement
for a course of instruction. The text is directly excerpted from the
book, and certain references do not make sense out of context.
-The natural meditative function
-An experience of quiet sitting
-Description of Natural Meditation
A Course in Meditation is a carefully designed
set of instructions that enables self-motivated readers to learn an
enjoyable, relaxing, health-supporting style of meditation in a few
days and to learn it in a low-cost, culturally neutral format based in
natural functions of the human body and mind. The seven-day course
builds the following skills:
Sitting: The ability to let yourself enter a
natural meditative state of mind and body for 15 or 20 minutes,
sitting almost anywhere, at any time, on anything reasonably
Practice: The ability to do one or two sittings of meditation nearly
every day and to understand how meditative growth fits into one’s aspirations for life.
I welcome you to this Open House, which is intended
to give you a taste of the course as well as a taste of the meditative
experience. This is the new version of the course that was first
published on the Internet by Natural Meditation Initiatives (www.natural-meditation.org)
in July 2000. It has helped people all over the world learn to
Some have thanked me for offering the course free
of charge, some for offering it in a culturally neutral format, some
for teaching classic concepts in a down-to-earth way, and some for
letting them remain anonymous (no registration is required). But
mostly, I am just glad to hear the course has worked. I never take
that for granted—not even in teaching students face to face. I can’t
take it for granted because meditating, for me and millions of others,
is the actual waking up of a meditative function or process
that lives within the human body and mind, something borne within us,
perhaps right in our DNA. Waking up the meditative function is
not the same as reading about meditation. In fact, the waking
up will not happen while reading. It can only happen after you put the
book down and begin letting meditation come alive on its own within
your body, mind, and heart. That’s an art. Learning it is art.
Teaching it is art.
The new version (that you are reading now) is
designed to bring the reader close to the experience of being in a
live class in Natural Meditation. The lessons, or "classes," are
called Day 1, Day 2, through Day 7 and are in the
next section, Classroom. They carefully build layers of concept
and experience and all focus on developing the two skills, sitting and
The student has choices in this course, which is
why it is called self-paced. The student sets the schedule and
manages the sessions. But, don’t worry. If you just want to settle in
and be shown each step of the way, you can do that. We’ll have a
clear, specific sequence for each day.
The course also has a textbook, separated into two
parts. Most of it is optional reading. The second part of the
textbook, Talks, has five chapters on "Meditation in
Perspective" that address people with a focused interest in meditation
theory, whether from a student’s or teacher’s practical perspective or
a scholar’s academic perspective. They put the subject of meditation
and its naturalness into perspective with respect to a wide variety of
concepts. You might enjoy reading the first of those talks right after
the Open House.
So, let’s start the Open House, now, with a talk of
the kind presented in the classes. It answers a good question, one
that students in a class might ask. (I present questions with a "Q:").
Q: "Why is this type of meditation called natural?"
Consider that question for a moment, even if you
are just guessing—or did I already hint at the answer? Try to come up
with an answer you would be willing to give aloud in class. Then keep
Q: Why is this meditation called “natural?”
A method of meditation can be called natural when
it doesn’t require the practitioner to concentrate or try hard for
results. A natural style of meditation is a gradual, graceful process
of opening, and when we sit, we welcome and encourage that opening, as
it happens and in the way it happens, without in any way attempting to
make it happen by our own skills, effort, or willpower.
I know that may not sound like what you have read
about meditation. Most books and articles I read use the words
concentrate and focus at least once. And it seems logical
to wonder: How can you meditate without concentrating, trying hard,
and focusing? How can you even drive a car like that, or paint, dance,
or do much of anything but fall asleep?
It is true that we fall asleep without trying, yet
scientists tell us that sleep is a complex, necessary process.
Clearly, something besides our own good efforts runs the sleep
function for us. Well, the same is true—or can be true—of a
session of meditation. That leads to the second point…
Let Nature Meditate Within Us
A natural style of meditation is designed around
natural functions and doesn’t try to do anything artificial with them.
To me, it feels like a cool drink of pure spring water. Meditation is
not just something to be done with the mind, like reading or thinking.
Of course, there is something that we do with the mind during
meditation, but there is also something that happens to us
when we meditate. And if we are not trying to control the experience,
yet something complex happens within us, then whatever is happening
must be built into us.
The natural function that happens in meditation
does good work for us, work that, in some ways, nothing else can do.
It lowers high blood pressure, clears out stress hormones, gives us
distance and perspective, and softens or opens the heart. Many of
meditation’s benefits can be gained with other practices, too, such as
yoga, aerobic exercise, t’ai chi, and a healthy diet and lifestyle.
But, a natural form of meditation can be the sweetest way and the most
graceful way to drop a teaspoon of health into the veins.
Meditation also has its unique work, a
transformative work that shows up suddenly here and there and
gradually builds over years and decades. It inspires growth in the
mind and heart, a creative, intelligent, caring breakthrough into new
territory. These transformations are sometimes called insight, growth
of wisdom, and enlightenment. Each sitting of meditation drops a
teaspoon of wisdom into the veins.
The Meditative Function
What happens within us during meditation is a
wonderful gift of nature. So, it ought to have a proper name. I simply
call it the meditative function, but it was called the
relaxation response in the early 1970s by Herbert Benson, M.D.
of the Harvard Medical School. He and physiologist, Robert Keith
Wallace, PhD. had studied the physiological features of meditation and
discovered that during meditation, oxygen consumption drops
significantly farther than it does during an eight-hour session of
sleep. This drop implies a significant, natural ability to get a
profoundly deep rest. Benson and Wallace published their findings in
Scientific American and American Journal of Physiology,
calling this effect a "wakeful hypometabolic physiologic state."
Benson later wrote about it in a bestselling book, The Relaxation
Response (1975). There have now been hundreds of studies showing
significant changes during meditation and beneficial effects that come
after sitting. You will learn more about this during the course.
The meditative function has both mental
(subjective) features and physiological (objective) features. Here is
a brief list:
• It is physically and mentally restful and can
be even more restful than sleep.
• It changes the chemistry of the blood to
soothe, heal, and release tension.
• It changes the brain’s and mind’s activity to
create a quiet inner awareness in which the mind opens and expands
and the heart softens.
If you haven’t previously heard about
the scientifically verifiable process that goes on in meditation, you’re not
alone. Unfortunately, it still is not widely taught in high school health.
It’s not that reporters ignore it. They have been working hard to get the
word out for many years. The latest major attempt I know about was admirably
mounted by TIME magazine in August 2003 with "The Science of Meditation" by
Joel Stern. Of course, TIME is one of the most-read newsmagazines in the
world. It reaches about nine million people each week, half of them outside
of the US. TIME didn’t just write a great article, rich in information and
graphics showing what happens during meditation. They all but shouted
it from the newsstand with an inch-high "MEDITATION" lettered
across an eye-catching cover of actress Heather Graham sitting in
Transcendental Meditation®. I can’t think of anything more a newsmagazine
could do to get busy people to stop and look—and to like what they
saw. Inside, the article jumped right in with:
"Scientists study it. Doctors recommend it.
Millions of Americans—many of whom don’t even own crystals—practice it
every day. Why? Because meditation works."
Despite good articles on health and meditation like
the TIME article, the health-related story of meditation—a
fascinating, highly significant story—still seems to pass over, under,
and around most people. But if you are ready to catch that story and
make it your own, to become conversant and even expert in the personal
practice of a health-based meditation, this course will get you
launched. It will, at a minimum, make you conversant in the natural
meditative process. You’ll learn about the meditative function, learn
what it does, what it is good for, why you might like to use it
regularly, and most importantly, you will learn how to wake it up
within yourself. You will graduate with something I like to call
It’s Right Here
The meditative function is a treasure, but I don’t
think of it as buried treasure. The ever-readiness of the
meditative function is clearly demonstrated to me each time I teach a
live class or give a public talk and lead people in a brief taste of
meditative flow. The room slips into a kind of silence that is unknown
to me except when people meditate. It is not that I have asked
anyone to try to be silent. I give some open, flowing imagery to help
them glide into place, and soon the room is quiet…very little
shuffling and shifting. Libraries of readers are not this quiet; a
congregation praying is not; an audience listening to a poetic reading
or a string quartet is not; and even a room of sleeping people can be
filled with the noise of heavy breathing, turning, snoring, and
mumbled speech. So, it is a noteworthy silence that graces a group of
people meditating. From where has this ability to be silent come?
Clearly, not from far.
A Quiet Moment
Let’s switch gears now and do an "exercise."
Actually, it will seem quite the opposite of exercise. You will have a
quiet experience similar to that of a natural style meditation. You
won’t need any special skills to enjoy this because you will be
experiencing something that has always been with you, which is the
natural flow of the mind. You have always had thoughts, and you
have always had feelings, and in this experience, you will ride with
that flow of the mind. Very graceful and accepting. If you have a
friend with you, one of you can read this aloud to the other, and if
you are alone, try reading it aloud to yourself in a soft voice or in
a silent word-by-word manner. Read and feel it like a poem…
[Read or Listen]
Sit comfortably and put both feet on the floor. You
can lightly cross your legs at the ankles.
You’ll be taking a quiet, solitary meditative ride.
You can think of this as being something like getting into a familiar
canoe and going down the lake for a while on a summer evening. The
water is calm, there’s a gentle breeze at your back, and a gentle
current, a gentle flow, helping you go where you want to go. You’ll be
riding along on that flow, gently assisting with the paddle.
Now, that’s just an image. And you can let that
image fall away or stay with you.
The flow of the lake is a metaphor for the flow of
The flow is the thoughts you are having…
The flow is the background sounds you hear…
The flow is the feelings that gently circulate
through the body…
All this is the lake. And it flows.
When you hear a sound or have a thought, you’re
feeling your flowing mind. And it is helping. It’s carrying you
in the right direction.
In a moment, close your eyes and sit for a few
minutes. Maybe five minutes. Don’t try to time it. Just let your
thoughts and feelings flow as they will.
Close your eyes and enjoy a few quiet minutes.
A Demonstration of Sorts
Welcome back! I hope
you had a pleasant experience. For some of you, this is a first taste
of the gentle, cooperative ride nature is ready to take us on during
meditation. At about this point in my live classes, I like to give a
quick demonstration of meditation. It is not all that exciting, I must
say. I move about as much as this line drawing. But, there are lots of
styles of meditation that look quite a bit different from Natural
Meditation. So a demonstration has some value.
To give a demonstration of sorts, let’s just look at the line drawing.
The person has
chosen to sit on a chair that supports her back yet lets her head move
freely. Her hands are placed on her lap, and both feet are on the
floor so that the legs aren’t crossed at the knee. She sits in an
almost casual way, yet we can tell she isn’t sleeping or working on a
solution to a problem.
Q: "How can you tell that?"
I guess it is something subtle, a bit hard to
describe. She seems to care about what she is doing. That’s different
from what we see in someone sleeping or lost in a daydream. The
posture is neatly symmetrical without being formal or rigid.
Recently, when I stepped onto a morning commuter
bus, my eyes fell immediately upon a person sitting at the back of the
bus with her eyes closed. The seats had headrests; so all I could see
was her face. But even so, I immediately thought, "She is meditating
and probably doing TM." Having taught the form of meditation called TM
(Transcendental Meditation®) full time for about five years in the
1970s, I had seen a lot of people doing TM, and having spent over a
year in meditation residence settings, I have seen a lot of people
meditating in lots of places, including busses and trains. Over the
next three days, I saw her each morning in the same seat doing the
same thing—sitting with hands in lap, eyes closed for most of the
30-minute commute. She could have been sleeping. Why not? A great many
of the commuters seemed to be. But, a few days later, I happened to
see her at a baseball game. She recognized me from the bus, and we
began chatting. I ventured what I consider to be a somewhat personal
question, "Are you meditating on the bus in the morning?" As you can
guess, she was indeed meditating. In fact, she has been meditating
daily since 1972—and doing TM.
So, there is something subtle that shows even in a
natural style of meditation that has no formal posture, such as TM,
Centering Prayer, and Natural Meditation.
Q: "So, you can do this pretty much anywhere?"
It just needs to be somewhere safe and relatively
quiet, but not necessarily a special room. The woman in the drawing
might be in her living room. It could be in her office or the library.
She has probably thought about the surroundings, the chair, her
posture, and possibly her clothing so that she makes these reasonably
comfortable and supportive of the meditative function. Other than
that, she is "come as you are" casual. As we have just heard, you can
even meditate every day on a bus.
Q: "What time of day do you meditate?"
Many of us do it just before breakfast and again
before dinner. Beginners should avoid doing it just before going to
sleep at night because meditation’s effects can keep you awake. You
can do sports or exercise either after or before meditation, but
should separate the two by at least half an hour.
Q: "How long does it last?"
20 or 30 minutes.
Q: "Would she be moving—if she weren’t a drawing?"
Actually, she might be almost as still as a
photograph after two or three minutes. If we watched her closely, of
course, we would see some movement. But, she is not trying to
stay still and will move as much as she needs to. This stillness is
just one of the natural effects of the meditative function as it
brings in a deep, metabolic rest and settled mind.
Q: "What do you think about or focus on?"
Well, remember that in a natural meditation, we
don’t concentrate or focus attention and don’t try to blank the mind
or cut out noises and sounds. Instead, we start out with an intention
to be in meditation and to let nature do some important work for us.
It is an executive’s kind of standing back and allowing the team to do
what it does best. The "team" is the natural process we are calling
the meditative function. Then, within that open attitude, we gently
recall—but do not focus on—a specific meditation word or phrase
without trying to make it special or doing anything to it. Other
thoughts float in and out. Awareness of the room shifts in and out. At
times we go more deeply into the enriched state of consciousness that
is unique to meditation. If you have been meditating in a way at all
similar to this, you understand what I mean. Otherwise, it might sound
a bit odd. That’s why we have a nice seven-day course laid out to go
into this carefully.
Q: "Is meditation a trance?"
No. And this is important to understand. In
meditation (at least the natural styles) we are quietly involved, or
absorbed, the way we are when we’re reading a good story. But, we are
not at all stuck, or under some influence. Let’s take a closer look at
our patient demonstrator’s face. Does she look like she is lost or
stuck inside and unable to do whatever she wants? I don’t think so.
There is a definite inwardness in her look, but I would say it looks
sentient and aware and not like the inwardness of sleep and dreaming.
Remember, she is in charge of the session, like a
company executive, but she is not trying to control it. She has
delegated her sitting time to the meditative function.
Q: "So I guess she can end it whenever she wants
Oh, definitely. Whenever she wants to end, she just
lets go of the intention to meditate and takes a few minutes to come
up from the deep restfulness of meditation.
The Course Plan
The Classroom section presents instruction,
actions, and homework for each day of your first week of meditation.
The chapters are called "Day 1," "Day 2," etc., through "Day 7." You
can complete the course effectively just by "attending" the classroom
and meditating each day.
We will learn the technique of meditation in three
stages: First, the structure of the technique (Day 1 and Day 2); then
the dynamics of staying in meditation (Day 3); and finally, the inner
direction of a sitting of meditation (Day 4). That will complete the
first skill of the course. The last three days will address the second
skill, building a daily practice.
Q: "How much time should I plan to spend on each
The classroom reading on each day may only take 15,
20, or 30 minutes. You can fit it into your schedule pretty much
anywhere—at the office, during a lunch break, after dinner, on the
or train. Outside of the classroom, you will do one or two 20-minute
meditations each day. The meditations should be separated by several
hours and should not come right after a full meal. A good time for
many people is just before breakfast and again just before dinner.
The "Student Readings" in Part 1 of the textbook
are important but optional and can be postponed until later if you
Q: "I might not have time on seven consecutive
That is part of the value of a self-paced
course like this. You can fit this into your life. You can have a day
or two come between the Day lessons if you need to. I would try to
have Day 1 through Day 4 be as close to consecutive as possible. But,
whatever you can do and enjoy doing is what you should go for. If you
are interested in meditating and do it regularly, the seedling you
start in the course will grow in time into a strong, healthy
If you just want to learn the technique and don’t
plan to use meditation as a practice, just study Day 1 through 4. You
can return to the course later if you decide to make it a regular
Thank you for attending our Open House. I hope to
see you later in the Classroom. If you want to continue this
kind of introduction, read Chapter 6, The Nature of Meditation.
If you like to read or are a teacher of meditation and want to learn
more about the theory and experience of natural style meditations, you
can continue and read all of the Talks. This can be done before
(or without) taking the 7-day course.