A Course in Meditation
by Theodore K. Phelps ©
-from "Day 3" pp. 63-66
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 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:
• Opens and becomes expansive.
• Deepens and becomes inclusive.
• Rests and becomes quiet.
• Relaxes and becomes warmer and softer.
• Rests and lowers the metabolism and blood
• Heals and cleanses and releases stress.
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, I
explain why I consider "meditative function" to be a more accurate and
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
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
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.