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Meditative Function
A Course in Meditation

by Theodore K. Phelps © 2007
-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 pressure.

• 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 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.


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