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A Message from the Founder

May 5, 2000

This spring I am launching a non-profit, educational endeavor called Natural Meditation Initiatives. In so doing, I will add to a long list of groups and programs dedicated, in one way or another, to meditation. Does the world need another one? I believe the answer is "Yes" and would appreciate your spending a few minutes to consider my reasons. Of course, for service organizations, the question is not whether the organization should exist, but whether the core problem that it seeks to overcome should exist—like hunger, poor housing, illiteracy, human rights violations, lung cancer...or the one I am addressing, meditative illiteracy, which is the lack of skills and knowledge in meditation. Natural Meditation Initiatives' objective is to raise the level of meditative literacy at all levels of society. The ability to meditate consists of theoretical knowledge, hands-on skill and the ability to maintain a practice of meditation in daily life.

In America, and other western cultures, most people have little interest in meditation and therefore have little knowledge or skill in the subject. Probably less than five percent of Americans would consider themselves skilled enough to sit down this afternoon and meditate for 15 minutes. Furthermore, few people seem to think this widespread lack of knowledge is a matter of public concern. Meditation is widely seen as a private, odd or old endeavor. Or useless. Not something for the average person.

Having observed this phenomenon for nearly 30 years as a teacher and tutor of meditation, I view this lack of concern as being based in old, inaccurate caricatures of meditation. Meditation is not just an old invention of men in far-away places. It is that, for sure, but it is also absolutely present in everyone, whether they like it or not. Whoever, or whatever, created the human being has already "wired us up" for meditation. The foundation and engine of meditative awareness exists in every human being in a very distinct physiological way. It is as natural and distinct as sleep or digestion. This is not a religious, philosophical or poetic statement, but a fact of modern mind/body research—research now over 25 years old!

Unless you have an interest in one of the traditional meditative cultures, such as Japanese Buddhism, you will not be likely to take an active interest in meditation; you will not have much reason to study it, nor to take time out of a busy day to do it. The impact of this is not simply that you would lack knowledge about meditation. After all, we cannot learn about everything. No, the impact would be that you wouldn't ever tap into the natural, rejuvenating spring waters of the meditative experience. This is a lost opportunity for health and long-range growth — a loss that cannot be measured.

For all their excellent work in caring for meditative theory and practice over the centuries, the great meditation traditions have not done enough to carry the message and methods of meditation over the monastery walls. Two newer (1970s) initiatives have done much better with this, Transcendental Meditation Program and the Mind/Body Medical Institute. Despite their efforts, however, meditative illiteracy remains very high, even among highly educated, socially mobile, open-minded people. Clearly, the message has not really hit home.

The message is this:

Meditation is not just something you do, but something that happens to you when you "press the right buttons". 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 subtly opens up and settles down. During this process the mind and body work in the background to repair and rejuvenate themselves. This is a complex, intelligent and effective function that arises as naturally as sleep, yet works on a different set of mind/body issues than does sleep. Regular experience of this enhances health and produces a long-term conditioning of the body and mind. This conditioning has given meditation its reputation as a central practice in the development of wisdom and happiness.

It is as if the human machine has a "meditation" feature installed as standard equipment in all models. This feature is already in there, in every healthy body, waiting to be turned up and put to use. This has little to do with taste, tradition, culture, religion or temperament. It is, rather, a little known chapter in the Facts of Life. As with all the biological facts of life, people deserve to know that their own bodies contain this meditative function. Since the function is already inside of them, they deserve to know about it and to find an uncluttered path on the way to becoming skilled in its use.

If "Meditation" were in a public relations race with "Aerobic Exercise", it would be way behind at this point. Interestingly, the race was just about even a generation ago. The scientific studies that launched the understanding of aerobic exercise began about the same time as those that demonstrated the physiological nature of meditation. Popular books and celebrity status came quickly to both subjects by the mid 1970s. The "race" was on, so to speak. "Aerobics" kept running and the public became increasingly saturated with information about its importance. Today everyone seems to know that aerobic (heart-lung) exercise is necessary for healthy hearts. The old ideas of weight lifting and calisthenics have moved aside as America has kept up with the exercise experts.

"Meditation" meanwhile, has not achieved anything like the same success. While some initiatives have slowed down, others have returned to, or just remained in, the traditional role of dealing quietly with people who have already become aware and interested in meditation. The major force for the "meditation is natural" message in the 1970s was the Transcendental Meditation Program. I was a teacher and administrator in that program. Although the TM technique and teaching method have stayed the same, and it continues to inspire scientific research that appears in professional scientific journals, its message has a hard time reaching into the heartland and living rooms of America anymore. Most of the two million Americans who have learned TM did so by 1980. Since then, the TM organization has returned to its Indian roots and has turned inward to serve the increasingly complex interests of its own people.

The meditative function and the aerobic "training effect" are like twin secrets revealed by science in recent years. The one works by getting up from your seat for twenty minutes of raised metabolism, and the other by staying in your seat for twenty minutes of lowered metabolism. These twins lie dormant in everybody until they are engaged through knowledge and skills and the will to keep up a regimen of practice.

Catching up with aerobics will require renewed focus and dedication. Even with that I expect it to take a generation or more. The people who must carry this message are the ones who have the literacy to speak about it. They will come from all over the map to share creative energy in compassionate service to these objectives. While NMI will serve the public, its most lasting value will take place in the lives of individuals. Like the Literacy Volunteers of America, NMI volunteers will raise the general level of literacy one mind at a time.

NMI will be a "big tent" under which people of widely varying meditation origins can collaborate. This work requires a respectful, inclusive approach. We call it barrier-free access to information, in which the barriers of greatest concern are those thrown up by culture, religion, philosophy, money, distance and authority. Everything offered under the NMI name will be open, culturally neutral, free of charge, free of personalities and authorities and available through the mail or Internet. NMI's structure and its approach to people and ideas is "on the ground". Its theoretical foundations are a meditation psychology, rather than philosophy or spiritual vision. Insofar as possible, resources and services will be offered free of charge, supported by donations of time and money.

If a student is self-motivated, he or she will be able to use NMI resources to learn theory and gain hands-on experience. With access to the Internet, a student will have free access to a complete set of resources, without travel or evenings a way from home. I plan to publish two courses this year. A Course In Meditation will present the principles of meditation psychology necessary to establish a daily practice in a culturally neutral, effective form of meditation called Natural Meditation. The course will be oriented to self-paced, adult learning at the high school and college level. Let's Meditate! will be for younger people and those who do not need the nuances of the fuller course. All of these materials also serve as guides to help NMI volunteers tutor people in their area. NMI local activities will help people gather socially, to meditate together from time to time and to discuss and discover together.

I invite you to study the NMI, peruse the web site as it is being developed this spring and to study the free web-based courses in Natural Meditation when they are ready. And most of all, to find an enjoyable and meaningful way to participate in NMI.

Thanks for your attention,

 

Ted Phelps

 

 

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