Healthy in a Stressful World:
Beyond the Mysticism of Meditation
in one form or another has been around for thousands of years and occupies
a prominent position in most of the world's great religions. But it
wasn't until the 1960s that it became popular in the West after an Indian
monk, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, developed a form of meditation that could
be easily practiced.
Based on technique
rather than the religious orthodoxy and philosophies around which meditation
had evolved, the Maharishi first began teaching his brand of meditation
in India in 1958. He made his first tour of the West a year later when
Jack Kennedy was still just a member of Congress, the Beatles were unknown,
there was no war in Vietnam, and the 1960s were awaiting definition
by these and other cultural phenomena of the times, including the Maharishi's
at about the same time, was beginning to make connections based on research
begun in the 1950s, between the sleep-like physiology of Japanese Zen
monks highly practiced in meditation, and its application to countering
the effect of high blood pressure, one of the primary causes of heart
disease. In 1968 at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Herbert Benson took
up the offer of a group of ardent meditation students to study their
claim that they could control their blood pressure through meditation.
Benson's test results
showed that meditation produced the exact opposite effect of the body's
physiologic reaction to stress that is triggered by the overactivity
of our body's sympathetic nervous system; a mechanism that increases
blood pressure, the rate of respiration, and bumps up blood lactate
levels, all good and sensible things for an age when the rules of Darwinian
engagement were limited to these simple options--get ready to fight for
your life or run like hell. To Dr. Benson's astonishment, his group
of 18 meditators uniformly showed lowered blood pressure, decreased
rates in respiration that mimicked oxygen levels of people asleep for
four to five hours, and lowered blood lactate levels; a condition consistent
with decreased activity of the sympathetic nervous system. Benson referred
to his findings as "the relaxation response" and as a cardiologist,
realized immediately its applicability to fighting off hypertension
and heart disease.
The four basic components
of the relaxation response are these: a quiet environment, a mental
device to prevent the mind from wandering, a passive attitude, and a
comfortable position. In his book The Relaxation Response, Benson
further describes the techniques taught at the Mind/Body Medical Institute.
- Sit quietly
in a comfortable position.
- Close your eyes.
- Relax your all
your muscles, beginning at your feet, progressing up to your face.
- Breathe through
your nose and become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out say
the word "one" silently to yourself. Breathe easily and
- Continue for
10 to 20 minutes.You may use your eyes to check the time. Do not use
an alarm. When you finish sit quietly for several minutes, at first
with your eyes closed, then open them. Do not stand up right away.
- Don't worry about
achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude
and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace. When distracting thoughts
occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to
- Practice the
technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any
meal as the digestive process seems to interfere with the elicitation
of the relaxation response.