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Meditation 101

By Dr. Herbert Benson

Photo of a man meditatingIn "Just Relax," Alan serves as FRONTIERS' guinea pig once again. This time it pays off, as Dr. Herbert Benson—founding President of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School—shows Alan how to evoke what he calls the "relaxation response." Benson believes that relaxation not only feels good, but can help us "breakout" of destructive or negative thought patterns and open the door to different kinds of peak experiences—self-awareness, creativity, productivity, athleticism, rejuvenation, and transcendence,

Below, Benson provides the four simple steps to guide you to the relaxation response.
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Book cover of The Break-Out Principle by Herbert Benson
The Break-Out Principe How to Activate the Natural Trigger that Maximizes Creativity, Athletic Performance, Productivity and Personal Well-Being.

How to Elicit the Relaxation Response By Dr. Herbert Benson excerpted from: The Breakout Principle: How to Activate the Natural Trigger that Maximizes Creativity, Athletic Performance, Productivity and Personal Well-Being.

Step 1: Choose a meaningful word or short phrase that can be repeated silently on a single exhalation, or outbreath.
If possible, the word or phrase should be solidly rooted in your personal belief system. Remember, by combining the repetition with your personal beliefs, you may enhance the impact of the exercise by incorporating the placebo effect. This combined repetition-belief exercise is what I have referred to in my previous writings as the "faith factor."

So if you are Jewish, you might say shalom. If a Sikh meditator, you might use sat nam, as the participants in our previous study did. If a Christian, you might choose Jesus is Lord. Or if you affirm some nonreligious belief system, you might select a line from a favorite poem of philosophical work. On the other hand, if you don't have a particular personal philosophy, any neutral or uplifting word or phrase will do, such as one, peace, or love. In "Just Relax", Alan chose the word calm.

Step 2: Assume a comfortable sitting position, close your eyes, breathe easily and regularly, and repeat your chosen word or phrase silently on the outbreath for ten to twenty minutes.

Step 3: Don't fight or be upset with distracting thoughts or interruptions-just gently turn away from them and return to your silent repetition.
It's normal for your mind to wander, especially when you are just getting used to this exercise. The important thing is not to become uptight or begin to feel you have failed. Rather, just sigh and say silently, "oh, well," and return to the repetition.

Step 4: After the allotted ten to twenty minutes have passed, open your eyes, sit quietly for a few minutes, and allow everyday thoughts to enter your mind.

It's at this stage of the exercise that you are most likely to experience a Breakout. Physiologically, your body is releasing extra amounts of nitric oxide, along with neurotransmitters associated with feelings of well-being and protection from stress. Also, your brain has undergone a general quieting, but with heightened activity in the attention and executive-control centers.

The repetitive activity has broken the prior thought patterns of your conscious mental state-a precondition for the "release," "backing off," or "letting go" experience that will typically precede a Breakout and peak experience. But even though you have broken those old thought patterns and have reduced your stress levels, the research, facts and analyses you have performed are still resting there in the background, ready to be re-arranged and reassembled into new, more creative configurations.

In essence, Breakouts and peak experiences often involve new ways of looking at old problems and fact patterns. The trick is to find a way to step outside or "float above" the previous, dead-end trains of thought-and that's what this rather formal, repetitive Breakout triggering mechanism is all about.

To learn more about Herbert Benson and meditation please see our resources section.

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