For thousands of years, religions the world over have extolled the benefits of meditation and quiet contemplation. In Islam and Catholicism, Judaism and Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, and in religious practice from the Americas to Africa to Asia, the value of sitting quietly, using various techniques to cultivate stillness or focused attention of the mind, has been well recognized.
The goals of religious meditation extend far beyond its potential physical health benefits and also extend beyond the scope of this book. Higher human function of body, mind, and spirit is explored in sacred literature throughout the world. An excellent summary of ancient and contemporary information on the subject can be found in Michael Murphy's landmark book The Future of the Body: Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature.
In the closing years of the Twentieth Century, the intimate connection between body and mind is widely acknowledged. Once the domain of speculation by mystics and philosophers, this realm has in recent decades been visited and revisited by scientists, who have produced an impressive array of documentation. Most of this research appeared after 1970, and there currently exists a state of informational jet-lag, in which the available documentation has not yet fully percolated through the scientific community. Thus, meditation remains a tool drastically underutilized within the medical fields.
The data pool is now so substantial that it can be stated, without fear of contradiction, that meditation and related relaxation techniques have been scientifically shown to be highly beneficial to health. Over a thousand research studies, most of them published in well-respected scientific journals, attest to a wide range of measurable improvements in human function as a result of meditative practices.
Herbert Benson, M.D., and the Relaxation Response
Herbert Benson's research at Harvard in the early 1970s led the way. Benson's impeccable credentials and university affiliation, along with the world-class quality of his work, led to publication of breakthrough articles on meditation in the Scientific American and the American Journal of Physiology. His book, The Relaxation Response topped the best seller lists in the mid-1970s, and is still widely read.
In The Relaxation Response, Benson concluded, based on his research, that meditation acted as an antidote to stress. The body's physical response under stress is well known; when a real or imagined threat is present, the human nervous system activates the "fight-or-flight" mechanism. The activity of the sympathetic portion of the nervous system increases, causing an increased heart beat, increased respiratory rate, elevation of blood pressure, and increase in oxygen consumption.
This fight-or-flight response has a purpose. If you need to run quickly to escape an attack by a wild animal or need increased strength to battle an invader, you will be better equipped to do so if the fight-or-flight mechanism is turned up to maximum intensity. But this mechanism functions best when used occasionally, for brief periods only. If activated repeatedly, the effects are harmful and potentially disastrous. It is not uncommon for people in modern societies to maintain high stress levels most of the time. The current epidemic of hypertension and heart disease in the Western world is in part a direct result.
The effects of meditation, Benson demonstrated, are essentially the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. Benson's research showed that meditation:
Decreases the heart rate
Decreases the respiratory rate
Decreases blood pressure in people who have normal or mildly elevated blood pressure
Decreases oxygen consumption
These basic findings have been replicated by so many subsequent studies that they are not in dispute. They also established once and for all that meditation is physiologically distinct from sleep. In sleep, oxygen consumption drops about 8 percent below the waking rate, and this decrease occurs slowly over a period of five or six hours. In meditation, it drops 10 to 20 percent in minutes. Moreover, alpha waves, which indicate a state of relaxed alertness, are abundant during meditation, and rarely noted in the sleep state.1
Meditation's Effects on Muscle Tension and Pain
Numerous studies have shown a decrease in muscle tension during meditation. As Michael Murphy points out, this Òcontributes to the bodyÕs lowered need for energy, the slowing of respiration, and the lowering of stress-related hormones in the blood.Ó In some studies, the decrease in muscle tension as a result of meditation even exceeded the impressive effects of biofeedback training. One interesting study measured the electrical patterns in muscles, and demonstrated that the lotus position (seated with legs fully crossed), a traditional posture for meditation, is the only position in which the bodyÕs muscles are as relaxed as they are when lying down.2
Meditation has also been shown to aid in the alleviation of pain. Extensive studies on chronic pain patients have been conducted by John Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., the founder and Director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, and Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Preventative and Behavioral Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn and his program were featured on the American public television (PBS) series Healing and the Mind, with Bill Moyers.
Dr. Kabat-Zinn's studies have demonstrated decreases in many kinds of pain in people who had been unresponsive to standard medical treatment. A large majority of the patients in Kabat-ZinnÕs studies who were taught to meditate improved, while control groups of similar patients showed no significant improvement. Various related studies have shown improvement in pain from muscle tension, headaches, dysmenorrhea, and other conditions.3
Changes in Brainwaves and Enhanced Perception
It should come as no surprise that among the well-documented effects of meditation is the alteration of brain-wave patterns. Dozens of studies have shown an increase in alpha rhythms, which are correlated with a state of relaxed alertness. In addition, numerous studies have shown enhanced synchronization of alpha rhythms among four regions of the brainÑright, left, front, and back. This may be an indication of increased coherence of brain-wave activity.4
Some researchers have demonstrated positive effects of meditation on mind-body coordination, exploring this area by measuring such parameters as visual sensitivity to light flashes,5 response to auditory stimuli,6 and ability to remember and discriminate musical tones.7 There are also indications that during meditation the function of the right hemisphere of the brain (generally correlated with creativity and imagination) is enhanced, while that of the left hemisphere (generally correlated with linear, intellectual thought) is inhibited.8
Despite the encouraging trend of increased research attention to the subject in recent years, scientific evaluation of meditation is still in its early stages. While certain benefits have been proven, much remains untested. Furthermore, the technology may not yet exist to validate many of the most profound effects of meditation. It is likely that research in the coming decades will take us far beyond our current knowledge, just as todayÕs level of understanding far exceeds that which existed prior to 1970.
Now that the value of meditation has been established, one might reasonably ask next: What exactly is meditation, and how do I meditate? Ironically, these questions are not easy to answer, because there are so many different approaches.
Most widely used meditation methods evolved as part of religious traditions and, as such, each of them may be controversial for people who do not identify with the tradition in which the particular method developed. Since this is a book on health rather than religion, I want to tread lightly when discussing religious meditation. I personally have found value in meditative techniques of religious origin, whether it has been the Vedic roots of Transcendental Meditation, the Judeo-Christian orientation of Edgar Cayce's method, or the Buddhist origin of various Tibetan, Chinese or Japanese practices.
I have personally practiced several of these techniques and feel that I have benefited from each. But out of respect for all who have qualms about mixing their health care with religion, when I speak to patients about meditation I always encourage use of a method consistent with their own beliefs. I usually say something like, "I'm not selling a particular brand." I also emphasize to my patients, and wish to reiterate here, that the physical health benefits of meditation can be attained through the practice of any of the methods in this chapter, and through other methods as well.
The Relaxation Response
Aside from generating groundbreaking research, it may be that Herbert Benson's most lasting contribution is the development and popularization of a meditative technique with no religious overlay. This approach allows those who are not religious, or whose beliefs may appear to conflict with the teachings connected to a particular meditation system, to nonetheless participate fully in this worthwhile, health-giving activity.
According to Benson, the relaxation response technique produces the same physiological changes as does Transcendental Meditation, the method which has been most fully researched in scientific settings.
Here are Benson's directions for evoking the relaxation response.
(1) Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
Transcendental Meditation (TM) and the Use of Mantras
(2) Close your eyes.
(3) Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed.
(4) Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word "ONE," silently to yourself. For one example, breathe IN. . . OUT, "ONE"; IN. . . OUT, "ONE,": etc. Breathe easily and naturally.
(5) Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.
(6) Do not worry about whether you are successful in 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 repeating "ONE." With practice, the response should come with little effort. Practice the technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal, since the digestive processes seem to interfere with the elicitation of the relaxation response.9
TM was brought to the Western world in the mid-twentieth century by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an Indian spiritual teacher. The Maharishi's method has been taught to hundreds of thousands of people, and is widely credited with being the first form of Eastern meditation to be practiced on a mass scale in the West.
Herbert Benson's original research subjects were TM practitioners (they were the ones who approached him with the idea of doing research on meditation), and it is TM that Benson used as the basis for formulating his relaxation response method. The relaxation response incorporates many of the principles of TM, but with the Indian tradition removed. TM organizations assert that something significant is lost when the traditional methods are not followed in full.
I cannot provide a step-by-step series of instructions for TM as I did for the relaxation response, because those who receive instruction in TM agree not to reveal the details of what they have learned. I feel it is appropriate to share certain general principles of the TM teachings, however, since they may well be applicable elsewhere. TM is presented as a method that involves neither concentration nor contemplation. That is, unlike some meditative practices, you do not attempt one-pointed focus on an idea or a visual image nor do you pursue trains of thought, however interesting, worthwhile, or inspired they may seem.