Learning the Relaxation Response Meditation
Herbert Benson was a cardiologist interested in demystifying meditation. It was clear that engaging in the practice of meditation results in many healthy benefits including physiological (e.g. reduced blood pressure and resting pulse rate), mental (e.g. lower stress levels and increased well being), and behavioral (e.g. reduced consumption of addictive substances) outcomes. However, it was unclear exactly what components of meditation were essential to produce these results; was it the style of breathing, posture, nature of the “mantra,” etc.? Real important questions because I’ve found that most people have a pre-conceived idea that meditation is “too hard to do.” If so many challenging aspects were proven to be necessary, than those feelings are valid obstacles that preclude the use of this tool for many people. Luckily, Benson found that there were only two factors that were required for maximal efficacy. Here’s what he essentially says is all you need to meditate and produce what he calls the “Relaxation Response:”
- Factor 1: Concentration on a repetitive focal point. He suggests it simply could be, for example the number 1. It is easy to repeat (being mono-syllabic) and emotionally neutral). Simply think to yourself (almost whispering out loud)…1…1…1…etc. I like to add a visual: I picture a blue number 1 flashing like a neon sign. That’s it for the first factor…keep repeating 1…1…1…
- Factor 2: Accepting the distracting chatter. Most people think they are “doing it wrong” when they get off course from their focus on 1; on the contrary, expect it! It is the nature of the nervous system. After one attempts for several moments to focus on the repetition, the tendency is to have some thoughts like, “I wonder if I’m doing this right” or “what am I supposed to be feeling?” Then random thoughts start, such as “wonder what I’m going to eat for dinner?” or “darn, I forgot to pick up the clothes from the cleaners!” Before long, it seems like this “chatter” has completely drowned out the 1-1-1 focus. At some point, however, there is that thought exactly, “I’ve gotten away from the 1-1-1 thing.” When that occurs, simply go back to repeating 1-1-1. In other words, during the course of a meditation session there will be a dance of sorts between signal and noise, focus and diffusion. That’s not only o.k., it’s supposed to happen.
Benson found that these two variables were common to diverse meditation practices. If someone has been “assigned” a unique mantra by a guru or can sit in a pretzel position…and those work for them, great! It’s just that the two factors described above consistently lead to results…and anyone can begin immediately! So, find a comfortable place to do this where you are not likely to be distracted (by kids, phone, etc.). Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and start focusing on 1-1-1…When the chatter starts, observe and accept it and return to the 1-1-1 when you can. Do this for around 10-15 minutes (ideally daily, but any time is good). Avoid reclining as you might fall asleep. Also do not do immediately after meals as this would compete with the digestive process. Although any one “session” of this might not lead to noticeable results, keep at it…and the Relaxation Response will reward you with many benefits…Enjoy!