Meditation and Relaxation

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.

    Meditation Methods

    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.

      (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

    Transcendental Meditation (TM) and the Use of Mantras

    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.

    Instead, you use a mantra (a seed-syllable or primordial sound) given to you by a TM teacher. The sounds used for mantras, which are derived from Sanskrit, do not have a verbal meaning, and thus are not intended to engage the cognitive mind. The mantra is a sound you say silently to yourself, which functions something like the ringing of a bell. Just as Benson used the word “ONE” in the sample directions given for the relaxation response, TM practitioners use their mantras to help still the mind when distracting thoughts intrude.

    The internal chatter created by these thoughts is a normal occurrence. (What shall I wear this morning? How will I ever solve that problem at work?) But meditation time is not for working on problem solving. When the thought arises, you should acknowledge it, and then let it pass, silently repeating the mantra to yourself.

    Eknath Easwaran, an Indian-born meditation teacher, philosopher and author, speaks of the purpose of the mantra in his book Meditation. He says, “Our aim, remember, is to drive the mantra to the deepest levels of consciousness, where it operates not as words but as healing power.”10

    For those who do not practice TM, some possible mantras from various traditions are:



      Om Mani Padme Hum

      Om Nima Shivaya

      So Hum

      Hari Om

      Tat twam asi

      Thank You

      The Lord is My Shepherd

      Thy Will Be Done

    It is common for beginners at meditation (of all types) to experience a great deal of mental chatter and clutter. If this happens to you, it does not mean that you are doing anything wrong. Just notice each thought as it comes, and then let it pass on by, using the mantra to, as it were, break the spell. As a rule, people who are patient enough to continue the practice of meditation for months or years note gradual changes in the ratio between silence and internal chatter. Step by step, there is more silence and less chatter. Even experienced meditators, however, are likely to have periodic increases in the amount of internal chatter, especially in times of stress.

    Deepak Chopra on Meditation and Health

    Deepak Chopra, M.D., is a physician and author who practices TM. Trained as an endocrinologist, he now practices traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine (which emphasizes the use of herbs and meditation) in Massachusetts, and has authored several best-selling, highly influential books on holism, the best-known of which is Quantum Healing. Dr. Chopra also serves on a review panel for the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine.

    In his book Unconditional Life: Discovering the Power to Fulfill Your Dreams, he provides a set of questions with which to evaluate meditative practices.

    “There are any number of important issues to consider when evaluating a form of meditation—above all: Did my mind actually find the silence I was seeking? Was I psychologically comfortable during and after meditation? Did my old self begin to change as a result of having meditated? Is there more truth in my self?”11

    For Dr. Chopra, TM provided what he sought. Similarly, I know people who have practiced TM for years, enjoy it greatly, and find it to be supportive of their physical well-being and personal growth.

    I interviewed Dr. Chopra, and asked how he views the relationship between meditation and healing. His answer draws on some of the concepts explored in depth in Quantum Healing:

    “Our bodies ultimately are fields of information, intelligence and energy. Quantum healing involves a shift in the fields of energy information, so as to bring about a correction in an idea that has gone wrong. So quantum healing involves healing one mode of consciousness, mind, to bring about changes in another mode of consciousness, body.

    “Meditation is a very important aspect of all the approaches that one can use in quantum healing, because it allows you to experience your own source. When you experience your own source, you realize that you are not the patterns and eddies of desire and memory that flow and swirl in your consciousness. Although these patterns of desire and memory are the field of your manifestation, you are in fact not these swirling fluctuations of thought.

    “You are the thinker behind the thought, the observer behind the observation, the flow of attention, the flow of awareness, the unbounded ocean of consciousness. When you have that on the experiential level, you spontaneously realize that you have choices, and that you can exercise these choices, not through some sheer will power, but spontaneously.”12

    I asked Chopra whether he felt that TM was superior to other forms of meditation, and his answer reflected a broadminded respect for other approaches:

    “I feel that all forms of traditional meditation which are time-tested are worthwhile. My experience is with TM, therefore I am best qualified to speak about TM . . . My experience is that it is effortless, easy, spontaneous. It allows the mind to simply transcend to its source. This does not mean I think Zen is not a good form of meditation, or that Vipassana is not. They are all authentic forms of meditation. That is why they have survived over thousands of years.”13

    The quest for profound inner silence and stillness is the essence of meditation. Chopra illumines this beautifully in the following passage from Unconditional Life, as he converses with a patient who has had anxiety attacks since childhood. The man is concerned that he never actually experiences periods of silence in meditation.

    ” . . . But intellectually,” I [Chopra] said, “you realize that the mind can be silent?”

    “Not mine,” he said.

    “Why not?”

    ”It’s too quick.”

    “But even a quick mind has gaps between thoughts,” I pointed out. “Each gap is like a tiny window onto silence, and through that window one actually contacts the source of the mind. As we’re talking here now, there are gaps between our words, aren’t there? When you meditate, you take a vertical dive into that gap.”

    “Sure, I can see that,” he rejoined, “but I don’t think I experience it in meditation.” I asked him what he did experience. He said, “The only thing that makes meditation different from just sitting in a chair is that when I open my eyes after twenty minutes, I often feel that only two or three minutes have passed-I am intrigued by that.”

    “I said, ‘But you see, this is the very best clue that you have gone beyond thought. When you don’t have thoughts, there is silence. Silence does not occupy time, and in order to contact the Self, one has to go into the field of the timeless. Your mind might not be able to register this experience at first, because it is so accustomed to thinking. You may feel that time has simply flown by, or that it was lost somewhere. But the ‘lost’ time was actually spent immersed in the Self.'”14

    Meditation as Taught by Edgar Cayce

    The Cayce method was my first introduction to meditation, and is one to which I have returned in recent years. I am particularly attracted to its underlying intention-the integration of body, mind, and spirit. The goal of meditation, say the Cayce readings, goes beyond attunement within the individual; it includes service to humankind and a heightened relationship to God, or the Creative Forces.

    “What is meditation? . . . it is the attuning of the mental body and the physical body to its spiritual source . . . it is the attuning of . . . physical and mental attributes seeking to know the relationships to the Maker. That is true meditation.”15

    Cayce said that we must learn to meditate, just as we once learned to walk. It is very important not to mistake beginnings for failures. We each must begin at the beginning, and should understand that we may falter in some of our early steps. The place to start, Cayce asserted, is not with technique but with an examination of our purpose. Find your ideal, he urged, so that your practice of meditation will be grounded in a positive purpose. This ideal might be “love,” “compassion,” “serving others,” or any of a host of other worthwhile guiding principles. What matters most is that it truly be an ideal that embodies service, and that it be something you have a sincere commitment to live up to.

    In her book, Healing Through Meditation and Prayer, Meredith Puryear offers a clear and concise introduction to Edgar Cayce’s approach to meditation. Before laying out a specific set of directions, Puryear asks us to remember why we are meditating, and offers suggestions on how to enhance the effects of meditation. “When we ask how to meditate, the real question we are asking is: How do we learn to commune with God? The answer lies not in some technique, though every activity will have some form to it, but with the desire of the heart to know our oneness with Him. To awaken this desire we must feed our soul and mind a more spiritual diet. We must begin to take time to listen to beautiful, uplifting music, to read inspirational poetry and prose and the great scriptures of the ages: the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, the Bhagavad-Gita.

    “Even five minutes a day with some uplifting word will change the direction of our lives. We must also make some real choices about the kind of reading, TV, and movie diet we choose . . . These choices involve voluntary use of time, energy, and money; they also entail involuntary glandular involvement, because the glandular centers and secretions play a part in every activity of our lives. With every activity in which we engage, we are building toward something either constructive or destructive. The choices themselves may at first be a matter of discipline; but as we continue to do with persistence what we know to do, we will find it becoming easier and easier, because the process of meditation or communion changes our desires, and we begin to want different things and activities than we had heretofore.”16

    The following set of directions for meditation is adapted from Puryear’s book, which in turn is based on the Cayce readings.17

      (1) Set the ideal.

      (2) Set a time—be regular, persistent and patient.

      (3) Prepare—physically, mentally, spiritually.

        Immediate Preparation:

        A. Posture: spine straight (feet on floor, or lying on back, or sitting cross-legged)

        B. Head-and-neck exercise (for these exercises, see p. ___)

        C. Breathing exercise (for a few alternative preparatory breathing exercises, see “Alternate nostril breathing teachniques,” p. ___)

      (4) Invite protection

      Surround yourself with the consciousness of the presence of the Christ Spirit (alternatives might include surrounding yourself with the love of God, a pure white light, or any other healing and uplifting image or thought)

      (5) Use an affirmation

      Cayce recommended beginning with the Lord’s Prayer. This may be followed by a specific affirmation, such as “Make me an instrument of Thy peace.” (You may, as always, substitute an phrase which has deep meaning for you).

      (6) Silence!

      Return to the affirmation (or a shortened version of it) as distracting thoughts arise. Continue for 10-30 minutes, or whatever period of time feels intuitively appropriate to you.

      (7) Pray for others

      What is called the “affirmation” in these directions is the structural equivalent of the mantra in TM, and the word “One” in Dr. Benson’s relaxation response method. It is the meditator’s all-purpose tool, the one used for prying ourselves out of all the dead-end nooks and crannies the mind invents to distract us from the depths of silence, and the heights of revelation.

      Edgar Cayce said that “meditation is listening to the Divine within.”18 May we all become good listeners.

      1 Dietnstfrey, Harris. Where Mind Meets Body, p. 31.
      2 Murphy and Donovan, The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation, p. 27.
      3 Ibid., p. 30.
      4 Ibid., p. 15-18.
      5 Brown, D.P., Engler, J. ÒThe Stages of Mindfulness Meditation: A Validation Study.
      Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1980, 12 (2), 143-192
      6 McEvoy, T.M., Frumkin, L.R., Harkins, S.W. ÒEffects of Meditation on Brainstem Auditory Evoked Potentials.Ó International Journal of Neuroscience, 1980, 10, 165-170
      7 Pagano, R.R., Frumkin, L.R. ÒThe effect of Transcendental Meditation on Right Hemisphere Functioning, Biofeedback and Self-Regulation, 1977, 2 (4) 407-415.
      8 Pagano and Frumkin, Ibid.
      9 Benson, The Relaxation Response, p. 162-163.
      10 Easwaran, Eknath. Meditation. p. 71.
      11 Chopra, Deepak. Unconditional Life, p. 161.
      12 Redwood, Daniel, ÒThe Pathways Interview: Deepak Chopra,Ó Pathways, December 1991. pp. 5-7.
      13 Ibid. p.7.
      14 Chopra, op. cit.. p. 190.
      15 Edgar Cayce Reading 281-41
      16 Puryear, Healing through Meditation and Prayer, p. 4-5.
      17 Ibid. p. 6
      18 ECR 1861-19

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    Written by Daniel Redwood DC

    Explore Wellness in 2021