Harvard professor and expert in cardiology and behavioral medicine, Herbert Benson MD, began the first scientific studies into the effects of meditation almost 40 years ago. Ever since, Benson and his colleagues at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital have continued to conduct clinical research and to map the benefits of regularly practicing the relaxation response: In Benson’s own words, "a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress.” The relaxation response can enhance brain function, slow age-related changes, stabilize heart beat, alleviate anxiety and dissipate stress. What is even more remarkable is this: When ordinary people with no training of any kind practice the relaxation response once or twice a day, it brings about cognitive restructuring and rapidly alters the expression of their genes. When it comes to rejuvenating, regenerating and healing the body, these findings are nothing short of revolutionary.
WHAT IS GENE EXPRESSION?
Uninformed people as well as many mainstream scientists believe that our health, biological age and death are written into the genes we inherit at birth. They view genetic inheritance as something akin to a dour clairvoyant prediction of our future—something which we remain powerless to alter. It is true that the genes we inherit may indeed define our “risk” of early aging, degeneration and disease. But whether or not this “risk” becomes fact, so negative events actually happen to us, has far less to do with our genetic inheritance than it does with how we choose to live our lives—in effect, on how our genes are expressed.
Gene expression is the scientific term for how well or poorly we manage our genetic inheritance. For instance, how do your own genes express themselves? Do your genes provide you with great vitality? Clarity of mind? Creativity? Freedom from illness? Or are they expressing themselves in negative ways, like creating obesity, sagging skin and spirit, early aging and degeneration?
HOW’S YOUR OWN GENE EXPRESSION?
You see, there are many possible versions of you tucked within your genes and chromosomes. Which versions become expressed—which potentials become “facts”—depends almost entirely on the way care for and use your body, handle stress, and orient yourself spiritually and creatively. Here’s where the food you eat, the exercise you get, and practicing Benson’s relaxation response really come into their own by helping to prevent degenerative conditions: Alzheimer’s disease, many forms of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, obesity—even overt signs of skin aging, to mention only a few. And there is even better news: Once signs of degeneration have already appeared, practicing the relaxation response daily can reverse them while rejuvenating mind and body, halting stress damage and setting your spirit free.
All you need to tap into it to use a method to turn it on. The possibilities are many. They range from relaxation response meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, zazen, silent repetition of a word and autogenic training to steady aerobic exercise and even biofeedback. Some will work better for you or be more enjoyable than others. It is worthwhile trying a couple of different techniques so you discover which you like best. My own favorite method is “relaxation response meditation.” I am happy to be able to share with you a simple and fun video so you can do the exercise along with me. Click here to watch the video
We live in an age where discipline is looked down on as something which interferes with our spontaneity and freedom. So we tend to rebel against it. But the kind of discipline needed for a daily relaxation response practice—far from stifling your ability to be involved in the spontaneous business of life—actually frees it. At first it may take a little effort to get up fifteen minutes early each morning to practice the technique and (if you can manage the time) take fifteen minutes out of your afternoon or early evening to practice again. You will find it is well worth it. The most common objection most people make is that they don't have time. The reality of the situation is this: Even if you practice this technique once a day for fifteen minutes, it will expand time for you. You’ll find you can do everything with greater efficiency and enjoyment, and far less of your energy is wasted on fruitless activity. Every minute you spend in this deeply relaxed meditative state will bring you a fourfold return in the energy you have to use in the rest of your life.
Herbert Benson first described the relaxation response as the physiological opposite of the stressed fight-or-flight response. Working with his team, he then went on to pioneer the application of mind/body techniques to a wide range of health issues and meditative practices. They charted the measurable physical benefits which accrue from practicing any form of meditation, including those that rely on the silent repetition of a mantra—a word-sound. Meditation using a mantra has a long tradition. Some mantras are considered “sacred words” that hold particular sound vibrations to transmit particular powers. Each spiritual tradition has its own mantras, such as Guru Om, Om mani padme hum, La ilaha illa 'lla or, in the Catholic religion, Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Whether their magic aspects are true or not, these techniques work beautifully to replace the habitual chatter that runs through one's mind, worries about things past and things yet to come.
BENSON’S QUANTUM LEAP
To learn a relaxation response meditative practice (which I have recorded on video so you can do it with me
), Benson suggests you choose a word that is pleasing to you. It could be anything, say, “flower”, “peace”, or “love”. He likes the word “one”, as it is simple and has the connotation of unity about it.
Here's how to do it:
- Find a quiet place where you won't be disturbed for fifteen to twenty minutes and a comfortable chair that supports your back.
- Sit down and close your eyes. Give yourself a moment to settle in and you are ready to begin.
- Simply sit there, feet on the floor and eyes closed, quietly repeating your word over and over to yourself: “one...one...one...”
- Whenever your mind wanders or you are disturbed by a sound or thought, simply turn your mind gently back to repeating the word again.
- That is all there is to it.
- After fifteen to twenty minutes, stop repeating the mantra and get ready to open your eyes.
- Open your eyes, stretch, and go about your everyday activities.
- This is a particularly useful technique once you have practiced it a few times because you can do it in so many different places, such as in a waiting room or on a commuter train or bus.
THE RACE IS ON
We live in exciting times—times when the breach between science and spirituality originally ushered in 400 years ago by the Copernican Revolution is rapidly narrowing. We need to make use of the gifts that the closing of this gap brings us. Even if you have neglected yourself over the years—most of us have, by the way—it is never too late to change. Making simple alterations in the way you live can regenerate your health and rejuvenate your body and mind. In my opinion, practicing the relaxation response once or twice a day is a powerful way to begin.
Collectively, we are involved in a race against time. It has no precedent in human history. The stakes are high—ultimately the future of our planet. Scientific discoveries about the relationships between mind and body, and about life changes which can alter our genetic expression, are here to be understood and used. Experiential methods of self-exploration, healing and personal transformation emerging from humanistic and transpersonal psychologies offer enormous potential for taking control of our lives and creating the future we want.
Making good use of what is already tried and tested can transform the whole way you experience life. Living can become a process of growth and joy, instead of one of degeneration and disillusion. If a sufficient number of us undergo a process of deep physical and spiritual transformation, we may in time reach a critical mass that enables us, working together, to envisage another finer and more just way of living together on the planet. Two things are certain: Now is the time. We are the people. May your own life be blessed.