The "Relaxation Response"
by Laura Bryannan

An interesting but ironic article in the October 1989 issue of Psychology Today discusses the work of Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson. In the 1970's, Benson was intrigued by Transcendental Meditation, a technique that utilizes chanting with a mantra, and conducted research to see if TM really produced any measurable effects on the body. With his fellow researcher, physiologist Robert Keith Wallace, he found "...that the repeated mantra replaced the arousing thoughts that otherwise keep us tense during most waking hours. Result: lower metabolic rate, slower heart rate, lower blood pressure and slower breathing."

He promptly theorized that the changes in the body produced by the chanting were not dependent upon the specific mantra given to the meditators by the TM organization. He measured the responses of meditators using various other words as mantras and found that, indeed, the positive effects on the body were still produced. "He then turned to Christians and Jews who practiced the standard Western form of meditation--prayer. He had Roman Catholic subjects use 'Hail Mary, full of grace'...Jews...settled mainly for the peace greeting 'Shalom'...Protestants often used the first line of the Lord's Prayer...They all worked."

At this point, Benson wrote up his research in his book, The Relaxation Response, which became a bestseller when it was published in 1975. Relaxation Response is the label he devised to describe the positive physiological changes that meditation and prayer produce in the body. His research is interesting in that he found that subjects were much more likely to stick with a program of meditation when they were using a prayer for a mantra than when they were chanting a meaningless word.

He has shared his findings with theologians of all denominations and the response from them has been overwhelmingly positive, as if they had never before experienced the power of such techniques. "He was startled at the excitement among the religious pros. Most got into a praying high, long lost in the hassle of the rat race. 'This is why I came into church work in the first place,' said one, 'and I'd lost it'...Christianity's past is rich in meditation...But in the age of logical positivism, remarkably few intellectuals before Benson ever thought such efforts would produce real spiritual effects, let alone physiological changes."

My response to this sentence is, "Where have all of you supposedly spiritual folks been for the last twenty-five years?!?" It's wonderful that mainstream theologians are finally being exposed to the benefits of prayer and meditation, but I wonder how this could possibly be a new experience for them? The article suggests that prayer has been touted by clergy as a beneficial activity for their congregations, perhaps even when they have never themselves experienced those benefits.

I am disturbed by the tone of this piece, which implies that this so-called Relaxation Response is somehow Herbert Benson's baby-- that 5,000 years of Eastern meditation technique had no validity until he came along to say, "Oh yea, it works!" It's exciting to hear that someone has scientifically proven that prayer and meditation produce measurable positive results in the body, but let's give credit where credit is due. Herbert Benson did not "discover" the benefits of prayer and meditation, they have been there all along. He was just intelligent enough to be the first in the scientific community to recongize a good thing when he saw it, all to the benefit of his reputation and pocketbook.

Psychology Today. Circulation office: P.O. Box 55046, Boulder, CO 80322-5046. 800/525-0643.

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Last Updated: 1 feb 99
Laura Bryannan