The Relaxation Response

Image by HaPe_Gera via Flickr

The four requirements for eliciting the Relaxation Response:

  1. A Quiet Environment
  2. A Mental Device
  3. A Passive Attitude
  4. A Comfortable Position

The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson outlines a simple method of meditation.  The general idea is to meditate twice a day for 20 minutes. The first session should be prior to breakfast and the second session prior to dinner. Yesterday before dinner, I did a 15 minute session as outlined by Dr. Herbert Benson.

How is this different from seated meditation or standing zhan zhuang?  One of the main difference is the posture or comfortable position.  When I do seated meditation, I sit on the edge of the chair with my feet directly in front of me and with a straight back. In the Relaxation Response (RR), I adopted a very comfortable position, basically same chair except I tilted back into the seat my chair. Little effort was needed to maintain this posture, unlike that of my other seated meditation practice.

The mental device in the Relaxation Response is to basically repeat a sound, word or phrase repeatedly.  In the example given in the book, the word “one” is repeated on every exhale of the breath.  In my seated meditation practice, I would normally just focus on the exhale of my breath or I would count breaths. After some time, I realized that counting breaths was not very conducive to relaxation as I would try to reach a goal, 25 breaths per session/posture.  Also, just focusing on the breathing was a bit boring and my mind would often wander.  With the repetition of a single phrase, I found it easier to maintain awareness without agitation.

My first session was approximately 15 minutes and was done in the early evening, around 5pm.  I sat in my home office with my office chair turned to face a wall. The wall is blank and painted in a light earth tone brown.  In front of the wall is a small dark brown filing cabinet.  On top of the filing cabinet rests a yellow vanilla candle, a plant, my wireless router, and a burgundy colored small Zen fountain.  I placed my watch on top of the cabinet to keep track of time.  In the background, I could hear the sound of tricking water from an aquarium.

I closed by eyes and sat comfortably in the chair.  I thought about releasing tension from my body. I started with my feet and slowly worked my way up to the top of my head.  I sat quietly for about 30 seconds before I began focusing on in the inhale/exhale of my breathing. On each exhale, I repeated the phrase “one” in my head.  At first, my breathing was a bit hurried, like I was trying to force the breath.  I noticed this and relaxed into my breathing.

After about 5 minutes or so, I began feeling like I was sinking.  This is the same sensation I used to feel when I would conjure the images of my body sinking during my power naps.  During my power napping days, I thought it was a form of induced self-hypnosis, but maybe what I was doing was eliciting the Relaxation Response? The feelings of sinking were soon replaced by this feeling of expansion. As I was sitting, I felt as if my awareness expanded beyond the physical confines of my body.  This was sort of like my Zhan Zhuang Expansive Effects that I had felt before.

After a while, I noticed the sound of footsteps and it was my wife coming over to see what I was doing as she had not heard any sounds coming from my home office. I told her I was meditating and that I would be down shortly for dinner. I looked at my watch and noticed that 15 minutes had passed.  Time moved by pretty quickly as the 15 minutes felt more like 5.

This was my first time trying out the Relaxation Response and I plan to continue the training.  After the session, I felt very relaxed and all fatigue/tiredness was gone from my body and mind.  I decided to look into meditation techniques to try and counter balance the stressors of everyday life.  I have been reading that some pains/aches are the effects of stress on our body.  At first I thought this was just physical stress, but this also includes mental stress.  Perhaps the Relaxation Response can help out with my recent knee pains.


About wujimon

taiji, meditation and health
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7 Responses to The Relaxation Response

  1. Rick says:

    Counting the breath or saying special words or phrases are one trick for keeping the monkey mind busy so this monkey mind doesn’t get in the way of the intention. The monkey mind learns pretty fast though so the trick is there to give you enough time to get the feel of the practice. Meditation rocks… Nice posting… Keep on rocking!

  2. jolietjeff says:

    Hi Wujimon, I usually sit when doing Yiquan more than doing standing since it allows me to relax more deeply then I stand when I feel relaxed and try to continue the feeling through the various postures. Rick is definitely right on the using something to busy the and focus the mind to keep out daydreaming. Another method would be to follow the pattern of the microcosmic orbit as you breathe. As you inhale feel the chi come up from the sacrum following the spine to the crown of the head and on exhalation feel it come down the tip of the tonque to the front of the spine back down to the sacrum. The trick is not to force any feelings just concentrate on the path of chi circulation. This also busies the mind and after many repetitions the mind may go to stillness the real goal.

  3. Jim R. says:

    Herbert Benson was recently on our local PBS station. The video he spoke in is “The Healing Within” and a trailer can be found here at Youtube:

    In the video (not the trailer) Dr. Benson (author “Relaxation Response”) also stated that Tai Chi movements can elicit the Relaxation Response. He did qualify however that it has to be “repetitive”. He mentioned qigong as well, also has to be “repetitive”. I find this type of “walking training” that I teach to my students to be very “repetitive” for instance…

    The learning curve with the Tai Chi form is quite lengthy, but if one takes any one movement such as the “walking”, it is quite feasible to turn it into a meditative movement. Interesting that Yang Wabiu said Wu Chien Chuan insisted on repeating 1 movement “10’s of hundred’s” of times before he taught him a new one.

    “Repetitive” as in any meditation practice where one might say a word, a phrase, watch the breath, repeating over and over again. The mind returns to the object of attention, over and over again. In this interview with Sharon Salzberg (founded Insight Meditation in Barre)
    “Profound come in small packages” (one learns to keep bringing the mind back over and over again, one can begin again…)

  4. wujimon says:

    @Rick: “The method is not the truth, once you get the feeling, get rid of the method.” via Wujifa 45 Hints and Pointers 😉

    @Jeff: I also find sitting more conducive to relaxation. To me, the micro cosmic orbit stuff is just too complex. If I do that, I start asking too many “why” questions about it 😉

    @Jim: Thx for all the video links! Very interesting point about the emphasis on “repetitive” and it’s usage in meditation!

  5. Jim R. says:

    A second reading and I see where you are going with this. I think that you would still find yourself going deeper and deeper into layers of thought, if you were to extend the time of your sitting to say an hour or 2.

    Whether “R.R.” or “T.M.” or repeating the words “Cocoa Cola” , etc. One is simply not spending sufficient time in the chair, wherein large volumes of thoughts, images, or what might be called subliminal parts of consciousness would be brought to the “surface”. I think the word might be “ephemeral” as to the experience of such mind contents that one experiences with short duration experiences. One might say there is less to get riled up about

    With the classic or more traditional forms such as “Mindfulness”, etc., however, and given sufficient “time in the chair”, I think there will be an incremental increase in perception to what is in consciousness. With such an increase in perception, one becomes aware that there exists (where one was scarcely aware of it before) a huge amount of thoughts, fantasies, images, (believe it or not perfectly sober meditators report hallucinations), ideas, etc. Where was all this stuff before?

    Meditators report becoming so caught up in the melee that only the description “like being thrown into a huge pit of frightened and aggressive rats” seems to befit what goes on in the mind. So, how we had thought of ourselves as being capable of reason, coherence, direction is all tossed out the window when confronted by such a steady stream of incoherent, unrelated, frantic “consciousness”…where was all this stuff before we became aware of it through meditation?

  6. wujimon says:

    @Jim: Thanks again for the follow-up comment. While you note that more time in the chair may bring large volumes of thought to light, I agree. However, I have been noticing a rush a thoughts flooding out in just the 20 mins of sitting I do! I never quite noticed this before b/c I tended to only do about 5 mins of sitting and then change to standing meditation work where my mind was busy focusing on releasing tension from various body parts.

    To answer your question, IMO, all this stuff is with us all the time, we are just not perceptive enough to notice it. Same thing goes with taiji and body movement, while someone may see a hand move, another person may see a movement of the kua with very little movement in the shoulder, etc.

    Great thought-provoking comments, Jim 😉

  7. Kate says:

    I enjoyed this blog a lot as I have had little success with meditation as I just can’t seem to et go. I enjoyed reading your experience of meditation.

    I find other ways of relaxation, mainly through breathing exercises which is more to do with focusing rather than letting go.

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