The Guru of Relaxation Experiment As reported in The Boston Globe article by Linda Matchan Dr. Benson’s ‘Relaxation Response’ is an ‘irresistibly simple approach to relieving stress and a host of medical conditions related to it (Matchan). The directions are simple enough and I decided to first begin the experiment on a Friday morning right after I got out of the shower. I began by closing all of the doors to my bedroom and closing the blinds to my windows. I made sure my television was unplugged and that my laptop computer was turned off so that I could eliminate as much background distractions as possible; I even turned the ringer on our house phone off in addition to silencing my cell phone.
I laid out a blanket on the floor and lay down on my back. My focus word was ‘Yes.’ I chose this word because it seems positive and self-affirming and it is also a single syllabic word that would be easy to repeat, however I was worried that the ‘s’ at the end might prove to be a distraction if I lost my train of thought. For this first attempt I set an alarm for fifteen minutes so that I would not have to break my meditation to check and see how long I had been going. I have never really given meditation a concerted effort even though I have experimented with it before, with limited to no results, as one might imagine. So going into this I was intent upon giving it a full effort even as I was a bit skeptical as to whether or not I could take it seriously enough to reap the proclaimed benefits of less stress, more focus, and a heightened sense of relaxation. I lay down and took a deep breath trying not to think of anything besides my breathing patterns. As I exhaled for the first time I forgot to just think of the word and instead I said it out loud.
I laughed at myself as I tried to regain my focus. I took in another deep breath and tried to pay attention to how the air entered my body into my lungs. I exhaled slowly and mentally extended a ‘yesss.
’ The ‘s’ thing was already becoming an issue as I hissed until the last of my breath had been exhaled. “Oh well,” I thought to myself taking in another breathe and allowing myself a smile at the way I shrugged off my initial distractions. As time passed and I got into a rhythm of inhaling deeply, reciting my focus word, and then exhaling slowly, I found myself actively thinking about trying not to think. This was a troubling thought that must have went on for some time because I followed this thought all the way to the point where I got frustrated I was thinking so much. This time I really took in a deep breath, sucked in my stomach and tried to look at the sparkles and fuzzy colors splashing before my eyes, similar to the sights when you rub your eyes too hard when they are closed. I found myself forgetting that I was even breathing, and in fact, for a certain amount of time I may not have been breathing as I focused on the images. Then again I remembered that I was doing a meditation and focused my energies toward breathing and repeating ‘Yes’ as I exhaled. Before I knew it my alarm was going off.
I took me a few moments to regain my sense of orientation. I was surprised by this distant sound and then I remembered that it was the alarm and fifteen minutes had already passed. I opened my eyes, without rubbing them, allowing my blurry vision to regain its focus as I looked at the ceiling and stretched my arms above my head and my legs toward the wall. My stretch made me a bit light headed, but in a good way as I relaxed all my muscles and tried to remember the thoughts that went through my head while I was meditating. I slowly rose to my feet and sat at the edge of my bed while I took out my notebook and jotted down a few things to help me remember when I had to write about my experience. Here’s what I wrote: “Beginning: Mind wandering. Erratic breathing and laughing at the hiss in the “Yesss” as I consciously exhaled. Way too much aware that I was trying to meditate.
” “Middle: Fireworks show for my eyes. Lost sense of time/place. Almost like falling asleep.” “End: Regained focus on breathing exercise and my attention on “Yes.” Very deep breathing. Body seemed distant from everything else, even the alarm.” As I went through the rest of my morning routine all I could think about were the fireworks. That was when I was most relaxed because I wasn’t thinking of anything besides enjoying the sight.
I couldn’t really tell if my body and mind was more relaxed than normal, but my thoughts continued to go back to the middle portion of the meditation throughout my day. After I finished my homework for the night, I did all the preparations for the second attempt – blinds closed, doors shut, everything off. I lay down on my back again and this time I set my alarm for the fifteen minutes. I was more confident in what I was doing and more ready to let myself go. I made up my mind that I was too self-conscious in the morning. I kept “Yes” as my word, with some hesitation, but I figured it would be best to keep the conditions similar for the sake of comparison.
I took in my first deep breath and exhaled with a simple ‘Yes.’ So far so good and I wasn’t laughing at myself for trying to find a new way to relax. I really focused on breathing all the way to the bottom of my lungs and I visualized what the air entering my body might look like – not so much the fireworks as a wind tunnel to my center. I kept this up and throughout the second exercise I did not have to say “Oh well” a single time. This is not to say my mind did not wander, but it was a natural wandering that I was not trying to control.
For some reason I started thinking about lucid dreaming and how this could be thought of as its companion. When the alarm went off I didn’t feel as hazy as the morning, but I’m not sure whether this is due to the time of day or because I was somewhat rejuvenated after this meditation. I stretched again and my body felt tingly and calm. It was decidedly easier the second time because I felt more comfortable in what I was doing. Here’s all that I wrote for the second experience: “No beginning, middle, end, just “Yes” breathing and wind tunnels.” Dr. Benson describes his “Relaxation Response” as an ‘inducible, physiologic state of quietude’ (Matchan).
The mind/body connection responsible for this response may be attributed to our nervous system sending out neurons that trigger specific hormones in the endocrine system. In this way, our central nervous system reacts to the released hormones in our body that produces a calming and relaxed sensation. This is essentially what Dr. Benson describes as the “Relaxation Response” but he uses more everyday terminology as opposed to neurophysiologic verbiage. What we sense as a state of relaxation may actually just be the perception that because our body has been at rest for a certain amount of time, we should be more relaxed. Even though I thought I felt more relaxed, that might just be due to a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: I should be more relaxed if I do this. I do this.
I am now more relaxed. On the other hand, I only practiced this exercise in one day. Over time the sensory expectations may coalesce with our perceptions as we become more in tune with the habitual nature of the meditation. However, the one thing that continues to draw my attention was my sensation that I may have reached a faint level of lucid dreaming. I felt somewhat disconnected from my rational, conscious self as I visualized the fireworks and wind tunnels. I did feel like I had momentarily been able to lose time. It was akin to REM sleep, but I had a certain control over the images my mind was producing. In this way I adopted a state of semi-consciousness that I found to be relaxing and enjoyable.
After trying this experiment, I am more convinced concerning the mind/body connection. Practicing positive thoughts and active attempts at relaxation I think can have tangible effects after a length of time and commitment. Dr. Benson has based his whole career on this belief and it seems to be working for him and his followers.Works CitedMatcham, Linda.
The Guru of Relaxation. (2009). The Boston Globe.
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