(The Full Text are from when EOV’s in-person workshops were developed.)
“Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is relax.” – Mark Black
“You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you’re too busy, then you should sit for an hour.” – Zen Proverb
Relaxation demands that we strip away all things superfluous, disentangle our minds from the maze of thoughts that our species is so talented at creating, and return instead into a sort of internal womb-like state. A state where the absence of things is louder than their presence. It is only when you are in a deep state of relaxation, or you could call it meditation, that you are able to see the limits of your sensory perception. With your eyes open, you see the world, with your eyes closed, you see the universe.
It is not surprising then, that we commonly associate relaxation with people who have attained some kind of enlightenment, or with spiritual practitioners who put hours and hours of practice into meditation. The learnings we will share with you today in this segment of the EOV wellness program, owe their lineage to a fascinating meeting of east and west. In the 1970s, a cardiologist called Herbert Benson became interested by what happens to the body in a state of meditation. He had heard of the Tibetan practice called g’T’ummo or “inner heat” meditation. Apparently monks who mastered it could regulate their body temperature to stay warm without any warm clothing even in freezing weather.
Benson and his team headed over to India where the Dalai lama and his followers lived in exile and took their measuring devices to some of the most senior monks living in retreat in the foothills of the Himalaya. What they found defied explanation in a Western medical sense. As part of their meditation, the monks visualized an inner fire and focused on it so intensely that they were capable of producing extreme internal body heat in below zero weather conditions. So much so, that wet cloths placed on their backs gave off steam. At the same time they had managed to slow their hearts and their breathing to well below normal levels. The Dalai Lama offers an interesting translation of the ancient wisdom of his people into the language of modern science – he describes meditation as a technology for re-wiring or re-programming the brain towards more productive directions.
As a cardiologist, Benson was fascinated. What he had witnessed was in fact a reversal of the stress response that we’ve discussed before – the fight or flight instinct. It was a response in the opposite direction – of calming, slowing down, de-escalating stress and stimulation while still having intense focus. He coined the phrase ‘relaxation response’ to describe this process.
Benson’s work, and that of Dr. Richard Davidson another doctor who did extensive work with Tibetan monks thanks to the Dalai Lama) resulted in some extraordinary medical findings. Firstly, the monks were much more stable than most ordinary people – they did not startle as easily, or have involuntary emotional responses when confronted with loud noises, for example. They had much higher baseline levels of left pre-frontal activity in fMRI scans, which meant they were seeing higher activity in the areas of the brain that are indicative of happiness than most people. But the most interesting of all, is that some of the findings showed that these monks were capable of compassion at levels unknown or unmeasured in the West. Nine monks took part in a particular meditation designed to cultivate compassion. The researchers documented brain wave activity unlike anything they’d ever seen in other healthy human subjects. They were observing gamma waves which indicate intense alertness that were 30 times as strong as a control group of students.
Benson’s impulse was to extract the pure physiological technique from the monks’ practice. There are pros and cons to his approach, but he wanted to secularize, or de-spiritualize the process, so that it could be practiced in a more widespread and accessible manner. What makes the relaxation response and its techniques very interesting to us at EOV, is that it can actually help reduce the generation of stress chemicals. We’ve just looked at how exercise can help to burn those stress chemicals off, and that’s a great approach. But the relaxation response goes a step further – it can actually significantly slow the stress chemicals from being created. And the old saying still holds good – prevention is better than cure.
To break it down very simply, there are two components to create the condition for a relaxation response inside yourself.
- Focus your attention on the repetition of a word or a sound. The ‘Om’ sound that comes from Hindu spiritual practices and is chanted in yoga practice, is an example. But you can also take a phrase that means something to you, or focus on your breath, or if you’re doing a walking meditation, focus on the sound or feeling of your footsteps. Whatever it is you choose, it should be something rhythmic. Because you can be sure your awareness and attention will start to wander – to your job, a conversation with your partner, plans for the weekend, the list of things on your to-do list. So you need something rhythmic and steady to keep you on track.
- The secret of meditation is not how much time you spend doing it, but your ability to bring your mind back to the object of meditation in a firm, gentle, non-judgmental way, and just stick with it.
An ideal amount of time spent on this exercise is around 20 minutes twice a day. But start with just 10 minutes once a day and build up to longer sessions.
In fact, let’s do a very short practice right now. Let’s try to do 120 seconds. That’s two minutes of relaxation response. As we said before – find something rhythmic to be the object of the meditation. This could be a phrase you say in your head, a line of a poem or a song, a mantra, a snatch of prayer, or if you can’t think of any of those things, just the sound of your breath. Now give all of your attention to this object of your meditation, without either getting stressed out, or going to sleep – just a relaxed alertness.
TWO MINUTES OF MEDITATION
See – you can do it anywhere. You can take a 10 minute meditation break in your office if you have just 10 minutes before a meeting. And you’ll probably bring some of those positive effects to the meeting.
And of course, there are many ways to relax. It could be as simple as taking a break from your desk and pausing in the middle of the day to relax your neck and jaw muscles. A visit to the spa or getting a foot massage is relaxing, All of these things will only help to restore, reboot and re-centre you, and everyone has particular relaxation practices that work for them. What is clear is that relaxation and meditation have tangible physical and medical effects. Someone who has done decades of work in this area is Jon Kabat-Zinn, Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He says that mindfulness is a radical act as it shifts you from ‘doing’ to ‘being’. In other words, he’s saying that carving out time for relaxation or meditation should not be seen as a sacrifice you make, but an investment in your health.
It’s interesting to keep linking back to our prehistoric lifestyle because it’s interesting to look at how our bodies and minds have evolved. In some sense, our attempts at meditation may be trying to bring back the sense of darkness and stillness our ancient ancestors would have felt in their caves on a nightly basis, when they weren’t going about the daily business of hunting and gathering. In fact, a study at the National Institute of Mental Health tried to replicate the darkness of the cave for a group of people. The subjects of the study could go about their day normally, but when they came back to the lab in the evening, it was total darkness for 14 hours. The researchers were trying to see if replicating a prehistoric lifestyle would change their sleeping patterns. They found that after four to six weeks, almost all of the participants began to split their sleep in two phases. They would go to sleep quite quickly, soon after they returned from work and sleep for about six hours. Then they’d wake up and for a couple of hours, just lie awake in the darkness. And then they’d fall asleep again and wake up in the morning.
They tried to understand what was going through the subjects’ minds when they were lying awake, and interviewed them all. People used different words – some said “Well I’m awake, but I’m not awake”, others said “I’m really aware, but really relaxed”. But basically what they were all describing was a meditative state. A state of alert relaxedness. It’s quite possible that the waking period between sleeps played an important part in the human capacity to regulate stress naturally. So the theory is that prehistoric people were basically regularly meditating as a matter of course, and we are trying to replicate that today, with our short periods of meditative practice. In other words, our brains may have been designed to require periods of meditation, and that it’s actually our optimum performance situation.
And again, just as with exercise, it is surprising how little of it you need to do for it to be effective. There are examples of large corporate studies in the United States where employees are split into three groups: one was a meditation group that learnt the relaxation response and did it twice a day for 20 minutes, another control group that got a 20 minute break from work twice a day (but weren’t given any direction as how to use that 20 minutes). And a third group that got no break from work at all – they just went about their work day with a normal lunch break.
The researchers found that the people who did the meditation breaks reported more efficiency and concentration in their work, they had better problem solving abilities and much lower stress levels and therefore better inter-personal interactions with their colleagues. Now, as you would expect, not everyone was 100% compliant and not all members of the meditation group did the full 20 minutes twice a day. When pressed, a lot of people admitted to having done just 10 minutes, once in the day. But even they showed almost as good results as those that had done 40 minutes a day. The takeaway was that the optimum situation was 20 minutes a day, but even as little as 10 minutes a day showed positive results. And really, 10 minutes a day to prevent the creation of stress chemicals and to give our brain what it is craving seems like a really good investment of time. The resources at the end of this chapter will provide you with several options of practical steps towards nurturing the relaxation response in yourself. Happy relaxing!