Friday, October 24, 2008

Book Review. The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson M.D. with Miriam Z. Klipper


I originally published this book review on TMFree on October 15, 2008, but for some reason it has disappeared. So here it is again. - Laurie)

Published 1976 by William Morrow & Co., 181 pages.

Commentors and contributors have been recommending books on TM-Free Blog for some time now. I have recently read a few of those books, and thought you might enjoy some book reviews. This is my second review in
a series.

First, a little background information about this book, (from my memory, so a few facts may be off). About 1970, Herbert Benson M.D. (not a TMer) and Robert Keith Wallace (a TMer), then either a new M.D. or a post-graduate student writing his thesis, collaborated on research on the effects of TM. Theirs was the first scientific study on TM, and a long line of scientific studies on TM by them and others were to follow, now officially touted by the TM organizations as "over 600 scientific research studies, published in peer-reviewed journals, showing the benefits of the Transcendental Meditation program in all fields of life." (Skeptical and alternate TM websites have pointed out the inaccuracy of many of these studies.)

Benson's and Wallace's research focused on physiological changes in the subjects during the practice of TM itself, in areas such as blood pressure and oxygen consumption. All indices pointed to a state of reduced physical activation, or relaxation, yet wakefulness, a state they called "restful alertness." If my memory serves me, this first research project of Benson and Wallace was published in
approximately 1970 in The Lancet, a respected British medical journal.

These early experiments gave scientific standing to the heretofore esoteric practice of Transcendental Meditation. I remember that in the TM introductory lectures I attended in 1971, I and my friends were much impressed and influenced by this scientific validation.

As my friends and I got deeper into the TM world, Benson and Wallace were our secular "heroes" for the legitimacy they had given TM. The first crack I recall in this "love affair" was Benson's wistful comment that he now had so much evidence on the benefits of TM that he would love to do it himself, however he felt that if he learned TM his impartiality as a researcher would be compromised.

Some time after this, Benson made the leap to the theory that the state of "restful alertness" must be a physiologically imbedded state, and therefore be attainable through ways other than Transcendental Meditation. He then went on to theorize, study and research, and out of that came his book The Relaxation Response.

Benson studied many meditation, contemplation and prayer techniques from around the world and from many centuries, techniques developed by mystics, saints, nuns, monks, and so on from different spiritual traditions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.) and discovered that other teachings appeared to use similar techniques to TM and appeared to produce

similar results to TM.

When I was on my TM Teacher Training course back in 1974, I was taught contempt and condescension for all other techniques, which, Maharishi taught, were all completely different from - and inferior to - his Transcendental Meditation. (Please see my TM-Free Blog post, published 10/13/2008, "Book Review. The Maharishi: The Biography of the Man Who Brought Transcendental Meditation to the World by Paul Mason," where I describe how Maharishi isolated himself from all other traditions.) So, in reading The Relaxation Response in 2008, I was struck, humbled and shamed to see the obvious similarities between TM and techniques handed down by myriad traditions. One example, "dhikr," from the mystic Islamic tradition known as Sufism, will suffice to show the similarities. The instructional language is poetic with its emphasis on divine love and religious devotion, but the underlying technique is strikingly similar.

"Let [the practitioner] sit alone in some corner....Let him
not cease saying continuously with his tongue 'Allah, Allah,' [God, God,] keeping his thoughts on it. At last he will reach a state when the motion of his tongue will cease, and it will seem as though the word flowed from it. Let him persevere in this until all trace of motion is removed from his tongue, and he finds his heart persevering in the thought. Let him still persevere until the form of the word - its letters and shape - is removed from his heart, and there remains the idea alone, as though clinging to his heart, inseparable from it....If he follows the above course, he may be sure that the light of the Real will shine out of his heart."

I was struck by how much these instructions resemble the instructions I memorized on TM Teacher Training in 1974, on how to instruct someone in TM. Following the puja (ceremony), the TM teacher says, "Aem, aem, aem, aem," (or some other mantra, all of which are the names of gods). Teacher gestures to student to repeat the mantra. When the student is doing so, teacher gestures to the student to sit and continue repeating. When student does so, teacher says, "Close the eyes and continue....More quietly....More quietly....More quietly....Now, mentally, without moving tongue and lips....Slowly open the eyes. It's easy? Mental repetition is not a clear pronunciation. It's just a faint idea. Now close the eyes and continue...."

Benson determined that all these different techniques - including TM -
had four elements in common: (1) a quiet environment, (2) a mental device such as a word, phrase, object to be gazed at, etc., to be repeated in a specific fashion, (3) a passive attitude, in which ideation drifts into the mind, and one does not concentrate or be concerned with how well one is doing it, and (4) a comfortable position, but not a lying down one which might induce sleep.

After reviewing the similarity of various techniques. Benson studied subjects doing six different techniques that followed these four rules in order to see if they did indeed produce the same physiological results as TM. Benson tested subjects during the practice of TM, Zen and yoga, autogenic training, progressive relaxation, hypnosis with suggested deep relaxation, and sentic cycles for changes in oxygen consumption, respiratory rate, heart rate, alpha waves, blood pressure and muscle tension. The results were almost indistinguishable.

I can imagine the horror, disbelief and denial I would have experienced if I had read this book in 1974, after I became a TM teacher. I repeat the heresy: The results of the six techniques were almost indistinguishable from each other and from TM.

I do remember Benson's name fading from TM lectures after the the publication of this book. I remember what contempt and pity we TM teachers had for Benson for "betraying the movement." I remember never bothering to read his book until 2008. I remember hearing with triumph (and relief) that people who took up Benson's "relaxation response" technique were soon bored and gave it up, but we TMers found our experience fulfilling and kept at it. I remember one TM teachers saying dismissively, "Well, you get what you pay for."

This short, easy-to-read, down-to-earth book is food for thought, a "how-to" book on how to achieve the relaxation response, and also a useful tool for people wanting to take the next step in deprogramming themselves from the TM mindset

No comments:

Post a Comment