Studies by Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School in the early 1970s on people practicing a form of meditation known as Transcendental Meditation, or TM, demonstrated that meditation can produce a pattern of significant physiological changes, which he termed the relaxation response. These include a lowering of blood pressure, a reduced oxygen consumption, and an overall decrease in arousal.
Dr. Benson proposal that the relaxation response was the physiological opposite of hyper arousal, the state we experience when we are stressed of threatened. He hypothesized that if the relaxation response were elicited regularly, it could have a positive influence on health and protect us from some of the more damaging effects of stress. Dr. Benson pointed out that all religious traditions have ways of eliciting this response and that there is a kind of wisdom associated with prayer and meditation that is relevant to the health of the body and deserving of further study.
In the late 1960s and the 1970s, a great deal of research in the field of showed that human beings could learn to control many physiological functions that had previously been considered involuntary, such as heart rate, skin temperature, skin conductance, blood pressure, and brainwaves, when they were given feedback from a machine that told them how they were doing. This research was pioneered by Drs. Elmer and Alyce Green at the Menninger Foundation, Drs. David Shapiro and Gary Schwartz who were at Harvard at the time, Dr. Chandra Patel in England, and many others. Many of these studies actually made use of relaxation, meditation, or yoga to help people to learn to control these bodily responses.
But the word meditation is often misused. We ourselves, in order not to confuse the issues at the start of the course, have used it loosely. Now that you have progressed in your exercises, you should know that it is not synonymous with Alpha. It occurs in the Alpha state when one reaches the deepest levels, but it can be preceded by what we call Concentration and Contemplation (Brown)
The student can become one with the object he studies, or can arrive at the period of study with no preconceived ideas and let his subconscious suggest a thought or visualization, with which he merges. Contemplation requires a yielding of self in order to experience the object or thought to its fullest, but it still falls short of the desired effect.
Transcendental meditation requires an emptying of the self. One closes his eyes, takes himself down to his Alpha level, and seeks the silence rather than something within or outside of himself. In short, he exhausts his mind as thoroughly as possible so ideas, sounds, and sights are eliminated. Only by emptying a glass can we obtain a complete refill, and since both concentration and contemplation methods must eventually yield to this the emptying of the self to seek the silence it is this approach which has been selected for you. The stilling of the mind is the goal. We are not meditating in the true sense until we have reached this point.
Admittedly it is not easy. Out bodies fight it first, our minds next, and finally our emotions resist by telling us that if we do not feel anything we are not living. Still we must clear away the debris, clean the slate, penetrate to the core of the self where appears empty and still at first. Then into the vacuum will come new thoughts, new visions, new ideas, for nature cannot tolerate a vacuum. At this point we must be careful to let the contents drift past instead of trying to hold onto them, after we have done this long enough, our minds become truly still and the minutes or the hours pass unnoticed. In this stillness we advance spiritually and psychically. Some gains are made through concentration or contemplation, but none can compare with the benefits of true meditation (Scott).
Some disciplines claim that posture can assist in these respects. Those who favor the lotus position believe that entwined legs and arms permit the vibrations to move in a figure eight. If you are comfortable in the lotus position and feel that it helps, by all means use it, though we have found it no more beneficial than the pharaohs posture (i.e., sitting upright on a chair with feet firmly on the floor and hands placed on the things).
Almost all meditative techniques employ relaxation and breath control. Here the Oriental practices can be of incalculable benefit to Westerners. We are too tense and our physical exercises are most often calculated to build muscle tone rather than relax the body. Our most popular participant sports of baseball, football, golf, and tennis exercise muscles not used in ordinary occupations.
Only swimming relaxes, and this is a seasonal activity in many locales. Thus, modern man must use whatever exercise he can master that stress muscle relaxation, and the most noted is Yoga. In its entirely, this is a meditative technique which requires years of study and is unsuited to a culture like ours, which requires rapid adjustments, but its preliminaries, the asanas (body exercises), are recommended for those who can find a teacher.
Breath control is more important for achieving an altered state of consciousness, and once we assume a suitable position that will leave the body erect, with the rib cage free for deep breathing, we are ready to observe the benefits of decreased respiration. On an average, we breathe sixteen to eighteen times per minute. When we become excited, our respiration increase. When we use our minds, they decrease. And what happens by chance can be controlled, although it must be remembered that breathing is a natural, easy, involuntary process which shouldnt be forced.
One should learn how to alter your respiration enough to use it for your own protection. Begin by closing the mouth and breathing through the nostrils. Place your hand on your diaphragm and take deep breaths, so your hand will move out and back as you inflate or deflate your lungs. Your shoulders should not lift but remain stationary. Now pay attention to what happens, letting your breath come or go as it will. If you become excited or nervous abut your breathing, relax and think of something pleasant for a moment, and when your breathing has slowed to normal, resume the exercise.
Next, open your mouth and take twenty-five or so gasping, shallow breaths. Do this just once. Quick, shallow breathing may be used for emergencies such as striking your funny-bone or bracing yourself for the stab of a doctors needle. It temporarily suspends the pain of an injury, though it is a stopgap method that should not be continued. People who over breathe through sustained excitement or frequent sighing are likely to suffer from hyperventilation, with its accompanying symptoms of lightheadedness and fainting spells.
Over-breathing should never be used for heart pain. In fact, for heart ailments the opposite applies. One must slow his breathing as much as possible. We know many individuals who have averted incipient heart attacks or halted those already in progress by controlling their hearts through reduced respiration. The secret is to relax as completely as possible under the circumstances and breathe slowly and steadily from the diaphragm. Everyone should practice this simple, do-it-yourself lifesaving method, but particularly those with heart problems.
Another reason for learning to breathe slowly is that it prevents anyone from remaining angry or annoyed. Those conditions tense the body and increase respiration. Most of us have been advised to count to ten to overcome anger, but it is more direct to deliberately hold the breath to ten or twelve deep inhalation-exhalations per minute. This dissipates the emotion. We cannot retain it when the body relaxes.
Stage fright of other fears can be similarly disposed of by slowing the breathing. What happens in a fearful situation is that our muscles tense and this tensing restricts the flow of blood and inhibits breathing. The tightness causes greater tension and in extreme cases can even close the throat so we cannot swallow or speak. The body often tries to combat the effect by yawning. All fears that prevent us from taking appropriate action can be overcome by breathing slowly and deeply.
Reducing the rate to ten or twelve breaths per minute is also the best preparation for mental activity. Some people never get into the proper mood for study thought because they breathe too rapidly. Just a few minutes devoted to slow, from-the-diaphragm breathing will acclimate their bodies to the desirable thought-producing state. This is precisely what we do when we begin to meditate.
We relax the body and use our breath to start the count-down. As we descend into ourselves, our rate of respiration slows as it must if we are sufficiently relaxed and desirous of achieving the Alpha state and it remains slowed for the greater part of our meditations. It can accelerate a bit during certain exercises, such as the visualization with emotion when we do our RENEWING, but it invariably decelerates when we withdraw the emotion.
When respiration increases, we may find ourselves rising from the Alpha level. If so, all we have to do is take a deep breath and tell ourselves that as we exhale we shall find the right level. Slower breathing and its accompanying relaxation are two reasons why we emerge from a period of either concentration or contemplation feeling so refreshed and invigorated. Meditation (that is, seeking the silence) also does this, of course, but adds additional benefits.
During your meditational work, listen to your breathing. Do not attempt to slow it down or speed it up at first. Just listen. Feel how natural, how easy it is. If focusing your attention on it causes you to speed it up, relax a moment and think of a pleasant experience. Breath is automatic. It is your natural exchange with the universe, and you need to do nothing but observe it for a time. Later, when you become familiar with this natural rhythm, count your breaths for each minute. Then, with your eyes on the sweep hand of your watch, reduce the rate by one breath per minute. If your normal rate is sixteen breaths, practice breathing fifteen times per minute for one week of until you feel comfortable with fifteen. Do not rush it.
A reduction of one breath per week suffices. The second week, work on reducing to fourteen. Take another week to get to the thirteen, and keep reducing the breaths until you can produce easily and without strain ten breath per minute. Stop there. Under no circumstances should you attempt to go below ten. When you progress to the point where less than ten are required, you will do so naturally. The brain requires oxygen, and you must not cut off an adequate supply. Remember, you are not in competition with anyone in the world, and this applies particularly to meditation work. You do what is best for you and let others advance or remain stationary as they will.
If someone else wants to brag about breathing once or twice per minute, let him. Its his brain, not yours, that is apt to suffer the damage. You may help yourself to breathe slower by sitting before a lighted candle. Hold your face close to the flame and respirate until you can breathe though your nostrils without disturbing the flame. Practice with a candle and time your breaths until they are slow and steady. You will find this a relaxing experience as well as one that will assist you in overcoming emotional outbursts or coping with physical pain.
Brown, Barbara. Supermind. Bantam Books. 1980 Harper and Row.
Scott, Gini Graham. The Empowered Mind. Prentice Hall. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
Transcendental Meditation. Retrieved May 15, 2007 at: