The Relaxation Response

Herbert Benson M.D.

(form of meditation)

An author and researcher who is not a psychologist, but has become well known in the medical world; a cardiologist, and founder of Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA. He is a graduate and associate professor of Harvard Medical School. He is author or co-author of many scientific publications and authored a number of books which have sold more than 4 million copies in several languages. He was an early promoter of spirituality in medical practice. His work has been a bridge, joining medicine with religion, East with the West, mind with the body, and belief with science. His research and writings have had a significant influence in the field of medicine.

Dr. Benson and his work were included in the chapter Ayurveda, Meditation section. I wish to review its role in mind—therapy; its contribution to the field of psychology.

A discipline known as The Relaxation Response brought forth by Herbert Benson M.D. has had considerable influence upon the medical community. Dr. Benson conducted quality medical research, studied the physiological changes in the autonomic nervous system in followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi while they practiced Transcendental Meditation, and then he named those physiological effects of transcendental meditation The Relaxation Response. Remember, it took meditation to produce the relaxation response. He studied the effects of this relaxation technique upon various medical disorders in his Harvard research lab. He was able to show beneficial effects upon high blood pressure, help in reducing illicit drug use, benefit for migraine headaches, lower cholesterol levels, overcome insomnia, stimulate creativity, relieve various pain syndromes, and various anxiety disorders.

Dr. Benson is also Chief of the Division of Behavioral Medicine, New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston. His book, The Relaxation Response, has sold millions. It gained wide acceptance by the medical community because it showed benefits under controlled trials that met with the medical standards of research. The methods presented by Benson are easy and without cost. This method he considered as harmless to the physical body. However, it was not evaluated as to its effect upon the long term spiritual health. William A. Nolen M.D. wrote an endorsement to the relaxation response as follows:

I am delighted that someone has finally taken the nonsense out of meditation… Without the need to waste hundreds of dollars on so-called “Courses,” the reader knows how to meditate—and how to adopt a technique that best suits him or herself. This is a book any rational person—whether a product of Eastern or Western culture—can whole heartedly accept. 1) Benson, Herbert M.D., Klipper, Miraiam Z., The Relaxation Response, Wings Books, a Random House Company, New Jersey, (1975), cover of book.

Not only medical professionals but also the mental health establishment has accepted Dr. Benson’s Relaxation Response as quality science and many therapists have utilized his technique. In 1975 it was introduced to the armed forces, “the meditative technique, cleansed of ideology,” and made a smashing hit with the Admirals and chief of naval education. It became a standard in indoctrination of new recruits throughout the armed forces. All basic training programs use it because of its effect as an alternative to drug use. 2) Ferguson, Marilyn, The Aquarian Conspiracy, J.P. Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles, Distributed by St. Martin’s Press, New York, (1980), p. 237. throughout the world, looking for and selecting a particular practice used in healing that tended to be common to all. He found that meditation similar to transcendental meditation contained the principles that were found in the healing practices he had reviewed in his study of the various ancient religions as well as certain present religions.

All non-Christian and mystical Christian systems have some form of Eastern type meditation in their religious practices. Apostolic style Christianity does not, it has the practice of what we refer to as study and prayer as its particular method of communion with God. However, within the Christian movement there has been a mystical branch as traced by Benson. It started with St. Augustine (354-430), and then continued through monastics of the desert (desert fathers) during the early Middle Ages, using the mantra as a form of prayer tool.

The meditation practices and rules for living of these earliest Christian monks bear strong similarity to those of their Hindu and Buddhist renunciate brethren several kingdoms to the East… the meditative techniques they adopted for finding their God suggest either a borrowing from the East or a spontaneous rediscovery. 3) Goleman, Daniel, The Meditative Mind (Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher/Putman Inc. 1988), p. 53; Reported in Youngen, Ray, A Time of Departing, Lighthouse Trails Publishing, Silverton, Oregon, (2002), p. 42.

A book by an unknown author with the title of A Cloud of Unknowing written possibly in the fourteenth century promoted the use of a passive mind to achieve a contemplative mind (meditation). There are records of people in the Christian faith known as Christian mystics who practiced some form of meditation down through the centuries. We have continuation of this movement in the Christian community today teaching a similar practice, referred to as contemplative prayer.

The Relaxation Response is composed of four elements, previously listed in the chapter on Ayurveda but important to review at this point: 1) A quiet environment; 2) an object to dwell upon, word or sound in repetition (mantra) or to gaze upon some object or symbol; 3) passive attitude, an empting of all thoughts from one’s mind; facilitated by deep rhythmic breathing; 4) a comfortable position allowing the same position for at least 20 minutes.

Medical research has substantiated that there are very definite effects upon our nervous system and endocrine system by use of these methods. The involuntary nervous system reacts to many methods of relaxation and stress reduction. The rate of metabolism will be slowed within minutes by 20% or more as revealed by the reduced utilization of oxygen. Blood lactate levels drop revealing that the muscles are in a more relaxed state, blood pressures will become lower, heart rate slows, breathing rate slows, and the brain wave changes from the beta rhythm to alpha rhythm which is a slower rate of electrical brain waves. All these changes result in improvement of various medical conditions as mentioned in the first paragraph of this section.

If the Relaxation Response is so easy, cheap, safe, accessible, and effective for problems that are not always responsive to medicines, why has this section on Relaxation Response been placed in this chapter which is exposing Satan’s deceptions that are infiltrating the mental health field? Because it is insidious, deceptive, and spiritualistic. Dr. Benson has proposed the technique as a neutral method between science and religion by changing the word meditation to Relaxation Response and suggests use of Christian terms in the mantra. Many health professionals have accepted it. Some spiritual leaders believe they would not be partaking of its spiritualistic pagan tenets if they choose to use this method.

Meditation and yoga are worship acts and practices made to pagan gods. Transcendental meditation is a particular method of yoga wherein a secret mantra is given that is never to be shared with anyone. This manta is in fact a name of a Hindu god and when the mantra is used the meditator in turn is calling upon that Hindu god to possess him or herself.

Some may doubt the above statement. I will share with the reader a recent experience that makes clear to me this is so. I was conducting a seminar on the subjects of this book in Massachusetts March 2010 and I had shared the above statement with those in attendance. Following the lecture a young man came to me with a question—how did I know this fact that the mantra given in transcendental meditation is the name of a Hindu god and that to repeat it is to call on that god to possess the meditator? I could not recall at that moment where I learned such, however, he told me I was correct, that it was a secret not to be revealed. He had once worked for the great Transcendental Meditation Ashram near Lancaster, Massachusetts and had been initiated into transcendental meditation; he had received the secret name of a Hindu god and bowed before two altars to Hindu gods in this initiation. One and one half years later he had surrendered his life to Jesus Christ and became a baptized Christian.

The Relaxation Response is a name given by Dr. Benson to the physiologic changes measured on transcendental meditators he used in his research. This meditation that he measured had the same response on the nervous system that occurs from meditation of Eastern religions, of Shamanism, of Christian mystics, Western occultism, of yoga, etc. For certain there are real effects, hundreds of experiments and studies substantiate that it is not a sham; there is a power in these practices. How does hypnotism bring changes to our nervous system to the degree that painless surgery has been done while under its influence, or painless surgery with patient awake with acupuncture? Men are able to walk or run through white hot coals of fire without burning flesh or clothing. Is this the answer?

These Satanic agents claim to cure disease. They attribute their power to electricity, magnetism, or the so-called “sympathetic remedies,” while in truth they are but channels for Satan’s electric currents. By this means he casts his spell over the bodies and souls of men.–Signs of the Times, March 24, 1887.

In the Appendix H (Satan’s Ground), there is a list of more than thirty different conditions or situations that are considered Satan’s ground by Ellen White. Is it possible that a thirty-five hundred plus year old worship procedure, designed to worship and connect the worshiper to Satan’s spirit world could be considered as Satan’s ground, and an act that the worshiper of the Creator God would choose to avoid?

What has made The Relaxation Response so deceptive is a name change. Most of the medical profession at the time Dr. Benson was doing his research rejected practices coming from Eastern thought. By demonstrating physiologic changes from meditation and changing the name, prejudice was overcome. One of Dr. Benson’s investigators, Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D. shares with us his confirmation of the way that Dr. Benson was able to gain the medical professions acceptance of his relaxation response therapy.

…Transcendental Meditation, popularized by the Beatles, and the relaxation response, was popularized by Harvard’s Dr. Herbert Benson. Dr. Benson, who directed a postgraduate course I took at Harvard Medical School, was chiefly concerned with isolating the most obvious healing aspect of meditation, and therefore focused his research almost solely upon simple, worry-free relaxation. In so doing, he made meditation palatable to the medical community. 4) Khalsa, Dharma Singh M.D., Meditation as Medicine, Stauth, Cameron, New York, NY, (2001), p. 7. (Emphasis added)

Dr. Khalsa is author of the book Meditation as Medicine, wherein he compares the relaxation response and Transcendental Meditation with his method—Meditation as Medicine. He makes the comment that visualization, guided imagery, progressive relaxation, and affirma-tion are forms of meditation but lack the value and full effects he sees from his method—Meditation as Medicine. He refers to Relaxation Response as the kindergarten version of Medical Meditation. 5) Ibid., p. 10. Khalsa points out that Medical Meditation has unique attributes wherein specific breathing patterns are utilized; postures are specific even to the position of the hands and fingers; specific mantras that give selected sounds; and a special mental focus are used. What makes the difference between a kindergarten level practice and one of superior effectiveness? Answer: the spiritual sensitivity of the operator, or said another way, the operator’s close connection to the powers of the occult.

Dr. Benson followed his book, The Relaxation Response, with a second book, Beyond Relaxation Response, which brings out additional areas of interest not mentioned in the first book, The Relaxation Response. In this second book he emphasizes the faith factor. He speaks of two powerful spiritual vehicles: 1) meditation 2) personal religious convictions. The statement is made in his book that the use of Relaxation Response is to form a bridge between two disciplines, the practice and art of meditation and your traditional faith. 6) Benson, Herbert M.D., Beyond Relaxation Response, A Berkeley Book, Times Books edition , 1984, Berkley edition ,(1985), New York, NY, p. 6. How does one connect an ancient practice designed to alter one’s level of consciousness and to connect man with the spirit world and blend it with the Christian faith?

As I read through this small book it soon became clear that the book is written to persuade one, of the beliefs of the Eastern thought, i.e.,, the origin of man coming from a theorized energy and not from a Holy Being—Creator God. Buddhism’s doctrines are cautiously introduced throughout the book in a masterful way suggesting a blending of these principles with other religions including Christianity by use of the technique (Eastern style meditation) spoken of as the Relaxation Response.

A third book by Benson, Your Maximum Mind, moves the reader one more step further toward changing one’s world view of reality. In this text Benson recommends his Relaxation Response technique as a means of:

…Our research has shown that to pass into the so called hypnotic state, the Relaxation Response is first elicited. Then, the hypnotist may suggest various actions to the individual being hypnotized. 7) Benson, Herbert M.D., Your Maximum Mind, Times Books, Division of Random House, Inc., New York, (1987), p. 38.
(Emphasis added)

This above quotation is telling us that all that is needed after the Relaxation Response is reached is to have a hypnotist make suggestions and the meditator will respond accordingly. Is that not fully hypnosis when the Relaxation Response has been reached? Another question comes to my mind: what is the difference between a hypnotist and any other person that might give suggestions to the meditator that has achieved the Relaxation Response? I suggest this answer: the hypnotist has placed him or herself under the control of occult powers. What about the person who attained the Relaxation Response?

If I choose to use the Relaxation Response for stress or other reasons, how do I know when I have reached the full response? Dr. Benson gives the answer in The Maximum Mind, pages 38, 39:

It’s interesting that many people who have elicited the Relaxation Response—and experienced increased communication between the two sides of the brain—express the experience as a sort of “wholeness.” They use such terms as “unboundedness,” “infinite correlation,” “well-being,” and “intense wakefulness.” Also, those in this state tend to have much greater awareness of the richness of details which surround them in their environment. Often people just say that the state is inexpressible; it’s beyond words and language and can only be felt, not described. In its most intense form, this type of experience is known as a “peak experience”—whether you’re talking about a spiritual insight, a winning sports effort or some personal intellectual break through.

Benson in the same chapter as above refers to a Dr. Stanley R. Dean, professor of psychiatry at the Universities of Miami and Florida, who makes the following comment on this peak experience. As one that:

…produces a superhuman transmutation of consciousness that defies description. The mind, divinely intoxicated, literally reels and trips over itself, groping and struggling for words of sufficient exaltation and grandeur to portray the transcendental vision. As yet, we have no adequate words.

In the research laboratory when this state of full Relaxation Response has been reached, monitoring of brain waves reveals alpha and theta brain waves in both hemispheres. These are the wave lengths of a slowed brain activity which results from a passive mind, and theta is specifically the rate demonstrated in biofeedback and hypnotic trance.

The book, Your Maximum Mind, by Benson has as its purpose to share with the reader Dr. Benson’s belief that by use of the Relaxation Response the brain can be tuned to bring forth its full potential. He presents the story of research that his laboratory from Harvard University did in Tibet, monitoring Tibetan monks as they meditated. One group of monks came into a room at 40 degrees Fahrenheit and took wet cloths, wrapped them over their bodies. Meditation style (gTummo Yoga), was entered into. The wet cold clothes within three to five minutes began to steam and in thirty to forty minutes the clothes were dry. They repeated this act several times.

Another group of monks living at 17,000 feet elevation walked in the early evening up to an elevation of 19,000 feet and dressed in sandals, loin cloth and a thin cotton cloth over the body. They took off their sandals squatted down with their heads resting on the ground in front of them and entered into gTummo Yoga. The temperature was zero degrees Fahrenheit. Thus they spent the night without even a shiver, in the morning they arose shaking off snow that had settled on them during the night and walked back to their monastery.

Dr. Benson shares with us his belief that the monk’s ability to do these acts is a result of the Relaxation Response—meditation and relying profoundly upon their Buddhist faith. Might it not be the same power that prevents burns to clothing and skin for those who walk forty feet through white hot coals of fire?

In the book, Your Maximum Mind, Herbert Benson reveals how by use of the Relaxation Response we can increase our abilities in academic activities, music, health, creativity, spirituality, etc. We do this by bringing ourselves into the fullness of the Relaxation Response then exposing ourselves to any of those endeavors we wish to excel in. The level of achievement in that art will be much higher than we are able to achieve without using this technique. Why not take advantage of it?

Can I find in the Bible any suggestion that this is the way to enrich my spiritual life? Is there any hint of such in the books written by E.G. White? I have not found any suggestion of such. I do find the advice to seek wisdom from God. Solomon asked wisdom from God and was blessed with such. We cannot serve two masters at one time, it is always only one. Is it spiritually safe? The Christian will find his growth in abilities and wisdom coming from the Creator God of the universe, not hidden within his consciousness to be brought forth through an occult power.

That their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgement of the mystery of God, and the Father, and of Christ; In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Colossians 2: 2, 3 (emphasis added)

Herbert Benson comments further:

So when you are in this state of enhanced left-right hemispheric communication, it’s easier to process information and view situations in a new and innovative way. In other words, a cognitive receptivity or plasticity of cognition occurs, in which you actually change the way you view the world. 8) Ibid. (Emphasis added)

Benson told the L.A. Times:

…in his clinical experience, about 60-70% of those who begin a meditation-type practice primarily for medical reasons (often at the recommendation of their doctor) adopt the teachings. (Buddhism). L.A. Times Quiet the Mind, Heal the Body, 1/12/03

This article taken from: Exposing Spiritualistic Practices in Healing by Edwin A. Noyes M.D., MPH


1 Benson, Herbert M.D., Klipper, Miraiam Z., The Relaxation Response, Wings Books, a Random House Company, New Jersey, (1975), cover of book.
2 Ferguson, Marilyn, The Aquarian Conspiracy, J.P. Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles, Distributed by St. Martin’s Press, New York, (1980), p. 237.
3  Goleman, Daniel, The Meditative Mind (Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher/Putman Inc. 1988), p. 53; Reported in Youngen, Ray, A Time of Departing, Lighthouse Trails Publishing, Silverton, Oregon, (2002), p. 42.
4 Khalsa, Dharma Singh M.D., Meditation as Medicine, Stauth, Cameron, New York, NY, (2001), p. 7.
5 Ibid., p. 10.
6 Benson, Herbert M.D., Beyond Relaxation Response, A Berkeley Book, Times Books edition , 1984, Berkley edition ,(1985), New York, NY, p. 6.
7 Benson, Herbert M.D., Your Maximum Mind, Times Books, Division of Random House, Inc., New York, (1987), p. 38.
8 Ibid.