I am rereading Herbert Benson’s book, The Relaxation Response, a book that originally appeared in 1975 and has sold upwards of four million copies worldwide. What might have sparked so much interest in this book is the fact that it was based on scientific research, done by a Harvard doctor and researcher, into the nature of relaxation. Relaxation is a natural capacity we all have. It is as natural to rest and to relax deeply as it is to be tensed and stressed.
But, while tension and stress we often know so well, where is that capacity for real rest and relaxation? By studying people who practiced Transcendental Meditation, and then looking into other kinds of meditation, contemplation or relaxation techniques, Benson developed a simplified system that contained the essential elements he thought necessary for relaxation. Those essential elements number four and I call them the “Four Pillars of Relaxation.”
1/ Peace and Quiet. We need a quiet place. We also need some free time, free from the usually demands that are made on us. But undisturbed free time is often hard to come by. In our busy and hectic lives it can almost be impossible, during most of the day, to find any real open, undisturbed, free time for pure rest and relaxation. And even if we found 10 or 15 minutes of that kind of time, we probably would spend it thinking about all the things that need to be done or attended to. I like to say that relaxing is the easiest thing to do in the world and the hardest. What could be easier than to do nothing, to rest and relax? And what could be harder?
2/ Mental Focus. We need to rein in our thoughts but in a very gentle and mild way. A word or phrase constantly repeated and returned to in our thoughts is recommended. Even viewing an external object or listening to a pleasant and repetitive sound can help focus our minds. Too much mental activity precludes much relaxation. Our minds are likely to race around, dash here and there, and we need to bring some order and focus to this kind of functioning. So learning to gently focus and to concentrate the mind is often necessary when learning to relax. But eventually, once some skill is attained in this art and practice of relaxation, there is no further need to hold onto anything in your mind. With relaxation it naturally tends to quiet down and go peacefully along for the ride.
3/ A Passive Attitude. Benson suggests that this might be the most important of the requirements for relaxation. This is a sense of surrender. We surrender to that natural capacity we have to rest and relax. Surrender to the fatigue and the sense of tension. Let fatigue and tension have its way with you. Don’t fight it. Give in. Desire, drive, ambition get in the back seat for awhile and remain quiet. We are going nowhere and doing nothing for a half-hour or more and that is all there is to it.
4/ A Comfortable Position. Staying still and being in a comfortable position helps us to relax. Lying on your back in bed or in a soft and supportive reclining chair may be the best and most conducive positions for relaxation. Feel the softness and support beneath and enjoy the feeling. Sink into the bed; feel glued to the chair. That sense of heaviness, the weight of your body against the bed or chair, overwhelms and for a little while you can hardly move and certainly don’t want to. This is ease like you never knew before. You may fall asleep and I know no rules against it, but you may just as likely stay conscious and awake and enjoy the feelings of peace and ease and rest.
This is the Relaxation Response and the four pillars that support it. It is our perfectly natural antidote to stress, tension, and arousal. And more than any pill or medical procedure it can redeem and save our lives.