For thousands of years, religions the world over have extolled the benefits of meditation and quiet contemplation. In Islam and Catholicism, Judaism and Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, and in religious practice from the Americas to Africa to Asia, the value of sitting quietly, using various techniques to cultivate stillness or focused attention of the mind, has been well recognized. The goals of religious meditation extend far beyond its potential physical health benefits and also extend beyond the scope of this book. Higher human function of body, mind, and spirit is explored in sacred literature throughout the world. An excellent summary of ancient and contemporary information on the subject can be found in Michael Murphy's landmark book The Future of the Body: Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature. In the closing years of the Twentieth Century, the intimate connection between body and mind is widely acknowledged. Once the domain of speculation by mystics and philosophers, this realm has in recent decades been visited and revisited by scientists, who have produced an impressive array of documentation. Most of this research appeared after 1970, and there currently exists a state of informational jet-lag, in which the available documentation has not yet fully percolated through the scientific community. Thus, meditation remains a tool drastically underutilized within the medical fields. The data pool is now so substantial that it can be stated, without fear of contradiction, that meditation and related relaxation techniques have been scientifically shown to be highly beneficial to health. Over a thousand research studies, most of them published in well-respected scientific journals, attest to a wide range of measurable improvements in human function as a result of meditative practices. Herbert Benson, M.D., and the Relaxation Response
Herbert Benson's research at Harvard in the early 1970s led the way. Benson's impeccable credentials and university affiliation, along with the world-class quality of his work, led to publication of breakthrough articles on meditation in the Scientific American and the American Journal of Physiology. His book, The Relaxation Response topped the best seller lists in the mid-1970s, and is still widely read. In The Relaxation Response, Benson concluded, based on his research, that meditation acted as an antidote to stress. The body's physical response under stress is well known; when a real or imagined threat is present, the human nervous system activates the "fight-or-flight" mechanism. The activity of the sympathetic portion of the nervous system increases, causing an increased heart beat, increased respiratory rate, elevation of blood pressure, and increase in oxygen consumption. This fight-or-flight response has a purpose. If you need to run quickly to escape an attack by a wild animal or need increased strength to battle an invader, you will be better equipped to do so if the fight-or-flight mechanism is turned up to maximum intensity. But this mechanism functions best when used occasionally, for brief periods only. If activated repeatedly, the effects are harmful and potentially disastrous. It is not uncommon for people in modern societies to maintain high stress levels most of the time. The current epidemic of hypertension and heart disease in the Western world is in part a direct result. The effects of meditation, Benson demonstrated, are essentially the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. Benson's research showed that meditation: • Decreases the heart rate
• Decreases the respiratory rate
• Decreases blood pressure in people who have normal or mildly elevated blood pressure • Decreases oxygen consumption
These basic findings have been replicated by so many subsequent studies that they are not in dispute. They also established once and for all that meditation is physiologically distinct from sleep. In sleep, oxygen consumption drops about 8 percent below the...
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