Traditions and the Relaxation Response

The Relaxation Response is naturally built into our bodies. The feelings that people have during the Relaxation Response are usually pleasant and sometimes even profound. The Relaxation Response is also usually healthy for our body. Therefore, it makes sense that the Relaxation Response may have played some part in spiritual and other traditions throughout human history. In this section, we survey many of the popular traditions that seem to indicate some experience of the Relaxation Response.
Questions that might come from a survey like this can become very deep. These questions may concern ultimate truth or the purpose of life. These deep questions are not addressed on this website. However, we do cover these traditions in a way that shows how the Relaxation Response might have been experienced in different cultures. Our goal is to survey these traditions with the great respect that we believe they deserve.
Apart from this survey, we only cover in depth the open techniques. We believe that this is the best way to respect the different traditions while we focus on the health benefits of the Relaxation Response.

General Overview and Assumptions

A good review of how the Relaxation Response may have been a part of different traditions can be found in chapter 5 of Dr. Benson’s book The Relaxation Response. This section is inspired by much of the material in that chapter.
Humans normally experience different states of consciousness, which can vary from stages of sleep to a continuum in feelings of alertness. The Relaxation Response, however, is considered to be an altered state of consciousness because it usually does not occur spontaneously but must be consciously and purposefully evoked.
When we suggest that different cultural practices of the past involved the experience of the Relaxation Response, then we are extrapolating this suggestion from one of the following assumptions.
  1. The extraordinary feelings of peace, relaxation, or bliss that accompany some of the current experiences of the Relaxation Response (as verified physiologically) are assumed to parallel the experience of those in the past who have described similar feelings. The parallel is assumed to be strong especially if these descriptions from the past also mention similar conditions to those known to elicit the Relaxation Response.
    • a quiet environment
    • an object to dwell upon
    • a passive attitude
    • a comfortable position
  2. Many of these ancient practices are still with us today and some practitioners have been subjected to measurements which can characterize the Relaxation Response. So, in this case we can be fairly certain that since today’s practitioners experience the Relaxation Response then those in the past who carried out similar practices were also experiencing the Relaxation Response.
The following list of some major traditions that probably reflect some experience of the Relaxation Response follow the order given in Dr. Benson’s book The Relaxation Response. As Dr. Benson points out, associating these religious practices or philosophies to an experience of the Relaxation Response should not promote the viewing of any religion or philosophy in a mechanistic manner. The religion or philosophy can be examined on its own independently of whether it was eliciting the Relaxation Response or not.

Mystical and Psychological

Mysticism or the “Perennial Philosophy” has been associated with both Eastern and Western thought. Depending on the tradition, this can be see as a type of union with God or union with the ground of all Being.
From a psychological viewpoint, William James, one of the fathers of modern psychology, looks to the goal of “remedying inner incompleteness and reducing inner discord” through a “mystical feeling of enlargement, union and emancipation”, as explained in his Varieties of Religious Experience. Another parallel can be seen in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where the highest level is one of transcendence.