I think every contemplative technique I’m aware of involves at least some degree of relaxation. The practices I was taught in MBSR all begin with bringing awareness to areas of tightness and holding in the body and inviting them to relax; the Body Scan, which is the first technique one learns in MBSR, consists of systematically bringing attention to the parts of the body one by one, breathing into each as a way of directing awareness. The practice is so relaxing that many people fall asleep during it. Sitting practices such as Silent Illumination and Mahamudra practice also begin with systematic relaxation, and even movement practices such as yoga and tai chi call us to relax into the posture of the body.
The very first attempts to study the effects of meditation in the 1970s demonstrated that focusing awareness on a repeated sound led to lower heart and breathing rates and lower blood pressure, an effect Dr. Herbert Benson referred to as the “Relaxation Response.” As it turns out, contemplative techniques affect the balance between the sympathetic nervous system – the older, more primitive part of our CNS responsible for the fight-flight-or-freeze mechanism – and the parasympathetic nervous system, the later-evolved mechanisms that work to restore our CNS to equilibrium. Focusing awareness in contemplative practice activates the parasympathetic nervous system in ways that counteract the physical effects of being under stress.
This paring of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems makes evolutionary sense. When our animal ancestors were confronted with threat, their survival was enhanced by the ability to react to that threat immediately, either by evading it, preparing for self-defense, or “playing dead.” The sympathetic nervous system triggers the release of hormones like cortisol, adrenalin, epinephrine and norepinephrine that raise our heart rate, respiration and muscle tone and put the rest of our CNS on a hair trigger. All that amping-up takes a toll on the organism, however, causing it to burn energy and exhaust other resources. So when the threat was over, the role of the parasympathetic system in returning the body to equilibrium quickly was just as important to the survival of our ancestors.
Today, however, this arrangement can be a problem for humans. We are constantly confronted with stimuli that our body subconsciously registers as threats: loud and sudden noise, the presence of strangers, interpersonal conflict at home and at work, the stimulation of television and digital information, the perceived need to get places and do things on deadline, threats to our economic security, and on and on. If you drive a crowded freeway to work, you are probably confronted with the threat of death every morning more frequently than our ancestors on the plains of Africa were in a month.
As a result, our sympathetic nervous system is triggered again and again, and our parasympathetic system never has the opportunity to return us to a baseline state. When this happens, our body chemistry changes, and even the way our genes express themselves can be altered. It becomes easier and easier to be triggered, and harder and harder to relax. This state of affairs is associated with all kinds of physical and psychological ailments, from hypertension to heart disease, from anxiety disorders to depression, sleep disorders to addictions, and even to a general breakdown of the immune system that can make us more susceptible to infectious diseases.
So tension is a defense mechanism that has gotten out of control. Our muscles tighten to protect us or tense for quick action; over time we hold those patterns of stress in the body, which is always on guard and can never let down its defenses. And these defenses are not only arrayed against threats of external harm; our bodies also deploy them against our personal demons, such as fear, shame and anxiety, self-hatred, traumatic memories, and our anger and frustration with other people. Along with affecting our physical health, then, tension in the body mirrors and contributes to tension in the mind, and hinders us from being fully present for our actual experience of life.
In the modern world, our parasympathetic nervous system needs some help. Fortunately, we can train our CNS to respond more quickly and effectively to the over-activity of the sympathetic nervous system, and that’s where contemplative techniques can help. Not only can we experience the physical benefits of relaxation, but we can use these techniques to help us move from defensive reactivity to acceptance, to give ourselves the precious gift of resting in the midst of each moment of our lives.
When Practice Circle meets again this Sunday evening, March 24, at 6 pm Pacific, 7 Mountain, 8 Central and 9 Eastern, we’ll relax! . You’ll find a link to our free online practice community here.