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Tom Ball
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Hi Laura. Thanks for your succinct writeup of Norman Rosenthal's new book. Your book also sounds interesting. You bring up an interesting and important point: is the relaxation response technique, developed by Benson, "identical" to the Transcendental Meditation technique? The TM technique was introduced by Maharishi in 1955 -- revived from an ancient tradition of meditation after being lost to society, even in India, for centuries. I've been teaching TM for many years and would like to note some of the differences between the techniques, from my perspective. Aside from their origins, there are many ways to contrast the two practices. Perhaps most important, they are very different when you look at the instructions on how to meditate (even though Benson tried to model his technique after TM). When one learns TM, one takes a comprehensive course that includes gaining an understanding of the mechanism of "transcending," which is something that Benson doesn't talk about. Benson's technique asks that you keep your mantra (usually the word "one") in step with your breathing. In TM, one does not associate the mantra with the breathing because this would involve some control or effort, and TM is based on effortlessness. Associating the mantra with the breath would also keep attention active on the surface, disallowing the deeper rest gained through TM practice. With TM, there are many subtle differences regarding how one is instructed to use the mantra, which naturally make a difference in the experience and the outcome of daily practice. Of course, in TM, great importance is placed on the effect of the sound, the mantra. In the ancient traditions of meditation, sound itself is known to have a tangible effect on mind and body, and the effects of the TM mantras are known to be harmonizing and life-supportive. The sound serves as a vehicle for transcending. TM is designed for transcending, for going beyond thinking and sensations to experience the state of pure awareness. This is also known as the state of yoga (yoga, of course, means union, and refers to the individual, active mind settling inward, beyond thinking, to this state of transcendence). During this transcending process, one does experience deep relaxation, but scores of studies show that the mind-body state produced by TM is neurophysiologically distinct from the state produced by the relaxation response. The measured changes in respiration rate, oxygen consumption, cortisol, plasma lactate, skin resistance, heart rate and other factors, during TM, exceed the levels of rest recorded by Benson himself in studies on the relaxation response. Benson's hypothesis, that there is a general meditative state produced by the different meditation practices, was actually never substantiated by research. The theory gained some popularity in the 1970s, but now meditation researchers know that different meditation techniques produce very different effects on mind, body and behavior. For example, during Benson's technique, EEG coherence has never been recorded in any published studies. We see a mix of brainwaves, mostly mid-range alpha, with some beta and gamma, during the relaxation response, and the alpha is generally of the same sort seen during ordinary eyes-closed relaxation. During mindfulness we see theta, and during concentration, gamma. During TM practice, there is high amplitude alpha and consistent EEG coherence in the prefrontal cortex and spreading throughout the brain. For more on the measured distinctions between TM and the relaxation response, please see: In his book, Dr. Rosenthal explains the differences between TM and ordinary relaxation (and Benson's technique). The distinctions are most striking in the realm of daily benefits. It is the process of transcending that Dr. Rosenthal finds so life transforming, not the relaxation response. The research on TM shows a range of effects not seen on any other practice. Thanks for allowing me to explain.
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Jul 7, 2011