He is the prophet of "one," the man who drew the essence from transcendental meditation and made it accessible to everybody--or anybody who would listen.
"The trouble is," says Dr. Herbert Benson, "it's so easy. The main problem we're having now in this context is the simplicity. Our culture feels that unless something is expensive, mechanical, complicated, it must not work. But if you make it more complicated you destroy its essence, which is passivity and simplicity."
Benson, author of the best-selling book The Relaxation Response, and The Mind-Body Effect, is a Harvard University cardiologist who, since a late '60s encounter with a group practicing transcendental meditation, has been deeply involved in behavioral medicine at Harvard and at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston.
Benson, speaking recently at a luncheon-meeting of the American Digestive Disease Society in Montgomery County, recounted how he had been working in a Harvard lab in 1968 trying to see if behaviorial stress would raise the blood pressures of some monkeys. It did. Some young people approached him and asked, "Why are you fooling around with monkeys? Why not study us? We think we can effectively control our blood pressure -- we practice transcendental meditation.'
"Well," says Benson, "after all, it was 1968 and this was Harvard Medical School, so I said, thanks but no thanks, I really didn't think we were interested."
The young people wouldn't, he says, take no for an answer. So persistently did they insist that Benson and his colleagues finally gave in, measured the meditators' blood pressures, heartbeats, respiration rates. And as their own establishment-belief systems were strained to incredulity, they watched as the blood pressures dropped and everything else slowed down during the meditative process.
That was it for the stressed monkeys and that was also it for Benson's career: its direction, in any case.
Benson and colleagues began to trace the roots of TM and found similar exercises in the ancient Hindu studies, in Judaism and in Christianity. In Shintuism, Taoism, Buddhism. Monks in 14th-century Byzantine monasteries concentrated on what is now known as the Jesus Prayer -- "Lord Jesus Christ Have Mercy." Jewish men daven -- pray while standing. Catholics say a rosary. All repeat a word, a sentence, a prayer.
The nature mystics of New England -- Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott -- elicited the response. "Tennyson," says Benson, "used to walk down the beach repeating his own name, over and over.
"In the shamanistic religions, the primitive ones, people achieve the same state chanting to the beating of a drum or the stamping of feet."
Meanwhile, the series of physiological events Benson calls the "relaxation response," was being confirmed by other scientists. Swiss physiologist Walter Hess had been able to show that when one part of a cat's brain was stimulated the body went into its "fight-or-flight" stance. Another stimulation in another part of the brain produced the opposite effect -- calming the muscles, staunching the flow of hormones that readied the body for escape or battle.
But not only did Benson find repeated examples of tapping into the relaxation reponse throughout the culture of man, "we found also that in virtually every culture exactly the same steps are there," basically requiring rhythmic repetition of a word or phrase over a period of time in a passive, relaxed manner.
This should not, emphasizes Benson, "in any sense be interpreted as a scientific, mechanistic explanation of prayer. It isn't. Rather it is a reaffirmation of what religious people have been telling us for thousands of years: Prayer is good for you. They were right."
The obverse, of course, was what scientists had been finding ever since Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon described the "fight-or-flight" response some 80 years ago. And that is that stress, inappropriate stress, is bad for you.
A Czech physiologist demonstrated the impact of stress, says Benson, on a group of healthy students. He instrumented them so he could measure their heart rates, blood flow to muscles, rate of breathing and blood pressures. He told them to lie quietly, then gave them a four-digit number -- like 9,632 -- and told them to start subtracting by 17s while a metronome and distracting fellow students made up background noise.
Within two seconds, says Benson, "They exhibited the full-blown manifestations of the fight-or-flight response."
The reasons, he speculates, that stress-related ailments like hypertension and its cardiovascular fallout are getting to us more today than ever before is "not that we're not healthier, but in previous ages, even though there was pestilence and plague, there was a certain predictability about life that was acceptable. What we have today is a pernicious type of situation with an unpredictable unpredictability . . . How, for example, do you react to medication being laced with poison?
"We knew about psychosomatic medicine -- how the mind could create illness. Now behavioral medicine, our work, is centering more on how you can use thought patterns to bring about beneficial results."
Benson broke with TM when he demonstrated that "one" was as good a mantra as anything TM could provide (in sessions costing $125 and up). He has continued his behavioral work in Boston -- the "tripod" of teaching, patient care and research. His recently published study in Science shows that eliciting the relaxation response on a regular basis could give long-term resistance to the deleterious effects of the chemicals released under stress.
He is working at new behavioral medicine clinics opened under his guidance at Beth Israel to teach the relaxation response and explore its effects on health. Last winter he visited the Tibetan community in exile in India at the invitation of the Dalai Lama, to measure a technique by which Tibetan monks can raise the temperature of their fingers and toes some 17 degrees Fahrenheit.
"One step leads to another," he says, "and we want to see how far we can go."