Initiate the Relaxation Response via the “Do Nothing” Meditation

This is part of my Start Here series of posts aimed at teaching beginners the basics of the human hardware.

This post is a copy of a handout I give to students during Skype coaching, which is why it’s written in a simple, straightforward tone. It is designed to be the easiest and least confusing meditation method imaginable. Nevertheless, it is still a highly effective meditation, particularly for relieving stress.


Premises

Mood, thought and perception have their basis in the body’s own cycles. This means if the body is in “phase X” of a cycle, mood-thought-perception will be restricted to those associated with phase X.

Simple examples:

  • When stressed, thoughts centre around problems (the perceived causes of the stress).
  • When sad, memories associated with prior “sadness events” surface and are easily remembered.
  • When happy, sad memories are effectively shut down and become inaccessible. Thoughts instead become ecstatic and spontaneous, and tend not to dwell on specific things.

The body’s phases appear to be linked to circadian rhythm (daily, monthly and yearly cycles). Phases can also be brought on by certain events.

The simple idea here is that your body and its phases are the “iceberg”. Your experience and perceptions in the present moment are the “tip of the iceberg” (the part that is visible). What is going on beneath the water feeds up into the tip. If the body is stressed, thoughts and perceptions take on stressed tones.

Rather than trying to deal with the thoughts of the moment (the tip of the iceberg), the principle in this post is to simply move the body’s phase along to something more desirable (change the whole iceberg, so the tip changes automatically).

The relaxation response takes you out of a “stress phase” and into an “equanimous phase” or even a “joyful phase”.

  • So long as the body remains in a stress phase, negative affect will continue. It can continue for years(!) if not consciously exited.
  • The relaxation response ends the stress phase. It is a physiological event.
  • The relaxation response allows positive affect to begin to arise.
  • Positive affect is either equanimous (neither pleasure nor pain) or joyous.

(Note: There is a book called The Relaxation Response. This post is nothing to do with that book (I haven’t read it). “Relaxation response” is simply a fitting term for the physiological event you can induce, so I have used it in this post.)

Inducing the Relaxation Response

There are quite a few ways to induce the relaxation response. Most meditations achieve it at some point if they are to be considered successful.

The following method however uses the fewest number of steps and is therefore the easiest to learn. It uses the Do Nothing meditation as its basis, popularized by Shinzen Young. This is a form of nondirective meditation (meditation without an object and without strict instructions for controlling attention).

The best time to perform this meditation is first thing in the morning, immediately after waking, as this sets the table for the rest of the day. It is also highly useful to do another session after work in order to end any stress cycles that have begun during the day.

Personally, I use this exact method every morning, having made the observation (via journal logs) that I am a nicer person if I do it. This meditation allows access to positive affect immediately afterwards, as opposed to my having to stumble through the morning trying to “wake up” (and being a grouch at the same time).

This meditation is to be done lying still on your back in bed, immediately after waking. You should allow an hour for this meditation.

For me personally, the relaxation response will occur anytime between one minute and one hour. My average is probably five minutes. The longer times reflect stressful events, wherein the body needs to “work its way through” a stress phase to exit on the other side. For example, when our company moved office (which was very inconvenient for me at the time) my first attempt to exit this stress phase took around an hour. Subsequent days were more like 15 minutes. Now, it is back to 1–5 minutes.

Meditation Rules

Allowed ✔

Forbidden ✘

Breathing

Thinking

Feeling

Eyes can move, open, close

Face can emote

Mouth can open or change shape if required

Do not move the body!

The Do Nothing meditation is completely liberal when it comes to the mind: you can think and feel whatever arises in the moment. Controlling the content of the mind should not be a concern for you.

The only rule which must be obeyed in this meditation is that you must keep your body absolutely still. You are not even allowed to scratch itches.

The reason for this is as follows: The stillness of the body will eventually imprint the mind with some of that same stillness. This will cause the relaxation response.

Meditation Method

  1. Wake up one hour earlier than usual. If your alarm is usually set for 7am, set an additional one for 6am.
  2. Get up and use the bathroom and drink some water if necessary.
  3. Return to bed, and lie under the covers if you are cold.
  4. Lie on your back with legs straight and arms by your sides. There can be a small gap between legs, and between torso and arms – whatever is comfortable. You will now stay in this pose for the next hour.
  5. With eyes open, look at the ceiling. Stay still.
  6. If eyes wish to close, let them. If eyes are happy open, let them be open. Stay still.
  7. If thoughts arise, think them. If emotions arise, feel them. Stay still.

You are now basically set for the next hour. Think and feel whatever arises, but stay still.

If at any point the intensity of thoughts or feelings becomes too much, you can always return your awareness to the stillness of your body and let it rest there awhile. The hands are a particularly useful place for this as stillness is most noticeable there.

You will most likely go through a range of moods and thoughts before the relaxation response occurs. This is normal and is to be expected. This reflects the mind “working through” the stress phase.

A Note on Falling Asleep

Your intention should be to stay awake during this meditation. In cases where the urge to sleep is overwhelming, this might be a sign that you actually need more sleep, in which case try going to bed an hour earlier.

If you fall asleep on the first day, do not worry: try again the next day. If, after a week, you have been unable to break this cycle, then you may have to move your meditation to the evening.

Recognizing the Relaxation Response

The relaxation response can occur spontaneously and without warning. This is one of its charms!

The effects of the relaxation response may vary between individuals, so I will list my own set of unmistakable symptoms that inform me it has occurred:

  • Number of thoughts and urgency of thoughts reduces markedly (mind becomes quieter)
  • Sudden urge to laugh out loud (“the Cosmic Giggle”)
  • Visual field becomes brighter
  • Emotions become equanimous or joyful
  • The body begins to feel blissful and relaxed
  • Breathing becomes easier and more automatic
  • Pleasurable (and quite random) hypnagogic imagery may occur

The urge to stay in this state may become strong and it should be enjoyed in this way for the remainder of the allotted time.

You may be forgiven for “dozing” or outright falling asleep at this point. A nap will tend to be highly refreshing and will often contain pleasurable and even sexual dream imagery as the mind attempts to make sense of the new positive sensations in the body.

On a personal note, I tend to avoid falling asleep once the relaxation response has triggered, since I know from experience that, if I hang on, the first jhana (an intensely blissful state) will arise shortly afterwards. I am only mentioning this for completeness; I do not want anyone to place undue expectations on themselves. Meditation is a cumulative process and you should take it as it comes.

The Evening Session

If you come home from work and immediately throw on the TV in order to “zone out” and relax for the next few hours, that is nothing more than a low-grade induction for the relaxation response. This purpose is much better served by performing the above Do Nothing meditation for 30-60 minutes immediately after work.

Diving into television is a reactive strategy for dissipating stress. The main problem with it is that it works slowly and often ineffectively. That is because conscious awareness of body and mind is required to work through the stress response effectively. Television on the other hand is designed to channel conscious awareness away into trivialities.

People turn to distractions like television and social media in order that they do not have to face their own thoughts. A couple of important points here are as follows:

  1. Facing your thoughts will be nowhere near as bad as you think it will. Fear of facing thoughts is much stronger than negative affect from actually facing them. It is much better just to get on with it.
  2. By keeping your body completely still, this stillness will take the sting out of negative thoughts. In a way, the still body acts as a giant “heat sink” for the mind. The active mind is churning out thoughts; the completely-still body conducts that energy away and dissipates it.

Practising the Do Nothing meditation for 30-60 minutes immediately after work provides a kind of mental “clean sheet”. It leaves the stresses of the day behind. This means the rest of the evening can be used for whatever you like. The difference is that the time can now be used on your terms: Rather than being reactive and going to social media or television as a calming mechanism, you will now be able to learn piano or do some writing or whatever else it is you’d like to do (but couldn’t find the energy for due to stress).

Meditating immediately after work is a way to reclaim time.

Relationship Between Relaxation Response and Body Work

In my current model, the relaxation response works by “depolarizing” the vagus nerves. You have two vagus nerves, left and right, running alongside the spine. They exit the spine at the neck and innervate the ears. They then run down through the chest and abdomen innervating the heart, lungs and digestive tract. Nerve current flows in the vagus nerves appear to control our moods.

During stress the sympathetic nervous system raises heart rate and puts muscles into a contractive mode. Connective tissue, myofascia, is pulled tight across the body, wrapping around and binding to the vagus nerves (as all myofascial meridians intersect the vagus nerves). Mood-thought-perception will reflect this stress phase, meaning thoughts will tend to be negative and dwell upon perceived causes of the stress.

Keeping the body completely still activates gentle flows in the vagus nerves, which experienced meditators perceive as gentle energy rising into the head. This is the start of the restive parasympathetic response. These gentle current flows cause the vagus nerves to begin progressively shedding the myofascial binds wrapped around them which were accumulated over the day. This is the literal meaning of the metaphor “unwinding”, meaning relaxing, e.g. “I am unwinding after work”. I refer to this as depolarizing the vagus nerves. This is a completely made-up phrase and probably is not scientifically accurate, but from an imagery perspective it works well.

After some time spent in this state of body stillness, with gentle vagus nerve current flow, the relaxation response proper begins. Heart rate goes down and positive emotional affect is allowed to develop, beginning first as relief then morphing into happiness. Thoughts change accordingly, becoming equanimous, joyous, or optimistic. This is a process which takes time to develop. The time required is increased by intensity of prior stressful events. However, the more used you are to entering the relaxation response, generally the quicker it can be brought on. This is why meditation is a cumulative process and habit is important.

The relaxation response relates to body work in the following way. When the vagus nerves are in the depolarizing mode, just about any body work will be effective, including hatha yoga, Alexander Technique, tai chi, physical exercise, and general stretching. This is why it is actually more effective to induce the relaxation response before practising those things.

I have also noticed that the opposite is true. Body work (such as physical exercise) done while the vagus nerves are “polarized” tends to lead to more injuries. Stretching and hatha yoga are also less effective as the myofascia is unwilling to “unbind” from a polarized vagus nerve.

The above reflects my current rough understanding of how all this works. In any case, regardless of scientific validity, it works for me. 🙂

Need help with your meditation? Book a Skype coaching session →

15 Responses

  1. Illuminatus says:

    I have some further notes I didn’t want getting mixed in with the main post. I will write these here as they come to me.

    The first concerns how to turn the above meditation into a directive meditation. This is really easy to do. It involves focusing on a static element in the meditation such as stillness in the body or, if you can perceive it, quietness in the body.

    Here is a dummy plan for starting with the above then turning it directive.

    WEEK 1: Straight Do Nothing, as in above post.

    WEEK 2: Begin to move awareness towards stillness in the body in between thoughts. Hands are particularly useful (stillness is most noticeable here).

    WEEK 3: Focus on stillness in body/hands as much as possible.

    WEEK 4: Begin to notice a quality of mental quiet associated with the body stillness. Alternate between body stillness and mental quiet, noticing more and more of the latter.

    WEEK 5: Focus entirely on mental quiet (hopefully you can generate it at will now, attached to the body stillness).

    I would be interested to hear how that goes for anyone wanting to get a bit more into directive meditation.

    For total beginners, please ignore this comment.

  2. BabaFella says:

    Jt seems to me that for me the relaxation occurs in waves.

    I’ll reach relaxation to some degree, and also some mental stillness, but then after some seconds the process will start over again, but the starting point is less frantic than it was before. Each time I complete a cycle I feel more and more relaxed.

    Other experiences: despite feeling okay on the surface, the centre of my body sometimes tightens up, and then loosens again. By this I mean my abdomen, lower back and my perineum.

    I’ll sometimes have mental images of me raging, screaming and getting in a fetus position while strongly tightening up. This is sometimes associated with mental imagery and verbal thoughts. This slightly translates into physically tightening up as well. But I don’t really feel mental distress. It’s kinda enjoyable actually, cuz I feel like a watcher, like I’m noticing something is being processed, but I don’t feel bad. In fact when things like this happen in some other way, for example while sitting in formal meditation most of the time I also don’t feel distress . Despite one trauma, which is a result of some repeated life experience I mostly lost the feeling of fear for these things which feels rather liberating. For example I will also have no feelings of despair, fear and distress after nightmares and such.

    My breathing pattern is also interesting. I will automatically stop breathing throughout this process as long as +/- 10 seconds . But when I start breathing again one of two things happen. I either begin to breathe in air again rather frantically, I guess this is what is called hyperventilation, which usually happens in the first phase of the relaxation response, but as time goes one these gasps for air after holding my breath, make way for slow and very relaxed in and out breathing. My breathing slows down. But it seems that transitioning into slow breathing also happens in its own cycles, because I will start breathing in and out again faster after a couple of slow breaths, but the more this slowed down breathing is induced, the longer they become

    • Illuminatus says:

      Great reply. Mirrors closely my own experiences.

      The breathing stop-start is of course myofascial release. The breath “impulse” penetrates deep into nerves which are not being activated during the day (e.g. sitting computer use being a bad offender, especially for the lower back) and turning on those nerves, allowing them to shed the myofascial winds attached to them (that’s when the breathing suddenly starts again). Strange imagery will tend to accompany these releases.

      I will sometimes have bizarre “subtle body” imagery too, like my right hand appearing sticking out my hip when it’s actually on my chest. This is also due to the myofascial winds — the hand’s tissue is wound around nerves in the hip, probably from lying on it at night.

      I wasted many years trying to unwind this stuff via body work when in reality this “breath penetration” needs to occur before the tissue will even release from the nerve. Once that has happened, yawning or stretching or hatha yoga will pull it away easily.

      I am fairly confident that no physical movement would in fact be required at all to completely fix the body — just conscious awareness relaxation via meditation in the way we are talking about, played out over a few years. Maybe this very thing is what “meditation” is, as some substantial part of it. I am somewhat convinced that psychological issues can be wiped clean via the associated nerves “de-sticking” themselves (many mechanical nerves are also on emotional circuits, and the vagus nerves form several such circuits with the rest of the body).

    • Saturnus says:

      > I’ll reach relaxation to some degree, and also some mental stillness, but then after some seconds the process will start over again, but the starting point is less frantic than it was before. Each time I complete a cycle I feel more and more relaxed.

      I used to get so frustrated over losing the relaxation. I was like finally I’m relaxed! Then it goes away and I’m like idiot why didn’t you hold on to the feeling and now I’m fighting with myself trying to get it back which is not anything like “Do Nothing”. It’s affirming to hear the process is cyclical.

      > I will automatically stop breathing throughout this process as long as +/- 10 seconds
      > these gasps for air…
      I used to be afraid of these gasps. But I also know that my mind is sometimes the most still during the pauses in breath. Good to see it is a normal part of the cycle.

      This is the best training in acceptance. You really have to trust your mind and body to work it out without injecting yourself in the middle of the process.

  3. Rob says:

    So you don’t really do any breathing meditation anymore?

    • Illuminatus says:

      >So you don’t really do any breathing meditation anymore?

      That’s not strictly true.

      After practising breath meditation for 3 months in the early days I found I could no longer “turn off” breath awareness. In other words, it became habituated, and has been for the last 10 years.

      The result is that there is ALWAYS some breath awareness going on, both inside and outside meditation – and usually a LOT of it.

      In the Do Nothing meditation in the above post, for example, my awareness will regularly strongly crystallize around my breath. This is not “intended” — it just happens. It is how the mindbody complex is supposed to work, I feel. This is why jhana will arise spontaneously.

      This will happen even while watching videos on YouTube. E.g. two nights ago I was listening to Paul Stanley’s autobiogaphy audio book on YouTube. I LOVE Kiss. I started smiling to myself and closing my eyes, then my awareness went tightly onto my breath on the top lip under my nose. The sound on the video started cutting out, indicating I was going into jhana (it was actually my sense of an outside world that was cutting out, NOT the video). Then I was in jhana for around half an hour. It seemed totally natural, totally normal.

      I used to think jhana was quite unnatural but that was back when I was needlessly trying to force it. Now, sitting back, it comes when it wants to.

      Have you noticed that cats have two ways of sleeping? One is lying on its side, totally zonked out. If you make a chirping noise, it won’t even twitch. That’s unconscious sleep.

      The other mode, he sits upright like a roast chicken, front legs crossed in front of him. If you chirp, his eyes will roll open. He’s resting, yet still alert.
      That’s meditation. It’s conscious, waking sleep. I think he’s in jhana. I think we’re all supposed to enter that mode prior to unconscious sleep. That’s what my post above is designed to elicit.

  4. Jajaru says:

    Your post gives a great piece of advice: “Let thoughts be, let BAD thoughts come and go, don’t be afraid to experience bad thoughts”.
    In the past when I was doing non-directive meditation I’d sometimes try to escape thoughts by trying to “let go” but I was so wrong, trying to do ANYTHING is not non-directive nor letting go.

    In the past month I just sit and I accept everything that happens. A few days ago during meditation I was hit by a series of bad thoughts, it came infront of me like a passing train on a railway station: All my fears and bad thoughts which I am afraid to confront in everyday life, they washed my whole being while I was sitting there still, my heart beated fast and my mind went on alarm mode and wanted to “do something”.
    I just stood there, I let everything happen without “trying to let everything happen”, If I try to think that “I have to let everything happen” then it’s game over, language shouldn’t be part of this process, it’s more about feeling but WITHOUT TRYING TO!

    Just sit and stay still, watch everything, take that blow from those deep rooted thoughts. Don’t be afraid to lose control, nothing can really hurt you, only you can hurt yourself.

  5. Saturnus says:

    I have been doing this for about a week now everyday and the results have been profound. I am much more peaceful in general. I get a clarity of mind that is still there even if I am in stress or turmoil. In fact there is a sense of detachment from the ups and downs of life as if I know I don’t need to engage them. Now I see that my engagement in them only serves to perpetuate rather than solve them.

    I was also developing a spiritual ego to cope with the stress and this made me able to catch my judgemental attitudes regarding the matter. My roommate is a business hustler and I was judging his hard work as a worthless pursuit. Now I actually see the value in it. It also seems like my vibes has transferred to him and now his is also much calmer and grounded.

    Last night I went out for a pick up session, and slept late naturally. It was an intense session with many lessons learned. When I woke up my body was in massive stress probably from accumulating all the experiences of last night. I felt absolutely terrible. Before I would reach out to marijuana and smoke to forget about it. Today I did this meditation and it took me a full hour to initiate the relaxation response, whereas it usually takes me about 15-20 mins. By the end of the meditation I was feeling this orb of warmth and light coming out of my heart and dissolving all the stress and tension. I’ve never experienced this before. I guess the more intense the suffering the better the release feels.

    • Saturnus says:

      Since I cannot edit the comment I’ll add here that now that I don’t judge the hard working attitude, my roommate and I came up with a good venture idea that we can launch together. In general our communications has become so much smoother. I now can allow these other attitudes to come in my field of being without fearing them altering me. It seems like our personalities are slowly merging.

      I used to be addicted to hard work as a way of personal salvation. I guess this is the judeo-christian WASPy work attitude. Now I don’t crave nor resist hard work.

      Thanks man! I really appreciate you running this blog and forums.

  6. James says:

    it works

  7. Enth says:

    Haven’t commented before but I have to thank you for this & all the experimenting you’ve done with myofascia. I’ve got terrible posture and everything that goes with it (TMD, vertigo, all my muscles from shoulders up feeling like bricks 24/7, hahaha). It’s beyond being able to “straighten up” cause there’s basically no way I can sit/stand/sleep/exist without feeling like some muscle is pulling on another.

    All three times I’ve tried this I’ve had really distinct side-to-side sensations as soon as my body relaxes enough to do its own thing – one side of my face or torso “lights up”, then awareness waves to the other side. I’m familiar with energy moving up my spine (usually in bursts when I manage to relax something for a second) but this is new. Lots of big shifty stuff between my shoulder blades as well. Definitely think you’re onto something with the vagus nerve being involved in whether anything will unwind.

    And then posture figures itself out for awhile! Definitely going to continue. Thanks again for sharing!

  8. Illuminatus says:

    Thanks for the great feedback guys. My students are reporting positive results too.

    I’m going to write up a method next which adds in some verbal noting for those wishing to take a more directive approach, the main benefit being a greater unification of the brain hemispheres as a precursor to jhana and insight. I have tested the method and found it capable of producing cessation/fruition.

    Then a strong directive method will follow building on these basics which will produce more profound absorptions.

    All I’ve done here is gone back to absolute basics which were erroneously “assumed” in my previous guides.

    Merry Christmas!

  9. Max says:

    This is interesting.
    I run into a wall between 15 and 45 minutes in. It’s so sharp and unpleasant that it’s kind of painful. I can’t resist the urge to just stop and get up long.

    On the positive I always get into a state where I feel my body and my awareness is in my hands. Already a huge success!

    • Illuminatus says:

      Yep — has been reported by others, too.

      The short answer is, the biggest gains take place after successfully resisting those powerful urges. In fact, jhana itself is usually preceded by a strong sense of apprehension or desire to end the meditation (the Buddha himself allegedly felt this too). So, try to stick through it next time (while also forgiving yourself if you fail).

      The longer answer is that the more you practise, the less powerful that apprehension becomes over time. So, the work on the body done during repeated meditation sessions actually whittles down certain blocks making them easier to navigate, and builds mental stamina. Some people may advise that you try to aid this process by analysing the sensations of the block itself while they are happening (this is, broadly, a vipassana/insight practice). I am not particularly sure whether or not this is beneficial compared to just waiting it out. Personally, I find that attention accumulates around the source of the block naturally and whittles it down without conscious effort. In other words, I wait and it happens anyway.

  10. James says:

    I get a wave of warm pleasure about 5-10 minutes before I get a relaxation response.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *