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 meditative journey.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- Wake up one hour earlier than usual. If your alarm is usually set for 7am, set an additional one for 6am.
- Get up and use the bathroom and drink some water if necessary.
- Return to bed, and lie under the covers if you are cold.
- 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.
- With eyes open, look at the ceiling. Stay still.
- If eyes wish to close, let them. If eyes are happy open, let them be open. Stay still.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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. 🙂