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Christian Critique of "The Relaxation Response," by Herbert Benson, MD

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The book, The Relaxation Response, by Herbert Benson, MD, (Avon Press; 1975) is promoted in medical circles, and in a recent TV interview with Dr. Benson, as an effective means of relieving the ills associated with stress. The method described in this book incorporates ideas taken from various religions, Transcendental Meditation (TM), etc., and is said to be not unlike Christian prayer. The book deserves a Christian response.

Dr. Benson states (p 125), "Our society has given very little attention to the importance of relaxation." He is obviously concerned for his patients, who are negatively impacted by the increasing pressures of modern life and have forgotten, in his opinion, how to call forth an "innate asset," the Relaxation Response. No one can deny that Dr. Benson's assessment of our stressed out, overly medicated society is accurate. But we would take issue with parts of his solution.

Our concerns fall into the following categories: Dr. Benson's formula is not neutral but religious; it derives from Eastern Religions, Mysticism and Gnosticism. Quoting from the book we will attempt to substantiate this. Then we will attempt to show why Dr. Benson's formula is incompatible with Christianity, and dangerous.

Religious in Nature

This formula is not neutral, but religious in nature. "The Relaxation Response has always existed in the context of religious teachings (p 19)." "We will attempt to show that the Relaxation Response has been experienced throughout history. We will do so by extracting methods described in various literatures, primarily religious (p 76)." William James' The Variety of Religious Experience is quoted: "It (the mystical feeling of enlargement, union and emancipation) is capable of forming matrimonial alliances with material furnished by the most diverse philosophies and theology, provided only they can find a place in their framework for it's peculiar emotional mood (p 77)."

Mysticism and Gnosticism

The book endorses mysticism, for its apparent effects. We quote a few of it's many references to mystical ideas and techniques in various religions: "there appears to be a universal element of rising above the mundane senses, a feeling beyond that of common-day existence... purpose {is} to attain transcendent experience... 'he must feel from within a true union with God' (p 76)." "Hence, by selecting elements from various techniques which appear to be necessary for eliciting experiences of transcendence, we are not espousing a certain tradition...(p 77, 78)." "The term mysticism was not a common term until medieval times. Rather, the subject of these writings was contemplation, whose end point was direct union with God (p 79)."  Dr. Benson introduces The Cloud of Unknowing, a book written by a monk who "most likely remained anonymous because he feared he would be accused of heresy." (This is a telling statement.)  "The soul raises herself to a loftier region (p 84)" "after isolating oneself from the world one must also abstract himself from his body and mind." (The Taoist practitioner) must "darken the heart (the organ of thought) so it does not think (p 95)." "'In order to pray you need a great emptyness in your mind... It's not a question of seeing God, but of being in God' (p 85)." "The notion of attaining 'altered consciousness' may seem to you like some mystic experience involving a deep philosophical or religious ritual, and therefore too much like a cult (p 75)."

(For support, the author cites the great church father, Augustine, but he admits that Augustine does not designate his experience as "union with God" but "expresses the idea of some kind of spiritual contact;" an idea, however, which is not necessarily unchristian.)

Eastern Monism

In Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism - all uncritically mentioned in this book), as well as in the modern New Age Movement, there is the same mystical attempt to escape the body and to reach unity with God (in this case an impersonal being). The idea that "all is one" (monism) and "all is God" (pantheism) permeates the New Age Movement, which is rooted in Eastern religions. There is no distinction between the Creator and the creation as in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. On page 58 of Dr. Benson's book Yoga and Zen Buddhism are treated favorably, as is Transcendental Meditation and it's founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, on page 60.

Meditation, as in TM, is encouraged to elicit the Relaxation Response. The four basic elements of meditation are given as: 1) a quiet environment, 2) an object to dwell upon, 3) a passive attitude and 4) a comfortable position. Two of these elements, #2 and #3, as developed in this book, are problematic for Christians. The author states that "The third element is a passive attitude. It is an emptying of all thoughts and distractions from one's mind. A passive attitude appears to be the most essential factor in eliciting the Relaxation Response (p 78, 79)."  For #2, an object to dwell on, Dr. Benson's technique, used at Harvard's Thorndike Memorial Laboratory and at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital, involves use of the mantra "ONE" (p 114).

These same Eastern ideas are seen in Tennyson, quoted on page 97: "The individuality itself seemed to resolve and fade away into boundless being... the loss of personality...." This is what is sought by Eastern yogis, mindless loss of individuality.  One form of Buddhism, Anapanasati, "was used by the Buddha on the night of his enlightenment. It is the practice of in-breathing and out-breathing. Focusing his attention at the tip of his nostrils..." (p 97). "To Eastern thinking... 'humanness' obstructs spiritual ascent. The emphasis of Eastern mysticism has been on pure soul-consciousness, to annihilate the flesh and deny its reality in order to reach absolute freedom (p 89)." "The essence of Yoga meditation is concentration on a single point... By means of these techniques one may attain... the highest concentration... in which one passes beyond the human condition in total freedom (p 89)."

Incompatible with the Christian Faith

Because religious relativism is rampant in our society the suggestion that Christianity is uniquely true or that Jesus Christ alone is the Truth (John 14:6) seems the utmost arrogance. But if we are to call ourselves Christian at all we must define Christianity the way Christ himself defined it; and Christ repeatedly made exclusive claims to truth, and endorsed the Scriptures as the very Word of God. He confirmed his claims to Deity by his resurrection, historically attested. Since we are talking about absolute Truth any contradictory claims are counterfeit. It is on this premise that we make the following criticisms.

Escape from 'Humanness'

It is not the intent of the Christian faith that we pass beyond the human condition but here we find the Eastern belief that to be human is bad, that the material body is bad, that the material anything is negative. The Christian believer will one day be released from all of the effects of the Fall (Gen. 3), but he will always be human. The Bible teaches the resurrection of the body. Indeed, Jesus was himself resurrected in the body. The idea that Jesus Christ was incarnated into our human family (Hebrews 2:14, 15, etc.) was abhorrent to Gnostics because of their negative attitude toward material body.

Mindlessness

The downgrading of the mind also is foreign to Christian thought. Mindless passivity, as in #2 of the formula prescribed, is not truly Christian. In fact, it is considered dangerous. In Christian thought the mind is a gift of God. God gave us a mind to use, not to escape. The Bible teaches that after the Fall human beings have been in rebellion against God, and that the mind was also affected by that Fall; but it does not teach that the mind is to be discarded, but rather cleansed, renewed, submitted to God through Jesus Christ (Romans 12:1, 2; etc.).  It is dangerous to put the mind into neutral gear, especially when combined with meditating on Hindu ideas and repeating names of Hindu deities, as the mind is thereby opened up to demonic influences.

Idolatrous Meditation

Biblical meditation is not a contentless, passive thing. When the Bible speaks of meditation, which it does, it has to do with meditating on God's Word, God's attributes, God's promises, etc.

Monism and Pantheism

Step #2 recommends an object to dwell on. The word "ONE" which Dr. Benson's technique makes use of in Harvard and Beth Israel is, in this context, no doubt derived from the monism (all is one) and pantheism (all is God) of Eastern religions (See Unmasking the New Age, p 18-21 by Douglas R. Groothuis.) A Christian would actually, though perhaps unknowingly, be meditating, not on nothing, but on something very contrary to the Christian revelation, the unbiblical idea that there is no distinction between the Creator and the creation (See Romans 1:18-32).

Mysticism and Gnosticism

Mysticism is, in part, the striving after an immediate (apart from means), that is, a direct knowledge of, God, as opposed to New Testament Christianity which teaches that God can be known only through means, his Word (the Bible) and the Sacraments. What is described in the pages of Dr. Benson's book is not about seeking God but about seeking a feeling, which is the essence of mysticism and what makes it man-centered idolatry.

Denial of the Body

Mysticism also involves a denial of the body. Mysticism is inherent in Gnosticism, a heresy that arose so early that it is refuted in the pages of the New Testament. (see the article on Gnosticism in Modern Reformation magazine, July/August 1995.)

Relativism

The fact that William James says this feeling is compatible with "the most diverse philosophies and theology" makes it clear that it is not compatible with the Bible. (And actually, the very thought of religious relativism is illogical because many of the beliefs in the various systems contradict each other.) God describes himself as a "jealous" God. He is God, the Creator of all, who demands exclusive worship. He is a God of love ("God is love", I John 4:8b) but he is also a jealous God, a Holy God, a God of justice and wrath, in his completeness. He is altogether Other and he has the right to define himself and to demand exclusive devotion or he isn't God. He has chosen, in his great love, to reveal himself in the Scripture and in his Son Jesus Christ, the God/Man, who gave himself for us. The cross sets Christianity apart from all competing religions (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-31). Jesus is the only way of approach to the Father. In Christianity, God himself paid the price for our redemption in the death of his Son, Jesus Christ. Salvation (forgiveness of all sin, eternal life, etc.) is a gift to all who believe.

A Better Way

So what shall we say about the Relaxation Response? In saying there is a better way we are not simply saying there is a better way to relax. First of all, there is a greater good. Truth is a greater good than feeling relaxed. But that is not to say that there is not an accompanying feeling of peace and wholeness in Christianity. There is, one based not on escape but on reality. After all, Jesus promises forgiveness of sins and a clean conscience, eternal life in his presence, his living presence with us now, provision for our material needs, his strength for daily living, answers to our prayer, and much more. The difference between this better way and the way that Dr. Benson suggests is similar to the difference between real medical help and a placebo. The Bible teaches that man's problems are not imagined, but real, and they stem from man's inherent sinful nature. To try to treat the problem with Dr. Benson's suggestion is to try to treat the symptoms, and to treat them with a placebo. When Christians pray they pray to a God who is actually there. His primary purpose, though, is not to make us "happy" or "successful," or "fulfilled" or "relaxed," but to reconcile us to himself. Being reconciled will have the effect of making us those things, but not completely so until we reach his presence, which is every true Christian's hope (Titus 2:13; 2 Timothy 4:8).

We want to make it clear that the Christian claim to religious exclusivity has to do with our commitment to Truth and not with rejection of persons.

Conclusion

Now, a word about relaxation. Knowing more fully what we have in Jesus Christ would have a positive effect on the state of our bodies and minds, but, though we are new persons in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), Christians are also still sinful in our "old nature" (until we stand in God's presence). Our right relationship with him is based on his declaration of complete forgiveness in Jesus Christ (1 John 1:9; etc.), not on our degree of wholeness. Out of this knowledge comes the degree of peace, joy and wholeness that we do experience.

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Appendix # 1: Recently (1996) Dr. Benson had a new book published, Timeless Healing. A very brief perusal of the book gives further evidence of Dr. Benson's commitment to Eastern thinking. He says, "I have not been able to verify the existence of energy fields in my scientific endeavors. But I do believe that remembered wellness is at work in therapeutic touch (p 183)." "Energy field," "remembered wellness" and "therapeutic touch" are New Age (Eastern) concepts (see the summer 1995 Christian Research Journal, A New Age for Nursing). His commitment to relativism continues also: "I describe 'God' in this book but nevertheless hope readers will understand I am referring to all the deities of the Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu traditions, to gods and goddesses, as well as to all the spirits worshipped and beloved by humans all over the world and throughout history (p 200)." Again, a Christian will have to respond that if Dr. Benson's formula embraces all those gods, it does not embrace God at all.

Appendix # 2: On Sept. 26, 1996 the TV program Turning Point aired a documentary on Alternative Medicine. Dr. Benson was among those featured. It seems that the Hindu connection is inescapable. When show host Hugh Downs submitted to having his blood pressure monitored by Dr. Benson, while meditating on one word, the word Downs chose was OM, a common Hindu mantra. Did he come up with that word on his own? Turning Point related that Dr. Benson spent time in India 20 years ago researching the body/mind connection. It is noteworthy that no one who was interviewed on the show gave any evidence of embracing historic Christianity as a result of being counseled in the varied alternative therapies. But many, if not all of those whose stories were told, became more Eastern in their thinking and practice.

The root of these practices, and Dr. Benson's formula, is an anti-Christian world view, and therefore these practices and this formula are dangerous for Christians.

Written by Greta Olsoe

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