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The Relaxation-As-Meditation Furfy

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s meditation started to find its way into mainstream awareness, usually in newspaper and tv reports that carried stories of how individuals had found meditation amazingly useful to reduces stress and deal with other issues. This triggered the interest of the scientific establishment who wanted to look at the phenomenon more deeply. The techniques that were then being popularized did not focus on mental silence however, preferring approaches that relied on focused attention and other related strategies. When researchers studied the physiology of these approaches to meditation they observed very similar changes in meditators that they had also observed in people experiencing the relaxation response. This lead them to conclude that the effect of ALL meditation techniques could be explained this way.  Meditation, they concluded, worked on the body and mind by triggering physiological and psychological relaxation. The relaxation response, they concluded, was the “magic ingredient” of meditation.

Unfortunately, this way of explaining meditation has actually caused a lot of problems for meditation researchers ever since. This is why: As the scientific community came to define meditation as a method of relaxation, then logically speaking, anything that caused relaxation could therefore claim to be meditation!

Since there are a lot of activities that can cause the relaxation response (sitting in the park watching the clouds go by, listening to soothing music, eating a hamburger while reclining in a Jacuzzi are just some examples)  there are quite a few things that having nothing to do with meditation which nevertheless have claimed to be so because of the widespread acceptance of the idea that meditation can be defined as a form of relaxation.

Not too surprisingly this has lead to a plethora of techniques, ideas and fads emerging on the scene, many of which elicit the relaxation response, claiming a spot under the previously honourable and trustworthy banner of meditation.

Now, since much of meditation’s reputation is built on the traditional eastern descriptions of its unique benefits the marketers of the modern relaxation-posing-as-meditation techniques also imply the same promises.

Yet when researchers finally got around to evaluating these so-called meditation techniques, none of which involve the specific experience of mental silence, by the way, and compared them to simple activities such as listening to music or taking a brief nap, they found no significant measurable difference. In other words no specific effect could be found! As a result many researchers mistakenly concluded that this mean that meditation, even meditation claiming a connection to the traditional ideas, and relaxation are exactly the same and therefore that it was true that anything that involved relaxation was the same as meditation. The media would again communicate the findings of this misguided research and thus a continuous and self-fulfilling cycle of misinformation was created that in many ways continue to this day.

This mislabeling of the relaxation response as meditation explains why, despite hundreds of clinical trials of meditation there is still no conclusive evidence of a specific effect- because the relaxation response is itself not specific to meditation but can be potentially applied to anything that involves sitting or lying quietly for a period of time.

This is also why the idea of meditation-as-relaxation has also become one of the most pervasive misunderstandings of meditation. A misunderstanding that has perpetuated and propagated itself so effectively that not only are consumers confused but so is the media, most clinicians and scientific researchers.