Ah, the quest for inner peace. The search for this elusive state has gone on for generations. According to Dr. Herbert Benson, one of the world's top experts on mind-body healing, we each have an "innate silent place" within ourselves. But with our buzzing BlackBerrys and booming music, Benson, a cardiologist and director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, says that many of us have forgotten the capacity we have to experience quiet. "For the sake of their health, people have to realize that multi-tasking has gone too far," he says.
In the 1970s, Benson coined the term "the relaxation response" to describe the physiological reaction that is the exact opposite of our fight-or-flight reaction to stress. He also developed a meditation protocol to trigger the relaxation response that puts the mind and body into a state of deep rest. "People have been doing meditation for millennia," he says. "They have been shutting off everyday thinking through prayer, repetition and the disregard of everyday thoughts to create internal silence."
Research on meditation shows many health benefits, including reduced heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rates. In one study of women suffering from PMS, the group that meditated twice a day showed a 58 percent improvement in symptoms, compared to 27 percent for those who simply read and 17 percent for those who only tracked their symptoms. Benson is most excited about new research that found that the relaxation response can alter gene activity.
This is your brain on meditation
Just what happens when our minds are left to wander? Scientists who conducted neuro-imaging studies at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., describe this default state of the brain as a silent current of thoughts, images and memories. "It's like a mental screen saver," explains Malia Mason, the lead author of the Dartmouth study, who is now an assistant professor at Columbia University Business School in New York. "In the absence of a task that requires focus, people will reflect on unfinished business or on previous events." Norwegian researchers believe that we often underestimate the important role this silent current plays in how we sort through past experiences and put them to rest.
Serenity, on demand
More than just a tool for blasting gym tunes on the treadmill, the iPod lets you turn any space into an ashram with the flick of a button. The Mindfulness Meditation iPod app is a guided-meditation program that helps release tension and refocus mental clarity.