Body & Soul Excerpt

body_and_soul_coverNote from Gail

When I first began developing the Body & Soul series for PBS in 1999, it seemed as if everyone everywhere was drowning in stress. If anything, that’s even more true today, amid the ever-increasing clatter and clamor of modern life. Even then, I remembered clearly how awful it felt to be so stressed, and how relieved I had been to find, four years earlier, that meditation not only eased my stress, it brought my body back to health and vitality. I wish the same for you.


Chapter 1

Staying Healthy in a Stressful World

“Life is in the breath.  He who half breathes, half lives.”—Proverb

In the interests of full disclosure, you should know that in many ways this book—and the television series from which it comes—was  inspired by the work of Dr. Herbert Benson, whose pioneering efforts in mind/body research 30 years ago led to the founding of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at what is now Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

I first met Dr. Benson in October of 1987. I was then working as a correspondent for ABC News Nightline and had come to the clinic in pursuit of a story of psychoneuroimmunology—the medical name for the study of the mind/body connection. The clinic staff was obliging and helpful, and Dr. Benson was patient as he answered my questions, then submitted to the usual cutaway shots of the two of us talking. I smile now as I look back on that scene. There I was, yet another earnest and well-meaning but essentially uninformed reporter, plying him with the sort of questions that he had no doubt answered dozens of times. At the time, it was fascinating, but basically one more story in a 15-year string of (usually) interesting assignments.

One of Dr. Benson’s illustrations was especially captivating, however. During a trip to Tibet, he had shot videos of Tibetan monks inside a mountain cave in temperatures of 40 degrees Fahrenheit, as they dunked sheets into water until they were sopping wet, and wrapped the sheets around their bodies. Then they went into a deep meditative state.  Within a space of three to five minutes, you could see steam rising from their near-naked bodies as the sheets began to dry. After 35 minutes, the sheets were completely dry once again. That got my attention. As a child, I had often wondered: if we were only using 10 percent of our brains, what was the other 90 percent there for? What else might it—might we—be capable of?

As the crew and I stepped into the crisp autumn air outside the hospital, our producer approached from a nearby office, where she had just placed a call to the ABC News desk in New York. Her face was ashen. “The stock market’s crashed,” she reported. “The Dow dropped 500 points today.” I stared at her, my interest in the intricacies of the mind’s interaction with the body momentarily forgotten in the adrenaline rush of this new development. It was certainly a memorable way to fix the date of the Benson interview in my mind forever.

Years later, the stock market has risen and fallen any number of times, and sharing what I’ve learned about health, well-being, and spirituality has changed from “just another story” to my life’s defining passion. As I began developing this television series, the best place to start seemed to be where for me it all began—at Dr. Benson’s mind/body clinic in Boston, where he and his staff toil patiently, trying to help the rest of us learn to slow down and live.

Interview: Herbert Benson

Herbert Benson, M.D., is the Director Emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI), and Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School.

A graduate of Wesleyan University and the Harvard Medical School, Dr. Benson is the author or co-author of more than 190 scientific publications and 12 books, including The Relaxation Response, Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief, and Relaxation Revolution.  More than five million copies of his books have been printed in many languages. His work serves as a bridge between medicine and religion, East and West, mind and body, and belief and science.

Gail Harris:  For the benefit of those of us who haven’t heard this story, how did you first begin discovering the mind/body connection 30 years ago?

Dr. Benson:  As a cardiologist, I was fascinated why some of my patients had high blood pressure in my office but didn’t have high blood pressure on the outside.  So I asked the question, could it be stress? In those years, it was really beyond the pale to even consider that stress, something in the mind, could affect the body. I decided to follow up on that and went back to Harvard Medical School to the Department of Physiology to see whether I could set up an animal model for stress-induced high blood pressure. We were successful.  We were able to show through operant conditioning, which later became biofeedback techniques, that we could actually have the moneys increase or decrease their blood pressure on cue.

Then some young people came to me and said, “Why are you fooling around with monkeys?  Why don’t you study us?  We think we can effectively control our blood pressure. We practice transcendental meditation.” I was already on the edge. Colleagues were saying to me, “You’re throwing away a very promising career with this mind/body stress approach,” so I said to these young people, “No.” But they kept coming back until finally, I said, “Why not?” These were the days before human studies committees. So in the middle of the evening, these people would come in a side door, and I would put in intravenous lines, inter-arterial lines, measure their out-breath, and measure their metabolism before, during, and after the practice of meditation. The changes were dramatic. By the simple act of meditation, there was decreased metabolism, that is, a decreased amount of energy the body was utilizing, a decreased rate of breathing, decreased blood pressure, different brain waves, all by the simple act of them changing their thinking.

Harris: You’ve actually said that some 60 to 90 percent of all doctor office visits are stress-related. That seems like an incredibly high figure.

Benson: First of all, what is stress? Stress comes from any situation or circumstance that requires behavioral adjustment. Any change, either good or bad, is stressful, and whether it’s a positive or negative change, the physiological response is the same. There is a secretion of adrenaline, noradrenaline, epinephrine and norepinephrine. Those hormones change the mental as well as the physical components of our body. Those hormones lead to increased anxiety, increased anger and hospitality, increased mild and moderate depression. They contribute to high blood pressure, hypertension, most heart disease, and angiopectorus. Even heart attacks can be influenced by these hormones. Then there are a number of gender issues directly related to these hormones. In women, PMS is made worse.  Ovulation and infertility have been shown to be stress-related. Later in life, the hot flashes of menopause are both increased in frequency and severity by these hormones.  In men, sexual performance and sperm count are both affected. There’s insomnia; over 60 million Americans suffer from insomnia. It’s costing our nation hundreds of billions of dollars.

The relationship of stress to health is compounded when we learn we have a serious disorder. Say you’re told you have breast cancer. You are no longer Jane Smith. Suddenly, you’re Jane Smith, breast cancer patient, and that adjustment of the image of who you are leads to the fight-or-flight, or stress response, which leads to those hormones. Frequently, the symptoms present early in many disorders come not from the disease itself, but from our adjustment to the disease. The 60 to 90 percent of stress-related doctor visits that sounds so outrageously high when you first hear it, starts to make much more sense.

Harris: When you also think about all the everyday things that happen that put us under stress—not just life-threatening diseases, which we can obviously understand would be stressful—but sitting in a traffic jam, waiting in a long line, being impatient for any number of reasons. It sounds as if we deal with this over and over every day without necessarily thinking that it’s stress that we’re experiencing.

Benson: Exactly.  Humans have always been under stress. There’s always been famine, pestilence, and Huns on the horizon—interpersonal problems, male/female problems, have always been there. But what’s different about modern-day life is the sheer amount of information and number of circumstances to which we have to adjust. Remember, stress comes from any situation that requires behavioral adjustment. Look at what’s happened in the workplace. Traditionally, women would be at home, and men at the workplace.  Now women are juggling two careers. Look at what the electronic age has done to us.  Within seconds, we know of a plane going down. We know of a revolution halfway around the world. Couple that with the Internet, and the amount of information to which we now have to adjust is overwhelming. We are eliciting the fight-or-flight response repeatedly, not only with respect to health but also in our everyday lives, and this frequently leads to symptoms.

Harris: Dr. Benson, you’ve written that humans are ‘wired for God,’ as you put it. How so?

Benson: Our brains remember certain things, and those memories are wirings. They are highly complex nerve connections. Memories are such connections, but as humans, we are also wired for certain basic aspects of survival, some of which are innate, some of which are learned. We’re wired for fear of heights, and we’re also wired to learn to walk, to learn to talk, to learn to control our bowels, and to put thoughts together. Now, we are the most intelligent species on Earth.  We are the only species that knows, for example, that we’re going to die and know of it early.  From childhood, we know that death is part of things. That’s not good for us from an evolutionary point of view.  Why go on?  Why have children. I’m only going to die. Why put them through the suffering?  The moment I’m born is the moment I’m going to start passing away. It’s fascinating that every single culture of humans that has ever written, going back thousands of years, has believed in something more, that there is something after we pass away, that there’s another world, and that there are powers, forces, energies out there with which we can communicate. Just as we’re wired for certain fears and certain learning capabilities, so it appears we are also wired to believe in something more.  We are wired for God, and that’s good for us.


Meditation is not an evasion. It is a serene encounter with reality.—Thicht Nhat Hanh, Zen Master


Meditation, or the relaxation response, is a state of deep calm that results in a decrease in breathing, blood pressure, metabolism, and muscle tension.  That state can be achieved by practicing two basic principles of meditation: 

  • Repetition of a sound, phrase, or motion
  • Passively disregarding your thought

You can meditate sitting on the floor or in a chair, or lying down, and while walking, jogging, swimming, gardening or doing yoga.  What’s important is focusing your mind on the repetition of a sound or movement, and letting your thoughts go by without judgment. Studies have shown that practicing this simple form of meditation for at least 10 minutes each day can help many people protect against or alleviate anxiety and depression, headaches, heart rhythm disturbances, high blood pressure, PMS, and insomnia.    

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