While I was reading Freedom in Exile, the autobiography of Dalai Lama, I was surprised to find out that Dalai Lama had met with a well respected scientist Dr. Herbert Benson in America and agreed for a team of Western scientists to come to the East, travel to the monasteries of Buddhist monks and record the bodily changes while they were involved in their spiritual meditation. By the time Herbert Benson met Dalai Lama, he had already established himself as a behaviorist and made valuable contributions to the field of human psychology especially the Relaxation Response, a useful therapeutic technique for people who suffered with different kinds of tensions, anxieties, physical and emotional problems. The encounters between Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Buddhist tradition of the East and Herbert Benson, the leader of scientific tradition of the West were an attempt to build a bridge between science and spirituality. Being a student of human psychology and a practicing psychotherapist who helps people with emotional problems in his clinical practice, I was quite interested in those encounters.

                While I was reading about those meetings between Herbert Benson and Dalai Lama, I was curious why did Dalai Lama let a group of secular scientists meet mystics, followers of his spiritual tradition. I was also curious what did Herbert Benson bring back from the spiritual world of the East to the scientific world of the West after those experiments.

                Dalai Lama, in his autobiography, gives an impression as if he is one of those liberal and enlightened spiritual leaders who is quite willing to embrace modern science and build bridges between science and spirituality. He did make a confession though that while he was giving his blessings to the scientists, his fellow Buddhists warned him not to embark on that project. They did not want him to divulge the sacred spiritual secrets to the leaders of a secular and atheist tradition of science that did not believe in God, religion and spirituality and followed the road of rationality, logic and objectivity. Those Buddhists were worried that the Western scientists might not respect their sacred practices. He wrote, “ I knew that many Tibetans were uneasy about the idea. They felt that the practices in question should be kept confidential because they drove from secret doctrines.” (Ref 1 p 210) Dalai Lama did not listen to his fellow Buddhists. He perceived Herbert Benson’s proposal as an opportunity for the Westerners to be influenced by the East. He believed that if West was willing to offer science to the East, then the East could also offer spirituality to the West. At the surface Dalai Lama’s intentions seemed respectful and honorable. He wrote that be believed that “results of such an investigation might benefit not only science but also religious practitioners and could therefore be of some general benefit to mankind.” (Ref 1 p 210)

                During my contemplation about Dalai Lama’s autobiography, I wondered whether he also had a political motive. I thought that since he is a also a political leader and has a dream of liberating Tibet from the Chinese occupation of his land, he might have wanted to please American people and Government so that they could support him in fulfilling his political dream. I wondered whether letting American scientists enter his Buddhist monasteries was a way to win the hearts of Americans, alongside teaching them a few techniques and skills to relax in their fast paced, anxiety provoking, capitalistic and industrialized lifestyles. He was aware that since more and more Americans were

    losing faith in their own God and religion, they might be open to adopt Eastern practices to fill that religious and spiritual vacuum. Dalai Lama believed that Eastern Buddhist practices of meditation might help those Westerners who suffer from insecurities, doubts and anxieties in achieving inner peace and a peaceful lifestyle. I wondered whether by offering Westerners a gift of spirituality, he hoped that they would be more sympathetic to his political cause of liberating Tibet from Chinese occupation.

                While I was pursuing that line of thinking in my mind, I was also feeling guilty and a part of me was asking myself,

                ‘Why are you being so suspicious of Dalai Lama?’

                ‘ Why are you not giving him the benefit of the doubt?’

                ‘Why can’t you accept that Dalai Lama is an enlightened modern mystic who would like science and spirituality and East and West come closer and learn from each other.?’

                ‘Why do you think he had ulterior political motives?’

    As I pursued my inner dialogue I realized that my doubts arose from my perception of the duality of Dalai Lama’s personality. In my eyes he is not just a mystic, he is also a political leader. He is quite different than all those mystics and monks who have been meditating in their monasteries for decades oblivious to the rest of the world. Those monks have no need to prove any point to the Western world. They have no desire to prove to the scientists that their meditation can raise body temperatures to such an extent that they can dry their wet clothes. They realize that their spiritual practices are to find nirvana and bliss and connect them with cosmic energy so that they can experience oneness with the universe and learn the secrets of nature. For them their spiritual salvation is gold while lowering anxiety and raising body temperature is gold plated. They are aware that in spite of superficial alikeness they are quite different in essence. They are more concerned about the temperature of the soul than the body, the peace of their spirit rather than the mind and that is why they were skeptical on having a meaningful dialogue with those Western scientists who did not believe in soul and spirit. They were aware that there are no thermometers or electrodes or microscopes invented that could record spiritual enlightenment. That is why they were reluctant to participate in such experiments. But they were also faithful followers of Dalai Lama, so they agreed. My suspicion was that Dalai Lama’s agreement might have been more as a political leader rather than a spiritual leader.

                Since I felt guilty having such thoughts, I did not write anything about this aspect of Dalai Lama’s life when I included him in my last book titled Prophets of Violence and Peace…20th Century Reformers and Revolutionaries. In that book I focused on his contributions as a spiritual leader of Buddhists and a peace loving political leader of Tibetans. In that book I included him in the group of Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. who were all committed to bringing political changes through peaceful means and were against armed struggles, violence and holy wars. While I was writing my chapter about his life I was secretly questioning his motivation to let Herbert Benson visit monasteries. I wondered if one day I would be able to read Herbert Benson’s point of view. Being a Western scientist I thought he would be more open about his encounters with Dalai Lama and his impressions about the joint project.

                So when I found the book Beyond the Relaxation Response written by Herbert Benson MD, I was excited to read not only about the encounters of science and spirituality but also the dialogues between Herbert Benson and Dalai Lama as two heavy weight leaders of two different traditions. The more I read Herbert Benson’s book, the more my suspicions about Dalai Lama’s ulterior political motives came true. Herbert Benson shared in his book that after he offered the proposal to Dalai Lama during his visit to America, Dalai Lama’s first response was refusal. Initially he was thinking as a monk who was a spiritual leader of Buddhist tradition and had adopted a Buddhist lifestyle to achieve salvation and spiritual enlightenment. Dalai Lama stated, “It would be very difficult for these abilities to be measured. The people who practice this meditation do it for religious purposes. They must be experienced in order to feel the benefits. You must experience it first.”

                But then Dalai Lama had a second thought. He realized he was in America, not in India, and was talking to a Western scientist, rather than an Eastern scholar. Suddenly he realized he was offered a political opportunity as a political leader of Tibetans. He shifted gears in his mind, wore a different hat and decided to avail an opportunity. Herbert Benson wrote, “Before I could get completely discouraged, though, he returned to English again and began to muse out loud, “Still, our culture is undergoing many changes. We have been forced out of our homeland into exile.” He smiled and said, “Our ‘friend’ to the East [the Chinese] might be impressed with a Western explanation of what we are doing. Perhaps there is some worth in allowing this study to be done.” (Ref 1 p35)

                Herbert Benson as a scientist realized that Dalai Lama’s blessing was as much for political reasons as for love of building a bridge between science and spirituality and expressed his views in these words, “Apparently, the Dalai Lama viewed our proposal as a way to validate his religious practices to the Chinese, who had forced the monks to flee Tibet. With his culture and religious heritage in danger of dying out, the Dalai Lama saw our proposal as a way out not only to document his faith’s contributions but also perhaps even to help save it from possible extinction.’ (Ref 1 P35)

                It is obvious from this dialogue that Dalai Lama agreed to the proposal as a shrewd politician and not as an innocent monk. As a political leader he tried to kill two birds with one stone. He wanted to impress upon the Westerners how valuable were the spiritual practices of the East and at the same time impress upon Chinese that their monasteries needed to live longer.

                I felt pleased that Herbert Benson confirmed my intuitive feeling about the political motive of Dalai Lama.

                After reading about the initial meeting I was curious about the interactions between the group of scientists and mystics in the monasteries and what were the gifts of spiritual practices and wisdom of the East scientists brought to the West. Dalai Lama explained in his autobiography how he perceived the nature of investigations of Western scientists. He wrote, “The monks in question were practitioners of Tum-mo yoga, which is designed to demonstrate proficiency in particular Tantric disciplines. By meditating on the chakras (energy centres) and nadis (energy channels), the practitioner is able to control and prevent temporarily the activity of the grosser levels of consciousness, permitting him or her to experience the subtler levels. According to Buddhist thought, there are many levels of consciousness. The grosser pertain to ordinary perception—touch, sight, smell and so forth—whilst the subtler are those apprehended at the time of death. One of the aims of Tantra is to enable the practitioner to ‘experience’ death, for it is then that the most powerful spiritual realizations can come about.” (Ref 1 p 210). It is obvious from Dalai Lama’s description that the spiritual practices of Buddhist monks are embedded in their religious faith and tradition.

                Dalai Lama also described the results of Herbert Benson’s experiments in these words, “ When the grosser levels of consciousness are suppressed, physiological phenomena can be observed. In Dr. Benson’s experiments, these included the raising of body temperatures (as measured internally by rectal thermometer and externally by skin thermometer) by up to 18 Fahrenheit (10 Centigrade). These increases allowed to dry out sheets, soaked in cold water and draped round them, even though the ambient temperature was well below freezing. Dr. Benson also witnessed, and took similar measurements from monks sitting naked on snow. He found they could remain still throughout the night without any loss of body temperature. During these sessions, he also noted that the practitioner’s oxygen intake decreased to around seven breaths per minute.” (Ref 1 p 211) From Dalai Lama’s description it seems as if he was very proud of his monk’s performance. It seemed like describing a Holly Wood performance hoping to get an Oscar. Herbert Benson shared that before he started the experiments Dalai Lama had requested his monks, “ For skeptics, you must show something spectacular, because without that, they won’t believe.” (Ref 2 p 45) Dalai Lama knew that scientists don’t believe in blind faith. They only believe what they can see and observe and record. So he wanted monks to perform in such a way that Dr. Benson’s thermometers could record the changes. That was the time monks performed spiritual practices not to please God but to please Dalai Lama and impress Western scientists.

    When Herbert Benson went to the monasteries he was impressed by the simple lifestyle of those monks who had dedicated their lives for spiritual enlightenment. He introduces one of them in these words, “ The Venerable G.J. , who was fifty-nine years old when we met him, had been a monk since he was thirteen. He had studied in Tibet for nineteen years and then later in India for eight years. During this period, he had earned the title Geshe , or doctor of philosophy, and had thereby risen to one of the highest levels of scholarship…For the past eleven years, the Venerable G.J. had lived in near-total isolation in the foothills of the Himalayas and, along with his other religious rites, had practiced g Tum-mo Yoga for fifteen minutes each day for the last ten years. But he said he still had not achieved the ‘state of bliss’ that was the ultimate goal of the masters who followed this form of Yoga.” (Ref 2 p 53)  Herbert Benson described some of the results of G,J ‘s meditation practices in these words, “ Although his inner body temperature remained stable throughout the experiment, the temperature in G.J’s fingers increased by more than 9 degrees Fahrenheit. His toe temperature rose even more strikingly – up nearly 13 degrees Fahrenheit above the control period.” (Ref 2 p 56) Herbert Benson performed similar experiments with some other monks and found similar results. From those observations he concluded that while normal people start shivering in cold temperature and even get frostbitten in extreme cold weathers because of constriction of blood vessels of extremities to save heat for the body  “…the Tibetan monks were saying that they were able retard or eliminate the constriction process [of blood vessels] just by practicing certain mental and spiritual disciplines. This was an exciting idea fro me for several reasons. First of all, I knew that scientific documentation of their claims would further support the existence of a strong basic relationship between the mind and the body. Also, such evidence would suggest that the conscious mind can play a much greater role in controlling the body’s physical processes than many Western scientists had previously thought.” (Ref 2 p 49)

    After Herbert Benson returned from his scientific and spiritual adventure he added a Faith Factor to his Relaxation Response and wrote Beyond the Relaxation Response in which he stated, “ The Relaxation Response when coupled with the power of belief can lead to remarkable health-promoting elements, which I have identified throughout as the Faith Factor.” (Ref 2 p vii) By offering Faith Factor Herbert Benson tried to make a liaison between his secular scientific world of Relaxation Response and the religious world of spiritual practices.

    Before going to India Herbert Benson had established himself as a scientist and had discovered that by teaching people certain behavioral practices, they could learn Relaxation Response that would lower the tension and anxiety and help them cope with their life stresses as well as a wide range of physical illnesses. For Herbert Benson the Faith Factor was the icing on the cake. It increased the value and meaningfulness and usefulness of the techniques he had already developed. In his mind he had learnt from the monks that a strong belief in one’s religious tradition and a strong faith in one’s spiritual values enhanced the Relaxation Response. Herbert Benson explained it’s benefits for the lay people in these words, “The term Relaxation Response , for those who may be unfamiliar with the concept, refers to the inborn capacity of the body to enter a special state characterized by lowered heart rate, decreased race of breathing, lowered bllod pressure, slower brain waves, and an overall reduction of the speed of metabolism. In addition, the changes produced by this Response counteract the harmful effects and uncomfortable feelings of stress….In this relatively peaceful condition, the individual’s mental patterns change so that he breaks free of what I cal “worry cycles”.

                I was surprised that Herbert Benson in his discussion focused mainly on the benefits of behavioral techniques and did not discuss its limitations. He did not mention that such practices are just to control the symptoms of anxiety but do not solve the underlying emotional problems which are addressed by practitioners of other schools of thought whether psychoanalysts, interpersonal psychotherapists or logo-therapists who believe that medications or behavioral techniques just deal with the symptoms of anxiety and tension and do not act more than painkillers for headaches. But if the headaches are not ordinary headaches but are a symptom of broncho-pneumonia then we need to offer antibiotics alongside painkillers and if the headaches are a symptom of a brain tumor then we need to do surgery to remove the tumor alongside offering a temporary relief of headaches.

                Those mental health professionals who like Herbert Benson have a behavioral approach to anxiety disorders face criticisms by other schools of thought including

    …psychoanalysts who help their patients resolve and dissolve underlying emotional conflicts to relieve anxiety and tension

    …interpersonal therapists who help their clients resolve their conflicts with their loved ones to lead a harmonious and peaceful life

    …logo-therapists who help their patients discover a personal meaning in life to be able to cope sufferings in life

    and many others who believe that behaviorists like Herbert Benson are only touching the surface of human condition. They are concerned about people who are anxious because their marriages and families are falling apart and are going through a crisis of faith as their lives have been falling apart. So for those people having meditation sessions twice a day might be good but not good enough. If they have a faith in God or religion then they can rely on that to enhance their Relaxation Response but many of them are anxious as they are doubting their basic faith in life, in love and in the religious traditions they were brought up in.

                Mystics and monks try to help people adopt a spiritual lifestyle and not just spiritual rituals twice a day or week. They realize that Western spiritual crisis developed when Christians lost their faith in their religion. For them Christianity became more of a Sunday service and got divorced from the spiritual teachings of Christ. The enlightened Buddhist mystics believe that the teachings of Christ were not much different than those of Buddha so for Christians there is no need to travel thousands of miles to Buddhist monasteries and study skin temperatures and relaxation response, they can discover that in their backyard by analyzing the dichotomy between religious practices on Sundays and secular practices for the rest of the week. The anxieties Westerners feel individually and collectively lie in the dichotomy of their personal and social psyche and their solutions need to be born from the womb of their own problems. The religious and spiritual practices of one culture are like fruit trees of that land. It is not easy to implant mango trees of India in the deserts of Arizona that are best suited for cactuses. The seeds of foreign fruits need unique soil to grow. Westerners with their fast food psyche feel they can import Eastern spices and spiritual practices and enjoy them. They do not realize that to develop a taste for food might be easier that benefiting from spiritual practices. Those practices are the outcome of a certain cultural tradition. It is not different than trying to import the Western secular psychotherapy practices to the patients brought up in Eastern culture who are not familiar with the Western values and practices. Benefiting from the spiritual practices of another tradition to achieve enlightenment is not as easy as it might seem on the surface. Eastern meditation and Western relaxation might have some similarities but differences are more marked than similarities.

                Eastern meditation practices have evolved to achieve nirvana.

                Western relaxation practices are developed to help patients cope with clinical anxiety. Both are valid in their own right and fruitful for the needs of their people. But we need to realize that Western Clinical Psychology is to help patients cope with emotional problems and mental illness while Eastern spiritual practices are ways to develop spiritual enlightenment. Eric From highlighted that difference in his comparison of psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism in these words. “ But in spite of the fact that both psychoanalysis and Zen deal with the nature of man and with a practice leading to his transformation, the differences seem to outweigh the similarities. Psychoanalysis is a scientific method, nonreligious to its core. Zen is a theory and technique to achieve ‘enlightenment’ an experience, which in the West would be called religious or mystical. Psychoanalysis is a therapy for mental illness; Zen is a way of spiritual salvation’ ref 2 p 123

    It is unfortunate that many lay people as well as mental health professionals in the West are not aware of those differences and try to confuse treatments of emotional problems with methods to achieve spiritual salvation. The differences are not only between Zen and psychoanalysis, they can be seen in different professional, religious, spiritual and cultural traditions of East as well as the West. Encounters between Dalai Lama and Herbert Benson were not only encounters between two leaders of science and spirituality but also between two cultures.

                Being an Eastern psychiatrist who practices psychotherapy in the West, I am quite aware of those differences as I see them in my clinical practice. Those differences become thorny issues in dealing with Eastern immigrants living in the West as they have different worldview. To build a bridge between Eastern patients and Western psychiatric practices is not easy. John Triselistis, a trans-cultural psychiatrist highlights this dilemma in these words, “  Psychiatry being mainly the product of Western religious beliefs, of a capitalistic economic system and of individualistic ideologies, is largely alien to cultures which have not gone through the same process. Western culture, by focusing almost wholly on the individual, places unusual importance on such concepts as self-alliance, self help, privacy, individual identity and independence. It is not surprising, therefore, that white mental health professionals are more sensitive to the dangers of fostering client dependency than to failure to respond to needs.

                In contrast many of the attitudes and much of the behaviour of minorities have originated from cultural backgrounds which put emphasis on group and family relationships. These in turn tend to foster greater interdependence. Behaviour fashioned by such influences imposes a different approach to living, the making of relationships, the seeking of help and the resolution of problems from that found in Western societies.”

                It is quite obvious from this description that differences in attitudes of doctors, patients and their families are quite embedded in the cultural traditions. Herbert Benson being a Western scientist and a therapist tries to help his patients as individuals. He focuses on behavioral techniques that individuals can learn to cope with the symptoms of anxiety. But he does not acknowledge that it is just the tip of the iceberg.

                Cultural and professional differences between East and West are significant and profound. For Westerners to follow Eastern practices is probably as difficult as for Easterners to follow Western practices. Socio-economic factors play as significant role as the religious factors. Professional and spiritual practices developed in developing countries and socialistic communities are worlds apart from the practices of developed countries and capitalistic communities. It is hard to adopt behaviours from other cultures without adopting the whole cultural and spiritual philosophy, as those behaviours are an integral part of that particular lifestyle. In the last few decades, trans-cultural psychiatry is trying to build those bridges but the whole process is still in infancy.

    While Herbert Benson was developing his theory of Faith Factor in Relaxation Response, he was challenged by other behaviorists and  psychologists who are of the opinion that secular relaxation practices to reduce anxiety and tension to cope with stressful life situations are qualitatively different than Transcendental Meditation. Herbert Benson was surprised at the coincidence of meeting his old colleague when he went on his scientific adventure to India. It was a gentle reminder for him to think twice before embarking on his new project. Herbert Benson shared his encounter with Dr. Wallace in these words, “ I was astonished to see Dr. Robert Keith Wallace, my original collaborator years before in studying the physiological impact of meditation on members of the Transcendental Meditation movement. We had not seen each other for more than six years.

    Although we had started experiments independently of one another, we had come to the same conclusion: There were measurable physiological changes that resulted from meditation. For a while, we joined to collaborate our data and publish our findings, but we later disagreed over the universality of the changes that could take place with different types of meditation, and so we parted ways. In short, he felt there was something unique about the techniques of Transcendental Meditation that caused the changes. I, on the other hand, believed the key physical changes could be elicited regardless of any particular meditation technique.” (Ref 2 p 41)

    It is obvious from the description that Dr. Herbert Benson and Dr. Robert Wallace had different orientations, one just focused on the physical and physiological changes while the other gave the spiritual dimension the same importance as the physical and believed that those experiences might look the same but are qualitatively different.

    It was interesting for me to read how Herbert Benson tried to make his theory of Faith Factor multicultural and multi-faith. He wanted to focus on the faith dimension not realizing that each tradition has its own special dynamics. Ironically the building that he built on the foundation of Faith Factor became shaky when he had to deal with atheists and agnostics. He suggested that they could focus on any word like “One’ and could get the same results. He wrote, “…if you don’t happen to affirm a traditional religious faith, the Faith Factor can still be an important, healing part of your life. In fact, the research has shown that any neutral sound or word can be effective in eliciting the Relaxation Response. So even if you deny that religious or broad philosophical convictions are valid at all, you can get significant benefits from the Faith Factor. Simply pick a word like ‘one’ which I described in my initial instructions for eliciting the Relaxation Response.” (Ref 2 p 110) For me if any word is as effective as God, Allah and Bhagwan then I feel the whole premise of Faith Factor crumbles. Reading that section of the book I felt as if the Faith Factor theory faced a faith crisis while facing people with no faith. 

    While reading Herbert Benson’s book about the Relaxation Response I was quite impressed by his techniques he had developed for his patients to learn to relax and decrease their anxiety levels. He has developed a successful technique to help anxious patients. He explains his technique in these words, “ Certain meditative and prayerful instructions can be employed to elicit the Relaxation Response. A simple technique I use to bring the Relaxation Response in people is a four-step procedure that involvers:

    1, finding a quiet environment

    2. consciously relaxing the body muscles

    3. focusing for ten to twenty minutes on a mental device, such as a word one or a brief prayer

    4. assuming a passive attitude toward intrusive thoughts “ (Ref 2 p 5)

    I was not impressed by the Faith Factor as it did not seem integral to the whole process. I thought while studying the Buddhist monks he focused so much on the superficial aspects of meditation by recording the skin temperatures, he missed that each of those monks that he studied had dedicated their lives for spiritual enlightenment. They had offered numerous sacrifices all their lives for their spiritual growth. For those monks to meditate twice a day for half an hour was quite different than for a sales-representative of California who buys a lottery ticket every week as he has an ambition to be rich one day. He works aggressively every day to become the President of his company, buy half a million dollar house with an outdoor swimming pool for his wife, three children and a dog, a garage for his Jaguar and a cottage in the country.  After reading Herbert Benson’s book he might contemplate building a quiet room in his house so that he could meditate twice a day to feel relaxed and cope with his hectic job and a stressful family and social life. He does not realize that with all the good intentions Herbert Benson is offering him a fast food hamburger, which is different than a home cooked meal of the East. For monks spirituality is like wine and love, which get better with passage of time and demands a lot of patience.  Herbert Benson acknowledged about the lifestyles of monks in these words, “…many monks spend several years…with almost no contact with the outside world. Pious supporters leave them their food weekly just outside their huts.” (Ref 2 p 52)

    For me recommending Relaxation Response with Faith Factor is like suggesting sex as an exercise program to lose calories. Lovers might lose calories during their intimate encounters, but for them sex is making love which is a profound emotional and mystical experience. For monks meditation is like making love to God. For them rise in body temperature and lowering of tension is part of the spiritual bliss they achieve in their daily religious practices. I wonder how can any thermometer, electrode or microscope record those spiritual changes that they experience. A philosopher once said. “Every thing that counts cannot be counted.” That is where a scientist and a mystic have a different view of life. Mystics look for experiences that count while scientists look for information that can be counted. One focuses on words the other on meanings, one looks for the body changes, the other for the spiritual changes. Ironically both kinds of changes can co-exist. The point is which one of those changes is more important and desired. Eastern monks know that spiritual changes are accompanied by bodily changes, but the Western behaviorists are still not willing to accept that physical changes of relaxation are not accompanied by the spiritual changes.

    For me one of the significant questions was, ‘why did Herbert Benson feel the need and urge to meet Dalai Lama and fly to India to meet monks. If he was interested in the spiritual dimension of life he could have tested Christians, Muslims and Jews living in America and record the bodily changes while they pray and might have found similar changes to prove his hypothesis of mind’s power over body especially during spiritual practices. I wondered whether it was the exotic part of Buddhist tradition and spiritual practices that he had read in books and watched in films that inspired him to follow that road.

    He wanted to be the first Western scientist to record those experiences. He wanted to be on the cutting edge to build a bridge between Eastern mysticism and Western science. It sounded more like a Hollywood performance. He confessed, “ The Dalai Lama had obviously made it possible for us to test the monks and to measure things that no scientist had ever done before.” [italics are mine]

    While I was reading Herbert Benson’s adventures, I remembered Abraham Maslow, another well-respected psychologist of the West who had a keen interest in the spiritual dimension of human life. He believed that we did not need to travel thousands of miles away to offer pilgrimage and discover spirituality; we can easily find it in our own backyards. He wrote, “ The search for the exotic, the strange, the unusual, the uncommon has often taken the form of pilgrimages, of turning away from the world, the ‘journey of the East’ to another country or to a different religion. The great lesson from the true mystics, from the Zen monks, and now also from the Humanistic and Transpersonal psychologists…that the sacred is in the ordinary, that is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends and family, in one’s backyard, and that travel may be a flight from confronting the sacred…this lesson can be easily lost. To be looking elsewhere for miracles is to me a sign of ignorance that everything is miraculous.’ Ref3 p 79

    Rather than going to the East like Herbert Benson, Maslow studied spiritual experiences of people in the West and made valuable contributions to human psychology. Maslow’s concepts of peak experiences and self-actualization are well respected even after his death.

    After finishing reading Dalai Lama’s and Herbert Benson’s books I wondered whether both achieved their goals. Dalai Lama still lives in exile after 40 years of leaving Tibet. He did receive a Nobel Peace prize but could not convince Americans and other Western countries to assist him in liberating Tibet. On the other hand Herbert Benson has developed a big following in the field of Behavioral Sciences who accept him as their guru.  He has added the Faith Factor in his philosophy. For me his contributions as a secular scientist who offered Relaxation Response to all those men and women who suffer from anxiety is a great contribution to humanity but his Faith Factor does not impress me.

     Although Herbert Benson went all the way to India to meet Buddhist monks I wondered whether he had the right respectable attitude towards their spiritual practices. Buddhist monks were reluctant to have secular scientists examine and scrutinize their practices. Herbert Benson shared that feeling in these words, “Before we were allowed to view the practice of lung gom-pa it was necessary first to be initiated. When the monks took their vows, they were told that that if they disclosed their practices to the uninitiated, both they and their viewers would go to hell forever. Accordingly, the Dalai Lama’s intercession permitted us to be initiated through listening to the recital of Buddhist scriptures. “ (Ref 2 p 157)

    Herbert Benson listened to the scriptures but did not develop any reverence for their spiritual teachings and practices. He kept on seeing it with skepticism. He shared his observations in these words, “ Two monks, the Venerable K.G. , aged seventy, and the Venerable T.P. aged thirty-four, then demonstrated their practice. They dressed only in loincloths and sat in a cross-legged position upon a small pile of carpets. They carried out a number of physical exercises in unison, including deep breathing, slapping their hands against their own chests, arms, and legs; and swaying. As these were performed, they chanted. They stood, rapidly crossed their legs into a cross-legged position, and fell to the ground with their legs remaining ccrossed…The young monk stood, bent his knees slightly, and jumped three to four feet into the air, with his legs straight. While in the air, he rapidly assumed the cross-legged position and fell to the ground while maintaining this position. He landed with a resounding crash as he slapped his crossed legs outward and downward…We asked whether what we had seen was the so-called “levitation meditation” and were told that indeed it was.” (Ref 2 p 157)

    It seems as if Herbert Benson in spite of initiation did not see those practices as spiritual and holy and sacred, otherwise he would not have written, “We had witnessed a remarkable athletic performance, but there was no floating or hovering. The fact that only the younger monk could perform the exercise also suggested it was athletic, not spiritual. If spiritual, one would have suspected the older monk would be more proficient.” (Ref 2 p 158)

    While I was reading that assessment of Herbert Benson, calling spiritual practices as athletic acrobats, it reminded me of the directions Dalai Lama had given to his monks, “For skeptics, you must show something spectacular, because without that, they won’t believe.” (Ref 2 p 45) Unfortunately in spite of the spectacular performances the skeptics were not convinced they were spiritual. It was ironic to read that Herbert Benson, in spite of adding Faith Factor to his Relaxation Response did not have faith in the spiritual practices of Buddhist monks. He seems to have added Faith Factor more from a pragmatic point of view as a scientist rather than as someone who believed in the sacredness of spiritual practices. For him meditation was more of an exercise to calm one’s nerves down rather than a profound encounter with the cosmos. He did not appreciate that monks had dedicated their lives and had been involved in those spiritual practices to find bliss. Since Herbert Benson was more preoccupied with the physiological than the spiritual he wrote, “ Whatever theological or philosophical reasons be given for the power of meditation in these cultures, the techniques all commonly elicit what we today call the Relaxation Response.” (Ref 2 p 101) It seems to me that what Eastern mystics consider the most important aspect of meditation, the Western scientists consider the least important part. For mystics the spiritual enlightenment is the goal while for the scientists the Relaxation Response is the aim. They might meet at the same airport but are planning to travel in different directions.

    Reading Herbert Benson’s book I am not convinced whether as a scientist he is able to differentiate between that Relaxation Response that is useful for anxious patients to feel relaxed and cope with daily stress and that meditation that is the pathway to spiritual enlightenment. From initiating Relaxation Response to maintaining Relaxation Response to a lifestyle of peace and harmony people need to travel a long distance on a road less travelled. For Herbert Benson a Western scientist to appreciate the mysteries of Eastern mysticism is not easy. He took the first step but it seems he could not travel beyond the first step. In the beginning of the book he seems aware of the journey he was going to explore. He wrote, “ My function in exploring and describing this faith Factor is to serve, as best as I can, as a bridge between two disciplines: traditional faith and meditative practices and scientific observation…I realize in stating this purpose that I’m embarking along a fine line that separates two conflicting ways of thinking---and that this combination may be potentially problematic.” (Ref 2 p 6) By the end of the book he is swayed by the pragmatic scientist in him who wants to help his patients suffering from physical and emotional problems and ignores the spiritual dimension of meditation. His publisher promotes Herbert Benson’s work in these words, “ A practical program that may help you

    …relieve headaches, backaches, chest pains

    …lower blood pressure and cholesterol

    …eliminate insomnia and decrease anxiety.

    In just  minutes a day you can easily master the STRESS REDUCTION techniques that have helped millions conquer or alleviate one of today’s most serious and widespread health problems.”  While I was reading this commercial about Herbert Benson’s miraculous Relaxation Response and Faith Factor techniques, I was remembering why Dalai Lama was warned by other Buddhist monks not to invite a Western scientist to the East. He had stated, “ I knew that many Tibetans were uneasy about the idea. They felt that the practices in question should be kept confidential because they drove from secret doctrines.” They were afraid that a Western scientist living in the capitalist world might start selling spirituality or make it a fast food business giving impression that spiritual practices could be learnt and adopted in weekend seminars.

    It seems the encounter between Dalai Lama and Herbert Benson was a brief encounter in time in which East and West momentarily touched each other. For one the experience was physical for the other metaphysical, for one it was secular, for the other sacred, for one it seemed athletic for the other spiritual. Existentially speaking two people sharing the same experience can have two different sometimes opposite interpretations and meanings. Encounters between spirituality and science, mystic East and materialistic West are still in infancy. Both cultures still need some soul-searching to do before they can develop a cooperative and harmonious relationship rather than a confrontative and conflicted relationship, learn from each other and discover universal humanistic values and lifestyles.


    1.      Lama Dalai…Freedom in Exile
    Harper Perennial Publishers Canada 2000
    2.      Benson Herbert MD …Beyond the Relaxation Response
    Berkley Books New York USA 1984
    3.      Sohail K Dr. …From Islam to Secular Humanism
    Abbeyfield Publishers Canada 2001


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