Be the Calmest Person in the Room

by Marcia Miller

Last fall a group of us from Yoga on High were fortunate to spend part of a day with Dr. Herbert Benson at the Ohio State University Medical Center. A cardiologist by training, Benson is the man who put meditation research on the map over 35 years ago with the publication of his book, The Relaxation Response. At 76 years old he had the rosy cheeks, cheery countenance and vitality of someone who is passionate about his work and takes daily time to restore and renew himself though a meditation practice.
It is a privilege to be teaching yoga and meditation at a time when the technology developed by yogis thousands of years ago can now be tested by modern scientific methods and found to be valuable in ways that matter to people living in this 21st century. I’ll use this blog entry to write up some of the things I remember and have been sustained by from the two programs I attended with Dr. Benson.
Once his very first study showed the usefulness of meditation he had his staff do a worldwide search to see who else was doing the simple repetitive practices that he was practicing as meditation. Of course they discovered that every culture and every religion has such practices. The universality of the techniques was a thread that was woven through everything he said. And, that the specifics of the practice need to be chosen by the person meditating. He welcomed people of every religion or no religion to use words, phrases or repetitive activities that were meaningful to them. In his studies he had people of different traditions practicing side by side and each one received the benefits I’ll describe below. His respect for all traditions was palpable and made it very enjoyable and easy to be in the room with him.
His basic technique is very simple: for more than 10 minutes and less than 20 minutes gently repeat a word, phrase or short prayer that has meaning for you. When the mind wanders (and you can be sure it will) just say to yourself, “oh well” and come back to the original focus. At the end of the session, sit for another minute with eyes closed to experience the feelings of well being. Then get up and go about your day.
There were several things he said that have stayed with me. One is that the simple act of practicing the Relaxation Response affects our genes. Each of us has many genes, but not all of them are expressed. The environment of the gene will help to determine whether the gene will express (turn on). In the environment of daily practice (remember, this is only 10-20 minutes a day in their studies) there are 3 gene-types that do not express: ones for stress reactivity, for inflammation (an important marker for all kinds of diseases) and for aging. This is true whether the person has been meditating for 30 years or for as short as 8 weeks. Yes, even 8 weeks is enough time to begin to reprogram genes though the effect is stronger the longer someone has been meditating.
To the degree that any disease is caused by stress the practice of the Relaxation Response will help. With many scientists suggesting that 80% of diseases have stress as a major contributing factor, the implications of ongoing research are huge. Benson and his colleagues studied the effects of meditation on irritable bowel and the research confirmed that meditation helped. Studies by other researchers have revealed that people with many diseases (cardiovascular disease, depression, chronic pain and diabetes to name a few) can benefit from meditation.
Another study Benson mentioned showed that doctors who were practicing the relaxation response had patients who got well faster. On average their patients left the hospital a day sooner than those with doctors who were stressed, resulting in the savings of around $2,000 per patient. This really got me thinking. The relaxed doctor was probably more alert and responsive to whatever treatments were needed, but also likely helped his/her patients to feel more at ease since relaxation is catching and helpful to the body’s ability to heal itself.
With this in mind, I considered the benefits that yogis and meditators confer on the people around them, just by being in the room. Could it be that we are often the calmest people in the room? Could it be that we are the ones others want to sit by in difficult meetings just because they feel more relaxed sitting next to us? Could it be that by doing our practices and becoming calmer we contribute the health and well being of all around us? I watched Dr. Benson deflect potential antagonism over and over just by being what I imagine is his normal, cheerful self. Because he was not reactive to any negativity in the room he continually won people over, not by facts and logic (though he had plenty of those) but by his way of being. I have seen this frequently with longtime yoga practitioners as well. Their very deep calmness calms others around them, reducing conflict.
This is very exciting to me in another way. One of the main reasons that people stop practicing yoga, I think, is that they feel it is selfish to take time for themselves. In our busy, busy lives, they think it an indulgence to feel that good and to take time away from their “real” work. But what if our real work is to be a beacon of calm in the world? That no matter what else we do, our calmness is a healing force? Let us all become the calmest person in the room, knowing that our peaceful vibration brings peace to all we meet. In the words of Saint Francis of Assisi, “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.”
And as a special treat I offer a simple chant here that you can learn and repeat as a reminder of your own peaceful power.

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2 Responses to Be the Calmest Person in the Room
  1. Jennifer Gebhart

    Thank you for sharing. I wish I would have been able to attend. I have forwarded this to my MS students as they have expressed that we discuss and do more meditation next quarter. This has also inspired me to continue my meditation practice. Thank you!

  2. Sharon

    I love the idea of being the calm person in the room. I got goosebumps listening to your chant, I use the words of St. Francis of Assisi as my mantra, a statue of him holds a special place in my yoga studio here in my house. Thank you Marcia, as always you are uncannily spot on for me.

    Peace, Sharon