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Pastoral Care Practicum Paper # 1: Herbert Benson's Timeless Healing

Updated: Jan 11



Dr. Herbert Benson (April 24, 1935 – February 3, 2022) was an American medical doctor, cardiologist, and founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston. He was a professor of mind/body medicine at Harvard Medical School and director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) at MGH. He was a founding trustee of The American Institute of Stress. He contributed more than 190 scientific publications and 12 books. More than five million copies of his books have been printed in different languages. (Herbert Benson - Wikipedia)

The Three Legged Stool

Dr. Herbert Benson believes that there is an ideal model for medicine and he describes it as the three legged stool. The stool is balanced by the proper application of self-care, medications and medical procedures. One leg, represents what patients can do for themselves. It is the most maligned and ignored aspect of health care today. The other two legs represent what the health care profession can offer or do for patients.


This book focuses on Remembered Wellness, which can enhance all three legs of the stool. However, doctors and other caregivers must believe in their efficacy and communicate this confidence to patients in order to demonstrate remembered wellness. Today, medicine relies far too much on pharmaceuticals and surgery and procedures. Dr. Benson believes we must embrace self care to optimize medicine, health and well-being.


Remembered Wellness

In order for Remembered Wellness to work properly, three things must take place: A) Belief and expectancy on the part of the patient. B) Belief and expectancy on the part of the caregiver and C) Belief and expectancies generated by a relationship between the patient and caregiver. When the patient believes in a therapy that is fervently recommended by their doctors, this fervor can work to alleviate a variety of medical conditions including angina, asthma, herpes simplex cold sores, and duodenal ulcers. When the patients confidence has waned, so does the effect.

Dr. Benson quotes the nineteenth century French physician and Internist Armond Trousseau (1801-1867) who said, " You should treat as many patients as possible with the new drugs while they still have the power to heal ". Dr. Benson describes this style of the doctor - patient relationship as a "Sacred Trust".


The Nature Of Belief

For Benson, the physician is the one who is responsible for encouraging good nutrition and exercise, to discourage smoking, oversee medications and to advise patients on healthy lifestyle decisions. This also includes encouraging a desire for positive, hopeful expectations and steering patients away from beliefs that can be harmful.


The Brain

According to Benson, it is possible to mobilize our thoughts to change the way our brains function, and to configure our nerve cells with experiences and events that are emotionally fulfilling and not emotionally threatening. This action within the brain is actually Remembered Wellness. By doing this, we can practice affirmations, visualizations, and other exercises to expand the hot bed of nerve cells that fire off signals to our heart, lungs and liver. Of course, what stands in the way of this process is a medical system which has separated the mind from matter.

Medicine's Spiritual Crisis

Modern medicine is reluctant to embrace Remembered Wellness. According to Dr. Benson, doctors are reluctant because they receive little credit from insurance companies for helping a patient therapeutically when the medical model demands a diagnosis made and measurable action taken. Also, there is the fear of malpractice or the fear of doing nothing and other physicians simply don't understand remembered wellness or under estimate their ability to influence a patients desire to heal themselves.


The lack of value for human personalities, for the beliefs we possess, or for our spiritual quality of life, will have to be addressed and rectified by medical science. Medicine must soon attend to this craving for meaning, this demand that health be defined by more than test results and vital signs.


The Relaxation Response

The Relaxation Response invalidates, to a certain extent the action of  noraadrenaline, so that the body does not react as completely to mildly stressful events but retains the ability to respond immediately to major threats. There are two steps in eliciting the Relaxation Response. They are: First, repeat a word, sound prayer, phrase, or muscular activity and secondly,  passively disregard everyday thoughts that come to mind, and return to your repetition. For all patients, the Relaxation Response is not only a short-term boon, but a long-term balm.


For any condition that is caused or worsened by Stress, the Relaxation-Response-based programmes can be effective at curing or improving the condition. This is important because sixty to ninety percent of all doctor office visits are Stress related and fall within the Realm of Illnesses that mind/body medicine can alleviate. These conditions are poorly treated by two of the legs in the three legged stool, specifically medicine and surgical procedures.


God, Faith And Spiritual Experience

Dr. Benson has discovered that Religious Experiences are facilitated by the Relaxation Response, which can sometimes defy precise description. With the Relaxation Response, Religious Experience seems to transcend daily human experience and appears Spiritual in nature. All of these experiences, mild through extreme, appear to be equally physiologically healing. Whatever ones beliefs may be, when the Relaxation Response is elicited, the mind/body mechanism is flexed which has proven physiologic merit.


Faith is truly central to human life and health. Faith and Hope are part of our primal instincts. They are a kind of light to which we are naturally drawn. There is in Spirituality an emotional and physical comfort. To summon the healing effects of the Relaxation Response, you need to surrender everyday worries and tensions.


People can call upon God or their particular Object of Faith to experience support unmatched by any other form of belief. When you let yourself focus, calling on the beliefs that mean the most to your life, a peace that defies description is possible. With an organic, inseparable soul and a genetic pre-disposition to soothe ourselves, we can better cope with life and more fully appreciate the great mystery of it all. Faith affirms life, continuously and timelessly.


Medicine, Health and the Ills of Information

Dr. Benson asserts that patients and doctors need to learn to let beliefs work. Faith and Remembered Wellness can take medicine to a higher level. Our addiction to information often weakens or destroys the transforming power of Remembered Wellness. In our lives, we try to find  "the entire and absolute faith". This, of course, may not be the true picture, but rather an incorrect interpretation.


However, our brains and bodies need to indulge occasionally in brighter possibilities. Therefore, by acting as if our bodies are indomitable in the ways prescribed, greater health can emerge. In balancing the stresses and information overload of life that we all receive, Benson believes that it is valuable to adopt this accord: Which is to gather all pertinent information, make a decision, and then , "let go" of it.


Eliciting the Relaxation Response may work in much the same way. Quite often, after people finish meditating, they view the world differently, through "new eyes". Many people report increased creativity, along with experiences of new and powerful beliefs, brightening there moods and making all information less apt to hurt or bother them.


Timeless Healing

Dr. Herbert Benson has come to believe in God and that their is a thoughtful design in place in which definite patterns emerge. He believes that there is incredible harmony being produced in the world and that humans are connected to this with a physiological healing faith. He believes in a scientifically describable biology and evolution which exists in a world that is, nonetheless, divinely influenced.


 Originally entitled Book Report on Herbert Benson's Timeless Healing submitted to the Rev. Dr. Avery Kempton as a Unit 1 Clinical Pastoral Education Practicum Paper. Acadia University St. Stephen's Theological College University of Alberta

Published on May 29th, 1998

{Revised December 13th, 2023}

© Dr. Charles Warner 2023


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