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The “CENTERING Response” -- 

Research on benefits of meditation

for Management effectiveness in a high stress world

Richard S. Scotti, Research Professor, EMSE Department, GWU (rscotti55@aol.com)

Abstract- Effective management today involves the ability to manage personal stress within productive bounds, and requires new, highly personalized strategies for dealing with the complex demands of our information-rich workplaces. Most approaches proposed for the management of stress involve relaxation and increased self-awareness. These strategies typically involve regular physical exercise, dietary discretion, attitudinal and behavioral modifications, psychological exercises, and ultimately the development of a "Relaxation Response." This paper begins with a review of personal skills that characterize effective managers. It then draws on the results of psychological research to explain difficulties that managers experience in attempting to put personal stress management strategies into practice. Mental clarity, intuition, empathy and communication skills, considered by many to be the most critical skills for effective management, are quickly lost under conditions of excessive stress. Relaxation alone is not sufficient for regaining these skills. Meditation, however, can be used to evoke a "Centering Response" that supports both relaxation and access to inner personal resources. A highly effective meditation process based on concentration of the attention is also described.
It has been over 25 years since Herbert Benson (Benson, 1975) clarified the relationship between the physiological and psychological stresses humans often experience as a result of the biological "fight or flight response" in situations perceived to be threatening. He argues that hard-wired biological programming in humans automatically produces life-preserving high adrenaline reactions in the presence of real or perceived dangers. These reactions, which were once very important for escaping a hungry tiger, are probably inappropriate for meeting the demands of professional life today, for surviving a full day of meetings, business deadlines and evening rush hour traffic. Since our modern lives do not afford us opportunities for running high adrenaline levels out of our blood streams immediately after demanding situations, we are often left with physiologically induced stresses that accumulate and augment daily psychological tensions. These processes, Benson contends, play out beneath the level of our normal awareness until we find ourselves, perhaps surprisingly, over stressed or even out of control. It is not difficult to find examples of this phenomenon in our daily lives, as well as in newspaper articles describing stress reactive behaviors of people on the job, and in family and social situations. Moreover, the negative impact of high personal stress on physical, emotional and psychological health and wellbeing has now been well documented. From anxiety to skin conditions to heart attacks and strokes, extreme stress wears down the body and mind, and undermines health and happiness.  
Benson argues for the adoption of and commitment to a personal program based on the "Relaxation Response" to counteract the “fight or flight” biological effect and to preserve the quality of our busy lives. He then compares the various possible approaches and presents solid research evidence that supports the efficacy of meditation as a process for the management of personal stress. The implications of Benson's work are that short periods of mental and emotional quietness experienced through meditation help a person to better handle stress and to more effectively negotiate the difficulties of the work environment.
More recent research in highly reputable professional publications documents a number of physical (Jevning, 1992), emotional (Kabat-Zinn, 1992) and mental (Delmonte, 1989) changes that commonly take place during, and continue for some time after, regular meditation practice. These include:
· Rhythmic, reduced breathing rate
· Decreased heart rate
· Decreased O2 consumption and CO2 production.
· Decreased blood lactate (a stress indicator)
· Lower cholesterol levels
· Lower blood pressure (both systolic and diastolic)
· Increased Galvanic Skin Resistance (GSR) (a stress indicator)
· Increased frontal alpha brain wave activity
· Reduced levels of anxiety (clinical test scores)
· Reduced depression (clinical test scores)
· Increased sense of being in touch with unconscious aspects of self (subjective assessment)
· Increased insightfulness (subjective assessment)
· Increased sense of serenity and wellbeing (subjective assessment)
Each of these changes is in a direction considered to be positive in regard to physical and/or mental health. Some involve factors currently used to measure and monitor physical and mental stress levels (e.g., breathing rate, heart rate, blood pressure, GSR, and level of anxiety), while others relate to secondary effects (e.g., insightfulness, sense of serenity and wellbeing, etc.). All support claims that meditation provides useful benefits.
The decades since Benson's research have ushered in the electronic age and the modern personal computer. The stress of daily life (SL), especially in the work place, is related to both the frequency of our encounters with others (f) and the complexity of the demands in each encounter (c). More frequent encounters and more complex demands typically result in heavier stress loads. This relationship is expressed in symbolic notation as,
SL ~ f x c.
The speed of our computers has increased by a factor of over 100 since the early 80's, and so has the frequency of our interactions with others, especially with the advent of the Internet. Complexity of human interactions, and the types and volumes of information in each exchange, has also increased many times. It should therefore be clear that the need to recognize and manage personal stress is many times greater today than it was when Benson first introduced his findings.
Change in our lives, largely driven by new technology, seems to be constant, rapid and unavoidable. But change also results in stress; the stress of adapting to new conditions, and the stress of operating in new ways and within new organizations. From Benson's perspective, the stresses of daily activities (SL) and of adapting to change (SC) can both be softened by relaxation brought about by the meditation process.
Engineers are familiar with the concept that stress, S and strain, T are related to one another by the properties of the media being stressed (EM).
SL + SC ~ T x EM
Following Benson, we can therefore think of meditation as a process for conscious adjustment of our emotional and psychological states by means of attitudinal control to better accommodate (unavoidable) changes and associated stresses in our personal and professional arenas.
The "Relaxation Response," is based on a lessening of our intentions or desires, even if only temporarily. Many managers, athletes, actors, sales personnel and people in other action-oriented professions are aware of the importance of stress. They recognize that high performance and achievement, and increased satisfaction are most often experienced under conditions of stress. The challenge before us is therefore to control stress within reasonable and productive bounds, rather than to eliminate it all together. However, without consciously resolving the internal conflict between (1) the thought that one should relax to control excessive stress, and (2) the experience that good things result from hard work, personal stress management strategies can not be effectively implemented. We will say more about this later on.
There are two main mental strategies that underlie meditation practices: Concentration and Mindfulness. The first, which involves focusing any one of the senses (especially sight or hearing) on a specific object or in a specific direction, has been referred to (Delmonte, 1989) as "zoom lens attention." The second, which involves awareness of ones whole field of perception, is referred to as "wide angle lens attention." The Relaxation Response as proposed by Benson is based on the latter meditation strategy. One purpose of this paper is to describe another meditation practice based on the Concentration Strategy that helps a great deal in evoking a "Centering Response." In concept, both approaches (Relaxation Response and Centering Response) lead to the same result…that is, to reconnection with deeper qualities and inner resources. In practice, the Centering Response is the result of a directed, focusing process, which may be easier and more natural for people in our culture who are trained to focus their attention on increased intensity to achieve their goals, both professional and personal.
Management Effectiveness
Effective management is both an art and a science. It is an art that is more qualitative than quantitative. It does not admit to simple, rigid definitions, even though it is usually described and taught as a science. Many people are engaged in management as a profession, but truly effective managers are rare; as rare as good artists. Management is also a science. Lists of management procedures, and personal attitudes and skills have been identified and correlated with successful practice. The apparent contradiction here between management as an art and as a science is resolved with the following realization: Few people are born with the special talents of an artist or a manager. Most develop into artists and managers by first studying the necessary skills, then emulating the examples of those who have achieved a level of success, and finally, discovering the underlying art form, after years of practice.
John D. Bigelow (1999) has defined and clarified the concept of “managerial skills,” in regard to management effectiveness, as follows:
"…those theories, techniques, and behavioral guidelines which, if applied properly, will enhance a manager's practice."
While Bigelow's interests have been primarily in management education, his research sheds light on three critical issues in regard to personal qualities or skills believed to be essential for management effectiveness:

(1) What are skills? How do we define a skill?
(2) How are management skills currently being taught?
(3) Which skills are currently taught as part of management education?
His research also involves an assessment of the effectiveness of management skills training programs, based on six different testing approaches.
Bigelow's research indicates that skill learning does not carry over well into actual practice. This fact is probably not so surprising to seasoned managers who know the difference between theoretical learning and doing. Current pedagogy apparently enables students to "demonstrate" key aspects of skills when prompted; there is, however, little evidence that this learning is carried forward into the workplace. Bigelow ultimately concludes that,
"Management practice is more complex and divergent than is currently understood."
The critical skills of effective managers, as well as the relationship of these skills to effective management, are very much in need of further understanding. 
Nevertheless, large numbers of personal skills have been identified in relation to management effectiveness by many authors. A sample list is provided in Exhibit 1.

Exhibit 1. Personal Skills of Effective Managers


Negotiating Skills   


Problem Solving 

Building Teams  

 Managing Teams     

Interviewing Skills  

Motivation-Self & Others

Presentation Skills 

Selecting Employees 

Dealing with Difficult Behavior

Planning, Organizing & Setting Goals

Dealing with Delicate Issues (Sexual Harassment)


Self Control



Time Management

Managing Diversity

Coaching and Feedback

Project Management    

Conflict Management

Financial Analysis

Decision Making

Performance Management

Managing Stress Effectively



To support understanding and ease of communications, these skills are often organized into categories that reflect either on-the-job applications areas or work relationship (L. Rue and L Byars, 1992). Bigelow (1999) proposes the following five categories:

1. Personal characteristics: e.g., pro-activity, leadership, perceptual objectivity, positive regard, and risk taking.

2. Inter-personal skills: e.g., communications, delegation, influence, conflict management, group management, motivating others, and leadership.

3. Learning skills: e.g., self-awareness, creativity, and learning from doing.

4. Intra-personal skills: e.g., decision making, planning, time and stress management, goal and action management, personal productivity, and self-motivation.

5. Administrative skills: e.g. decision making and planning.

     This organization, from Personal to Administrative skills, shows an implicit hierarchy in the skill matrix, with the most personal qualities of the effective manager at the base.  In other words, administrative, intra-personal, learning, and inter-personal skills all depend (more or less) on the personal characteristics and depth of insight of an effective manager.  This observation is borne out by common wisdom, which asserts that vision, mental clarity, intuition, empathy and communication skills are the “life-lines” of an effective manager.  These skills provide access to inner resources that make all the rest of the skills possible, and without which there is only logic, linear thinking and an overflow of information and problems to be coped with.

    A little self-reflection reveals that these same qualities are the first to be lost sight of under conditions of excess stress. The rapid thinking, hurried pace, irregular breathing and tight muscles that characterize periods of excess stress drown out the softer voice of intuition, and cause us to perceive those around us as “objects,” to be commanded or worked around rather than listened to with sensitivity. This realization, coupled with various health problems, is causing many managers to appreciate the importance of stress management and to adopt a personal stress management program. Many strategies and approaches are being proposed for the reduction and management of stress.

Difficulties with Stress Management

There are always gaps between theory and practice, between what we think and what actually works, especially for beginners. The difficulties that managers often experience with personal stress management programs can be characterized as,

 “Knowing better, but not being able to do better.” 

There are several inter-related psychological and physiological reasons for this dilemma. 

Psychological reasons: We in the modern western world (especially in America) are educated and trained to believe that productivity is the result of hard work, and that personal worth and professional rewards are the direct result of personal productivity.  This concept leads to the belief that,

"You are what you do and are valued because of how well you perform."

Taking time to simply relax or to think deeply on a matter or problem is therefore (unconsciously) considered to be a nonproductive, inefficient activity. An obvious consequence of this situation is the difficulty we encounter in finding (or making) time to seriously contemplate our problems, while immediate solutions are always welcome.  The drive for personal productivity often leads to “errors of the third kind,” that is, finding solutions to the wrong problems.

In effect, stress management programs based on periodic relaxation, while logically acceptable, are difficult to implement because of internal conflicts that arise between deep-seated psychological drives to be of value and socially acceptable, and beliefs on how best to live a balanced life. This ideological conflict most often plays out in the subconscious mind. But those affected can experience additional stress when the benefits of a stress management program are only felt during the periods of the activities themselves, and lost soon after.

Physiological reasons: Research has consistently and conclusively demonstrated strong correlation between human behavior and biochemistry (Martin, 1996).  At one end of the behavioral spectrum are habits, at the other end are addictions. But behavior patterns are strongly influenced, and often controlled, by biochemical mixtures in the blood stream. This fact is borne out in the psychosomatic-psychophysiological concept of "State-dependent Learning and Behavior." This concept explains how biochemical conditions that existed during a past event or experience tend to "trigger" the same physical, emotional and psychological experiences when re-established.  In practical terms, the mind and memory are biochemically compartmentalized, and thoughts are only accessible under the appropriate biochemical conditions (Orbach, 1995). In other words, learning, memory and behavior are situation-dependent.  They are best correlated in the contextual background and Biochemical State in which they were formed.  This explains why a particular mood is easier to recall when one is in the same frame of mind.  It also explains why it is often impossible to remember good intentions when upset, or to apply stress management strategies when under the influence of stress itself. On a lighter (but still serious) note, this also explains why we often feel more in touch with our knowledge on a topic learned over cups of coffee when we are once again drinking coffee.

     Our best intentions and sincere resolutions for managing stress are literally "unavailable" to us when we are operating under the influence of the blood chemistry of stress and anxiety.  The biochemistry of stress triggers old patterns of anxiety and their associated behaviors.  A stress management activity that remove us from the stress stimulators and shift biochemistry, such as strenuous exercise or taking “time-outs,” tend to work as long as its impact on our biochemistry persists.

     Behavioral modification programs can be highly effective. But the real difficulty lies in the unconscious, unmonitored, relationships between intentions and values, and with the fact that most managers (as humans) tend to identify with their problems, jobs and performance.  Retreating from them for awhile can help, but a more lasting solution requires a reconnection with our deeper selves and inner resources.  This is where meditation comes in.

Meditation – What it is.

The meditation process, whether concentration or mindfulness-based, involves a loosening of personal identification with our physical, emotional and mental processes. It is a process for withdrawing our attention from these experiences for a period of time to help shift our identification to a deeper place within. Meditation is, in effect, the application of our objective observation capability to the subjective domain of our thoughts and beliefs, emotions and bodily sensations. It is a means of creating an objective space between our perceptions and our reactions. A few moments of self-introspection soon reveals that our attention normally roams among our thoughts, emotional feelings and physical sensations, from one to another, in an endless “parade.” One aim of meditation is to create an opportunity for witnessing the present moment, without the emotional and mental coloring of the past, to be able to make better decisions based on what is really happening, rather than to impulsively react to imagined threats or negative predictions.

     It has been said that,

“Humans are a bundle of habits.”

Our habits, our individual hardwired reactions to our personal perceptions, are often triggered by the unconscious mind without any conscious awareness on our part, as for example in the case of the “fight or flight” syndrome discussed earlier. Meditation first supports an awareness of our thoughts, emotional feelings and physical sensations. It then helps us to see these experiences in a clearer, more truthful light. Ultimately, meditation helps us to discover deeper, more orderly and satisfying aspects of ourselves lying behind and beneath the “parade” of these subjective experiences. While it is conceptually simple, it is in practice difficult to master because we have become accustomed to our kaleidoscopic subjective activities and have accepted them as ourselves. 

How to Meditate

There are many different types and forms of meditation available today. Many people are familiar with Transcendental Meditation (TM), which is more related to the Mindfulness than to the Concentration attention strategy. In the case of Concentration meditation, with which we are concerned here, the possible types and forms depend on where and how one focuses the attention during the process. Kirpal Singh (1971) wrote a comprehensive treatise on this subject that describes each of the types and forms of meditation, as well as the benefits that can be derived from each.

     The type of meditation described below involves concentrating the attention between and in front of the eyebrows and consists of a six-step method (R. Singh, 1996).

Step 1: Give yourself permission for a meditation break for some period of time, say 10-15 minutes or longer.  Find a place where it is possible to sit quietly and remain undisturbed for the agreed time.  A corner of the office or a room at home would be fine, as long as there is no passage for unexpected traffic and disturbances. Reduced light also helps for relaxation.

Step 2: Sit on a chair, couch or in any other place that is comfortable and stable. Sitting is recommended over lying down, to avoid falling asleep.  Once you are sitting comfortably, take a few deep breathes and let go of any tension in your body (especially shoulders, neck and stomach). Let your mind relax for a few minutes. Remember that you are “off duty.”

Step 3: Close your eyes gently and concentrate on what is in front of you. Notice that even with eyes closed you become aware of “seeing into” a large dark space that surrounds you. (Try opening and closing your eyes a few times to become aware of this way of seeing.)

Step 4: With your eyes still closed and relaxed, concentrate your inner attention into the region lying between and (approximately 12 inches) in front of your eyebrows. (This feels as though you are “tunneling” your attention into this region to find out what is there.) Keep your eyes relaxed and pointing straight ahead.  You may see all darkness, pinpoints or flashes of light, faces, or even nature scenes. 

Step 5: As you continue concentrating your attention, a parade of thoughts, emotional feelings and physical sensations will probably arise to disturb your concentration.  To assist you in concentrating, do the following:

1)       Think “no thank you” to the thoughts, because you are “off duty” for the moment.

2)       Then think of a concept or person that provides inspiration to you and for which you feel love or respect. You can for example use "love" itself. Think this thought very slowly, over and over.

3)       Just return your attention again to your point of concentration, no matter where you have roamed in your thoughts. 

Step 6: The mind will begin to slow down as you continue to concentrate (and with repeated practice) and bring it back to your focus. You will soon become aware of inner lights. Flashes will come more and more frequently and lights will stay longer, as your concentration increases. The lights may also grow brighter and change color. You can stop when your agreed time is used up.


    The objective of this practice is to loosen personal identification with our physical, emotional and mental processes for while.  This makes possible a more objective view of the challenges and opportunities being presented to us by our problems when we return to them later on. This practice is consistent with many of the approaches to increased creativity (Ehrenzweig, 1971; Lowenfeld, 1939), which suggest leaving and then returning to our problems after the mind has reoriented itself. Other models of creativity suggest that this process of leaving (emptying the mind) and then returning (refocusing) evokes an intuitive, nonlinear response outside of previously perceived possibilities.  The main point here is that there is something to be gained in terms of relaxation and creativity by temporarily standing back from and releasing personal investment in our problems.   

     A more subtle aspect of the process of letting go during the practice of meditation is illustrated by the story of the young child looking through the keyhole into the forbidden garden.  As long as the child experiences self-consciousness, intensified by the feeling of guilt for disobeying the rules and approaching the keyhole, it remains an “outside observer.”  The garden is a small and distant image on the other side of the keyhole.  The child continues to struggle with the thought of getting caught while trying to see into the small keyhole. But when the child becomes so fascinated with the beauty of the garden and a passion to experience what is there, it momentarily forgets itself. In that intensity of looking the child suddenly finds itself, as it were, on the other side of the keyhole experiencing the fullness of the garden.  The keyhole no longer limits the view, because the child has effectively passed through it on the wings of a passionate desire to be there in the beautiful, forbidden garden. Forgetting our self, and all thoughts associated with our problems for a short while, is essential for deriving the fullest benefits of the meditation process. The process when practiced accurately (as explained above) can lead to a richness of experience known to the child only after it has “passed through the keyhole.”

     The Relaxation Response and the Centering Response both have many common benefits to offer for the difficult transitions we face as managers and as citizens in a rapidly changing world.  Both concern overcoming biological and psychological reactions in favor of actions that are more appropriate for current problems. Both point to connecting with deeper aspects of our selves and tapping into inner resources for more harmonious solutions to our personal and professional challenges.

  Final Thoughts

The central concept of this paper, that effective management is to be found where it is most often lost, is best illustrated by the following short story. A man returning home from work after dark was surprised to find his neighbor crawling around on the grass under the lamppost, apparently looking for something. When he asked her what she was looking, she looked up anxiously and said that she had lost the keys to her house. He immediately began to look with her, and then almost as an after thought asked where she had last seen them. She looked up to say that she had last seen them in the dark corner near to the front door. So why are you looking here, he asked. Because the light is so much better here, she answered.

     The ability to be an effective manager in today’s hectic and information-intensive world depends on being able to tap into ones inner resources including mental clarity, intuition, empathy and communication skills.  These are lost sight of under excess stress. Reconnection is possible only when we can get back to inner stability, when we can oversee and replace biochemical and psychological reactions with activities that are appropriate to the real problems of the moment.
     The challenge before managers today is to find ways to lead their organizations to optimal use of their resources in service of their mission and humanity, world-wide, where material profit is only one of the measures of success, not all.

     Researchers from many different fields and from organizations around the world (including The National Institutes of Health’s Division of Alternative Medicine) are documenting the benefits of meditation described in this paper for the management of personal stress and for reconnection to deeper values and inner resources.


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About the Author

Richard S. Scotti is a Professor and the Director of a Research Center in the Engineering Management and Systems Engineering Department (EMSE) at the George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC. His 30-year professional career in technical/management consulting, research and education is complemented by a long interest in transpersonal psychology and meditation. He also leads self-development and management training seminars in the USA, Canada and Europe. His academic background includes a Ph.D. in Engineering and Applied Mathematics from UC Berkeley, and postdoctoral fellowships at Cambridge University (UK), MIT and Brown University. He has also trained with esoteric teachers in India and the USA.