There's a subtle knack to achieving the optimal mental state. "Try too hard and you'll lose the trigger," Benson says. "You can't make it happen; you have to allow it to happen. You go into a reverie, and then the mind, relieved of pressure, rearranges itself." And so does the brain. Based on the latest research, Benson and his colleagues suspect that it's the gas nitric oxide, released by a specialized (and only recently discovered) network of nerves, that shuts off stress hormones, turns on feel-good neurotransmitters like endorphins, and smooths the troubled waters of the struggle phase. (Nitrous oxide is also the secret of Viagra—and, ironically for a substance that seems to shout "yes!" its chemical formula is NO.)

Imaging studies of the brain during deep meditation and creative activity show the usual jagged, left-brain busyness giving way to what scientists call coherence, a serene synchronization of the logical left brain with the intuitive right and of the sophisticated neocortex with the primitive core.

What Benson believes he has seen on brain scans is what the ancients called vis medicatrix naturae, or "the natural healing capacity within us." With their power to alchemize stress into bliss, he says, breakouts are good for your health. With their power to deliver revelations and dissolve problems, they're good for your life. Faced with a crossroads or crisis, instead of knocking yourself out, you can trust this natural brain mechanism to come to your rescue. You've got to lay the groundwork, Benson emphasizes, but then you can choose to let go...and let NO.

A Simple Breakout Trigger

When active efforts at problem solving have taken you as far as they can, try invoking the "relaxation response," a simple way to open yourself to an exhilarating breakout. Benson's technique: Sit comfortably in a quiet place. Choose a word or a sound or a prayerful phrase that has positive meaning for you (peace, one, love). Close your eyes and breathe regularly. On each exhalation, silently repeat your words or sounds. If your mind wanders, don't fight it or feel you've failed. Just think, Oh, well, and gently return to your repetition. After 10 to 20 minutes, open your eyes, sit quietly, and let everyday thoughts seep back into your awareness. You've primed your brain for a flash of creative insight.

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