Sandals left behind on the beach
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I didn't know how to begin this article.

I'd read the book The Breakout Principle (Scribner), by Herbert Benson, MD, and William Proctor, about maximizing performance and creativity. Then I'd interviewed Benson, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the author of several books on mind and wellness, most notably the mega best-seller The Relaxation Response (Wings).

After a few hours of trying different beginnings, I gave up and started trudging home from my office. About halfway there, it hit me: the lead, that crucial first sentence. Benson would say I'd just experienced a "breakout," a phenomenon as mysterious—until now—as it is familiar: You're striving toward a goal at work, in a relationship, in therapy, or at the gym, and you hit a wall. You're stuck, frustrated, and exhausted. Finally, you just let go. You turn to something completely different, perhaps something soothingly mindless and repetitive. "It could be as simple as putting on your makeup or brushing your hair," Benson says. "With me, it's sometimes shaving." And suddenly the answer is there. Your mind is flooded with insights and solutions, your body with the energy and grace that athletes call the zone.

That's a breakout, the term Benson has coined for a universal pattern of human functioning that powers our great leaps forward in every area of life. After such a leap, you don't slide back to where you were before. Every breakout you've ever had has lifted you, a millimeter or a mile, to a higher, freer plane. It's how we grow—not in one smooth arc, but in bursts that Benson diagrams as STRUGGLE > RELEASE > BREAKOUT > IMPROVED "NEW NORMAL."

Once we understand this process, Benson says, we can learn to help it happen. "Think back on it, and you'll find a certain set of behaviors you go through when you're stuck," he says. Whether it's a formal practice like yoga or a comfy space-out like knitting or folding laundry, he says, "you must get your mind completely off what you were struggling with."

Benson, who is also the founding president of Mind/Body Medical Institute in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, calls this "pulling the breakout trigger." In collaboration with neuroscientists and using new imaging technology, he's been researching what happens in the brain when you do it.

Next: What they discovered