The qualities the world desperately needs more of, namely love, kindness and compassion, are indeed teachable. Scientists have mostly focused on the benefits of meditation for the brain and the body, but a recent study by Northeastern University’s David DeSteno, published in Psychological Science, takes a look at what impacts meditation has on interpersonal harmony and compassion.
“Potentially one can train oneself to behave in a way which is more benevolent and altruistic,” said Antoine Lutz, an associate scientist at theUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison.
Recent brain-imaging studies have suggested that the insula and the anterior cingulate cortices regions are involved in the empathic response to other people’s pain. But not much is known about how cultivating compassion might affect brain circuitry.
Several religious traditions have suggested that mediation does just that, but there has been no scientific proof–until now.
In this study, a team of researchers from Northeastern University and Harvard University examined the effects meditation would have on compassion and virtuous behavior, and the results were fascinating.
This study–funded by the Mind and Life Institute–invited participants to complete eight-week trainings in two types of meditation. After the sessions, they were put to the test.
Sitting in a staged waiting room with three chairs were two actors. With one empty chair left, the participant sat down and waited to be called. Another actor using crutches and appearing to be in great physical pain, would then enter the room. As she did, the actors in the chair would ignore her by fiddling with their phones or opening a book.
The question DeSteno and Paul Condon — a graduate student in DeSteno’s lab who led the study — and their team wanted to answer was whether the subjects who took part in the meditation classes would be more likely to come to the aid of the person in pain, even in the face of everyone else ignoring her. “We know meditation improves a person’s own physical and psychological wellbeing,” said Condon. “We wanted to know whether it actually increases compassionate behavior.”
Among the non-meditating participants, only about 15 percent of people acted to help. But among the participants who were in the meditation sessions “we were able to boost that up to 50 percent,” said DeSteno. This result was true for both meditation groups thereby showing the effect to be consistent across different forms of meditation. “The truly surprising aspect of this finding is that meditation made people willing to act virtuous — to help another who was suffering — even in the face of a norm not to do so,” DeSteno said, “The fact that the other actors were ignoring the pain creates as ‘bystander-effect’ that normally tends to reduce helping. People often wonder ‘Why should I help someone if no one else is?’”
These results appear to prove what the Buddhist theologians have long believed–that meditation is supposed to lead you to experience more compassion and love for all sentient beings. But even for non-Buddhists, the findings offer scientific proof for meditation techniques to alter the calculus of the moral mind.
Brain scans of those undergoing meditation have shown that the practice can improve emotional stability and response to stress. In those who meditated, significant increases across a wide area of the brain responsible for numerous functions beyond rapid information processing and retrieval have been found. Additional areas of the brain markedly affected by meditation involve emotional and mental health capacities, influencing processes of emotional control, heightened awareness, and introspection. This falls directly in line with some of the more noticeable results of regular meditation, which often include increased compassion for one’s self and others, enhanced self awareness and introspection, and greater emotional stability.
More involvement in meditation practices leads to significant improvements in energy, health and mental/emotional balance. During mindful meditation practice, distractions are minimized and the space between thoughts becomes greater and more profound. As we slowly turn down the constant chatter of our minds, we can begin to access deeper aspects of consciousness for growth and healing.
Normally, people assume that ignoring their compassionate feeling doesn’t have any cost–that you can just suppress your sympathy and walk on. But Daryl Cameron and Keith Payne of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suspected that wasn’t true. “Compassion is such a powerful emotion. It’s been called a moral barometer,” Cameron says. A sense of other people’s suffering may even be the foundation of morality–which suggests that suppressing that sense might make people feel less moral.
People who suppress compassion do, apparently, have a change in their sense of morality: they are much more likely to either care less about being moral or to say that it’s all right to be flexible about following moral rules. Cameron thinks this is because suppressing feelings of compassion causes cognitive dissonance that people have to resolve by rearranging their attitudes or beliefs about morality.
Everyone who enters your life has a lesson to teach and a story to tell. Every person you pass during the moments that make up your days represents an opportunity to show a little more of the compassion and courtesy that define your humanity. Why not start being more of the person you truly are during your days and doing what you can to enrich the world around you?
Kindness, quite simply, is the rent we must pay for the space we occupy on this planet. It is part of our essence. Become more creative in the ways you show compassion to strangers. Paying the toll for the person in the car behind you, offering your seat on the subway to someone in need and being the first to say hello are great places to start.
The deeper we go, the more layers we peel, the more access we have to our true essence, and the more genuine our affirmations can be–for this essence is simply pure openness and love, which is the true essence of positive affirmation. Often, and especially in moments of crisis, we can become more genuine to ourselves, and to our experience of existence–and this is the true opportunity presented by crisis. If we keep going deeper, and have the right guidance, we can start peeling into the depth of our experience, peeling back the layers that obstruct our essence.
About the Author
Josh Richardson is blogger, healer, and a constant pursuer of the natural state of human consciousness.
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