Want to feel more compassion for yourself and others? Start meditating. Any meditator will tell you that increased empathy is an outcome of this ancient practice, but now there’s tangible, scientific evidence of this benefit – that mindfulness meditation increases compassion and kindness.
David DeSteno, Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University in Boston Massachusetts, recently tested this out, finding that those who meditate demonstrate more compassion in comparison to non-meditators. There are several studies showing a link between meditation and many types of physical and psychological wellbeing, but this was one of the first to look specifically at the relationship between meditation and compassion toward others. DeSteno noted that “this is the first evidence that the practice of meditation—even for brief periods of time—increases peoples’ responsiveness and motivation to relieve the suffering of others.”
In DeSteno’s experiment, half of the participants were trained in meditation over an 8-week period that included weekly classes and home practice with guided recordings. The researchers then staged a scene in a waiting room, whereby a visibly injured person entered, without having an open seat to sit in. They wanted to see who among the meditators and non-meditators were more likely to show compassion by giving up their seat to the injured person. Added to the mix were actors in the waiting room who intentionally ignored the injured person, which tends to put social pressure on the others to do the same, something known as the bystander effect.
50% of the meditators offered up their chair to the injured person, in comparison to only 15% of the non-meditators. The good news here is that this shows that meditation increases compassionate behavior. But, as DeSteno noted in his NY Times piece, the bad news is that it’s also disheartening that only a fairly small number on both sides had the awareness and empathy to offer up their seat to somebody who needed it more.
Considering that 50% is a positive finding, this study seems to reflect a low baseline empathy level that exists in our society today. Needless to say, this is one of many wake up calls pointing to the need to address this problem, with that hope that someday we’d get closer to the 100% mark.
As DeSteno writes, one of the ways meditation helps foster compassion is by decreasing the “us/them” distinctions that separate people from one another. Encouragingly, additional research from neuroscientists support DeSteno’s findings, showing that even minor training in mindfulness meditation can alter areas of brain responsible for empathy.
Considering the obvious benefits of increased compassion in the world, it’s good to know that meditation is one tool that can help achieve this end. Meditation requires effort, but can be learned by anybody, whether young or old, male or female, rich or poor. The basic steps can be learned via sources on the Internet or, preferably, by going to one of many meditation centers around the world that typically offer their service on a Dana (donation) basis.
Professor DeSteno reminds us that despite the increased attention meditation is getting for its cognitive benefits – enhancing memory, creativity and performance on intelligence tests – that the Buddha’s original intent had more to do with helping people cultivate compassion. It’s good that this important piece is now getting more attention in the academic world.
Note: DeSteno’s research will be published in Psychological Science: Condon, P., Desbordes, G., Miller, W., & DeSteno, D. (in press). Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering.