Body, Mind, Spirit Magazine

Meditation and Compassion

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina 

Meditation and Compassion

Lake Tahoe by Melina Meza

“Nonetheless, the current finding is the first to clearly show the power of meditation to increase compassionate responding to suffering, even in the face of social pressures to avoid so doing. As such, it provides scientific credence to ancient Buddhist teachings that meditation increases spontaneous compassionate behavior.” —Paul Condon, et al
Just a quick heads-up today about a recent scientific study about the effects of meditation practice on compassion that was written up in last Sunday’s NY Times The Morality of Meditation.
In my post Practicing Yoga Off the Mat, I wrote about my desire to cultivate compassion toward others in my life to foster better relationships. In that post, I cited Yoga Sutra 1.33 in describing my off-the-mat practice:
By cultivating an attitude of friendship toward those who are happy, compassion toward those in distress, joy toward those who are virtuous, and equanimity toward those who are nonvirtuous, lucidity arises in the mind. —trans. by Edwin Bryant
Lately we’ve also been addressing meditation on the blog. In Is Meditation an Essential Part of Yoga Practice, Timothy wrote about the importance of meditation, describing it as “a fabulous tool to study your mind and slowly gain more control over it.” But according to Buddhist tradition, meditation also provides important inter-personal benefits as well. This is why a group of people, including psychologist Paul Condon, neuroscientist Gaëlle Desbordes and Buddhist lama Willa Miller, decided to conduct a study looking at these particular benefits to the practice:
“Contemplative science has documented a plethora of intra-personal benefits stemming from meditation, including increases in gray matter density (Hölzel, Carmody, et al., 2011), positive affect (Moyer et al., 2011) and improvement in various mental health outcomes (Hölzel, Lazar, et al., 2011). Strikingly, however, much less is known about the inter-personal impact of meditation. Although Buddhist teachings suggest that increases in compassionate responding should be a primary outcome of meditation (Davidson & Harrington, 2002), little scientific evidence exists to support this conjecture.” —Paul Condon, et al
For this study, the scientists recruited 39 people from the Boston area who were willing to take part in an eight-week course on meditation (and who had never taken any such course before). They randomly assigned 20 of them to take part in weekly meditation classes, which also required them to practice at home with recordings, while they told the remaining 19 that they had been placed on a waiting list for a future course.
After the eight-week period of instruction, the scientists staged a situation designed to test the participants’ behavior before they were aware that there was an experiment. Would a participant who was waiting in the lab’s waiting area give up his or her seat when a fourth person, using crutches and wearing a boot for a broken foot, entered the room and audibly sighing in pain entered the room in which all seats were taken and the other two people ignored her? The scientists reported that the results were significant because while only 16 percent of the non-meditators gave up their seats, the proportion rose to 50 percent among those who had meditated. And this after only eight weeks of practice!
Of course, the question that immediately arises is: why would eight weeks of meditation have this effect on a person’s compassion for others? At this point, they can only speculate. David DeSteno, one of the scientists, wrote in the NY Times article:
“Although we don’t yet know why meditation has this effect, one of two explanations seems likely. The first rests on meditation’s documented ability to enhance attention, which might in turn increase the odds of noticing someone in pain (as opposed to being lost in one’s own thoughts). My favored explanation, though, derives from a different aspect of meditation: its ability to foster a view that all beings are interconnected.”
Regardless of why it works, using meditation to cultivate compassion will no doubt help foster better relationships not just with total strangers but also with people in your life. If you’re not already meditating and want to start, see Timothy’s post Starting a Meditation Practice.

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