The Most Overlooked Aspect of Meditation Is Not What You Think

Compassion is the actual gold at the end of the rainbow.

“We all are so deeply interconnected; we have no option but to love all. Be kind and do good for anyone and that will be reflected. The ripples of the kind heart are the highest blessings of the Universe.” — Amit Ray

I’ve been fascinated for the last couple of weeks by one question — “Why have people made meditation so robotic?”

If you read many posts about meditation (including some of mine, I’m afraid) a majority of them talk about the cognitive benefits, increase in productivity, and improved mental health.

While these benefits are good, they don’t include the single most important aspect of meditation that I’ve felt in my life — love, and compassion.

As a student of yoga, I’ve learned that not only meditation helps develop compassion, but it’s also important to do your meditations with compassion.

And so the concept of compassion comes naturally to me. However, for all the research modern science has done on meditation, compassion has largely been missing from the picture.

How do you cultivate compassion? How do you ensure that people remember you for your generosity?

We’ve been asking these questions to ourselves for millennia. But it seems that lately, as a society, we’re not doing a good job of developing these virtues.

Research at the University of Michigan by Sarah Konrath suggests we’re in fact getting worse. The results lie in the review of 13,000 college students on the standard assessment of empathy and compassion between 1979 and 2009.

The findings suggest that self-reported concern for the welfare of others has been steadily dropping since the early 1990s. Right now, the levels of compassion seem lower than ever in the past 30 years. In reality, they’re falling at an alarming rate.

So what can we do about it? And how does meditation fit into the picture?

Why Sages Actually Meditate

Ask any meditator why they got started in the first place.

Common replies include stress alleviating, productivity and creativity enhancement, better performance, and so on. Meditation has thus been promoted for its ability to enhance the brain and heal the body.

However, that’s not why we all keep going. In fact, the true purpose of meditation has to do with the soul and not with the mind/body.

Trungram Gyaltrul Rinpoche, one of the highest lamas in the Tibetan tradition pointed out to David Desteno, that all the benefits of meditation we run after — better memory, health, cognitive skills, etc — are only secondary even though they’re positive (and legendary in themselves).

The main objective of calming the mind and achieved heightened states of consciousness was to attain a** form of enlightenment that would lead to deep, abiding compassion and resulting beneficence.**

This the real reason why sages, teachers, and other meditators, actually meditate.

Personally, I started meditating not because I thought of it as a cognitive enhancer. But because I was inspired by the unknown world of consciousness and spirituality. I was excited to explore my inner world.

Yet, even though that was more or less the right motivation, I continue meditation because it makes me feel joyful, happy, and compassionate.

However, for all this emphasis on compassion, scientific evidence has been lacking to back it up.

As I said, most meditation research revolves around neurological or other bodily changes. Little has been done to show its impact on kindness.

Desteno also posits why this may be the case. **By historical accident, the first psychologists to study meditation were experts in neuro autonomy, information processing, and physiology. **Aha! Now it makes perfect sense as to why science has mostly viewed meditation from a lens of those topics.

The result was a decade’s worth of findings confirming that meditation enhances the functioning of the brain and body — findings that continue to appear regularly and serve as the basis for much of the publicity surrounding meditation.

Unfortunately, the question of how meditation might influence social behavior wasn’t, until very recently, on anyone’s radar.

How Meditation Increases Compassion

To find out the effect of meditation on compassion, Desteno’s research group at Northeastern University set out to conduct a study.

They led a simple experiment and recruited 39 people from Boston who had never meditated before. The people were divided into two groups.

The first group completed an eight-week meditation course led by Willa Miller, a Buddhist lama. Those in the second were placed on a waitlist for the course.

After eight weeks, the participants were called to the lab one by one supposedly to complete measures of attention and memory. In reality, the true experiment occurred in the waiting room.

The room had three chairs two of which were occupied by actors. A few minutes after each participant arrived and took the remaining seat, a third actor appeared, this one on crutches, wearing a boot typically used for a broken foot, and wincing in pain.

Upon entering, she leaned against a wall, sighing audibly, as there was nowhere for her to sit. By design, the other actors ignored her. They thumbed through books or scanned their smartphones, paying no mind to her discomfort.

These situations are known to inhibit compassion and the resulting helping behavior. There’s a term for this phenomenon — the “bystander effect.

Anytime, others seem to be ignoring a person in distress, we hesitate to help. In this case— “No one else is paying attention. I think I too, will not offer my seat.

Now, for the results.

Among participants who didn’t meditate, the bystander effect was on clear display. Only 16 percent of the subjects (or three people out of 19) offered their chair to the actor on crutches. But of those who meditated, half (10 of 20) immediately and spontaneously offered their seat to the woman.

It’s important to note that, none of the participants had meditated before and were** equally willing to sign up for the course**, though they knew some would be put on a waiting list.

This means that those who didn’t meditate weren’t sadists who didn’t want to meditate. They were also willing to meditate, but somehow, they showed the bystander effect clearly than the meditators.

The eight weeks of meditation was enough to triple the chances of generosity in this case.

Double Checking

To be sure about the results, the researchers wanted to scale the study.

They didn’t think it was realistic for everyday people to seek out a meditation master and learn from them.

Thus, they conducted the experiment again, this time teaching meditation via mobile devices. The instructor still was a teacher with Buddhist monastic training but only the medium was different.

They randomly assigned 56 people to complete three weeks of either mindfulness training using the app, or cognitive skills training using a web-based, brain-training program.

Then they were exposed to the same waiting room scene.

While only 14 percent of non-meditators (four people out of 29) offered their chair to the woman on crutches, 37 percent of the meditators (10 people out of 27) acted to relieve her pain.

It’s safe to say that compassion can scale well!

Meditation Reduces ‘Compassion Fatigue’

It goes without saying that the world needs compassion outside the waiting room.

But often when suffering grows a lot, our concern for others tends to go own. This is because of our natural instinct to feel the distress others are experiencing. As humans, we not only recognize others’ emotions, but we can also feel them (perhaps why pornography is such a big industry).

So if you see someone in pain, you too can feel their pain. But this experience can be overwhelming. If the pain is too much for people to bear, they shut themselves emotionally and turn away.

This is called “compassion fatigue.” It’s common among physicians and nurses whose work revolves around the daily confrontation of suffering, pain, and emotional loss (for example, in cases of oncology and palliative care).

Recent research by the neuroscientist Tania Singer and the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard has shown that meditation-based training reduces activation of the brain networks associated with simulating the feelings of people in distress, in favor of networks associated with feelings of social affiliation.

In other words, shared pain rapidly dissipates, but compassion remains.

This helps us to be more compassionate towards others even though the pain they’re feeling is out of our scope of empathy.

The Takeaway

The most profound benefit of meditation is thus not the one we commonly speak about — performing in a stressful, competitive, and unkind world.

It can fundamentally change how we treat people around us.

People who push mindfulness as a technique for self-enhancement and wellbeing would do well to focus on its potential for preventing everything from bullying to domestic violence to callousness and indifference.

To take an example, in another post, I explained what happened when schools replaced detention with meditation. To cut it short, after introducing meditation, suspensions were decreased by more than 50%. In fact, some schools** didn’t have any suspensions** once kids learned to meditate.

The studies on compassion and meditation are still limited. It would pay to conduct more studies to drill this point home.

But for me (and you, I hope), the results are clear.

The world can only change if we raise our level of consciousness and compassion. It’s time we do that — starting with ourselves.

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Written on January 16, 2021