Meditation, it’s obvious, has gone mainstream. Once reserved for serious practitioners in the Far East, its many methods have seeped, streamed and now surge into the West. Meditational advice is not in short supply. Some of it is sound. Much of it is not.
And yet, while there are stark differences in how the product is marketed, everyone seems to agree on one thing: meditation is good for you. A wealth of evidence bears this out. Reduced stress. Enhanced emotion regulation. Lower cortisol levels. Researchers have even found distinct age-defying features in the gray matter of long term practitioners. Skeptics may scoff at questionnaire results (the usual way of studying meditation), but they’re captivated by a sexy, high-contrast, fMRI image of the brain.
Given these data, meditation is surely beneficial in many ways. But does it make you a good person? This is an open question, and as a student of both moral psychology and meditation, I feel compelled to explore it. Let’s go into it together.
To begin with, Buddhists certainly have a strong position on this topic. Does meditation make you a better person? Absolutely.
“Meditation,” explains Buddhist monk and notable author Bhante Gunaratana “is the cleansing crucible fire that works slowly but surely, through understanding. The greater your understanding, the more flexible and tolerant, the more compassionate you can be. […] You feel love towards others because you understand them, and you understand others because you have understood yourself.”
The claim is that, through disciplined introspection, you understand your mind better. This understanding in turn creates a deeper connection with your fellow sapiens. And when you feel more connected, compassion flows naturally.
Researchers have, in fact, put this claim to the test. In a clever experiment devised by psychologists David DeSteno and Paul Condon, 20 subjects were trained in meditation for 8 weeks (19 controls did not receive training), then summoned to ostensibly receive cognitive testing. But this was merely a smoke screen. The actual measure was real-world compassion.
Some subterfuge was involved. When a participant arrived for their scheduled testing, they found only 1 unused seat in the waiting room. They took it of course. Shortly after, a person on crutches would enter the room, shuffle to the wall, and groan in obvious discomfort. The question was: would the participant offer their chair to this injured person?
The results were astonishing. 50% of meditators – compared to a paltry 16% of non-meditating controls – did the compassionate thing. In a similar study, a mere 3 weeks of training with the mobile app Headspace achieved comparable results. That’s less time than it takes my uncle to check his voicemail.
To my eye, the most surprising – and perhaps depressing – thing about these papers is the heartlessness of the controls. Take note: volunteers were randomly assigned to either group (control or meditation). Extrapolating a bit, this means your average person – at least, the average volunteer for meditation studies – won’t relinquish their seat for the disabled. On the other hand, it appears that a very brief intervention can instill compassion. This is, I think, a cause for optimism.
But is compassion the only explanation for the selfless behavior of the meditators? Maybe subjects felt empathy for the person on crutches – felt their anguish directly – and acted on this emotion. It wasn’t expansive compassion for all living beings, but rather a shared suffering with one being. A shared suffering, in fact, that could be ended by offering up the chair.
I suppose it’s possible, but it doesn’t really jive with the evidence. Most meditative practices, in fact, emphasize compassion. Empathy – not so much. And the truth is, the empathic brain is distinct – both neurologically and subjectively – from the compassionate brain. In 2007, the scientist-turned-monk Matthieu Ricard conjured both these states in the lab for neuroimaging. According to Ricard, the compassion meditation generated warm, altruistic, feelings. The empathy induction, conversely, made him feel like garbage. His testimony seems to make sense in the context of his neuroimaging results.
Yet despite these results, many of you likely remain dubious. After all, how can compassion operate without empathy? But the truth is, they needn’t overlap.
“I can worry about a child who is afraid of a thunderstorm and pick her up and comfort her without experiencing her fear in the slightest,” writes Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. “Not only can compassion and kindness exist independently of empathy, they are sometimes opposed.”
No empathy, no problem. What we need, pardon the glaring cliché, is more kindness in the world. Lucky for us, it appears meditation can help. The mechanism is logical. By training the mind to be more attentive, we notice our neuroses at a deep level. Every appearance in consciousness, we come to see, is both transient and impersonal. From this understanding, we notice the suffering of others – we relate to them deeply – without getting overwhelmed by emotion. And when we relate at this level, we foster what Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene calls a “metamorality” – a set of common values that promote the common good.
“An accomplished meditator,” writes Gunaratana, “has achieved a profound understanding of life, and he or she inevitably relates to the world with a deep and uncritical love.”
But “accomplished meditator” needn’t translate to “monk”. If 3 weeks on Headspace makes the heart grow larger, perhaps even the Grinch can become a mensch by Christmas.
Bloom, P. (2016). Against empathy: the case for rational compassion. New York, NY: Ecco.
Greene, J. (2013). Moral tribes: emotion, reason, and the gap between us and them. New York, NY: Penguin
Gunaratana, H. (2014). Mindfulness in plain English. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.