The Morality of Meditation
- By DAVID DeSTENO
Published: July 5, 2013
MEDITATION is fast becoming a fashionable tool for improving
your mind. With mounting scientific evidence that the practice
can enhance creativity, memory and scores on standardized intelligence tests, interest in its practical benefits is
growing. A number of "mindfulness" training programs, like
that developed by the engineer Chade-Meng Tan at Google,
and conferences like Wisdom 2.0 for business and tech
leaders, promise attendees insight into how meditation can
be used to augment individual performance, leadership and productivity.
This is all well and good, but if you stop to think about it,
there's a bit of a disconnect between the (perfectly
commendable) pursuit of these benefits and the purpose
for which meditation was originally intended. Gaining
competitive advantage on exams and increasing creativity
in business weren't of the utmost concern to Buddha and other
early meditation teachers. As Buddha himself said, "I teach
one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of
suffering." For Buddha, as for many modern spiritual leaders,
the goal of meditation was as simple as that. The heightened
control of the mind that meditation offers was supposed to help
its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate
way, allowing them to break free from the categorizations
(us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one
But does meditation work as promised? Is its originally
intended effect the reduction of suffering empirically demonstrable?
To put the question to the test, my lab, led in this work by
the psychologist Paul Condon, joined with the neuroscientist
Gaëlle Desbordes and the Buddhist lama Willa Miller to conduct
an experiment whose publication is forthcoming in the
journal Psychological Science. We 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). We then randomly assigned 20 of them to take
part in weekly meditation classes, which also required them
to practice at home using guided recordings. The remaining 19
were told that they had been placed on a waiting list for a
After the eight-week period of instruction, we invited the participants to the lab for an experiment that purported to
examine their memory, attention and related cognitive abilities.
But as you might anticipate, what actually interested us was
whether those who had been meditating would exhibit greater compassion in the face of suffering. To find out, we staged a situation designed to test the participants' behavior before they were aware that the experiment had begun.
WHEN a participant entered the waiting area for our lab, he
(or she) found three chairs, two of which were already occupied. Naturally, he sat in the remaining chair. As he waited, a
fourth person, using crutches and wearing a boot for a broken
foot, entered the room and audibly sighed in pain as she leaned uncomfortably against a wall. The other two people in the room
who, like the woman on crutches, secretly worked for us ignored
the woman, thus confronting the participant with a moral
quandary. Would he act compassionately, giving up his chair
for her, or selfishly ignore her plight?
The results were striking. Although only 16 percent of the nonmeditators gave up their seats an admittedly disheartening
fact the proportion rose to 50 percent among those who had meditated. This increase is impressive not solely because it
occurred after only eight weeks of meditation, but also because
it did so within the context of a situation known to inhibit considerate behavior: witnessing others ignoring a person in
distress what psychologists call the bystander effect reduces
the odds that any single individual will help. Nonetheless,
the meditation increased the compassionate response threefold.
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. The psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo and
I have found that any marker of affiliation between two people,
even something as subtle as tapping their hands together in synchrony, causes them to feel more compassion for each other
when distressed. The increased compassion of meditators, then,
might stem directly from meditation's ability to dissolve
the artificial social distinctions ethnicity, religion,
ideology and the like that divide us.
Supporting this view, recent findings by the neuroscientists
Helen Weng, Richard Davidson and colleagues confirm that
even relatively brief training in meditative techniques can
alter neural functioning in brain areas associated with
empathic understanding of others' distress areas whose responsiveness is also modulated by a person's degree of
felt associations with others.
So take heart. The next time you meditate, know that you're
not just benefiting yourself, you're also benefiting your
neighbors, community members and as-yet-unknown strangers
by increasing the odds that you'll feel their pain when the
time comes, and act to lessen it as well.
David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, where he directs the Social Emotions Group. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More."
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