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Practicing Compassion

By Craig Hase

There are many benefits that come with the practice of mindfulness meditation.  Here is an account of my favorite empirically validated benefit – love.

Yes, love. No, not that sappy, sugar coated, fickle, inconstant moon type of pop-song teenage love. Love as a stance. Love as practice. Or, as psychoanalyst Erich Fromm put it so sweetly so many years ago, “standing in love.” Standing in love is more about a commitment to a way of being, less about a hapless joy ride on the roller coaster of capricious affect. And we now know, based on a couple dozen gold standard studies, that meditation practice increases our ability to feel and express love.

For example: Our friend Helen Weng put together an experiment a few years ago to study the impact of compassion meditation training. It’s a good study, a really good study. The questions:

To find out, she took 56 participants and divided them into two groups that were just about identical in age, gender, and baseline compassion rates. She then sent the two groups through different trainings.

The first group went through a two-week compassion training. The second group went through a two-week cognitive reappraisal training (i.e. an active control). Before and after the trainings, she ran everybody through fMRI – functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging that detects the changes in blood flow associated with brain activity.

She also had everybody play a video game in which a dictator stole money from a victim. In reality, the dictator and victim were simulated. But players thought they were real. In this game, designed to measure compassionate action, players could give their own real money to help the victim. Knowing that, by the rules of the game, this would force the dictator to give the stolen money back. In other words, people could undertake an act of altruism to right a wrong. Or they could just keep the money and go on about their lives.

Curious about what she found?

First off, those who underwent the compassion training showed greater activation in the brain circuits usually associated with understanding the suffering of others, executive control, and emotion regulation. So, that’s already interesting. But here’s the real kicker. The folks who did two weeks of compassion training gave nearly twice as much money.

In other words, the compassion training not only impacted the way people felt about the victim (that’s the brain part), they also changed the way they acted toward the victim. They were actually more willing to make a sacrifice to improve another person’s situation.

In another study, this time done at Yale, researchers looked at bias. Again, they split participants into two groups. One group talked about kindness for six weeks. The second group actually did kindness meditation for six weeks. Put simply, the first group saw no reductions in bias. But the second group that actually learned to practice kindness meditation saw a significant drop.

Other research on kindness and compassion meditation has suggested that even short interventions can increase feelings of social connection and impact feelings of warmth toward strangers. As Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman note in their book, ALTERED TRAITS, these kindness meditations seem to act quickly – as few as eight hours of kindness meditation has been shown to improve mood and that bias was reduced with only sixteen hours. According to Richie and Dan, the more people practice, the greater and longer lasting the effects seem to be.

All this is pretty good news, actually. Because for a long, long time, western scientific psychology was wedded to the belief that people probably had a kind of set point for kindness and compassion. That set point was likely based on some mix of genetics and early developmental experiences. But what we’re seeing now is that meditation nudges that set point. People can actually become kinder, more compassionate – they feel more for others, and act on those feelings.

Using Richie and Dan’s work we’ve taken a quick peek at what the science is really saying – leaving out the chaff, sticking close to the real meat (to mix metaphors). We’ve found that we know pretty much for sure, that meditation:
1) Lowers stress
2) Increases attention regulation
3) Elevates mood
4) Decreases inflammation
5) Decreases depression and anxiety
6) And increases love

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This post is an adapted version of the sixth in Craig’s blog series that presented research results about the benefits of mindfulness meditation. You can read the other five articles at http://www.satimindfulness.com[1] [1]. They appeared weekly this year from February 20th to March 28th, along with his blog on February 13th that says more about both meditation and mindfulness.

Craig and his wife Devon teach mindfulness training courses and lead meditation retreats (including one that’s planned in Iceland). To learn more about their work and upcoming events, please visit their website.

Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman, ALTERED TRAITS: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, Penguin Publishing, 2017.