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Meditation Increases Compassion

Recently I told you that meditation can relieve inflammation, asthma and arthritis and boost your memory and mood, too. If you need yet another good reason to try meditation, consider this—it will make you a nicer, more compassionate person.

This fascinating finding comes from a new study, one of the first to look at how meditation affects interpersonal skills and behavior toward others in a real-world situation.

The setup: Half of the study participants attended weekly meditation classes and the other half did not. Those in the meditation group were further divided into two classes. One class learned the typical mindfulness-based meditation skills of relaxing the body and focusing the mind, being still and vigilant, and monitoring the mind’s tendency to wander. The other class learned basic mindfulness techniques, too—but they also followed a compassion-based curriculum that emphasized noticing and reflecting on life’s challenges, developing awareness of suffering as a universal experience, and imagining oneself in a community of others who were experiencing the same discomforts.

Both classes followed the same format of 60 minutes of instruction, 30 minutes of practice and 30 minutes of discussion…and both were taught by the same Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader. Classes continued for eight weeks.

The compassion test: After the eight weeks were over, participants were asked to come to the research center one at a time. They were told that they would be given a test of their cognitive abilities—but in reality, the goal was to gauge how compassionate they were by monitoring their behavior during a staged scenario. (Unbeknownst to the participants, all of the other people involved in the scenario were actors.)

As a participant entered the waiting room, he or she saw two women sitting in chairs. After the participant was seated in the only remaining chair, another woman hobbled into the room on crutches, wearing a “walking boot” brace on her foot and pretending to be in great discomfort as she sighed loudly and leaned back against a wall.

The two seated actors fiddled with their phones or read a book, ignoring the “injured” woman. The idea was to set up what psychologists call the bystander effect, an observable social phenomenon in which a person is less likely to help someone in distress when all other bystanders are ignoring the sufferer.

What happened: Eight weeks of meditation training overruled the bystander effect—in a big way. Among participants who had not been through the meditation program, only 16% demonstrated compassion by offering their seats to the seemingly injured person—whereas among the meditators, fully half jumped up and relinquished their seats.

Surprisingly, students of either method of meditation were just as likely to help, demonstrating that meditation itself, and not just the compassion-meditation protocol in particular, was enough to foster kinder behavior. It’s also interesting that there was no difference between male and female participants in their demonstration of compassion even though men traditionally are expected to be more helpful in such encounters, according to the study authors. More research is needed to determine whether forms of meditation other than mindfulness are equally effective in increasing compassion, but it’s certainly possible that they would be.

Whatever form of meditation you choose, to reap the full physical and emotional benefits, it’s best to establish and continue a daily practice. Getting started: Contact your local community center or hospital to see whether they offer classes in meditation…or visit the Web site of the University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society to search for qualified instructors in your area.

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