More than anything, meditation is a discipline that intended to decrease suffering. Its goal was for people to heighten one’s control of mind and view the world in a more compassionate way. As Buddha manifested, “I teach one thing and one only: suffering, and the end of suffering.” Meditation aims to break the divide between one’s self and others, and create a sense of unity in an otherwise divided world.
Along the way, meditation began to be used for other purposes, including the enhancement of creativity and sharpening of one’s memory among other practical benefits. Mindfulness training programs was established by different corporate offices to invite people to realize their full potential. Through all these benefits, there’s a need to go back to basics and take a look at whether meditation still accomplishes its supposedly primary goal: to make people more compassionate.
To establish this connection, psychologist Paul Condon, neuroscientist Gaëlle Desbordes, and Buddhist Iama Willa Miller conducted a study that will be published soon in the Psychological Science Journal.
In their study, the researchers recruited 39 people who had never meditated before to take part in an eight-week course on meditation. 20 of them were randomly assigned to take weekly meditation classes, while 19 were placed on the waiting list.
After the eight-week course, the participants were asked back to the laboratory supposedly for an examination of their memory and cognitive performance. In truth, the researchers were interested as to whether they exhibited greater compassion.
A participant was first asked to sit in the waiting area, where there are three chairs, two of which were already occupied. The participant would naturally sit on the remaining chair. After a while, a fourth person comes in, using crutches and with a broken foot, sighing and complaining of pain. This is where the test comes in: which between the two groups—the first one that underwent the eight-week meditation course and the second one that didn’t—exhibited greater compassion?
The results were quite telling, with 16% of those that didn’t meditate giving up their seats to the fourth person—a stark contrast to 50% of the meditators that did. There are two striking points to be made: first, the impressive results were seen after only eight weeks of meditation; second, an additional factor, the bystander effect, where an individual is less likely to help when there are many other people witnessing a person in distress, was in place. Despite these factors, there was more than thrice an increase of compassion among the group where people meditated.
This supports the recent study by neuroscientists Helen Wend and Richard Davidson that even a brief training in meditative techniques can improve a person’s neural functioning associated with meditation.