The Morality of Meditation



Photo: Olimpia Zagnoli

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 another.

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 future course.

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.

This guest blog was written by David DeSteno and was originally posted on website

About the author:
desteno2David 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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About Spencer

Spencer is the Urban Monk. He is a blogger, writer, healer and is a
dedicated and long-term Buddhist Meditator (Theravada tradition).

The Urban Monk lives simply and his life goal is to share his insights with everyone interested in bringing Buddhist meditation to their everyday life. Focusing on experiential approaches, Spencer is a student on the path of 'seeing things as they are.'

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  1. CarMelo says:

    EHaving only recently started the journey of meditation (approx. 3 wks), and not yet fully being able to do so without constant invasion by outside thoughts, I acknowledge that I am still very ignorant in this new mind (world). That said, as I read about the study in today’s blog, I wonder how “true” the results were.
    I am always looking to give up my seat, hold a door, help others; etc. I would never have given it a second thought before offering my seat to the disabled person entering the room. Those around me would not have had time to affect my choice. How does the study, with so few test subjects, account for compassion w/o the meditative group, or non-compassion within the non-meditative group? There are too many variables to properly make an assessment.
    Either the study is highly flawed, or it was poorly explained. This is not an attempt to undermind any of the work being done. I wish more people would get into meditation the right way for the right reasons. I just feel that in a world where the masses/officials are quick to dismiss things/results that they cannot see/touch, research studies should be better presented. 39 people, to me, is too limited a study group, and for that matter the results too high in probability of being inconclusive.

    • Hi Carmelo,

      I would put the link to the actual published results to see what methodology, the statistical sample, etc and peer reviews at the end of this article.

      Though the sample appear to be small, they would probably get the same conclusion in a bigger sample.

      They have done a control group and regular group randomly selected and measured their response, which clearly indicates there is more than chance difference.

      I understand that you would personally give the seat without thinking and you would be in the 18 % person, who would give the seats. The author indicates though the causality of the change is not clear, the outcome seems to suggest that somehow meditation leads the 2nd group who meditated to be more compassionate.

      I agree that people would benefit from meditation for various reasons, but this kind of research helps further validate and use of meditation as a tool in modern life.

      With loving-kindness,

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