The research-based benefits of meditation are numerous, some include a reduction in stress and anxiety, reduction in symptoms of depression, better quality of sleep, increased focus and concentration, decreased pain, decreased blood pressure, increased immune function, and even improved memory. And that lengthy mouthful includes only a few of the many benefits meditation can bring.
Did you know meditation is also scientifically proven to increase compassion in relationships and communities? I’m sure more compassion in today’s world doesn’t seem like such a bad idea to any of us. In fact, an article published in 2010 in the Personality and Social Psychology Review actually proved Americans are getting worse at showing compassion, specifically on college campuses. I don’t know about you, but 2019 is feeling like an “out with the old, in with the new” kind of year for me, so maybe compassion is back on the rise.
So how exactly does meditation increase compassion?
Recent scientific studies found those who participated in eight weeks of mindfulness meditation were more likely than the average person to help others who may be in need.
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of bringing one’s awareness to the breath, often times counting the breath or simply following the sensation of the body breathing, such as the rise and fall of the chest or the belly. The primary purpose of mindfulness meditation is to follow the breath and simply allow thoughts to come and go without following them, thereby preventing the tangential, ongoing thought patterns of our minds.
By mindfully meditating, participants are able to note what it is they think about, and as a side effect, they tend to realize how they themselves are often their own harshest critics. Over time, this pattern changes, and participants are able to develop increased levels of self-compassion. Sitting with our own thoughts (the good, the bad, the ugly, the crazy) allows us to truly know ourselves, thereby creating a greater sense of self-awareness, and as a result, a greater sense of self-compassion. (There’s some corny quote out there along the lines of, in order to truly love yourself you must know yourself, so basically that’s what eight weeks of mindfulness meditation starts to give you—a true peep into your own pretty little head).
A Study Shows Meditation Helps Overcome Bystander Effect
In a study led by Northeastern University, researchers found that those who had never meditated before but who had completed an eight-week meditation program for the purpose of the experiment were more likely to help others after completing the eight-week course. They were also proven more likely to overcome the bystander effect. The bystander effect is a social phenomenon in which people are less likely to help a victim when there are other people around.
The researchers set up a test environment where they had actors play people sitting in a waiting room, and one actress played a harmed victim entering the waiting room on crutches. Only 16 percent of non-meditating participants offered their seat to the woman on crutches, while a whopping 50 percent of those who had only started meditating eight weeks prior offered their seats, proving that meditation increases compassion for within the community.
Compassion Meditation Actually Changes The Brain
A study in 2008 suggested we can actually train our brains to become more compassionate. In practicing meditation exercises focused on compassion, participants actually cultivated greater levels of kindness by positively affecting the parts of the brain that make people more empathetic to others’ emotions.
A particular meditation practice that is powerful in enhancing compassion in oneself, relationships, and communities is loving-kindness, or Metta (in the Pali language), meditation practice. Loving-kindness meditation is proven to decrease anger, social anxiety, and even marital conflicts.
This All Sounds Pretty Good, How Do I do a Loving Kindness Meditation?
Loving-kindness meditation is relatively simple, it consists of visualizing people and offering them phrases of love and kindness. (I know, I know, it sounds a little strange, but the research says it works.)
The traditional phrases offered in loving kindness meditation are:
- May you be happy
- May you be healthy
- May you be safe
- May you be free from pain and suffering
- May you be filled with loving kindness
Often we begin loving-kindness practice by offering the phrases to ourselves, but for some people that can be difficult—that’s how much self-compassion is lacking in our own society. Even when I started this practice of offering the phrases to myself it was a bit uncomfortable. So if it feels too weird to offer love to yourself, I invite you to start with a loved one, maybe a sibling, parent, partner, or pet. Then go on to offer the phrases to yourself, even if still doesn’t feel quite right. Practice makes perfect, and we can’t entirely offer love to others until we can wholeheartedly offer it to ourselves.
After we offer the phrases of love to ourselves and our loved ones, we move on to a difficult person in our lives and offer them the same phrases. Next, we choose a person who we don’t really know. Maybe it’s someone we see on our commute to the office, or someone in the building we live or work in, or even the mailman. Whoever we choose, we can take a few moments to offer them the same phrases we offered to the people we do know. Finally, I typically like to end loving-kindness practice by offering the phrases to all people, or even to all living things if I’m feeling ambitious.
If you’re feeling inspired, go out there and share the love with this guided loving-kindness meditation recording.
*If you’re interested in learning more about loving-kindness meditation check out Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg