Even a casual survey of popular media will insist on countless benefits of mindfulness meditation. Practice will make you better able to deal with stress, reverse the cognitive effects of aging, spur creativity, improve test scores, promote deeper sleep, and who knows what else. If all of the claims are to be believed, mindfulness meditation may just one day save the world. It all may be a bit overblown. However, for more than 2,000 years mindfulness meditation has been practiced to alleviate suffering, both in the meditator and in others. Its track record in promoting compassion is strong and accepted.
There’s an awful lot of doctrine on the causes of suffering, and how they may be overcome, that underlie the practice of meditation. But by simply practicing meditation, even without trappings, philosophy, or psychology, we set ourselves up to be kinder. A study outlined in the July 7th New York Times illustrates this. A group trained in meditation for eight weeks was compared to a control group that did not undergo meditation training. At the conclusion of the eight weeks they were tested. Subject individuals entered a room with three seats, two occupied. After they sat in the third, a person on crutches and obviously in pain entered the room. The two people already in the room did not budge, leaving it to the subject to give up his chair or not. Only 16% of the non-meditators surrendered their seats. 50% of the people who had been meditating for eight weeks got up and offered their seats to the person in discomfort. The researchers concluded that regular meditation made the subjects more likely to recognize suffering, and act to minimize it.
The Institute of Mindful Leadership tells of mindfulness training instituted at Monsanto, an oft-criticized manufacturer of agricultural products. Several scientists who underwent the training began to question the company’s business practices and focus on the possible negative effects of their products. Again, a concern for others became a noted result of meditation.
No matter for what reason one begins to practice meditation, compassion may become a positive, and possibly unexpected, side benefit. The idea that remaining present and aware without judgment will help develop empathy and understanding, as well as help achieve any of the countless self-improvement reasons one may begin to meditate, becomes an affirmative result of practice. And if releasing judgment and returning to the breath can help to minimize self-judgment and foster self-compassion, the meditator may emerge less dependent on a negative self-image and more assured of the good that resides within her. All the while seeking to do good for others as well. Suffering may then be diminished by a meditator’s growing compassion and connection to others.