Meditation Makes You Nicer

I saw this on ABC news; maybe you did too: in Atlanta, GA, 8-year-old students practicing “compassion meditation.” All the kids interviewed agreed that daily meditation made them “nicer.”

The reporter remarked,

“There is now an explosion of cutting edge science suggesting that compassion meditation can physically remodel your brain for kindness. At the University of Madison Wisconsin they studied Buddhist monks and found that when they did compassion meditation they produced levels of certain brain waves that were simply off the charts.”

Back in January, in a post entitled, The Challenge of Mindfulness, I wrote about a study conducted at the University of Massachusetts that showed meditation increases the grey matter density in the hippocampus (important for learning and memory) and stimulates positive changes in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.

It would seem that science is just catching up to something that the Buddha and some others knew thousands of years ago. In fact, maybe some Buddhists are just catching up with the power of compassion, too.

According to one scholar, Professor Richard Gombrich, Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford, the Buddha not only stressed the propitiousness of compassion but also its redemptive power. I just recently ran across this interview of some years ago. When asked about new discoveries in Buddhist scholarship, Gombrich replied,

Probably the most important single one relates to the Theravada doctrine, which said that kindness, compassion, sympathetic-joy and equanimity are very desirable, but if we only achieve those, we will only be reborn in a higher heaven called the ‘Bratna-world.’ This is a complete misunderstanding of what the Buddha actually meant. The Buddha was simply using brahmanical language at the time. What he meant was that they are salvific states and that we reach nirvana through them . . .

I think the implications are pretty massive in a way. If, for instance, you show that the Buddha thought that compassion was salvific, it could be of interest to many Buddhists.

I think from the Mahayana point of view, it is taken for granted that’s exactly what the Buddha was saying. However, the point is not about which Buddhist branch has had a keener view on compassion. It’s simply how central the practice of compassion is to the Buddhist path. A point I don‘t think can be restated too often. One of the reasons that I mention it so frequently is really just to remind myself. Left to my own devices, altruism is not necessarily the direction I would lean. I have to work at it. And I think that’s true for many people. Selflessness is a quality that most of us have to cultivate.

The transformative power of compassion and altruist action is hardly a new discovery. For years now, studies have shown that altruism has many tangible benefits, many of them physical. Some fifteen years ago I gave a dharma talk in which I mentioned that altruism or “helping” had been shown to help alleviate chronic problems such a hypertension, arthritis, depression, allergies, headaches, back pain and multiple sclerosis. I noted how helping also strengthens the immune system and enhances feeling of well-being and confidence, and I talked about a phenomenon called a “helper’s high” that accompanies altruistic acts. This high, possibly the release of endorphins into the bloodstream, appears to have two stages: an initial rush of euphoria, followed by a longer period of calm.

I don’t think any of that has changed since then. Nor is it been any secret that meditation offers many of the same benefits. But now, we have empirical evidence about the changes that actually take place in both the compassionate and the meditative mind.

This is good news. But the best news was delivered by the ABC reporter, who said that meditation is “not just for Buddhists. This is totally secular. Anyone can do it.”

And, it makes you nicer.


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