Sunday, July 7, 2013

Proving Meditation Works?

Earlier this week, my uncle sent me the article, “The Morality of Meditation.” Similar to many articles these days, it is too short, and gives nothing but the briefest explanation of the topic, but it is an interesting idea.

The author, along with several colleagues, decided to test whether meditation actually makes people more compassionate towards others. The “test” they used was pretty clever. They had a group of people meditate for 8 weeks and a control group. Then they had people from both groups come back to the office where the waiting room had three chairs, two of which were already occupied. The subject always sat in the open chair, and then a fourth person came into the room on crutches and groaned in pain as he leaned against the wall. The question was whether the subject would give up his/her seat if the other two (who worked for the researchers) did not.

There have been many studies done that people are less likely to help others if they see other people are not offering assistance. Those studies, if you have never read them or heard about them, are actually quite frightening. Peer pressure is a powerful force, even when it is negative – not negative in the sense that you are doing something bad, but negative in the sense you are not acting. So others choosing not to act causes us to be less likely to act even to help someone in obvious distress.

This study found that people who had meditated were 3 times as likely to offer their seat to the guy on crutches. That is the “good” news. The not so good news is that it was still only about 50% of people. But their initial conclusion is that meditation does, or might, help people be more compassionate to others. (HUGE CAVEAT: I’m basing my understanding of this study on an article in the NY Times that was shorter than this post, and I have my own twists.) Also important, only 39 people participated in the study, and only 20 of them were asked to meditate. That is a very small sample.

All of those caveats aside, what does this tell us? First, I think it tells us that we as a society are obsessed with meditation as a fad. We want to know how it can help us. We want proof. I mean, what is the point of meditating if we do not get something out of it? I like science and studies as much as anyone, and I think I have even posted how excited I am about such studies in the past. But I’m getting tired of them. I do not want a scientist telling me meditation works. I just want to meditate. And I think that's my yoga side taking over my lawyer side. Lawyers like evidence. I really do like evidence, but I do not always need it.

But I see two other issues with this study, neither good nor bad, but just interesting. First, the guy who needed help walked into the room on crutches. That is an obvious injury. Of course, it does not appear he was really injured at all, just a research tool told to act in a certain way. I have been living for the past 6 months with the opposite issue. I look fine, but I hurt a lot. I feel terrible when I go to the grocery store and do not help bag my own groceries. I feel terrible when I choose not to sit because it is easier to stand, but then I am towering over people feeling like I am acting superior to them. I would have actually done the exact opposite of all the research subjects. I would not have sat in the empty chair. I would have stood up, and that’s probably true even before I was in pain. And so I wonder, how many of the research subjects had a reason not to get up for the guy on crutches? We do not all wear our lives on our sleeves. 

We all have hidden stories, and far more goes into those stories than whether we meditated that day. I would love to live in a world where we are all better at asking people their stories rather than making assumptions based on what we see only with our eyes.

And that brings me to my final point – what about compassion for self? This research study was conducted because the researchers were tired of all the studies about meditation being great for stress, memory, and intelligence. They wanted to show it helps people act more compassionately towards others. The article ends by saying, “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.”

But they were comparing this study to studies about performance, not about self compassion. I have never looked for such a study, but I would be surprised if one existed. How do we test that? How do we know if we are treating ourselves as kindly as we should? How do we know when we are offering ourselves the amount of love we all deserve?

There is no question in my mind that compassion for others is a great benefit of meditating. I have meditated specifically to cultivate such compassion. And certainly, it’s great to have a little less stress in life as a result of meditation. And perhaps these are all areas that researchers will continue to study. But we also have to learn to have self compassion. After all, the heart pumps blood to itself first.

So while all these tests and research are happening, I may or may not pay a lot of attention. Interesting to see the proof, but the real magic, no proof needed, happens on the mat/cushion and in how we conduct ourselves to ourselves and in the real world, not how 39 people conducted themselves in an office on one particular day.

What changes have you noticed in yourself if you meditate? What changes have you noticed when you stop? That’s always my big clue to the benefits of meditation, and that has nothing to do with research.


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.
The post, Proving Meditation Works?, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.


  1. So true -- we do not all wear our lives on our sleeves...

    After reading Gretchen Rubin's "The Happiness Project," I made self-compassion a priority and it has definitely made a difference in my life. Of course, I have to remind myself about the whole self-compassion thing at times.

  2. Meditation, one of the eight limbs of Yoga, helps us quiet the mind, and bring awareness to the present. Not only that, according to brain scan research, meditation has real physiological impacts on regions of our brain that dictate creativity, empathy, and compassion. There are an infinite number of ways meditation can naturally increase your memory, brain power, and intelligence.

    Anamaya Resort