Compassion practice is an integral part of Buddhist meditation. It is often described as being one of the two wings to meditation practice. One wing is compassion or the heart practices. The other wing is wisdom or insight practices. The goal of compassion meditation is to increase feelings of compassion as well as making us act more compassionately toward ourselves and others. Many of us who meditate have anecdotal evidence that compassion meditation works. In my own practice I have seen my compassion grow both for myself and others. Especially when I am meditating regularly I care more about my suffering and others suffering.
A psychology study conducted in 2016 now gives more credit to our personal stories that compassion meditation works. This recent study looked at how compassion meditation effects feelings of compassion and charitable donations. In the first part of this study researchers looked at weather or not feelings of compassion effect charitable donations.
Here is how part one of the study worked: participants were paid $1 for their participation in the study and an additional $1 that they could either keep or donate to someone in need. They then looked at biographies for people in distressed which were paired with a photograph of the person. When participants saw these biographies they were told they could donate some or all of their money to this person. Researchers measured participants feelings in response to seeing these biographies. Two of the feelings they measured were tenderness (a feeling of warmth toward others) and distress (being distressed by another persons suffering).
In this first part of the study, researchers found that feelings of tenderness and distress predicted whether or not people would donate to the person in need. These results indicate that feeling compassion might make people more likely to donate to people in need. In the next part of this study researchers wanted to see if actually cultivating feelings of compassion, like someone might do in meditation, would effect people’s charitable donations.
In part two of the study researchers looked at if compassion meditation would effect compassionate feelings and charitable donations. They had people participate in the study who had no prior experience with compassion meditation but said they were at least moderately interested in meditation. People were assigned to one of three conditions. In the first condition the participates did 20 minutes of compassion meditation every day. They did this using a guided meditation on an app that was given to the people in the study. Each time they meditated it was a different guided meditation that was intended to help people cultivate feelings of compassion and equanimity. The hope is that by doing these meditations people would be sensitive to other people’s feelings without being overwhelmed by them. In the second condition a different group of people was assigned to take a placebo oxytocin spray every day. The same app used for the meditation group was used to remind people to take the spray. The third and final condition was a control condition. Everyone in the study was given $100 for their participation and an additional $1 for every daily task they completed (taking the spray, or doing a meditation).
All of the people in the study used the same app to listen to recorded biographies about people in need. These stories were paired with a picture of the person. After people in the study listened to the biographies they were given the opportunity to donate to the person in need. Researchers were worried that doing compassion meditation would make participants expect to be more compassionate. In order to control for this expectation they told people in the study that the fake oxytocin spray would increase feelings of compassion. They were given an information sheet explaining how oxytocin makes people feel more connected to others. Researchers measured people’s expectations of feeling more compassionate and they found no difference in expectations.
Here is what the researchers found: people who did the compassion meditation daily had more feelings of tenderness and distress in response to the biographies at the end of the study. Additionally, people who did compassion meditation donated slightly more money to the people in need over the course of the study. These results show us that compassion meditation really does work! Not only did it make people in this study feel more compassionate, but it also made them act more compassionately.
Of course the best way to know that compassion meditation works is to practice it yourself. However, it is always nice to see when Buddhist teachings are validated by psychological research. Studies like this give me a greater sense of confidence in my meditation practice.
Citation: Ashar, Y. K., Andrews-Hanna, J. R., Yarkoni, T., Sills, J., Halifax, J., Dimidjian, & S. W. (2016) Effects of Compassion Meditation on a Psychological Model of Charitable Donation.
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