Buddhism asks us to look at our suffering and deal with it head on. However, it also tells us that there is an end to suffering and many tools to reduce suffering. One way to confront suffering is to respond with compassion. Compassion in this context is simply a care for others pain and difficulties as well as our own. It is a feeling closely related to empathy. However, so often we care only about the people closest to us or the people we really like. We find it easy to care about a loved one who is suffering but more difficult to have compassion for all of humanity as a whole. When we try to extend our compassion out in this way it can become abstract and difficult. Buddhism asks us to go beyond the compassion that is easy and have compassion for all living beings. This includes the people we really dislike as well as the billions we do not think about or know.
I initially started this blog so that I could present psychology research on meditation in an accessible way. However, I came upon this article about a concept that is incredibly applicable to Buddhism. Researchers McFarland, Brown, and Webb (2013) looked at a psychological concept called identification with all humanity. As I read the research paper I could not help but think how closely related this is to the Buddhist practice of radiating compassion over the entire world.
As a psychological concept identification with all of humanity is usually assessed with a short questionnaire. The questions can be answered on a scale of 1-5, 1 being not at all and 5 being very much. You can take a moment to see how you would answer the following questions. The study used the word “Americans,” but you may substitute any country in its place.
1. How much do you identify with (that is feel a part of, feel love toward, have concern for) each of the following
a) People in my community
c) All humans everywhere
1. When they are in need, how much do you want to help:
a) People in my community
c) All humans everywhere
In order to see how you scored just look at how you scored for each item. Higher scores indicate more identification with that group. So if you scored highly on all people everywhere then you have more identification with all of humanity.
Researchers found that participants in their study averaged about 3 for “people in my community” and “Americans” but less than 15% of participants averaged 3 or above for “people all over the world”. This indicates that most people felt very identified with and compassionate toward people close to them but had difficulty conjuring these same feelings for all people everywhere.
Interestingly, people who did have higher identification with all of humanity had lower generalized prejudice. This indicates that feeling closely tied to people all over the world is related to a feeling of acceptance for those people. Researchers also found that it was related to dispositional empathy, indicating that people who feel identified with all of humanity also feel more empathy. Finally, researchers found that it was related to principled moral reasoning. Moral reasoning is the idea that people can think about moral situations and respond in a way that is ethical. All of these taken together indicate more caring for humanity. Just being more identified with people all over the world seems to be related to feeling more compassion for those people. Rather than seeing ourselves as Americans, or students, or employees, when we see ourselves as connected to the fabric of all of humanity we are less prejudiced, more empathetic, and act more ethically.
Given these findings it is not surprising that these qualities can become actionable. People who scored high on identification with all of humanity were more likely to invest national resources for human rights causes. They also were more likely to read about and know more about global humanitarian issues. Additionally, such people were more likely to donate their own money towards humanitarian aid. This means that people did not just feel more compassionate and empathetic toward others they actual used those feelings as a jumping off point to take action.
It is clear from this research that feeling identified with all of humanity has beneficial outcomes. However, if you did not score very highly it is ok. Buddhism offers a way to cultivate this feeling, by practicing compassion meditation. You can start by practicing compassion for yourself, then spread it out to neutral people, to difficult people, go further and spread compassion to all those in your community, people in your state, your country, and then all people everywhere. Buddhism does not stop here. Cultivating a meditation practice means caring about the suffering of all living beings not just all people. Given the findings in the study, it is possible that practicing in this way has real world outcomes. Perhaps people who feel identified with all living beings are more likely to care about environmental as well as humanitarian issues. More research is needed to see what the benefits are of caring for all living beings. Hopefully researchers will build on this concept of identification with all of humanity and extend it to identification with all living beings to see how such identification effects people psychologically.
Elizabeth Key-Comis owns and runs One Mind Dharma with her fiancée, Matthew Sockolov. She is a psychology student at Loyola Marymount University, and will be pursing her Master’s degree next year. Elizabeth has been meditating for 5 years, and enjoys looking at the research surrounding mindfulness, meditation, and other growth practices. Elizabeth writes a bi-weekly column for One Mind Dharma called Mindful Psychology.