Does meditation make you a better person? David DeSteno, a professor at Northeastern University, wanted to find out. At least, he wanted to know if it were possible to measure increases in compassion among folks trained in meditation, when compared to a group that was not. So, he created a double-blind experiment in which one group was trained in meditation over eight weeks and one was not. They were then both placed in the following situation:
"WHEN a participant entered the waiting area for our lab, he (or she) found three chairs, two of which were already occupied. Naturally, he sat in the remaining chair. As he waited, a fourth person, using crutches and wearing a boot for a broken foot, entered the room and audibly sighed in pain as she leaned uncomfortably against a wall. The other two people in the room — who, like the woman on crutches, secretly worked for us — ignored the woman, thus confronting the participant with a moral quandary. Would he act compassionately, giving up his chair for her, or selfishly ignore her plight?"
The results were striking. Although only 16 percent of the nonmeditators gave up their seats — an admittedly disheartening fact — the proportion rose to 50 percent among those who had meditated. This increase is impressive not solely because it occurred after only eight weeks of meditation, but also because it did so within the context of a situation known to inhibit considerate behavior: witnessing others ignoring a person in distress — what psychologists call the bystander effect — reduces the odds that any single individual will help. Nonetheless, the meditation increased the compassionate response threefold.
This is particularly interesting given the fact that so much modern focus on meditation focuses on the benefits to the meditator. As DeSteno notes at the beginning of the article:
"MEDITATION is fast becoming a fashionable tool for improving your mind. With mounting scientific evidence that the practice can enhance creativity, memory and scores on standardized intelligence tests, interest in its practical benefits is growing. A number of “mindfulness” training programs, like that developed by the engineer Chade-Meng Tan at Google, and conferences like Wisdom 2.0 for business and tech leaders, promise attendees insight into how meditation can be used to augment individual performance, leadership and productivity."
This is not limited to the tech and business worlds. Meditation is often seen as a therapeutic tool, something to make you happier, healthier, more relaxed and more satisfied. DeSteno notes the irony of this, given the roots of meditation in religious traditions devoted to compassion and the alleviation of suffering.
This is crucial to understand. In a very important way, meditation is not about self-gratification. There are a number of benefits to meditation, but the practice is one that involves primarily letting go of desire for all sorts of things that normally drive our behavior. These sorts of things are nearly always self-centered. By learning to let go of these mindless drives, we’re able to elect our own behavior with greater freedom. In other words, we act less on compulsion than by choice. And, freed from our selfish craving, we may be more likely to act in a compassionate manner.
The mid 20th century Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton wrote an excellent book on meditation and contemplation called "Contemplative Prayer." Here is a short passage that is relevant:
Some people may doubtless have a spontaneous gift for meditative prayer. This is unusual today. Most men have to learn how to meditate. There are ways of meditation. But we should not expect to find magical methods, systems which make all difficulties and obstacles dissolve into thin air. Meditation is sometimes quite difficult. If we bear with hardship in prayer and wait patiently for the time of grace, we may well discover that meditation and prayer are very joyful experiences. We should not, however, judge the value of our meditation by “how we feel.” A hard and apparently fruitless meditation may in fact be much more valuable than one that is easy, happy, enlightened and apparently a big success. (emphasis mine)
Meditation is, at times, quite difficult, and “how we feel” is a poor metric for how to judge the value of the practice. So, why bother? If it takes work, and the benefits are not necessarily what we desire, then what is the point?
My view is that a meaningful life and a life of pleasure are not synonymous. They may often correlate with one another, but they are not intrinsically linked, and at times may even be at odds. A meditation practice prepares one to live a meaningful life, helping to remove obstacles to compassionate, meaningful participation in the world. There are lots of things that serve as distractions or as mood enhancers. These have value in certain contexts, certainly. Meditation is of a different category entirely. It is not a self-help technique. It is a practice that gives freedom to the practitioner, but at the cost of effort. And the freedom — hard-won — allows the participant a greater ability to serve his or her most highly esteemed values, even if that service comes at a personal cost.
Perhaps meditation practice is a practical exercise in the application of courage.