Today I have a guest post from the lovely Holly Ashby, who works at Will Williams Meditation. Long-time readers may recall that Holly wrote a series of guest posts for me on the subject of meditation in 2015. I’m delighted to welcome her back once gain. In today’s post, she explains how meditation can increase our capacity for kindness and compassion, both for ourselves and for others.
Over to Holly…
Being kind is an increasingly underrated character trait. Society tends to celebrate other features, such as charisma, good looks, or wealth, far more noisily than everyday compassion – even at times considering it something of a weakness. Recent shifts in thought towards suspicion of outsiders and domineering nationalism could suggest that people in general are getting more mean-spirited, and less appreciative of common humanity. However, despite appearances, kindness is a key trait to the majority of people, it just needs to be brought out – something that meditation can help with.
Nobody likes to think of themselves as unkind. Vindictiveness, cruelty and selfishness are derided behaviours that most of us try our best to avoid. But often, it can be difficult to be actively compassionate. We may be thoughtless, forget to think about the feelings of others, or just happy to accept things the way they are because they don’t affect us – like passing a homeless person in the street without a backwards glance. Furthermore, in the age of social media, it’s appearances that take precedence, making how entertaining or attractive we are the things we can think about most.
Making thoughtful lifestyle choices is also difficult when our minds are busy with work, bills and our own issues – despite our best intentions. These choices could be something small like giving up a seat on the bus, or life-changing like cutting out meat from our diets and volunteering regularly. We can care about things like the refugee crises, loneliness in old people, animal welfare and countless other problems, but when we’re tired and stressed sometimes it’s easier not to think about it. Especially when problems seem so huge that our choices barely seem to matter.
But even a few random acts of kindness can make a real difference to the world, and small everyday changes (such as cooking two vegan meals a week) even more. Kind people aren’t an exception, or Mother-Teresa-like saints we can’t hope to live up to, they’re just humans making good choices – something we all have the potential to do. When it comes to doing the best we can to help others, helping ourselves with habits like meditation is a great first step.
Not only does meditation make us feel better, with less stress and fewer anxieties to distract us, studies suggest that it actively makes us more compassionate. Research by Northeastern and Harvard University found that eight weeks of group meditation had an astonishing effect on the behaviour of the people involved. The scientists aimed to test meditation’s influence on our empathy and altruism, and did so by taking three dozen people and teaching half of them to meditate. The others were placed on a waiting list and didn’t partake in the group meditation.
Of those who did meditate, half were encouraged to discuss Buddhist ideas around compassion, and the other half weren’t. After eight weeks the researchers invited everyone back to the lab for what they thought was going to be cognitive testing, when in fact it was their behaviour in the waiting room that was being observed. Here the researchers had put three seats. Two of these were occupied by actors, allowing the third to be taken by the study participant. They then sent in a third actor, on crutches and showing physical pain, into the room.
In order to create what is known as a “bystander effect” in the study participants (where people copy the behaviour of others around them, even if it isn’t ethical), the two actors ignored this man and carried on sitting down. The scientists observed that while only 15% of the people who had been placed on the waiting list offered their seat, a whole 50% of those who meditated did. This result was the same amongst those who didn’t discuss compassion, indicating that it was meditation itself which made these people more likely to be kind.
This suggests that meditation can be a great tool for people who want to make more charitable choices in life. It’s no good trying to be kinder to others if we aren’t willing to be kind to ourselves, and meditation is a profoundly effective form of self-care. Whether it’s simply the result of being in a better frame of mind – and therefore more likely to help others – or something that actually increases our capacity for compassion, meditation isn’t only something that can help us personally, it could help the people around us as well.
More meditation posts on Bit of the Good Stuff:
- Health, Happiness and Meditation
- Meditation for Children and Young People – The Benefits
- The Science Behind Meditation