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  • Meditation, Happiness and Compassionate Altruism

    I’m about to take off for a meeting organized by the Stanford University-based CCare, The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education in Telluride Colorado. We’re presenting results from our current research on contemplative practices (the more heady expression for meditation) and various psychological variables, such as depressionanxietyempathy-based guilt and compassionate altruism.

    We’ve gathered data from major schools of contemplative practices, including over 2000 subjects thus far. Most of our participants identified their kind of practice: Tibetan Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, Centering Prayer and secular meditation well-known as “Mindfulness Meditation” We’re comparing these practitioners to a non-Buddhist, non-meditating population we gathered some years ago.

    Big picture –meditators across all groups are less prone to feeling guilty for imaginary crimes (thinking erroneously that they’re responsible for someone else’s misery), less prone to depression and anxiety and higher in openness, general agreeableness, and altruism towards strangers. The personal benefits are obvious.

    Meditation and compassion make us happier people


    Who doesn’t want to suffer less from guilt, or blaming one’s self for things that happen to others and over which you have no control. Who doesn’t want to feel less depressed and less anxious. What may be even more noteworthy, however, in terms of ultimate wellbeing, is the role meditation may possibly play in compassionate altruism directed towards strangers. In this increasingly global world, economic melt-downs in European or Asian countries directly effect our local American economy. When a new viral agent shows up half way around the world, we know it will rapidly travel everywhere, if measures are not found to control it. When an earthquake or tsunami decimates a population far removed from ourselves, we are first-hand witnesses. TV news and often even more immediate, the Internet via Twitter and Facebook bring us links and images putting us on the scene of any natural or man-made disasters, and into the middle of multiple wars.

    We evolved in a different era, in hunter and gatherer societies. In the “era of evolutionary adaptations” we lived in small groups. According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, author of “How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks?”, a group of closely connected people might have been 30 to 50 and an extended gathering of a culturally related group might have included 150. In many ways we haven’t changed, we have the same biology, and a similar nervous system –and how many people I personally talk to in a given week isn’t that large. But given our instant electronic connection, most are witnessing in often painful detail, the lives of thousands –no millions– of people who, in terms of basic psychology, don’t different from ourselves, in our cities, neighborhoods, and small social groups.

    Historically, when we lived in small and relatively isolated groups, it was fairly easy to recognize an “in-group” and “out-group.” Those of our own kind (so we would see it) are the in-group and everyone else is the out-group. Compassionate altruism was largely saved for family and friends, and perhaps an extended in-group. Everyone else was out-group and because competition between groups was an important factor in human evolution, altruism towards our own group made it likely to see the out-group as direct competition for resources in the local environment.

    Theravada Meditators in our modern world


    But compassionate altruism is ever-present, it’s wired into our nature and we find numerous examples of kindness extended to strangers, –we even commonly see cross species compassion, a gorilla taking care of a kitten, elephants saving rhinos stuck in the mud, cats adopting puppies, the list goes on. But for the most part, our wired-in empathic reactions and compassionate altruism has been extended to the in-group, not to strangers, of our own species. This has to change, for the sake of the global ecology, of which we are each a tiny part.

    The role meditation plays in dramatically changing rates of compassionate altruism extended to strangers may be even more significant than we can imagine right now. The Buddhists write about “self’ and “no-self,” and in rather obscure language, speak of a state in which people no longer differentiate between themselves and others, whether the others are family, friends, or strangers. That meditation practices –whether or not they are Buddhist, Christian, or entirely secular—effect ability (or tendency?) to extend compassion to strangers, what has historically been saved for family, friends, for the in-group, may be what we need to solve our personal along with our world-wide problems. This sounds almost trite, but if we consider what’s happening to life in our oceans (see “The End of the Line: Where Have All the Fish Gone”, the state of our corporate-run farms, our food and water supplies in an over-populated planet, the personal does in fact become global.

    Meditation across the world


    Compassionate altruism directed towards strangers may be a badly needed mechanism, on the way to becoming a human tendency or trait. I’m glad to report our findings that various kinds of contemplative practices, across the board, change how much we are able to alter our kindness to others, outside of our own familiar circles. It may mean something to our future, both personal and global in scope. Finally, Davidson, Kabat-Zinn and other contemporary scientists conducting fMRI (brain imaging) studies have found clear evidence that a contemplative practice leads to a happier life, something the Dalai Lama has been telling us all along. Our present study supports this effect across the many varieties of meditation, both religious in nature and secular. Our own happiness grows along with compassionate altruism extended towards others, including strangers. As Dacher Keltner has written, we’re “Born to be Good”

    Jack Berry, statistician and psychologist from Samford University in Birmingham, David Stiver, archivist from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and author of The Art and Image of the Cross,, Rachna Rangan, molecular biologist currently studying clinical psychology in Berkeley, Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist at Wellspring Institute of Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and author of Buddha’s Brain and other popular books on meditation, and Winfred Ark, student of clinical psychology in Berkeley, joined me on this project, forming our team.

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