Meditation has been practiced since around 1500 BCE, thought to have been a central focus of early Hindu schools in India. Now, meditation is used by many around the world to enhance personal health and help foster more compassion and mindfulness.
The practice is backed by an expansive amount of research pointing to its mental and physical health benefits as well as spiritual benefits. Biologically speaking, meditation can boost immune function and help manage pain, according to Psychology Today. It can increase grey matter, improve focus, memory, and enhance creativity.
It may also be a benefit in decreasing anxiety, stress, and symptoms of depression. Meditating may also help decrease feelings of loneliness and help people to act more compassionately.
What Is Compassion?
Having compassion is feeling concern about and understanding the emotional state of others. Though it shares similarities with empathy, compassion is a step beyond this as it also encompasses the desire to help alleviate the suffering of those around you, and the action to do something to resolve it, putting others’ needs before your own.
Compassion can improve your own life as well as the lives of others. The Dalai Lama once said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Can Meditation Make You More Compassionate?
One study published in Psychological Science looked at the impact of meditation on making compassionate choices. It assigned people to one of two eight-week meditation classes. One class focused on mindfulness and calming the mind, whilst the other discussed compassion and suffering specifically. Students in both classes were given 20-minute guided meditation audio to practice each day at home.
After eight weeks, researchers placed participants in a situation whereby a compassionate decision – which was, in summary, to give up your seat for a stranger in crutches – could be made or not. Compared to non-meditators, those who did practice meditation were much more likely to give up their seat, even if they were not exposed to the discussions on compassion and suffering.
Writing about possible reasons for these results, the study’s authors theorized that meditation offers an enhanced awareness of one’s surroundings and an increased ability to adopt others’ perspectives.
Research on the brain suggests that meditation has an immediate neurological impact.
Researchers from Mount Sinai Medical Center scanned the brains of meditators and found that the “empathy” region of the brain, the anterior insular cortex, becomes significantly engaged whilst practising meditation.
Psychology Today reports that meditation creates neural pathways that mentally unite the meditator with other people, allowing them to see the interconnectedness of all human suffering, regardless of whether it is someone you know or a stranger.
The magazine referenced a study whereby researchers trained individuals in meditation to develop kindness and compassion toward themselves and others. The participants practiced focused compassion toward people in four categories: loved ones, someone they are in conflict with like an ex or back-stabbing friend, a random stranger, and themselves. “It’s kind of like weight training,” Helen Weng, lead author of the study, said to Psychology Today. “Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.”
EOC Institute, that writes online about the science behind the practice and creates technology to help people meditate, believes meditating increases empathy and compassion by evoking feelings of love, oneness, and understanding.
It’s effective in more measurable ways, too. The Atlantic wrote about a junior high school in one of San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods where violence “was a frequent occurrence.” A meditation program was introduced to students at Visitation Valley School which included meditation periods, called “Quiet Time,” twice a day. Over a four-year timeframe, student suspensions from the school decreased by 79 percent.
How Do You Meditate?
Stereotypes will have you believe that meditating lasts for hours and that it must be done in lotus position, by a tranquil lake in the middle of the woods (though feel free to dive right into this if that’s what you’re into).
You can meditate just about anywhere. On the couch, on the floor, on the train, or in your car (not whilst driving it, of course). Small doses of meditation are still effective, and opting for these, especially in the beginning, may help you make a habit out of it.
In its simplest form, meditation consists of sitting down with closed eyes, focusing on your breathing, and letting the mind be still.
Meditating for the first time can feel unprofitable. Headspace points out, “you should expect your mind to be busy, easily distracted, and restless, if not more so.”
But stick with it and you’ll find it easier and more pleasurable every time you meditate.
There are many different kinds of meditation and what works for one person might not for another. There are countless resources to get you on your way. You can listen to meditation audio for free on YouTube, or you can purchase guided tracks or meditation music online.