Which meditation for what benefits?

The word “meditation” covers a lot of ground, and I don’t just mean its usefulness as an explanation for why you were staring off into space when your boss walked into your office. My own practice focuses on the traditional (to my mind) focus on the breath, but I know from the mindfulness-based stress reduction course I took in graduate school that there are many other options: walking meditation, body scan, open awareness, loving kindness, and more. And now I find myself wondering: does it matter which style of meditation you adopt?

Most of the studies about the benefits of meditation I’ve reported on are necessarily vague about their training curriculum – it’s hard to fit a thorough description of a weeks-long program in a research report – but they are often derived from MBSR, with some mention of focusing on the breath but a variety of additional other meditation exercise for students to try. This variety may help each student find the meditation style that works best for them… but it also means that we don’t know if all meditation has the same benefits, or if different forms of meditation might change your mind in different ways.

Consider the recent report that meditation training can make people more compassionate, in the form of being willing to give up a seat to an injured stranger. The authors admit they can’t be sure what aspect of meditation prompts such compassionate action. Two possibilities stand out. One is not a true increase in compassion at all, just an improvement in meditators’ awareness of their surroundings that made them more likely to notice the injured person in the first place. This fits in with the general idea of mindfulness, and could result from any form of meditation that promotes being more aware.

The other option – more intriguing in the modern era of bullying run amok – is that the meditators truly became more compassionate, and that before the meditation program they wouldn’t have given up their seats even if they had noticed an injured person. If that did happen, it would be hard to convince anyone that such empathy can stem from attending to one’s breath or even scanning one’s body. The more intuitive candidate for increasing compassion would be “loving kindness meditation“, which involves visualizing friends, strangers, even enemies and wishing them peace, happiness, and a good life. As corny as it feels the first time you attempt it (at least, if you’re like me), it might just help us see strangers in a new light.

Loving kindness mantra, from www.windhorse.com

Loving kindness mantra, from http://www.windhorse.com

In fact, a single session of loving kindness might do it: seven minutes of guided loving kindness, wishing photographs of strangers “health, happiness, and well-being” made them more likely to associate that stranger with positive words like “brilliant” and “loyal”, and to report feeling more connected to other strangers as well. These aren’t guarantees to compassionate action, but they’re certainly a step in the right direction, and perhaps with repeated sessions this empathy toward strangers would continue.

This isn’t to say we should abandon any meditation curriculum that features more than one kind of meditation. If I had to place bets on what made those students more likely to offer their seat to a stranger with a broken leg, it would have to be the combination of the two: they had to notice the stranger, and they had to feel from them. One kind of meditation alone might give you one piece without the other, not enough to see a real change in behavior. But finding out which benefits stem from each style of meditation (or combinations of styles) will be the next step for contemplative science.

Hutcherson CA, Seppala EM, & Gross JJ (2008). Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion, 8, 720-724. PMID: 18837623


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