Things Are Getting Better

“Mom!” I heard my daughter call from downstairs. “There’s a spider in my tub. Come and help me.”

I was slightly annoyed. Why can’t she take care of this herself? Then I heard something heart warming.

“We have to be careful. He only has seven legs, so you know he’s already been through a lot!”

My daughter doesn’t want things to die. When I was her age, I would not have carefully captured the live spider and carried it outside. I would have squashed it. Probably tomorrow I will do that. She is more spiritually advanced than I am.

When we were moving a stack of firewood, there was discussion about whether a rat was living in the wood pile. I proposed we keep Rescue Cat by us as we moved the wood to catch any rat, but my daughter wouldn’t hear of it, arguing that rats are cute little animals and they don’t do harm. Moot point, there was no rat in the wood pile, but still . . .

As a young boy of 8 – 12, I went trapping with Mr. Carlson, a neighbor who was a government trapper. Today I shudder at the thought of leg-hold traps. The cruelty horrifies me. But in those days, neither my parents nor I gave it a single thought.

(I found the trapping trips wonderful adventures, and while Mr. Carlson was assigned to catch coyotes and bobcats that preyed on turkeys the farmers were raising, we often caught skunks. To this day, the smell of a skunk triggers all sorts of positive emotions. No one seems to share my enjoyment of that perfume.)

A new study shows that eight weeks of meditation training will significantly raise compassion. A forthcoming study (“in press”) in Psychological Science by Paul Condon, Gaelle Desbordes, Willa B. Miller, & David DeSteno  shows that the meditators are much more likely to offer their seat to someone in pain.

If you want an actual reprint, the first author, Paul Condon, is very responsive. His address is p.condon AT neu DOT edu. If you don’t know how to turn that into a real email address, you need more help than I can give you.  (Remember, compassion is hard for me.)

The authors point out that previous studies reported meditators self-reports, or the results of computer games. While those studies do suggest increases in compassion from meditation, there is a somewhat artificial quality to the assessment. They went further, putting the students who had completed the course and a control group of persons who had no meditation training into situations where a person in pain came into a room.  The meditators were five times more likely to offer their seat to the person in pain.

One nice part of the design is that everyone in the experiment wanted to learn meditation. Half had eight weeks in the meditation class, and the other half were on  a waiting list. I like that part because they are drawing from the same general population, namely people interested in meditation. It becomes more likely that it is the meditation that creates more compassion, not that you are testing two different groups, like some children of hippies versus children of former trappers.

Mindfulness meditation is a peaceful focus on breathing, whereas compassion meditation specifically trains the brain toward wishing well towards all people. Both styles of meditation were equally helpful at increasing acts of compassion.

Here is Jon Kabat-Zinn teaching mindfulness meditation. You can’t go wrong with Jon.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aS5QpPRFdbg

Here is another wonderful teacher, Sharon Salzberg, on compassion or “Metta” meditation. The word “metta” means friendship or loving kindness in the ancient language of Pali.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3uLqt69VyI

Meditation seems to be helpful to a wide range of people. Traditionally, mental health counselors would never suggest meditation for psychotic patients, but now some are teaching a simple mindfulness meditation to such patients. I have heard of bad effects from meditation, but I have been sharing these tools with patients for over thirty-five years, and I have yet to find a serious problem. I mostly teach Autogenic Training, but I have taught compassion meditation lately and had wonderful results personally and professionally.

Anxious patients will become more anxious when they try to meditate, but that can be handled easily if the teacher or therapist has plenty of experience. I suppose that if I were King of the World (don’t laugh, it could happen!) then I might propose that everyone meditate ten or twenty minutes a day.

The Beatles taught that we have to admit that things are getting better. They are right. My children are more compassionate. Our society is less cruel. People are interested in things like meditation, which I never heard of as a young person. Steven Pinker wrote a fascinating book, The Better Angels of our Nature. He argues that we have less war and violence in today’s world than ever before. While it is counter-intuitive, it is hard to disagree when you look at the evidence. I think things are getting better.

Do you agree? Disagree? Post your ideas below, and if you like this piece, do all that stuff about Facebook and so on.

I want to thank Ken Pope (Ken AT KenPope DOT com) who alerted me to this article because I am on his mailing list.

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One Comment

  1. Marlyne September 8, 2013 at 10:11 pm - Reply

    Thanks for such rich food for thought! I am sending this to a therapist friend.
    I enjoy your newsletter.

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