David DeSteno: The Morality of Meditation


Originally published by David DeSteno in The New York Times on July 5, 2013.

MEDITATION is fast becoming a fashionable tool for improving your mind. With mounting scientific evidence that the practice can enhance creativity, memory and scores on standardized intelligence tests, interest in its practical benefits is growing. A number of “mindfulness” training programs, like that developed by the engineer Chade-Meng Tan at Google, and conferences like Wisdom 2.0 for business and tech leaders, promise attendees insight into how meditation can be used to augment individual performance, leadership and productivity.

This is all well and good, but if you stop to think about it, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the (perfectly commendable) pursuit of these benefits and the purpose for which meditation was originally intended. Gaining competitive advantage on exams and increasing creativity in business weren’t of the utmost concern to Buddha and other early meditation teachers. As Buddha himself said, “I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering.” For Buddha, as for many modern spiritual leaders, the goal of meditation was as simple as that. The heightened control of the mind that meditation offers was supposed to help its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate way, allowing them to break free from the categorizations (us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one another.

But does meditation work as promised? Is its originally intended effect — the reduction of suffering — empirically demonstrable?

To put the question to the test, my lab, led in this work by the psychologist Paul Condon, joined with the neuroscientist Gaëlle Desbordes and the Buddhist lama Willa Miller to conduct an experiment whose publication is forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science. We recruited 39 people from the Boston area who were willing to take part in an eight-week course on meditation (and who had never taken any such course before). We then randomly assigned 20 of them to take part in weekly meditation classes, which also required them to practice at home using guided recordings. The remaining 19 were told that they had been placed on a waiting list for a future course.

After the eight-week period of instruction, we invited the participants to the lab for an experiment that purported to examine their memory, attention and related cognitive abilities. But as you might anticipate, what actually interested us was whether those who had been meditating would exhibit greater compassion in the face of suffering. To find out, we staged a situation designed to test the participants’ behavior before they were aware that the experiment had begun.

WHEN a participant entered the waiting area for our lab, he (or she) found three chairs, two of which were already occupied. Naturally, he sat in the remaining chair. As he waited, a fourth person, using crutches and wearing a boot for a broken foot, entered the room and audibly sighed in pain as she leaned uncomfortably against a wall. The other two people in the room — who, like the woman on crutches, secretly worked for us — ignored the woman, thus confronting the participant with a moral quandary. Would he act compassionately, giving up his chair for her, or selfishly ignore her plight?

The results were striking. Although only 16 percent of the nonmeditators gave up their seats — an admittedly disheartening fact — the proportion rose to 50 percent among those who had meditated. This increase is impressive not solely because it occurred after only eight weeks of meditation, but also because it did so within the context of a situation known to inhibit considerate behavior: witnessing others ignoring a person in distress — what psychologists call the bystander effect — reduces the odds that any single individual will help. Nonetheless, the meditation increased the compassionate response threefold.

Although we don’t yet know why meditation has this effect, one of two explanations seems likely. The first rests on meditation’s documented ability to enhance attention, which might in turn increase the odds of noticing someone in pain (as opposed to being lost in one’s own thoughts). My favored explanation, though, derives from a different aspect of meditation: its ability to foster a view that all beings are interconnected. The psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo and I have found that any marker of affiliation between two people, even something as subtle as tapping their hands together in synchrony, causes them to feel more compassion for each other when distressed. The increased compassion of meditators, then, might stem directly from meditation’s ability to dissolve the artificial social distinctions — ethnicity, religion, ideology and the like — that divide us.

Supporting this view, recent findings by the neuroscientists Helen Weng, Richard Davidson and colleagues confirm that even relatively brief training in meditative techniques can alter neural functioning in brain areas associated with empathic understanding of others’ distress — areas whose responsiveness is also modulated by a person’s degree of felt associations with others.

So take heart. The next time you meditate, know that you’re not just benefiting yourself, you’re also benefiting your neighbors, community members and as-yet-unknown strangers by increasing the odds that you’ll feel their pain when the time comes, and act to lessen it as well.

David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, where he directs the Social Emotions Group. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More.”

Hot Water with Lemon – Adios Coffee!

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been slowly transitioning into a lifestyle that is not-so-dependent on things to help me get through the day. I used to suffer from insomnia which would not only make me feel extremely sluggish the next day, but it would also trigger migraines. My go-to remedy at that time? A whole pot full of strong coffee.

You may have heard that caffeine helps ease the pain and tension often associated with migraines. If you’re one of those people, then you’re very lucky – my body responds the exact opposite way. So while I was pounding coffee to make deadlines, I was also knocking back bottles upon bottles of pain reliever. I couldn’t help but think that if I nixed this coffee-tylenol cocktail from my daily regimen, I may start feeling like a normal human-being again.

I recently read an article that suggested drinking warm water with lemon in the morning could energize you just as much – if not more, than the average cup of joe. I was extremely skeptical at first, but I figured what did I have to lose? If I was at a total loss, I could just run to the break room to feed my crazy caffeine addiction.

Also, drinking hot water with lemon helps you reap in TONS of benefits:

  1. Boosts your immune system: Lemons are high in vitamin C, which is great for fighting colds.  They’re high in potassium, which stimulates brain and nerve function. Potassium also helps control blood pressure.
  2. Balances pH: Drink lemon water everyday and you’ll reduce your body’s overall acidity. It helps flush your kidneys and liver and alkalizes your blood.
  3. Helps with weight loss:  The pectin fiber in lemons helps fight hunger cravings
  4. Aids digestion:  Lemon juice helps flush out unwanted materials and promotes bile production which is key in digestion. Efficient digestion reduces heartburn and constipation.
  5. Is a diuretic: Lemons increase the rate of urination in the body and purifies it. It helps keeps a healthy urinary tract by immediately pushing toxins out of the body.
  6. Clears skin:  As mentioned above, toxins are purged from the body immediately which helps prevent acne and wrinkles. It will also give you a healthy glow.
  7. Keeps you Zen: Lemons are packed full of vitamin C. Research has suggested that vitamin C deficiency causes our minds and bodies to stress out. If you’re feeling less than chipper, have a cup – it will make you feel better.

I’m proud to say that I have been sans coffee- or any type of caffeine for that matter, for over a month. I’ve noticed that I sleep much more soundly, rarely get headaches and I don’t feel deprived of any energy whatsoever. As someone who catches every illness that wanders through the halls at work, I’m hoping it will keep my immune system healthy during the colder months. I’ll report back on this later in the year. Cheers!