Eight weeks ago, I started meditating every day.
I knew I’d be going home to visit my family at the end of December, and well, I have a bad habit of regressing into a 13-year-old whenever I’m around them. All my old immaturities and anxieties get activated. I become a more reactive, less compassionate version of myself.
But this holiday season, I was determined to avoid fighting with my family. I would be kind and even-tempered throughout the visit. I knew that in order to have a chance in hell of achieving this, I’d need a secret weapon.
That’s where the meditation came in.
Starting in 2005, Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar began to publish some mind-blowing findings: Meditation can literally change the structure of your brain, thickening key areas of the cortex that help you control your attention and emotions. Your brain — and possibly, by extension, your behavior — can reap the benefits if you practice meditation for half an hour a day over eight weeks.
Just eight weeks? I thought when I read the research. This seems too good to be true!
I was intrigued, if skeptical. Above all, I was curious to know more. And I wasn’t the only one. By 2014, there had been enough follow-up studies to warrant a meta-analysis, which showed that meditators’ brains tend to be enlarged in a bunch of regions, including the insula (involved in emotional self-awareness), parts of the cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex (involved in self-regulation), and parts of the prefrontal cortex (involved in attention).
A host of other studies showed that meditation can also change your neural circuitry in ways that make you more compassionate, as well as more inclined to have positive feelings toward a victim of suffering and to see things from their perspective.
Further research suggested that meditation can change not only your internal emotional states but also your actual behavior. One study found that people made charitable donations at a higher rate after being trained in meditation for just two weeks. Another study found that people who get that same measly amount of meditation training are about three times more likely than non-meditators to give up their chair when they see someone on crutches and in pain.
Still skeptical, I fell down an internet rabbit hole and soon found many more neuroscientific studies. Looking closely at them, I did find that a fair number are methodologically flawed (more on that below). But there were many others that seemed sound. Taken together, the literature on meditation suggested that the practice can help us get better at relating to one another. It confronted me with evidence that a few weeks of meditation can improve me as a person.
I say “confronted” because the evidence really did feel like a challenge, even a dare. If it takes such a small amount of time and effort to get better at regulating my emotions, paying attention to other people, seeing things from their point of view, and acting altruistically, then … well … am I not morally obligated to do it?
The science behind mindfulness meditation and how we pay attention to others
The word “meditation” actually refers to many different practices. In the West, the most well-known set of practices is “mindfulness meditation.” When people talk about that, they’re typically thinking of a practice for training our attention.
Here’s how Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist who helped popularize mindfulness in the West, defines it: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
And here’s what mindfulness meditation practice often involves: You sit down, close your eyes, and focus on feeling your breath go in and out. When you feel your attention drifting to the thoughts that inevitably arise, you notice, and then gently bring your attention back to your breath.
This combination of attention training and direct observation is the basic practice. Sounds simple, right? But according to some studies, it can have profound effects on your brain.
In a 2012 study, people who were new to meditation underwent eight weeks of mindful attention training, practicing for around four hours each week. Before the training, they got fMRIs, scans that show where brain activity is occurring. While they were in the MRI scanner, they viewed a series of pictures, some of which were upsetting (like a photo of a burn victim). After eight weeks of mindfulness meditation, when they viewed the upsetting pictures in the scanner again, they showed reduced activity in a crucial brain region: the amygdala.
The amygdala is our brain’s threat detector. It scans our environment for danger, and when it perceives a threat, it sets off our fight-flight-freeze response, which includes releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. It glues our attention to the threat, making it hard for us to focus on anything else.
What’s striking about the study is that the reduced amygdala activity lasted even when the participants were in their ordinary baseline state — in other words, not actively practicing mindfulness. This suggests the effects of meditation “may result in enduring changes in mental function,” as the authors wrote. A control group showed no such effects.
In another, similarly designed study, participants showed reduced amygdala activity in response to upsetting pictures after practicing mindfulness for 20 minutes per day over just one week. However, the lessened amygdala reactivity only showed while they were engaged in mindfulness, suggesting we need more continued practice if we want the changes to be permanent.
To see why attention-training can be helpful when it comes to treating others better, think back to a time when you saw someone in distress. Maybe it was a friend who wanted to talk about his painful breakup, or a colleague who was caught in a swirl of anxiety, or a homeless person who needed something to eat.
If you were distracted by your own distressing thoughts — if your amygdala was activating like crazy — you may have had a hard time putting your issues aside long enough to deal with theirs. You may not have even noticed that they needed something from you until it was too late.
But if your mind is undisturbed, you’ll probably have an easier time paying attention to what the present moment asks of you: to help this person who’s in front of you, right here, right now.
“That’s common sense,” said Thupten Jinpa, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar and the main English translator to the Dalai Lama. “I grew up as a monk, so for me, the most powerful evidence is really the anecdotal evidence in my own personal life.”
But as an academic with a PhD in religion, Jinpa doesn’t rely only on common sense or personal experience — he also works with psychologists on scientific research. In 2015, he co-authored a study titled “A wandering mind is a less caring mind,” which found that reducing mind-wandering through meditation was associated with increased caring behavior, both for oneself and for others.
Although Jinpa believes mindfulness is important, he told me that when it comes to making us more altruistic, there’s another type of practice that’s even more effective: loving-kindness or compassion meditation.
The science behind loving-kindness and compassion meditation and their effects on altruism
Two other meditation practices — loving-kindness meditation and its close cousin, compassion meditation — have interesting science behind them, too. These practices, which involve concentrated attention to cultivate certain qualities, have been growing in popularity in the West over the past couple of decades thanks to American teachers like Sharon Salzberg. And evidence shows they can change your neural circuitry even faster than mindfulness meditation.
The meditation for loving-kindness typically looks like this: You repeat certain phrases in your head, such as “may I be safe,” “may I be healthy,” or “may my life unfold with ease.” After you’ve wished these things for yourself, you widen the circle of caring, wishing the same things for the people you love, then for people you feel neutrally about, and then for all living beings — including those who get on your nerves or have hurt you. (One compassion meditation works much the same way, except instead of wishing that people be safe and healthy and full of ease, you wish that they be free from suffering.)
So, how does loving-kindness or compassion meditation affect the brain, and in turn, affect our behavior?
Before we answer that question, it’s important to note that loving-kindness and compassion meditation — which involve cultivating love for people who are suffering — are not the same thing as empathy, even though we often conflate these concepts.
Empathy is when you share the feelings of other people. If other people are feeling pain, you feel pain, too — literally.
Not so with compassion. In a 2013 study at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, researchers put volunteers in a brain scanner, showed them gruesome videos of people suffering, and asked them to empathize with the sufferers. The fMRI showed activated neural circuits centered around the insula — exactly the circuits that get activated when we’re in pain ourselves.
Compare that with what happened when the researchers took a different group of volunteers and gave them eight hours of training in compassion, then showed them the graphic videos. A totally different set of brain circuits lit up: those for love and warmth, the sort a parent feels for a child.
When we feel empathy, we feel like we’re suffering, and that’s upsetting. In the short term, it can cause us to tune out to help alleviate our own feelings of distress. And in the long term, it can cause serious burnout, as many a nurse and social worker can attest.
“A little bit of empathy is important, because we need to be able to detect another person’s suffering in order to be helpful,” Richard Davidson, a prominent University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist who’s spent decades studying meditation in the lab, told me. “But empathy by itself can be toxic.”
In other words, practicing compassion or loving-kindness doesn’t just help us make other people happier; it makes us happier, too.
“Loving-kindness also boosts the connections between the brain’s circuits for joy and happiness and the prefrontal cortex, a zone critical for guiding behavior,” Davidson writes in Altered Traits, his authoritative 2017 book on the neuroscience of meditation, which he co-authored with Daniel Goleman. “And the greater the increase in the connection between these regions, the more altruistic a person becomes following compassion meditation training.”
In fact, one fMRI study showed that in very experienced practitioners (think Tibetan yogis), compassion meditation actually triggers activity in the brain’s motor centers, preparing their bodies to physically move in order to help whoever is suffering, even as they’re still lying in the brain scanner.
Given such evidence, Jinpa believes it’s clear that we can strengthen our compassion through concrete practices, just as we strengthen our muscles through exercise. Working out of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education in 2009, he created the Compassion Cultivation Training, an eight-week course designed with input from neuroscientists and psychologists. Blending formal meditation with other contemplative practices, the course is now taught around the world.
Why thinking in terms of “moral obligation” may not be appropriate here
After I started wondering if we’re morally obligated to meditate, I soon realized that’s a very Western and Judeo-Christian way of thinking about it. Growing up, I’d had to memorize the Ten Commandments and a long litany of sins, and my mind is still conditioned to think in terms of commandments and obligations.
But Eastern traditions like Buddhism or Confucianism aren’t grounded in commandments that come from a divine being. Among Buddhists, you’re more likely to hear about “skillful” and “unskillful” means for minimizing suffering and maximizing the possibility for liberation.
“The ‘everybody ought’ language — that wouldn’t be the language they’d use,” Evan Thompson, a University of British Columbia professor who specializes in Asian philosophical traditions, told me. “The idea is that in order to lead a good life, we need to engage in certain self-cultivation practices,” such as training our minds to calm down so we can pay attention to the present.
Plus, whereas the language of oughts and obligations suggests a prescriptive or proselytizing attitude, Buddhist tradition has generally been more interested in inviting people to try meditation and discover its benefits for themselves, rather than in mandating adherence. (Not all people who identify as Buddhist practice meditation.)
Jinpa said it would be naive to think someone could get everyone to meditate. “That won’t happen,” he told me. “So I’m interested in promoting the idea of compassion training that wouldn’t necessarily involve formal sitting meditation.” He pointed to his Compassion Cultivation Training as an example, saying it’s likelier to be widely adopted in part because it’s presented as secular.
Meanwhile, to Davidson, the neuroscientist, the virtues you cultivate by meditating are so crucial as to make the practice feel almost obligatory.
“I see this as a public health need,” he told me, using the analogy of brushing our teeth — something that takes only a few minutes a day, and something that virtually everyone does because we see it as important for our physical hygiene.
“I think most people would agree their minds are just as important as their teeth. If we spent such a short time on our mind as we do on brushing our teeth, this world would be a different place,” Davidson said, because our emotional well-being would be improved. “So there is some sense of a moral obligation, almost.”
But there’s a caveat: For a small minority of people, meditation can actually provoke adverse effects, like intense mental distress or impaired physical functioning. Brown University psychologist Willoughby Britton is studying these cases in a project called “Varieties of Contemplative Experience.” More research is still needed, but given that meditation practices might precipitate or exacerbate challenging conditions in some people, it would be wrong to say that absolutely everyone would do well to meditate.
Is meditation really better than other activities at making us better people?
Scientists are publishing more and more studies on meditation each year. But many of these studies are beset by methodological flaws, leading to overhyped results. Davidson calls this “neuromythology.”
Some studies fail to replicate in other labs. Others fail to include active controls — they don’t test the potential benefits of a meditation regimen against those of a different regimen, like exercise or health education classes. Still others fail to disaggregate the data of participants who are relatively inexperienced with meditation and those who’ve had enough hours of practice to be considered experts.
Even though there are methodological issues with some of the studies, others do hold up. And when you consider the hundreds of studies altogether, there is substantial evidence that meditation can help us become better people.
So, the next question is: How much better? Is it worth spending hours on meditation when you could just get out there and start volunteering?
“My response to that is, why pose it as an either/or question? I think both are important,” Davidson said. “I’d say the biggest bang for your buck would be to engage in a compassion meditation practice in your mind while you’re volunteering.”
When we think about meditation, we often picture ourselves sitting on a cushion with our eyes closed. But it doesn’t have to look that way. It can just be a state of mind with which we do whatever else it is we’re doing: volunteering, commuting to work, drinking a cup of tea, washing the dishes.
In fact, the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh is fond of saying, “Washing the dishes is like bathing a baby Buddha. The profane is the sacred. Everyday mind is Buddha’s mind.”
As for me, I’ve found that I have enough bandwidth at the end of the day to sit down and close my eyes for a few minutes. So, for eight weeks, I sat in meditation every night.
Then I went home to visit my family.
I’m happy to report that we had our best, calmest visit in years. By the end of the holiday break, the number of fights I’d gotten into was a glorious, miraculous zero.
It’s not that all of my reactive or unkind impulses magically disappeared. But whenever I felt myself starting to get snippy, I went into my old childhood bedroom and closed the door. I took a deep breath, and recalling the heaps of scientific evidence that had confronted me, I did what seemed to me like the reasonable response, a response so easy and so beneficial that it felt like a no-brainer.
Reader, I meditated.
Reporting for this article was supported by Public Theologies of Technology and Presence, a journalism and research initiative based at the Institute of Buddhist Studies and funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.
This article was originally published on 10th January 2020 at Vox.