Meditation: Can it make us more Nice?

Robert Wright gave a wonderful talk to my school recently about Why Buddhism Is True. Wright argues that Buddhism correctly identified humanity's problems. Our incessant cravings, which are perpetually unsatisfied, make us victims. Meditating can be a treatment. It will help you to let go of your negative emotions and cravings.

Wright claims that meditation not only makes you happier but also helps to make us more compassionate, kind, and less selfish. He's seen these positive changes in himself and believes that meditation, when practiced regularly, can make it easier to defeat aggression and tribalism which cause conflict and other negative behaviors. He states in Why Buddhism is True that he believes the only way to save the world is by cultivating calm and clear minds, as well as the wisdom they permit.

Because I am not very kind (despite having taken a meditation course since last fall), Wright's connection of meditation and moral behaviour has been questioned by me. Last August I wrote a column in which I pointed out that throughout history, warriors have meditated before fighting to make their fights more effective. Many U.S. soldiers today are trained in mindfulness meditation. This presumably helps them to feel less guilty about executing violent U.S. policy. Many meditation teachers are more sociopaths than saints, which is disturbing.

Some Buddhists seem arrogant or sanctimonious to me, and this is not an isolated observation. Although Owen Flanagan is a supporter of Buddhism and meditation, he notes in The Bodhisattva's Brain, that many western Buddhists he knows are "not very nice " and that they tend to be more passive-aggressive than others. I am also concerned by the way Buddhists in Myanmar treat a Muslim minority.

However, these stories are merely anecdotes. Now a study published in Scientific Reports has cast doubt on the claim that meditation makes you nicer. Titled "The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis," the study was carried out by psychologists Ute Kreplin, Miguel Farias and Inti Brazil.

Researchers note some of the exaggerated claims meditation makes, such as this quote from the Dalai Lama, "If every eighteen-year-old child in the world is taught Meditation, there will be no violence within one generation." Transcendental meditation advocates have also claimed that meditation can decrease aggression and violence.

These claims were tested by Brazil, Farias, Kreplin and Farias. The authors write that the article's primary purpose is to investigate whether meditation-based practices in healthy populations can result in improvements in prosociality. In other words, can meditation per se make the world a better--less aggressive and more compassionate--place?"

They began by identifying thousands of studies on meditation's positive effects. They winnowed this list down to 22 studies, with a total of 1,685 subjects, that met minimal standards of rigor, including the comparison of meditators to a control group. Some control interventions were passive, meaning that subjects were placed on a waitinglist. Other interventions were active and involved subjects watching nature videos or taking time management courses.

The studies, all of which were published since 2004, examined meditation's effects on one or more of these prosocial and antisocial traits: compassion, empathy, connectedness, aggression and prejudice. No Transcendental Meditation studies met the researchers' standards, and most of the included studies, they assert, are methodologically "weak." A mere half of all the studies included a meditation teacher as an author, which could have introduced bias.

There is also the possibility that meditation may be biased by meditators. The researchers write: "The media portrayal of meditation as a cure for a range of mental health problems or to improve well-being is very likely to feedback into participants... [O]nly one of the studies we examined controlled for expectation effects and this methodological concern is generally absent in the meditation literature."

This concern is especially pertinent, given that most studies of meditation measure subjects' self-reported benefits. In response to an email query, Kreplin adds that some studies measured actual behavior, such as giving up a chair in a waiting room. Another method was implicit association testing, in which subjects were asked to link "black" words with words that have negative connotations. This is used to assess unconscious racial bias.

Kreplin responded that she doesn't meditate but has tried to meditate in the past. "I have worked in a clinic setting with mindfulness." What did Kreplin and her colleagues find? The review found that meditation does not have an effect on aggression, prejudice or connectedness. The effects of meditation can cause a slight increase in compassion and empathy. However, these effects diminish when teachers are not active and controls are passive. According to the researchers, meditation is beneficial for both mental and physical health.

Although it might make you feel a little more compassionate and empathic than before, our results suggest that they may also be due to methodological flaws such as the biases of the meditation teacher or the choice of the control group, and participants' beliefs about meditation. This does not mean that Buddhists or any other religions cannot claim the moral value of their practices and beliefs. The lab adaptation of spiritual practices is hampered by methodological flaws and partially engulfed in the theoretical fog.

It's an admirable summation. Robert Wright's contribution to the improvement of the world is more than simply telling people to meditate. The "Mindfulness Resistance Project", which he started recently, promotes rational and non-tribal solutions to Trumpism and other related issues. You should check this out. Wright's books on spirituality are not my favorite, but I have always found Wright's political analyses to be persuasive.

Additional information: The evidence that meditation can make you happier keeps coming in. A study in Psychological Science finds that "yoga and meditation do not quiet the ego, but instead boost self-enhancement." Meanwhile Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, a meditation teacher and head of Shambhala, an international Buddhist organization, just stepped down from that position after being accused of sexual misconduct. Chogyam Trungpa his father who created Shambhala also behaved poorly.