The Morality of Meditation

How Cultivating Self-Control through Mindfulness Practice Can Help Us Become More Compassionate People

By David DeSteno

If you want to truly understand something, it often pays to go right to the top. By virtue of their experience, people who sit at the pinnacle of a field usually hold a sweeping, authoritative, and even esoteric perspective on how things work. They’ve seen it all before, been in the trenches, and emerged with wisdom few others have attained. So when it comes to self-control, Buddhist monks, who daily benefit from millennia of teachings and thought on the perils of giving in to craving and selfish temptations, have a lot to say.

In Buddhism, the word tanha, which roughly translates to craving or desire, explicitly refers to a motive to grasp and maintain pleasurable experiences or, conversely, to avoid painful or unpleasant ones. In essence, tanha is a craving for enjoyment in the here and now, future consequences be damned. Tanha is also identified as a root cause of what the Buddhists term dukkha: suffering, anxiety, and general unhappiness. For adherents of this faith, self-centered desires for pleasure are a form of ignorance that gets in the way of well-being and the ultimate goal of enlightenment. Selfless actions, which include improving one’s own ethics as well as aiding others, build karma points. And those points, according to Buddhist beliefs, enable a person’s successive reincarnation to come closer to ultimate liberation. Now, that’s an intertemporal framework if there ever was one!

Whether or not you accept the religious aspects of Buddhist teachings isn’t relevant for our purposes here. What is relevant is that over thousands of years, Buddhist scholars have built up their own understanding of the workings of the mind—​an understanding that has many parallels to the secrets being unlocked by the modern sciences of psychology and neurology. Combine this with the special emphasis Buddhist teachers have placed on developing meditation techniques for squelching harmful desires, and it’s clear that they might be able to offer some deep insights into self-control and perseverance.

In 2015 I had the good fortune to have several discussions with internationally renowned Buddhist teacher Trungram Gyaltrul Rinpoche in which I broached this topic. Rinpoche occupies a unique position in the Buddhist world. Not only is he recognized as one of the highest tulkus (reincarnated teachers) of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, but he is also the first Tibetan lama to complete a PhD at Harvard. As such, he straddles the East-West intellectual divide in a way few others can.

When I asked Rinpoche about self-control and avoiding temptations, our conversation naturally drifted toward meditation. I expected we’d discuss it as a tool to increase concentration and, thereby, willpower. On the off chance you haven’t noticed, mindfulness has been all the rage. A quick perusal of articles from the New York Times, the Atlantic, and other popular media provides ample evidence that meditation leads to all kinds of great cognitive outcomes. It’ll increase your scores on standardized tests, enhance your creativity, and even make you more productive at work. In short, it’s touted as a kind of “supercharger” for the mind. These claims are justified because much of meditation training focuses on learning how to master attention, thought flow, and focus, all of which are closely related to executive function. And since such cognitive abilities can be used for self-control, the notion that meditation lessens cravings and increases success seems to logically follow. So imagine my happy surprise when Rinpoche told me that all the cognitive benefits of meditation—​better focus, better memory, et cetera—​were traditionally considered secondary to its true purpose: development of a deep and abiding compassion. All the cognitive training is simply a means to an end, and it is that end—​a feeling of great compassion for all beings—​that ultimately makes self-control and related virtues more automatic.

The central role played by compassion is often ignored, thanks to a historical accident. The scientists who first began to study meditation were primarily neuroscientists and those interested in cognition and memory. The questions they asked about meditation were guided by their own interests: What does it do to and for the brain? The result was a decade’s worth of findings showing that meditation enhances cognitive skills. But if you think about it from a historical standpoint, the goals of early meditation teachers such as Gautama Buddha weren’t enhancing test scores or memory. To the contrary, they were centered on fostering ethical decisions and compassionate behavior, or as the Buddhists say, on ending suffering. But because these phenomena were inherently social in nature, they were ignored as neuroscientists turned their lenses on what meditation could do to enhance the information-processing power of the brain. This was a gap I wanted to fill. If meditation, compassion, and self-control were truly linked, as Buddhist philosophy posits, we first needed to find some evidence, and that required studying the effects of meditation in an entirely new way.

The first step in most scientific investigations of meditation is to recruit people who aren’t Buddhists and who haven’t previously practiced meditation. To do that, we placed ads in and around Boston inviting people to take part in an eight-week meditation study for which they would be paid. The only requirement was that they be true novices; they couldn’t have had any previous training. Once we had a list of volunteers, we randomly assigned half to complete eight weeks of meditation training. Since we also needed a comparison group, we told the remaining volunteers that they were on a waitlist. To make sure the training was authentic, we enlisted the help of master teacher Lama Willa Miller, who met regularly with participants to offer instruction and guidance in meditation practice. And to ensure people were continuing to practice correctly when not in her class, Miller also gave them audio recordings she created to use at home.

We now had two groups of people who were equally interested in meditation, but only one of which contained people who actually had some degree of authentic training. This is the point where most scientists would serve up a memory or attention test for their participants, or scan their brains in search of changes in white-matter density. Not us, although that’s not exactly what we told our participants. They believed that at the end of the eight weeks they’d be coming to the lab to have their cognitive skills tested. Little did they know that the true experiment would begin in the waiting room.

If we wanted to examine meditation’s effects on compassion and self-control, we needed to do it in a fairly normal environment. One that, unlike most MRI tubes, had more than one real person inside it. In short, we needed to design a challenge that would offer people the opportunity to keep a mild comfort or to give it up to benefit someone in pain. After considering many options, we landed on a situation that was as familiar in its dynamics as it was theoretically elegant in its explanatory power. When our participants arrived in the lab’s waiting room, they saw three chairs. The first two were occupied by actors working for us. So, as you’d expect, each participant (as they were scheduled to come to the lab one at a time) would sit down in the remaining chair to await being called into the lab for testing. After a few minutes had passed, the relative quiet of the waiting room was interrupted by an elevator door sliding open at the opposite end of the hall. Out came a young woman on crutches who had her foot in an orthopedic boot. The woman, who also worked for us, hobbled down the hall, wincing a bit with each step, until she entered the waiting room, where, somewhat dejectedly, she leaned against the wall with a bit of a whimper, as every chair was taken.

What would participants do? If they wanted to act nobly, the answer was clear: offer her their chair. But that meant sacrificing their own immediate comfort to aid another and thus would take some degree of self-control. That might sound like an overstatement on my part, as many people might (and did when we asked them) predict that a solid majority of people placed in this position would have readily offered up their chair. As it turned out, though, only 16 percent of “normal” people in our experiment—​and by normal I mean the ones who hadn’t meditated for the previous eight weeks​—​suggested that the woman in pain take their seat.

This was a dispiriting finding, and sadly it wasn’t a fluke. We ran the experiment a second time and got similar results. Now, truth be told, we were stacking the deck a little. The other people who were sitting in the room when a participant arrived—​the actors who didn’t offer their chairs—had been instructed by us to ignore the woman on crutches. They were to read a book or thumb their phones as she entered, appearing to pay her no heed. Yet the sighs and similar sounds of discomfort she uttered were audible enough for everyone to hear, meaning it was clear to our participants that these others were willfully feigning ignorance of the injured woman’s plight. That was the point. This type of mass indifference is specially meant to reduce people’s motivations to help. If nobody else is bothering to assist someone in need, why should you? It’s a pernicious phenomenon known as the bystander effect, and it allows people to stand by passively while all manner of suffering occurs right in front of them. In our experiments it worked all too well.

When we examined the meditators, however, quite a different story emerged. After only eight weeks of mindfulness practice, the percentage of people who felt compassion and sacrificed their own comfort to aid the woman in pain more than tripled, rising to 50 percent. That’s a big difference, and one we and others have been able to replicate using related measures of compassionate behavior. When considered in combination, these findings show how meditation bolsters self-control via compassion. They make clear, in essence, that Rinpoche was right. People often need self-control to act with kindness and generosity. Whether that self-control is aimed at sacrificing to aid others or their own future selves, they need a push to give up their immediate comfort and thereby raise the likelihood that they’ll benefit from a returned favor or a better outcome down the line. And while it’s true that we can remind ourselves daily to be kind and exert the requisite willpower to behave accordingly, practicing mindfulness—​a route by which compassion begins to emerge automatically and continuously—​offers a better route.

David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, where he directs the Social Emotions Group. He is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and the American Psychological Association, for which he serves as editor-in-chief of the journal Emotion. His work has been repeatedly funded by the National Science Foundation and has been regularly featured in the media, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CBS Sunday Morning, NPR’s Radiolab and Talk of the Nation, and USA Today. He is the author of Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride.

Excerpted from Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride by David DeSteno. Copyright © 2018 by David DeSteno. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Join us at the 92Y in New York City on January 9 for a conversation on “Emotional Success” with DeSteno and Paul Bloom.

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