The Power of Compassion
Can good thoughts for the well-being of others also keep you healthy? For centuries people have turned to various forms of meditation to quiet their minds, improve their concentration, decrease anxiety, soothe pain and facilitate healing. Research led by a Tibetan Buddhist teacher and an American physician adds yet another benefit to that already impressive list -- their study found evidence that practicing a particular kind, called compassion meditation, may help reduce the type of inflammatory responses to stressful interpersonal situations that have been linked to the development of both mental and physical diseases. People who practiced compassion meditation regularly also had less distress and anger in response to stress.
CHANGING THE WAY WE SEE OTHERS
At Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, 61 healthy students were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group participated in six weeks of twice-weekly classroom training in a non-religious version of compassion meditation while the other group (the control group) spent a similar amount of time in health discussions. Meditation teacher Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, PhD, director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership and a study author, explained that lojong (as the meditation practice is called) means training or transforming the mind. Where we're all conditioned to identify certain people as friends and others as enemies, lojong teaches us to challenge those assumptions. "It helps us see that others are no different from ourselves, that all people have the same problems and common aspirations," he explained. "It has a cognitive component that teaches us to reshape our relationships with ourselves and others to better connect each of us to all of humanity."
To perform lojong meditation, students first learned how to do "meditative concentration" on their breathing, which helps stabilize the mind and refines their attention. Next they practiced mindfulness and meditation, to train them to increase their non-judgmental awareness of thoughts and bodily sensations and were instructed to focus on the universal desire of all people to be happy and avoid suffering. Finally, the students sent out their desire for happiness in a circle that expanded outward... first on themselves... then on loved ones... then to strangers... and finally, to those whom they disliked. They were instructed to concentrate on generating compassion for all people. These students were also given a CD to use to help them practice compassion meditation at home daily, keeping online records of when they meditated and for how long.
A control group spent classroom time in group discussion about issues related to the physical and mental health of college students. Topics included stress management, substance abuse, sexual behavior and health, and depression and anxiety. This group also participated in role-playing exercises and mock debates on the topics they studied. As a way to maintain an equal time requirement with the meditation group for at-home participation, students in the control group were asked to write weekly opinion papers, two to three pages in length, on self-improvement topics. Study participants were recruited from their Emory University health education class and randomly assigned to either the meditation or the control (health discussion) group.
A SURPRISING OUTCOME
At the end of the study, students in both groups were asked to participate in a "stressful task" based on a widely used laboratory psychosocial stress test. Researchers measured their biological responses, including blood levels of the stress hormones cortisol and interleukin 6 (IL-6), which is a marker of inflammation. The researchers anticipated a difference between the meditators and the control group, but that actually turned out to be insignificant, said Charles Raison, MD, assistant professor in Emory's department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and senior author of the study. What was significant, however, was a reduction in inflammatory markers that correlated with how frequently subjects meditated. The more often subjects practiced compassion meditation, the lower the levels of inflammation in their blood after the stress test.
WHY THE RESULTS MATTER
We know that inflammation puts wear and tear on the body and that has a cumulative negative effect on health. Dr. Raison called it "promising" to see that engaging in a discipline that helps retrain the mind to be more compassionate not only makes people kinder, but also healthier. His co-author Dr. Negi agrees, noting that by teaching a broader acceptance of others, this type of compassion meditation can be "an instrument of health that might be of benefit to people in all walks of life."
For more information on how to do a lojong practice, look for books including Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living (Shambhala Library), by Pema Chödrön... Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion (Times), by the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman, PhD... and Quiet Mind: A Beginner's Guide to Meditation compiled by Susan Piver (Shambhala).
Charles Raison, MD, is an assistant professor, department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Emory University School of Medicine.
Lobsang Tenzin Negi, PhD, (also known as Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi) is senior lecturer in religion and director, Emory-Tibet Partnership.