Compassion meditation: Bringing together Self & Other
The holiday season raises interesting questions for our self-interest and sense of “self”. Between numerous social events, obligatory family gatherings, and an overall orientation towards charity, the “season of giving” sways our focus back and forth between what’s good for us, and what’s good for others.
While it can sometimes be easy in the hustle and bustle of the holidays to view these extra commitments as unwanted or unwarranted, the practice of meditation offers another perspective on the boundaries between self-interest and other-centeredness: namely, compassion.
As we’ve covered before, compassion meditation – one of the main types of Buddhist meditation – is designed specifically to examine and break down the boundary between interest in the self and interest in others.
Recent research has shed some light on how compassion meditation (also termed loving-kindness meditation) can change the mind and brain, bringing closer what we feel for and for others, and perhaps even connect us more to the selfless spirit of the holidays.
In a study published November of 2016 in the journal Frontiers of Psychology , a team of German researchers set out to determine whether practitioners of loving-kindness meditation would show differing patterns of brain activity involved in the process of compassion when compared to individuals who do not practice.
The researchers performed an EEG measurement of brain activity on two different groups of people: 12 individuals who were long-term practitioners of loving-kindness meditation, and 12 individuals with no experience meditating who served as a control group and basis for comparison.
In performing the scan, the researchers were specifically interested in the pattern of electrical activity (particularly, the timing and intensity of a particular brain wave called an event-related potential ) that occurred when the participants saw either a picture of themselves or a picture of a close other.
The researchers found that when individuals with no training in loving-kindness meditation were unexpectedly shown a picture of their own face after being shown a series of repetitive, inert pictures, there was (understandably) a large wave of brain activity. This wave was bigger than a comparable wave when the individual saw a picture of a close other.
However, when individuals who were long-term practitioners of loving-kindness meditation (meaning at least once per week for a period of at least two years) underwent the same experience, the effect of seeing the face of a close other was much more similar in the brain to the effect of seeing one’s own face.
Critically, these differences in the amount of brain activity that occurred in response to seeing pictures of either the self or a close other correlated directly to the results of two different surveys that assess levels of compassion. Put simply, the more the brain was activated by the picture of a close other, the higher the level of overall compassion.
Taken together, the results of the study support the idea that performing loving-kindness meditation increases levels of compassion, and that the longer an individual has practiced meditation, the less of a difference that arises in the brain from considering oneself vs. considering a close other.
A Caveat About the Research
As with all clinical research of this style, it’s important to note that “correlation does not equal causation.”
What this means is that while the research team did demonstrate that the meditation practitioners had an increased capacity for compassion, it’s impossible from this study to determine conclusively if this increased capacity was caused by the loving-kindness meditation directly.
It could just as easily be the case that even before they began practicing loving-kindness meditation, the practitioners had always possessed some intrinsic quality which made them naturally predisposed towards being compassionate (perhaps this was even the reason they began practicing loving-kindness meditation in the first place).
However, this is always the case with research, and it is the reason why a scientific consensus must be built up brick-by-brick from a variety of different investigations.
In the case of meditation, as I have previously discussed, psychological experiments using rigorous scientific methods have demonstrated support for the idea that individuals who have been trained in meditation show increased altruistic behaviors, like donating money or giving up their seat to someone in pain. Research has also shown that compassion or loving-kindness meditation can increase self-compassion, increase social connectedness, and decrease loneliness.
Taking this research altogether and combining studies of long-term practitioners along with studies of short-term programs and clinical interventions helps provide a more holistic picture of how compassion and loving-kindness meditation could be connected.
Compassion Meditation Research: Conclusion
In summary, a recent research finding has demonstrated additional support for the idea that compassion and loving-kindness meditation create lasting changes in our lives – both in the physical tissue of the brain, as well as in the cognitive structure of our minds and the social structure of our interpersonal networks.
Particularly during the holidays, a time of year when social and family life becomes a primary focus, it’s important to find and find and foster compassion. Whether it be a conversation with an estranged family member, an opportunity for charitable involvement, or anything in-between, the ability to see ourselves as similar and connected to each other forms the backbone of our relationships.
In many ways, it’s what the holidays are for. Thank you for visiting Bidushi and have a good holiday season!
 Trautwein, F. M., Naranjo, J. R., & Schmidt, S. (2016). Decentering the self? Reduced bias in self-vs. other-related processing in long-term practitioners of loving-kindness meditation. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01785
 Sur, S., & Sinha, V. K. (2009). Event-related potential: An overview. Industrial Psychiatry Journal, 18(1), 70. DOI: 10.4103/0972-6748.57865