Does science understand compassion meditation?

Compassion may be the most beneficial of all meditation techniques, but scientists have to work harder to understand it

Compassion meditation.
Compassion? – Photo by bin Ziegler on Pexels.com

In preparation for some upcoming blog articles, including looking at the Luberto et al. meta-review of compassion meditation research, I wanted to talk about terminology and concepts in this field.1 While science is a powerful system for measuring and predicting nature, it has problems in understanding and thus evaluating complex human behaviours such as compassion. But these challenges are made harder by imprecision and generalisations. For example, scientific reviews frequently combine or aggregate the findings from compassion, empathy, and loving-kindness studies. Cognitively speaking, these practices draw on related but different processes. Empathy, identifying with the experiences of others, is quite different from compassion, seeking to alleviate the suffering of others. If scientists compare the effects of belief-based versions of these practices, it becomes even more problematic. Even within Buddhism, the major schools have distinct ontological perspectives, which makes the operational deployment of their meditation methods quite different.

While the psychological sciences can observe almost any human behaviour, including meditation, the problems arise when attempting to understand what takes place, particularly in methods, like Buddhist meditation, developed in non-positivist environments. So while it’s relatively simple for scientists to measure the before and after effects of one form of meditation, understanding what the meditators are doing is more challenging. And aggregating the impact of different forms of compassion meditation seems likely to deliver unreliable data. These problems become even greater when empathy, metta, loving-kindness and self-compassion practices are thrown into the mix.

Understanding the concept of compassion as an object of scientific inquiry is preliminary; we don’t yet have comprehensive knowledge of trait and state compassion or how to measure them reliably. Added to this challenge, concepts of compassion are culturally embedded and can be incredibly complex to unravel. Simply moving a compassionate activity from a church or temple into a laboratory may change the psychological impact of the practice. As described in the scholarly literature, removing mindfulness from its religio-cultural contexts changed its nature.2 This doesn’t mean that medicalised mindfulness is not a useful intervention, simply that it does not reliably reflect the mental training present in the dozen or so known spiritual mindfulness practices.

Let’s look at the complexity of understanding compassion meditation in Buddhist traditions. First, we have to consider there are three main Buddhist schools or vehicles, Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana, each has a different world view. These particular world views lead to operational differences in how the concept of compassion is integrated into meditation methods. Furthermore, multiple schools exist within the three ‘vehicles’, each of which may have a degree of uniqueness in their compassion practices. At this stage, it’s probably better not to discuss the role of non-dual compassion as there is almost nothing replicated in the scientific literature about this element of human consciousness (although we all access it every day).

So the take-home message here is how well we define compassion will inevitably be linked to our ability to harness meditation practices’ health and well-being benefits.

Notes:

  1. Luberto, Christina M., Nina Shinday, Rhayun Song, Lisa L. Philpotts, Elyse R. Park, Gregory L. Fricchione, and Gloria Y. Yeh. “A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of meditation on empathy, compassion, and prosocial behaviors.” Mindfulness 9, no. 3 (2018): 708-724.
  2. King, Richard. “‘Paying attention’in a digital economy: reflections on the role of analysis and judgement within contemporary discourses of mindfulness and comparisons with classical Buddhist accounts of sati.” In Handbook of Mindfulness, pp. 27-45. Springer, Cham, 2016.

Can Mindfulness Meditation Boost Immunity

There are many preliminary scientific studies that indicate meditation improves self-reported measures of disease symptomatology. But what do we know about the link between mindfulness and inflammation?

Does Mindfulness Meditation Boost Immunity
Mindfulness and immunity. (Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com)

Authors: Black, D.S. and Slavich, G.M

Year: 2016

Title: Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials.1

Summary: The role of inflammation in health and wellbeing is becoming increasingly important in our understanding of illness and perhaps more important to establish greater resilience to ill health. For example, we now know that an unhealthy gut can lead to inflammation in many different organs. It’s not that inflammation should be seen as the problem per se; it is a function of the immune system, our body’s essential response to harmful stimuli. However, too much or too little inflammation can lead to major and minor health problems. Therefore if meditation can regulate excessive inflammation and its causes before they can damage the body, it will improve health and wellbeing.

Mindfulness meditation and immune system biomarkers. This systematic review of 20 randomized controlled trials, comprising more than 1600 participants, revealed replicated, yet tentative, evidence that mindfulness mediation is associated with changes in select immune system processes involved in inflammation, immunity, and biological aging.1

This scientific review was a meta-study; the authors looked across several different published papers to establish the overall state of research in this field. When analyzed together, these individual papers indicated that: ‘mindfulness meditation modulates some select immune parameters in a manner that suggests a more salutogenic immune profile.’ Simply that practising mindfulness can reduce pro-inflammatory reactions and an increase in the biological mechanisms linked to cell ageing. The study’s authors stress that despite the scope of the paper, the reviewed literature contained some methodological limitations, so the findings of individual studies and the meta-review should be treated with caution. 

What does this study mean for meditation and mindfulness practitioners?

Since the development of medicalised meditation (the relocation of belief based practices into medico-scientific domains) in 1970, the science of meditation has had an increasing tendency to pragmatism rather than empiricism. This means that the effects of meditation and not underlying causal mechanisms tend to be the object of most research projects. This paper represents a movement towards a more rigorous positivist approach, but no definite conclusions were established. My personal view is that the evidence supports much of what we already know about regular meditation practices; it can improve overall health and wellbeing. This paper was published in 2016 but it remains one of the few reviews of the relationship between mindfulness and the immune system.    

Notes:

  1. Black, D.S. and Slavich, G.M., 2016. Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1373(1).

Link: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

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