When it comes to meditation, most of us probably think about inward focus, personal relaxation response, a deep concentration that allows for release and inner calm. And, certainly, meditation can offer that as well as an impressive host of physical benefits we’ve discussed in previous posts. (All part of the Primal Blueprint focus on comprehensive wellness…)
But what about a meditation that, while generated internally, is directed outward to others? Isn’t that what we’re oftentimes trying to shed when we mercifully delve into meditative focus: the kids’ report cards, the boss’s performance meetings, a partner’s illness, parents’ financial difficulties, this weekend’s volunteer responsibilities. That inner journey, a few moments of “emptying” release, can do wonders for many of us who feel pulled in a hundred directions some days, but so can a form of meditation, researchers say, that encourages us to seek inward peace by simply focusing on feeling for others.
Compassion meditation, as it’s known, doesn’t call us to dwell on the mundane details of interactions or organize looming lists of social and familial responsibilities. Instead, it cultivates our empathy for those around us (those who we know intimately and, in its more advanced practice, even complete strangers). It feeds and hones a kindness of spirit, so to speak. And, as a recent study found, this altruistic contemplation offers physical benefits as well. Researchers with Emory University found that “engagement in compassion meditation may reduce stress-induced immune and behavioral responses,” specifically “reductions in inflammation and emotional distress” associated with administered stressors.
The study used 61 young adults, half of which participated in a six-week program of compassion meditation training and half of which met for regular health instruction and discussion meetings. Both groups were given assignments (meditation or health related projects) to work on between group sessions. Researchers at the end of the six weeks conducted psychosocial stress tests on all the subjects and measured individual responses of “the body’s inflammatory and neuroendocrine systems” to the stressors. Although no significant differences were found in the general comparison of the two groups, the researchers did discover distinctions among the meditation group subjects. Those who practiced compassion meditation the most showed, in response to the administrated stressors, less distress and lower plasma concentrations of interleukin 6 (IL-6), an immune system indicator that has been linked with cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain forms of cancer.
As we’ve discussed before, chronic and/or severe stress can cause serious health damage and undo the “good” of a solid diet and exercise program. True wellness can’t come without focusing on the inside as well as the outside. To take it a step further, this study suggests that we can all benefit from bringing concentration to the well-being of others in addition to that of ourselves.
What are your thoughts? What do you think is behind the apparent power of compassion meditation? Can empathy fuel personal health? Thanks for reading.