Photographed by Atisha Paulson.
Meditation is having a moment. In the last few years, practices such as counting breaths or sitting quietly while repeating a mantra have become more mainstream — especially as people and organizations adopt a few minutes (or more) of meditation into their daily routines. Meanwhile, the scientific community has published one study after another confirming that meditation is good for our brains and bodies. A regular meditation practice can make practitioners smarter and less stressed, and can boost their immune systems and attention spans.
But, meditation isn’t just about feeling better on an individual level. According to a growing body of research and theory, it’s about connecting to a greater community and improving our relationships with others. For perhaps the first time, we have concrete language to discuss how meditation makes us nicer and practical ways to incorporate this knowledge into our daily practice.
In the last five years or so, a number of studies have detailed the benefits of compassion and loving-kindness meditation, two styles of practice that basically involve thinking good thoughts about other people. People who practice these forms of meditation are more empathetic and altruistic. In many cases, these differences can be seen even on a neurological level.
Far from being relegated to “New-Age-y” magazines, some of this research has recently made its way into mainstream media. In a New York Times op-ed last July, psychologist David DeSteno discussed the way meditation makes us more compassionate people. While DeSteno has some abstract ideas (meditation can “foster a view that all beings are interconnected”), he also discusses a study he led that found meditation makes us more willing to help others in need.
The community aspect of meditation is a prominent focus of the guided meditations on Headspace, a website and app launched in 2010 that’s since accrued more than 750,000 users. Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk who leads the meditations, advises listeners to think about why they’re meditating, and specifically about how their meditation will affect their relationships with people they care about. On some days, he recommends picturing the faces of loved ones who will benefit when you become a happier, healthier person.
Psychologists confirm that those who meditate become more attuned to their own emotions, as well as the feelings of others — and, that this can improve human relationships. When we learn to regulate our responses to our own unpleasant feelings, we can apply that same technique to our interactions with others.
To beginner meditators, the notion that sitting alone and breathing is a “community” activity might be surprising. When I spoke with Puddicombe about his work, he admitted that it’s unusual for people to think about how their meditation practice can benefit other people. Instead, he said, people often wonder, “'What do I get for myself?'”
Moreover, beginner meditators may fail to realize their practice is only a means to an end — the development of skills such as empathy and compassion, which they can use with real people in the real world. The way Puddicombe sees it, even seasoned monks will say the point of meditation isn’t to sit on a retreat with your eyes closed. Instead, it’s about “develop[ing] enough stability of mind that you can carry that training into everyday life and be of use to other people. It’s about all of us. It’s ‘we’ rather than ‘me and you.’”
Julie Skaarup, a Greatist Expert and yoga teacher in Maryland, stresses that meditation is about the collective “we,” but that doesn’t mean the individual doesn’t also benefit. “When we use these tools of self-care [such as meditation], we feel certain that our needs have been taken care of, and so we don't act so stingy with other people.” She continues, “When we have a strong reaction to another person, instead of acting on it, we can take a beat, remember that we don't have to engage with those thoughts and reactions, and then choose the path of compassion.” Arguably, that’s the healthiest choice for everyone involved.
The irony is that most meditators are already tapping into a greater community each time they practice. Skaarup told me that “namaste” (the word many yogis say at the end of class) literally means, “I bow to myself.” But, she said, “Philosophically, what it means is, ‘The pure light within me bows in recognition to that same pure light that resides within you.’ Basically, saying ‘I bow to myself’ while physically bowing to another person means, ‘You are myself. At our centers, we are the same.’”