Project Yoga Cincinnati

New York Times Article on Meditation

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“The Morality of Meditation”

In the July 5th, 2013 New York Times called “the Morality of Meditation”, David DeSteno wrote of an experiment conducted by neuroscientist Gaelle Desbordes and Buddhist lama Willa Miller. No scientific studies had looked at the inter-personal impact of meditation. Could meditation reduce the amount of suffering people experience?

Thirty-nine people were recruited from the Boston area. None had experience with meditation. Half of the 39 were randomly put into a group on “wait list control.” The other half were lead in mindfulness and compassion meditation by Buddhist lama Miller, a twenty year veteran teacher.

The meditation was non-denominational and each participant was given a twenty minute version to do at home and asked to keep a log. The researchers were actually going to stage a simple experiment in the waiting room. The room held just three chairs, two filled by people who were being paid to fill the seats, told not to engage in anyway. Neither of these two knew details about the experiment, they were present in order to create what is known as “the bystander effect.” Here’s where it gets interesting. The “bystander effect” refers to how a person can be manipulated when small groups around them choose to ignore responsibility for something that is happening in the present moment. When it seems that others around you are not reacting, people will often choose to ignore suffering too.

When each “true” study participant entered the room and sat in the third chair, a few minutes passed and a fourth person entered the room on crutches and wearing a boot, wincing in pain. The hobbled person was instructed to walk towards the three occupied chairs, heave a loud sigh, then lean against the wall and begin looking at her cell phone.

Even in the face of social pressures to avoid  doing so, participants were 5 times more likely to give their chairs up. The research finding will be published soon in the journal Psychological Science. We’ll add a link to our Resource Guide on the website when it does.