Meditation as an Act of Compassion

Like most things in our culture of “thingness,” I fear that we are quickly turning the spiritual art of meditation into a tool for “success,” otherwise known as the attainment of “things”: money, status, possessions. This Buddhist practice was never intended to boost test scores or earning potential. Quite the contrary, it was a way to ground people in the spacious present, absent the clutter of attachment to things. In Phillip Moffit’s wonderful book on Buddhism, Dancing With Life, he refers to a cartoon entitled Dali Lama’s Birthday, in which he is opening a present that proves to be an empty box, and exclaims: “Nothing. Just what I always wanted!”

Now we find Buddhist mindfulness training being implemented in schools and businesses with the intention not so much to simplify, clarify, and purify our human longings into a comfortable state of being with what is, but to turn practitioners into people who will be able to do and achieve all that is not. This was not the intention behind Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s seminal effort to bring mindfulness into medicine as a non-pharmacologic form of healing and stress reduction, which has now become an industry of quick-fix anxiety reduction; a kind of 12-step program for those of us addicted to busyness as a form of distraction from our pain.

As David DeSteno posits in his recent NYTimes article entitled, The Morality of Meditation, although the benefits of mindfulness to mind, heart, and body are now well researched, it is cognitively dissonant indeed to harness these benefits for the purposes of advancing that which we, as a nation, are in recovery from: over- attainment of personal gain. DeSteno, a psychologist, personally led a study that demonstrated evidence of people achieving greater levels of compassion as a result of regular meditation practice. His hope in sharing this data, was to highlight this as not a side benefit of meditation to us individually, and as a society, but as the main event. As a clinician and coach, I regularly invite my clients into a practice of deep awareness of self and other; when they sit with me, when they are quietly alone, and when they are interacting with wider humanity.

This deep awareness of inter-relationality is also known as “emotional intelligence.” EQ is something that needs to be mindfully and broadly filtered into the raising of children both at home and in the schools, not so that the next generation will be focused enough to have the highest standardized test scores or salaries ever, but as a way to ensure their well-being across the lifespan, and the well-being of the planet that we share with the people with whom we are interdependent. Taking the time to deeply notice our world, and the state of the people we share it with, is our best last hope for the species.