Our Better Angels: The Link Between Mindfulness and Compassion

Mindfulness changes the way you see people.

As meditation practice steadily erodes your fears, anxieties and insecurities you naturally find yourself becoming less self-focused and more other-focused. You realise just how much your view of the world and of other people have been obscured by your self and your endless obsessions. This move from worrying about yourself to caring about others is like bursting through the fog and into open sunshine.

You find that to savour the present moment just as it is, without judgement, has a flow on effect in terms of savouring people in the present moment; just as they are, without judgement. Doing the right thing becomes something we want to do because it is who we are and it makes us feel good, as opposed to just being something we have to do in spite of ourselves because of external rules and threats of punishment.

This promised increase in compassion is one of the key selling points of mindfulness. And the idea that compassion is the key to happiness is the central insight of positive psychology, the science of well-being. After all, love is a source of happiness and contentment, not hate.

However, this is not quite the whole story.

THE LINK BETWEEN MINDFULNESS AND… BEING AN ASSHOLE?

According to new research, there are some people who do not become more compassionate after meditation practice. In fact – somehow, bizarrely – it seems that meditation can actually turn some people into assholes.1 Or, at least, into bigger assholes than they already were.

And wrapping our heads around this strange fact is necessary if we want to ensure we practice meditation in a way that does bring out our better angels.

So how could meditation make you worse, if you were so inclined? Well, as meditation erodes your fears, anxieties and insecurities you might well reach a state where you don’t worry about anything; including other people or what they think of you. For all that “not caring what other people think of you” is held up as a virtue in our culture, a healthy fear of the opinion of others is in fact a key part of what makes us consider other people’s feelings in the first place.

A lack of this kind of fear is a distinguishing trait of sociopaths.

As it turns out, the difference that makes the difference is one of framing. Those whose compassion is increased by meditation are those with a more collectivist outlook on life; they value interdependence, co-operation, the common good of the whole. While those who, well, become assholes, tend to have a more individualist outlook; they prize independence, competition and their own individual good.

In the first experiment, participants were screened for their attitudes towards individualism and collectivism, and then told about an opportunity to volunteer stuffing envelopes for a non-profit organisation. Those who already saw themselves in more individualistic terms were less likely to volunteer after meditation.

A second experiment was more interesting still; here, researchers actually chose people at random to be primed to think of themselves in individualistic or collectivistic terms. Stunningly, for those primed for individualism, meditation decreased their likelihood of volunteering by a shocking 33%. Yet for those primed for collectivism, meditation increased their likelihood of volunteering by a relatively encouraging 40%.

Historically, Eastern cultures where meditation has flourished have tended to be more collectivist, and this is reflected in their major religious traditions. Buddhism emphasises pratitya-samutpada, the interdependent origination of all things. Taoism has its Ying-Yang symbol, representing the dependence of seeming opposites upon eachother. And Hinduism gives us the poetic image of Indra’s Net, where each person is represented by a perfectly clear jewel that reflects every other jewel in the net.

Modern Western cultures, in contrast, have been individualist. This would seem to make the introduction of meditation to the West a mixed blessing at best, running the risk of turning us into a society of borderline sociopaths and narcissists. But the genie can’t be put back into the bottle; meditation can’t be untaught to the West, and nor should it.

The real solution for the West seems obvious: if we want meditation to cultivate our better angels and not our inner asshole, we need to bust the myth of individualism.

THE MYTH OF INDIVIDUALISM

Now, I know that by even daring to question the gospel of individualism, in some people’s minds I might as well be trying to argue against truth, justice, and all that is good and holy in the world. In the West, the word “individualism” still rings with positive connotations: it’s said to be about being your own person, bucking the trend, going against the grain, standing out from the crowd. It’s almost synonymous with freedom itself.

The word “collectivism,” on the other hand, has suffered enormously. While it may still have positive connotations in some quarters, it has generally been conflated with blind conformity and submission to authority. Even the notion of working for “the greater good” or “the common goal” has been demonised in Western film and literature as a kind of trick used to trample a character’s individual rights.

However, individualism has some crippling flaws. For example, going against the crowd isn’t always a good thing. Take this image, meant to embody the noble spirit of individualism in all its glory:

The spirit of individualism/entitled douchbaggery.

I’m sure to some people that little red man is a hero, refusing to march in the same direction as everyone else, boldly beating his own path and blah blah blah. He is also clearly an asshole. Look at him, selfishly blocking the stairway and effectively saying “screw you” to everyone behind him who is just trying to make their way down- all because he wants to be a uniquely special individualistic douchebag.

Yes, little man, I get that you’re privileged enough to be all bright and red like that while everyone around you is condemned to a grey, colourless palette. Good for you. Now get over yourself.

Individualism isn’t even the bastion of freedom that it’s cracked up to be. Think about it: as a lone individual you have little power against an overbearing boss, or corporation, or government, or any other powerful entity. As a lone individual, you will be crushed and dismissed as a fringe radical at best.

No slave was ever freed, no woman ever got the vote and no minority group ever won civil rights because of a lone individual fighting the unjust power structures of society. Every instance of progress in history has only happened because of people joining together and using their collective strength to demand change.

There is, in fact, nothing that those with power would love more than for everyone to define themselves in solely individualistic terms, in which (despite some people’s delusions of grandeur) they are rendered an easily manageable non-threat.

Collectivism, on the other hand, literally just means working together for a common purpose. If the word bothers you so much then just substitute the word “teamwork” – no one criticises teamwork as hostile to personal freedom. That would be ridiculous.

Society is impossible without some degree of collectivism (a.k.a teamwork) simply because we have to work together to get anything done. There is a reason why collectivism, and not individualism, is the moral and social core of every major religious tradition; it’s not to try and control you (as some paranoiacs might think), but just so communities can function.

Take the shirt you’re wearing right now. Oh sure, you bought it yourself; congratulations on your “rugged individualism.” But who did you buy it from? What clerk at what store gave you the option to purchase that shirt? What truck driver delivered that shirt to the store? What cargo ship brought it across the sea from where it was originally made? Who actually cut the material and sewed the shirt together? Who was the cotton farmer who produced the material in the first place?

And that’s just your shirt. Take any item you use during the day – your phone, your computer, your cup of coffee, public roads, etc. etc. – and think about all the people who contributed to the stuff you enjoy – and need to survive – on a daily basis. As much as we like to think of ourselves as self-reliant, everything we have is the result of a collective effort where we enjoy the fruits of each other’s labour.

Our mutual interdependence, therefore, is not just some ancient piece of Eastern religious metaphysics; it’s not just some warm and fuzzy abstract concept for hippies to hug each other over; it’s a brute fact of life. If you insist on your individualism and self-reliance, I invite you to run naked into the woods and start making your own clothes, shelter, food, everything, from scratch. Good luck with the dental hygiene.

You’ve been lied to. Literature, film, the media, even the way we tell history, all portray the world as though it’s all about exceptional individuals doing exceptional things. This effectively sidelines those countless invisible, nameless, forgotten persons who these individuals depended upon to make things happen.

Take lines in popular history books like “The Pharaoh Khufu built the Great Pyramid” or “Ghenghis Khan conquered Asia.” By themselves, I wonder? I would love to have seen them try. More likely both of these assholes were living it up in a relative lap of luxury (even if it was in a tent), while thousands of slaves and soldiers suffered and died doing all the real work.

Yes, sure, fine, sometimes a lone individual can be right while all the rest of society is wrong. Sometimes, a given collective can be tyrannical or oppressive. But even then, the stories of individuals fighting such collectives tend to impress us only because they ultimately benefit the collective whole. Those individuals who are just out for themselves – blocking the stairway, so to speak – do not inspire our awe and admiration in quite the same way.

Unless, of course, you’re an asshole.

AWAKENING our better angels

A core theme of mindfulness is that it’s supposed to lead to insight, to puncturing illusions, to “seeing things as they really are.” Seeing through the illusion of individualism is no different. And once we do – that is, once our meditation practice is properly aligned to reality and not to fantasies of complete independence and separation from others – then our meditation will indeed work as it should to make us more compassionate people.

Compassion can be an expression of who we are, and not merely of our fear of rules and punishment. The loss of fear in meditation can lead to opening up to other people, not to arrogant disregard of other people. Savouring the present moment can lead to savouring other people, not to mindless self-absorption.

Reality-based meditation can awaken the better angels of our nature.

Be the Change: Mindfulness and Social Justice

What do you think of a monk going off to meditate in a cave for years at a time? How about decades?

Such a person might well be the world champion of meditation. Maybe they are a bona fide Enlightened One. Or maybe they’re a certifiable headcase from the lack of human social interaction.

But the thing is, either way, what good are they? What good is the infinite compassion of an Enlightened One who never interacts with people with whom they can be compassionate towards? What good is a Buddha or a Jesus who no one has ever heard of?

The issue of whether mindfulness is compatible with engaging with the world and seeking social justice is a surprisingly contentious one. I always just took it as a given that a practice centered on increasing your insight and compassion would make you think to extend that compassion beyond yourself and your immediate circles, to care about wider society.

At the very least, I would’ve thought that even a purely selfish person would have to care about the social, economic and environmental conditions in which they, themselves, live… But I was wrong.

THE OPIUM OF THE MASSES

Some critics of the mindfulness movement have been concerned that it is essentially anti social change. In this view, meditation pretty much makes us like the monk in the cave, withdrawing from the world to self-indulgently work on changing ourselves at the expense of changing the world.

Ronald E. Purser, for instance, has infamously coined the term “McMindfulness” to describe the way that mindfulness has become “the new capitalist spirituality.” 1 Essentially, the corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon; and anyone who has walked by a store and seen a sale sign for “Mindfully Made Jeans” and the like has an idea of how mindfulness has been co-opted by consumer materialism.

But Purser’s concerns go further than that. Employers have been forcing their workers to attend professional development meetings and workshops in mindfulness; not because they care about their workers gaining special insight into their minds or the world, but because a happy worker doesn’t complain or go on strike.

Turns out, when mindfulness is tweaked the right way, it can become the new opium of the masses, a potent concoction for creating a zombie horde of happy slaves, all “living in the moment” in order to avoid their real problems.

Far from empowering us to “see things as they really are,” then, meditation wraps us in a blindfold to blissfully sleepwalk into the abyss as the world burns down around us. At best, this “mindful” renunciation of the world is a tacit endorsement of the status quo, an unthinking embrace of the unfair and exploitative power relations that exist in our society.

And even if the workers themselves won’t have it, mindfulness is still a great excuse for employers to just pull out the classic and well-worn blame-the-victim card: “No, my workers’ problems can’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that they’re precariously employed, overworked and underpaid while facing crushing bills, no- it’s just because they’re not being mindful enough.”

PRIVILEGE BLINDNESS

More soul-crushing is that fact that there seem to be plenty of people in the mindfulness movement who are happily doing their utmost to prove their critics right. I’ve mingled in circles of people at meditation workshops or online forums who have quite cheerfully dismissed the idea of engaging in politics or social justice, viewing these as antithetical to their goal of cultivating mindfulness.

Fighting for a cause is frustrating, agonising, stressful. Why would you do it when you can just be blissfully mindful and non-attached to it all? I have no way of knowing scientifically just how widespread this frankly terrifying attitude is, but I’ve seen it enough to know it exists.

The truth is, it takes a certain degree of privilege to even be able to articulate the sentence “I don’t care about politics or social justice.” A slave – to take an extreme example – doesn’t have the luxury to utter such a sentence unless they are one hell of a masochist. All that sentence tells me is that you, personally, are comfortable enough that you are able to insulate yourself from society’s cracks and flaws and tell yourself that “all is well.”

When nothing is actually forcing you to look, it is always easier – less stressful, less frustrating – to just turn a blind eye than to make the effort to see the world from the point of view of someone less privileged than yourself. The term for this is “privilege blindness.”

And sure, it would have been much easier for 19th century abolitionists to not bother fighting slavery, to just retreat into a cave and bliss-out in meditation. But it should be obvious that the fact that something is easier and less stressful does not make it right. If your mindfulness practice makes you go for the easier option just because it’s less stressful, well… I can see why some might start to sympathise with mindfulness’ critics.

MINDFULNESS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

But mindfulness critics like Purser are only half right. At the end of the day, meditation is a tool; whether it’s a “good thing” depends on how you use it. Just as a hammer can be used to build a house or to crush a skull, meditation can be used to deepen your insight into your mind and the world, or to turn you into a happy slave or a blissful ignoramus.

There is, in other words, such a thing as right mindfulness and wrong mindfulness; a distinction that was always present in Buddhism but which seems under-emphasised in the modern mindfulness movement.

As philosopher David Loy has said, mindfulness and social justice need each other. 2 Mindfulness without social justice is the shallow, self-absorbed mindfulness of the comfortable and the privileged; it is not the mindfulness of love and compassion.

And yes, fighting for social justice without mindfulness is indeed stressful and frustrating; it is easy to get down, get angry or get overwhelmed. Far from making us just drop out of the fight and ignore the world’s problems like a sociopath, mindfulness, by allowing us to just take a breath, step back and see things more rationally, can actually empower us to respond to such problems more effectively.

None of this is to say that there is never a time and place for focusing on yourself. I’ve been there. There was certainly a time when I had far too many problems of my own to contend with without also having to battle the Keystone Pipeline or the resurgence of Neo-Nazi numbskulls. Sometimes you do have to take the time to work on yourself before you can take on the world.

But if you claim to give a damn about others, that your mindfulness practice has something to do with compassion, then eventually – when you are able – you have to return to the world and show it.

Sure it’s a cliché, but that’s only because it’s true: You must be the change you want to see in the world.