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Mindfulness and morality | Practical Ethics

From Practical Ethics:

Every day, for about thirty-five minutes, I sit cross-legged on a cushion with my eyes shut. I regulate my breath, titrating its speed against numbers in my head; I watch my breath surging and trickling in and out of my chest; I feel the air at the point of entry and exit; I export my mind to a point just beyond my nose and pour the breath into that point. When my mind wanders off, I tug it back. The practice is systematic and arduous. In some ways it is complex: it involves 16 distinct stages. When I am tired, and the errant mind won’t come quietly back on track, I find it helpful to summarise the injunctions to myself to these: I am here This is it I alternate the emphases: ‘I am here’: ‘I am here’; ‘I am here’; ‘This is it’; ‘This is it’; ‘This is it.’ I note (although not usually, and not ideally, when I’m in the middle of the practice) that each of these connotations presumes something about the existence of an ‘I’. This is less obvious with the second proposition, but clearly there: ‘This’ is something that requires a subject. This is Samatha meditation, a Buddhist practice that aims to develop concentration (the ability to keep my mind on the task at hand) and mindfulness (the wider view of myself that allows me to recognize that I’ve wandered, and prompts me to return). The relationship between the ‘I’ that’s attached to the task and the ‘I’ that summons the concentrating ‘I’ back to the job is fascinating and mysterious. There is no metaphysics in this; no theology; no creed. It is practical psychology; a tool for cutting out the white noise that prevents us from hearing properly; for stilling the mind and enabling it to rest where it is needed; it is, in short, a tool to maximize volition. St. Paul wrote: ‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.’ 1 Every meditator understands. You want your mind to stay counting up and down from one to nine, but it won’t do it. It’s very frustrating and very strange. It makes you wonder who’s the boss. Mindfulness meditation would have helped St. Paul a lot. Paul went on to bemoan the effect of this psychological turbulence on his morality. Quite right. Which brings me to the point of this post. When I meditate I’m nicer than when I don’t. Many people have noticed it. Meditation makes me less selfish and more altruistic. I noticed this long before other people pointed it out to me, and long before I knew that the literature suggested that it was likely to be the case: this wasn’t, therefore, a placebo effect. I thought that meditation was entirely about my personal calm and focus. The literature is sparse but emphatic: Some examples: A one day course in compassion meditation enhanced the making of prosocial economic decisions: here and here. A dramatic and colourful example of the general gist is a 2013 paper by Condon et al.— ‘Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering’.  The study group went to a weekly meditation class for 8 weeks, and was instructed to practise meditation between classes. The members of the control group were told that they were on the waiting list for a meditation class. After the 8 weeks, the subjects of both groups were invited to a lab. They were told that there they would undergo some psychological experiments. In fact, though, the real experiment took place in the waiting room. When each subject arrived she found that there were three chairs in the waiting room. Two were occupied already (by people in the pay of the investigators) who had been instructed to keep those seats whatever happened. The new arrival sat on the vacant chair. But then another person entered (again a set-up by the investigators). The new arrival was on crutches and wore a boot indicating an orthopaedic injury to the foot. Since there was no vacant seat, he leant against the wall, groaning audibly. A depressingly low 16% of the control group gave up their seats. But 50% of the meditators did. Why? The question was examined in Lim et al: ‘Mindfulness and compassion: An examination of mechanisms and scaleability’ (2015),  which concluded that the effect was not due to increased ability to decode the emotional experiences of others. One of the authors of the Condon paper, David De Steno, speculated in the New York Times  on the reasons. There were two candidates, he thought. First, since meditation enhances attention, meditators might more readily notice someone in pain, rather than being wrapped up in their own thoughts. And second (his preferred explanation), it might be a result of the view, fostered by meditation practice, that all beings are interconnected. ‘The increased compassion of meditators, then, might stem directly from meditation’s ability to dissolve the artificial social distinctions – ethnicity, religion, ideology and the like – that divide us.’ I expect that both of these candidates contribute. But I have two other suggestions. The expansion and consequent increased relationality of the Se

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