By Dr. Paula Watkins
We humans can be nasty things. Dr Zimbardo’s now famous 1971 psychology experiments and any basic history lesson make that abundantly clear. I didn’t go to a private girls school but I’m often told that’s a whole other lesson in meanness itself. We get drawn into separating “us” from “them” to the point of inter-group conflict (on minor and mass scales) and our brains (yes, our brains) are hardwired to discriminate and categorize our human brothers and sisters according to surface similarities.
On the other hand, we humans can also be an awesomely benevolent, compassionate and loving species. Hot off the research presses, we have a creative study exploring how a six-week practice of loving-kindness meditation can reduce stigmatizing and discriminatory attitudes towards homeless people. Interestingly, just talking about loving-kindness didn’t produce the same positive result — it turns out you have to actually do the practice.
To obtain these results, the researchers assigned participants to one of three conditions: a six-week loving-kindness discussion, a six-week loving-kindness meditation, or a wait list as the control. In addition to suggesting a reduction in negative attitudes toward the homeless, the study also showed that participants’ racist attitudes were tougher to shift than their bias regarding homeless people.
We can hope that this interesting (albeit disturbing) finding provides a challenge to researchers and prompts further research into the mechanisms of discriminatory behavior, in addition to the strategies to help us be better animals.
But for the rest of us, the question is: How can we use this research in our own lives and meditation practices? For starters, it’s time to put down the meditation book (and get off the internet, right now!) — reading about meditation isn’t the same as actually doing it.
Perhaps more important, practice loving-kindness. It may be helpful to get honest with yourself first: Who do you judge? Make sure you gently move toward including this person or group within those to whom you feel loving-kindness.