A Practice to Heal Prejudice

A Practice to Heal Prejudice

How loving-kindness meditation taps the roots of empathy

Illustration Credit: Tribe by Laura Berger

In a classroom at Yale University, community members gathered to learn a simple practice that has been taught for thousands of years. These people volunteered to be part of a study of loving-kindness meditation led by Yoona Kang, then a graduate student at Yale. Kang’s study asked a simple but socially relevant question: Can meditation reduce prejudice?

Prejudice has been a focus of national attention in the aftermath of arrests involving excessive and deadly force by police officers against racial minorities. But the question of prejudice has been a topic of deep interest to psychologists for decades. Despite the thousands of studies on prejudice, only recently have psychologists begun to look at whether meditation can assuage this social ill. The findings deserve attention.

Loving-kindness, known as metta in the Pali language of India, is a practice as fundamental to Buddhism as mindfulness. Although all forms of Buddhism maintain some form of metta, it is most often associated with Theravada Buddhism. Steven Smith, a practitioner in the Burmese Buddhist tradition, cofounder of Vipassana Hawai’i and the MettaDana Project, explains that metta means “the state or art of being a friend, or connection . . . it’s a basic sense of human warmth, one heart to all of life.” Metta is an unadulterated feeling of connection, spirit, kinship, and benevolence without conditions or expectation. Loving-kindness meditation is a way to invite and cultivate this sense of unity.

The first research studies of loving-kindness investigated whether it deepens feelings of social connection. Several studies have supported this assumption. But Kang (now a postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania) and colleagues were interested in a more specific and challenging question. Can loving-kindness reduce prejudice toward two stigmatized groups, the homeless and African Americans?
“I wanted to have a really strong test of the efficacy of meditation,” said Kang. “If you think about these two groups of people, there are often deeply ingrained, very difficult biases against them.”

One of the most challenging aspects of research is to tease apart why something works:

  • Is it meditation itself that reduces prejudice?
  • Is it listening to the ideas of loving-kindness (much like a dharma talk)?
  • Is it coming to a meditation group and meeting new people that lessen bias?

To test these ideas, some volunteers in Kang’s study attended a six-week educational class with reading and discussion about the ideas of loving-kindness. Other participants, led by the same teacher, attended a six-week group that actually practiced loving-kindness meditation. At the end of the study, participants in the meditation group, but not the class, reported reduced prejudice toward both African Americans and the homeless. Prejudice was assessed at an unconscious and automatic level using a task called the implicit association test.

Says Kang, “I think loving-kindness really breaks the heart open and shows you different possibilities to connect with all kinds of people, which requires a lot of courage.” That emotional connection may allow us to look at others in a new way. Matthew Hunsinger, assistant professor at Pacific University, and colleagues found that practitioners of loving-kindness and other similar practices reported more empathy toward people in general and less prejudice toward African Americans.

“With empathy,” explains Hunsinger, “there are two components: perspective taking, putting yourself in someone else's shoes, and also the emotional reaction to someone else’s suffering. We’re shifting the way people are responding to others cognitively and affectively/emotionally. That may actually cause people to consider the plight of individuals from marginalized social groups.” He is quick to caution that he studied experienced meditators, and it may be that more empathic people choose to meditate rather than meditation improving empathy.

The benefits of loving-kindness meditation may boil down to the fact that it’s hard to feel prejudice against those to whom you feel similar. As Hunsinger explains, “Loving-kindness gets rid of the us-versus-them dichotomy that we create very easily and very quickly in our social world: We all want to be happy. We all want to be healthy. Most people don’t want to experience suffering.”

Easing Anxiety

In addition to building a sense of connection to others, meditation may also temper a more insidious cause of prejudice: intergroup anxiety, that gnawing sense of awkwardness or discomfort that wells up inside our bellies when we think about meeting people who are different from us. To some extent, all of us harbor some intergroup anxiety (e.g., Democrats toward Republicans and vice versa), and it does not mean one is prejudiced, only uneasy around members of these out groups. The discomfort of intergroup anxiety, however, leads to avoidance and, more troubling, to a reliance on stereotypes as a basis for judging these individuals. But loving-kindness can ease intergroup anxiety. One notable study found that just one eight-minute session of loving-kindness meditation decreased participants’ anxi-eties toward the homeless and improved their willingness to make future contact. By softening such anxieties, loving-kindness may be a first step toward interacting with those we formerly feared.

Although the evidence is building that loving-kindness breaks down prejudices, it may not be the only meditation that does so. A recent paper by Julieta Galante, a member of the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry, compiled the results of several studies comparing loving-kindness meditation to mindfulness meditation. Surprisingly, loving-kindness and mindfulness meditations were equally effective in enhancing compassion and altruism, as well as mindfulness. Unfortunately, prejudice and discrimination were not assessed in this study. However, a recent study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that just 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation reduces age and race biases.

Like loving-kindness, mindfulness meditation may also build tolerance and acceptance for others. As Galante explains, “Mindfulness practice requires a degree of loving-kindness, particularly self-compassion, to witness our thoughts without judging them.” The mindful practice of attentive and nonjudgmental self-awareness may make practitioners more accepting of themselves and of others. Nonjudgmental self-awareness may also serve as a model for looking at others as they are, without the lens of stereotypes, bias, and fear. But maybe the calmness of mind and temperateness of spirit may assuage intergroup anxiety and other fears that lead to prejudice.

What Makes Prejudice Worse?

Given all the benefits of meditation on physical and emotional health, it’s hard to imagine any negative effects. Kang, however, cautions that some research has found that creating external pressure to be accepting of others can actually backfire and increase prejudice. In a 2011 study, participants who were told that reducing prejudice was a social obligation actually ended up reporting more prejudice, while those who were encouraged to reduce prejudice for the potential personal benefits showed less prejudice. No studies to date have shown such negative effects of meditation, but it does suggest that loving-kindness shouldn’t feel forced.

Although loving-kindness is a powerful practice, it’s not clear whether it can soften the prejudices of the most discriminatory. Current research only shows college students, those who choose to practice it on their own, and volunteers are more open-minded after meditating. Could loving-kindness help those in more desperate situations? Keith Warren, an associate professor of social work at The Ohio State University, is in the process of studying whether loving-kindness meditation can help residents of a halfway house for substance abuse. Warren says that residents of the halfway house, many of whom have often suffered extensive histories of pain and trauma, often harbor anger, hostility, and mistrust of others. While teaching loving-kindness meditation, Warren observed that some residents felt more positive, more relaxed, and more trusting. He sees trust, in the staff and in other residents, as a key to residents benefiting from a therapeutic treatment community, such as a halfway house. The study is still underway, but it raises the hope that meditation can benefit those who are deeply stigmatized and suspicious of authority.

Can we meditate away prejudice? Obviously not, but the preliminary evidence shows that meditation, especially loving-kindness, may be one way to start changing the way we feel about others. Although loving-kindness meditation is a powerful means of feeling connected to others, the practice of loving-kindness is more than just the meditation. It is a way of life, a way of being. As with other ideas derived from Buddhism, loving-kindness meditation isn’t a shortcut to metta or a self-improvement technique. We don’t practice metta to lessen prejudice; we practice it to bring out an inner spirit of oneness.

With that said, how can we experience metta and hold ill will toward another? As Smith says, when you experience metta “everything is seen with that glow of connection; [that] felt sense of being connected, the warmth, tenderness of the heart to everything.”

The Practice of Loving-Kindness

Steven Smith, cofounder of Vipassana Hawai’i, explains that loving-kindness meditation can be practiced in two ways. The first version is to experience a felt sense of connection, what Smith calls the “wordless abiding.” This is to call forth a feeling of oneness and project it outward. The second, and more familiar version to Westerners, is a repetition of phrases. These phrases include four fundamental messages:

  1. “May I/you be safe” (free from inner and outer harm).
  2. “May I/you be happy” (free from mental disturbance and distress).
  3. “May I/you be strong and healthy” (experience love’s capacity to heal the body/mind).
  4. “May I/you be able to care for oneself joyfully” (live with ease and well-being).

Smith advises that the phrases are not commands but ways to draw forth a felt sense of the wish. These intentions are generally projected in sequence: start with yourself, move to a benefactor (someone who made you feel seen, heard, worthy, recognized), a dear friend, a neutral person (a person to whom you have neither strong attachment or dislike), and finally a difficult person (someone with whom you struggled). Smith recommends practicing with one recipient until metta comes with ease before you move to the next person, and starting with a person with whom you only have modest conflict before tackling someone you have serious difficulties with. He notes the biggest challenge is typically oneself—the feeling that we can’t do this. His advice: “Be assured that you already have all that you need inside to experience metta.”

Jason Drwal is a freelance writer, blogger, psychologist, and avid practitioner of mindfulness.

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