Mindfulness Meditation Make Some More Selfish and Less Generous

July 13, 2021

When Japanese chef Yoshihiro Murata travels, he brings water with him from Japan. He says this is the only way to make truly authentic dashi, the flavorful broth essential to Japanese cuisine. There’s science to back him up: water in Japan is notably softer – which means it has fewer dissolved minerals – than in many other parts of the world. So when Americas enjoy Japanese food, they arguably aren’t getting quite the real thing.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to food. Taking something out of its geographic or cultural context often changes the thing itself.

Take the word “namaste.” In modern Hindi, it’s simply a respectful greeting, the equivalent of a formal “hello” appropriate for addressing one’s elders. But in the U.S., its associations with yoga have led many people to believe that it’s an inherently spiritual word.

Another cultural tradition that has changed across time and place is the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental expansive awareness of one’s experiences, often cultivated through meditation.

A range of studies have found mindfulness to be beneficial for the people who practice it in a number of ways.

However, very little research has examined its effects on societies, workplaces and communities. As a social psychologist at the University at Buffalo, I wondered if the growing enthusiasm for mindfulness might be overlooking something important: the way practicing it might affect others.

A booming market

In just the past few years, the mindfulness industry has exploded in the U.S. Current estimates put the U.S. meditation market – which includes meditation classes, studios, and apps – at approximately US$1.2 billion. It’s expected to grow to over $2 billion by 2022.

Hospitals, schools and even prisons are teaching and promoting mindfulness, while over 1 in 5 employers currently offer mindfulness training.

The enthusiasm for mindfulness makes sense: Research shows mindfulness can reduce stress, increase self-esteem and decrease symptoms of mental illness.

Given these findings, it’s easy to assume that mindfulness has few, if any, downsides. The employers and educators who promote it certainly seem to think so. Perhaps they hope that mindfulness won’t just make people feel better, but that it will also make them be better. That is, maybe mindfulness can make people more generous, cooperative or helpful – all traits that tend to be desirable in employees or students.

Mindfulness migrates

But in reality, there’s good reason to doubt that mindfulness, as practiced in the U.S., would automatically lead to good outcomes.

In fact, it may do the opposite.

That’s because it’s been taken out of its context. Mindfulness developed as a part of Buddhism, where it’s intimately tied up with Buddhist spiritual teachings and morality. Mindfulness in the U.S., on the other hand, is often taught and practiced in purely secular terms. It’s frequently offered simply as a tool for focusing attention and improving well-being, a conception of mindfulness some critics have referred to as “McMindfulness.”

Not only that, mindfulness and Buddhism developed in Asian cultures in which the typical way in which people think about themselves differs from that in the U.S. Specifically, Americans tend to think of themselves most often in independent terms with “I” as their focus: “what I want,” “who I am.” By contrast, people in Asian cultures more often think of themselves in interdependent terms with “we” as their focus: “what we want,” “who we are.”

Cultural differences in how people think about themselves are subtle and easy to overlook – sort of like different kinds of water. But just as those different kinds of water can change flavors when you cook, I wondered if different ways of thinking about the self might alter the effects of mindfulness.

For interdependent-minded people, what if mindful attention to their own experiences might naturally include thinking about other people – and make them more helpful or generous? And if this were the case, would it then be true that, for independent-minded people, mindful attention would spur them to focus more on their individual goals and desires, and therefore cause them to become more selfish?

Testing the social effects

I floated these questions to my colleague at the University at Buffalo, Shira Gabriel, because she’s a recognized expert on independent versus interdependent ways of thinking about the self.

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