A couple of years ago Beatrice Alba and I discussed the fact that there were many academic studies of mindfulness meditation, but few of metta. Although simply complaining about the situation is usually a pleasant enough experience, for some reason we decided to actually do something about it. Go figure!
So for two metta retreats we handed out forms and got people to fill them in, according to a scheme that Beatrice worked out. She wrote an analysis of the findings, and it’s now been published in the journal Contemporary Buddhism. Congrats to Beatrice for putting in the work and helping put our knowledge of metta meditation on a more scientific footing.
Unfortunately the article is behind a paywall, so those of you without institutional affiliation will have to pay the ludicrous sum of $37 to download the pdf file. Or, if you don’t feel like enriching the pockets of a multinational corporation that clears some $150 million in profit every year from the ideas and work of others, you could contact me.
The gist of the study: metta meditation is good. You knew that! But now it’s peer-reviewed, so it must be true.
35 thoughts on “Loving-kindness meditation: a field study”
The suspense is my meditation object …. 😉
Oooh! n0j0 has won the interwebz!
Thank you for letting us know about this field study. I am quite interested in it so if it is appropriate could you send me a copy of it?
I hope this study leads to this being examined with more scientific rigour. Still, it is an interesting read with a wealth of citations to previous or foundational work. Of course, I can add a couple of overlooked interpretations of results: particularly the insignificant change in answers to the Fordyce
happiness question 🙂 : 1) Retreat participants may be happy to be leaving (that’s the deadpan interpretation) 2) Retreats are not always easy for people to complete.
And to expand on the point about lack of longitudinal data, retreats of this length certainly do not contain within their scope any level of ‘mastery’… an experienced person would theoretically experience the benefits of meditation which has for the most part already completed. Just as a bicyclist reaps the benefits of previous rides well done while in the current one.
Thanks for the comments, I’ll mention them to Beatrice.
I would very much appreciate it if I could get a copy of the article.
Thank you very much.
There doesn’t seem to be much scientific research on the physiological effects while a meditator is in jhana. I am thinking of the effects of advanced jhana states which are mentioned in Ajahn Brahm’s meditation handbook, such as the pulse slowing down to what would normally be considered dangerously low levels. It would be nice to read about this being observed in a laboratory setting, and it would give us critical thinkers a huge dose of saddha as well!
Yes, it’s hard to know about these things. Of course such states are difficult to attain anyway, how much more so when the meditator is wired up to machines? Perhaps we will have to wait for a new generation of more senstive and less intrusive means of measurement.
While I think it’s useful to support increasing scientific knowledge about consciousness and meditation, it is still the case that most of the basic science is still extremely primitive. Recently there was a lot of press about (yet another) study whose “findings” reinforced popular stereotypes about male/female brain differences. The study was quickly criticized by a number of experts, including Cordelia Fine, who has coined the lovely phrase “neurosexism”. This is a contribution to a growing concern for the misuse of popularized neuroscience. Neuroscience all too often hijacks well-known cognitive biases to justify a biological basis for stereotypes.
Nevertheless, there has been some tremendous recent progress, as a recent article in the Guardian has conclusively demonstrated important difference between male and female brains.
Perhaps we should add to that that the brains of monks are overwhelming male, thus proving that women can’t ordain? Or something?
Actually it looks like we have a study! Sylvester posted a link in Dhamma Wheel to a high-tech study of one of Ayya Khema’s disciples who apparently enters several jhanas.
Primitive? Hm I don’t know. But in terms of the research – and please correct me if I am wrong – I thought there was a fair bit being done by Tibetan practitioners such as Matthieu Ricard in teeing up such studies studies, and that both he and figures such as the Dalai Lama have been very positive about it all (and that with Matthieu at least there were significant brain changes recorded; at least a beginning). If I may say, is there nothing to the study you cite? It’s like subconscious racist tendencies evinced by brain scans surely? More a tendency or possibly subliminal inclination? In which case, would it not be merely a determinist interpretation of the results that is the problem rather than the results themselves?
Re this study (http://www.hindawi.com/journals/np/2013/653572/):
Seems there are several unquestioned (and undiscussed) assumptions being made at the outset, in even how the study is set up, and throughout, such as what jhana is in ‘Buddhism’, what constitutes various levels of jhana, what’s possible for a person to do within a jhana, among others…
Hello Mr. Sujato,
Could you please send me a copy, too?
This could even increase my motivation about the upcoming metta retreat you teach (hey, 6 days to go), and it might be useful for convincing my family and friends that I’m not going to get trapped in some weird sect – or at least that it’s still beneficial..
Dear Ajahn Sujato,
Thanks for your replying to my other comment 🙂 I have another question. I agree with the idea that the Noble Eightfold Path is pretty much the only thing one needs to be concerned with to be considered a Buddhist. But I am struggling to find serious support for the practice of metta in any of the eight factors. I find it difficult to convince my vipassana-centric friends that metta is as important as you and Ajahn Brahm make it out to be.
Obviously harmlessness is stressed in the sila group of factors. However, an argument could easily be made that one can remain harmless without actively generating lots of metta and karuna.
Could you please refer me to some sutta passages that strongly suggest that metta and karuna are integral to the Eightfold Path?
I second this question 🙂 it has always bothered me that right action in the noble eight fold path only involves non-harming non-stealing and non-sexual misconduct, but it falls short of encouraging taking compassionate action to make the world a better place. In comparison with christianity and Islam where helping others is considered a religious duty.
I think its possible that royal patrons of Buddhism, or monks concerned with the preservation of the monastic community over the poor of the lay community preferred to emphasize the world transcending aspect of the Dhamma over the world changing aspect of it.
As evidence of this i turn to “The Chinese Madhyama Agama and The Pali Majjhima Nikaya” by Bhiksu Thich Minh Chau pg 30-31 under the heading “Stress on Compassion” he compares C N 170 :(vii, 17b, 2-8) “There are people who are not givers, who do not give charity to recluses, brahmanas, poor people, orphans and beggars coming from afar; they do not give food…”
with P N 135 (iii, 205, 6-15): Almost the same. But it mentions charity to be given only to recluses and brahmanas and omits poor people, orphans and beggars from coming from affar.
I can think of several suttas from the Pali Nikayas that encourage social change and warn of the dangers to society of not enacting such positive change. And it seems only logical when you think of “right action” for that to mean DOING good not simply refraining from being bad. and i cant think of another place in the canon where only the negative (refraining from) is proclaimed but the positive is not also proclaimed. For example whenever the suttas discuss greed hatred and delusion that same sutta will almost always lift up non greed, generosity non hatred, love and non delusion, wisdom as things to be actively cultivated.
My understanding from a Bhikkhu Bodhi article on accesstoinsight is that each precept has an element of restraint, and another element of performance.
“Each principle embedded in the precepts… actually has two aspects, both essential to the training as a whole. One is abstinence from the unwholesome, the other commitment to the wholesome; the former is called “avoidance” (varitta) and the latter “performance” (caritta).”
Hope you find it helpful.
Sorry – meant to write each part of the 8-fold path (I wrote the precepts, although presumably the element of performance would apply to the precepts as well?).
Dear Bhante, i would be glad to receive a copy, too. Thank you.
I would be very grateful if I could receive a copy please. With kindest regards Stef
Could I have a copy, too? 🙂
I don’t know if Ajahn Brahm’s retreats could be classified as metta meditation, but one can feel that retreatants are trying to practice metta and it is a real holiday getaway from the harshness of the lay world.
There is of course the compassion training research being conducted at Stanford:
Dear Bhante Sujato,
A few of us are having a discussion about upekkhā at http://abhayadana.com/?page_id=857 We’re working through the pāramī, so we’ll eventually get to mettā.
Please stop by and share your thoughts if you have time.
WHERE ARE YOU?
YOUR WELL SO THATS GOOD TO SEE
(MY LOWER CASE IS NOT WORKING)
IM STILL IN DARWIN MY PRACTICE IS GOING WELL
Dear Achan Sujato, Enjoyed immensely your dhamma talks at the Mahabodi Centre, Colombo. You have set us free! Much much merit. I am also looking to email you to get the article on contemporary buddhism that you have recommended, but cannot find your email address on this blog. Maybe this comment will reach you. My email address – firstname.lastname@example.org . With joy and inspiration from your life. May all your wishes come true. Sincerely and respectfully, Tania
Just researching metta meditation for a presentation at work, and came accross your blog. Would appreciate a copy of the study to spread the metta!
I would very much appreciate it if I could also get a copy of the article.
Thank you very much.
Much metta from Dorte
congratulations on Santi monastery – its working very well….is there an issue with mixing nuns with monks – was this ever done during or after Buddhas time – it does a great service to helping fix the “duality” gap of men and women….
Dear Bhikhu Sujato,
If you get a chance, I would love to obtain a copy of this article.
Yours in Dharma,
The information provided on 19 December 2013 has been moderated enough don’t you think? So would appreciate that it be just be deleted from your blogsite. Thks! _/\_
Would enjoy a copy of this as well. Thanks in advance
Hi Bhante Sujato
I am interested in a copy of the paper on loving kindness meditation’ thank you’
I don´t know if it is to late but I also would like to have a copy of this article.
Thank you very much
Dear Bhante, I see you’re back today. Welcome back and I look forward to more posts. Can you kindly send me a copy of this study please. Many thanks.
Dear Bhante Sujato, I am looking forward to attending your metta meditation retreat in Perth in May. I would like a copy of the paper if possible, Thanks and see you in May.
Dear Bhante, if you’re currently emailing out copies of the study, could you spare a moment to email me one too please. I’ve just started metta meditation and it would be an interesting read. Thank you!