Healing Society through Meditation
Meditation is widely recognized as a tool to enhance health and well-being, decrease stress, and increase happiness. Unbeknownst to many people, meditating on balancing positive and negative emotions can lead to profound changes in society as a whole. From greater solidarity to decreased crime, it could all start with a few minutes of seated silence.
In Western society, meditation has become associated with health and well-being. In times of high speed and high stress, people turn to meditation to feel more calm, relaxed, and at peace with themselves and their lives. With ongoing practice and guidance, meditators begin to notice shifts in their emotional states: the ability to handle conflict increases, and sometimes even old emotional trauma can be resolved. However, this enhanced sense of well-being is only one part of what meditation practice can bring to society.
The practice of meditation is simple. It involves sitting in a comfortable yet strong and erect posture, setting a positive resolve, and allowing for a few minutes of focused yet relaxed concentration. Many people have experienced meditative states outside of formal practice, perhaps while gardening, drawing, or enjoying the sounds of nature.
Modern meditation teaches us how to de-stress and de-clutter our minds, and gradually approach daily life with greater ease and balance. It has been used successfully as a tool to improve the concentration and performance of students, treat mood disorders like depression and anxiety, and even rehabilitate addicts and criminals.
Traditionally, meditation practice is used first to heal the practitioner, and second and more importantly, to heal society. In Mahayana Buddhism, the most popular tradition of Buddhism today, helping ourselves is viewed as a stepping stone to helping others. In order to help others, meditators practice developing nonjudgmental awareness, the so-called equanimity (Latin: æquanimitas – having an even mind).
Weakening the catastrophizing mind
The first step of practicing equanimity is to watch our thoughts without judgement. Rather than labeling our thoughts as “good” or “bad,” we watch them with attention to how and why they arise.
Equanimity practice weakens what Buddhist nun and psychologist Chönyi Taylor calls the “catastrophizing mind” – the mind which overreacts negatively or positively to the happenings of daily life1. In this mindset, when our teacher or boss is angry with us we feel like a failure; in contrast, when we receive welcomed praise, our pride grows.
The emotions which our unbalanced mind creates are always temporary, and often cause unnecessary suffering by encouraging attachment, aversion, craving, and fear. Equanimity practice helps our minds become balanced, so that when events occur which could be deemed disruptive, we have control over our mental responses to them.
Feelings only temporary
The practice of equanimity is expanded to include not only our thoughts and reactions, but also our feelings towards all living beings. The meditator practices “equalizing” her feelings towards family, friends, enemies, strangers, animals, and herself, by meditating on the fact that her current feelings and attachments, favors and disfavors, are only a temporary consequence of specific conditions.
While we may dislike someone now, that person could have been our companion in the past. While we may be in a loving relationship with someone else, our love for them could fade in the future. Every single living being is equally deserving of happiness and freedom, none more or less than another. As we meditate on this, we begin to realize it as truth and act on this truth in our daily lives.
This can bring us to a state of being where kindness, generosity and understanding towards others flows more easily. Through practice, we can reprocess our minds and replace doubt, fear, and anger with trust, love, and patience. We nourish a natural desire to help others, to contribute positively to the communities around us and the world as a whole.
Meditation can help us become more grounded in the present, thus more aware of our actions, and transform our daily existence into one where we strive to live with inward and outward positivity. When we might have ignored someone in need in the past because we did not know them or relate to them, or because we disliked them or did not see a possibility of personal gain, through meditation practice we may see our desire to help that same person transform. We begin to make more of an effort to help strangers and loved ones alike, because we more deeply understand each person’s equal value and desire for happiness.
Buddhist scholar and co-founder of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, Kyabe Zopa Rinpoche, on equanimity meditation:
“If one lives one’s life with the attitude that one has the responsibility of freeing all sentient beings from suffering and obtaining their happiness, then whatever actions one does, walking, sitting, eating, sleeping — everything becomes service for others… As oneself has the right to achieve happiness and eliminate suffering so also have others. As oneself needs and wishes everyone to be compassionate and loving to oneself, support oneself, help oneself, exactly like that every other living being needs compassion and loving kindness from me.” 2
Proven reduction in crime levels
The societal effects of meditation are very real. On an energetic level, meditation has been proven to positively impact the communities. In dozens of experiments over the past fifty years, large group meditations have caused dramatic decreases in crime rates, known as the “Field Effect” or the “Maharishi Effect.” One study conducted in Washington D.C. saw a 16 percent decrease in the levels of homicides, rapes and assaults over a period of regular prolonged group meditation. The study concluded that a permanent group of 4000 expert meditators would reduce crime by 48 percent in the long run3.
Meditation can be a powerful social practice. Ultimately it is our motivation and our intention which creates positive change. When I sit down to meditate, I do so with the goal of bettering myself so that I may in turn help others. I am motivated by a desire for greater compassion, patience, and wisdom, which I hope can be used to heal those around me. With pure enough intention and power in numbers, we have the ability to make meaningful change and directly heal our societies.
1 Taylor, Chönyi (2010) Enough! A Buddhist Approach to Finding Release from Addictive Patterns. Ithaca, New York. Snow Lion Publications.
2 Valham, Karin (2012) Extended Lam-Rim Outlines: Beginners’ Meditation Guide. Kathmandu, Nepal. Independently published by Kopan Monastery.
3 Hagelin, J.S. et al (1999) Effects of Group Practice of the Transcendental Meditation Program on Preventing Violent Crime in Washington D.C.: Results of the National Demonstration Project, June–July 1993, Social Indicators Research, Volume 47, Issue 2. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1006978911496