Does Meditation Make People More Liberal?

By Richard Schiffman

There have been some fascinating studies about the effects of meditation in recent years. Buddhist monks and Trappist friars have been hooked up to EEG machines to record subtle changes in their brainwaves during their spiritual practices. Scores of clinical trials have also been conducted to assess the impact of meditation and prayer on physiological processes ranging from blood pressure and immune system response to recovery rates from surgery.

But until now scientists have not explored the impact of meditation on that most un-meditative of all disciplines — politics. That changed with the release by the University of Toronto earlier this week of a report published in the latest issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, which makes two claims. The first, that people who call themselves “spiritual” tend to hold more liberal views than those who define themselves as “religious,” is hardly surprising. One would expect that individuals who practice yoga and favor vegetarian diets and natural lifestyles would tend to be on the left side of the political spectrum. And anyone who has followed the decades-long rise (and more recent decline) of the religious right won’t be surprised to learn that religious believers are more conservative as a group than their secular counterparts — although there are clearly lots of exceptions to this rule.

However, what is truly new is the other finding of the study — that meditation makes you more liberal, at least in the short term. The researchers arrived at this conclusion by comparing the political views of people who had just participated in a guided meditation with those in a control group. The meditators expressed more liberal views — including a reduced support for “tough on crime” policies, and a preference for liberal political candidates — than the non-meditators.

In an email interview, one of the study’s author’s, professor Jacob Hirsh of the Rotman School of Management, said:

“We suspect that meditation lowers the rigid boundaries between self and other that people normally experience in their lives, promoting a more egalitarian mindset (it’s hard to maintain a competitive frame with another person when you don’t believe that you are separate from one another!). Preferences for egalitarianism, in turn, are one of the key motivational factors underlying support for liberal political attitudes.”

In the name of full disclosure, I should mention that I am both a long-time meditator and spiritual author, and also a self-described liberal on most issues (although I prefer the term “progressive.”) As you might expect, my first reaction to the Toronto study was delight. I have long suspected that liberal views — which I associate with open-heartedness, caring for others, and a non-violent approach to conflict resolution — have a strong, if frequently unacknowledged, spiritual component. It was gratifying to see that science agrees with me!

But after the initial euphoria faded, I had some second thoughts. As a journalist, I am well aware that you can find a study to “prove” virtually any point of view that you are seeking evidence for. Mark Twain hit the nail on the head when he wrote about, “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Moreover, upon closer inspection there are some problems with the Toronto research that make it less than fully convincing — to me at least. For one thing, the sample size for the meditation trials was relatively small: 317 participants. Also, the political views of the meditators were compared to those of a control group. It would have been more persuasive if the researchers had managed to demonstrate that the views of the same individuals had shifted from those which they had previously held. Another weakness is that the study shows — at best — only the transient effect of a single meditation session. What would be really interesting to know is how a long term meditation practice impacts one’s views over time.

I also frankly feel uncomfortable about a line of research that a bit too neatly confirms my own personal biases. One could use these findings to argue — as the religious right obnoxiously does — that God and the angels are on our (the liberal) side.

That is tempting. But I don’t actually think that it is true. God is not on anyone’s side. Or, rather, God is on the side of Truth. And Truth is not the exclusive possession of any particular group or political ideology. As difficult as it is to admit it, there may actually be times when conservatives have got a better handle on things than I do.

Even if one believes that right wing views — especially of the Tea Party variety — are often fear-based and illusory, we still need to concede that a measure of fear and caution are not always inappropriate responses to the very real dangers that exist in the world. Meditation and spiritual practice undoubtedly help to calm our anxieties, and create more positive and trusting attitudes. Which is a good thing. But it is possible to be too trusting. The feelings of oneness that meditators enjoy are precious. But they may not always be the best guide to how we should act in the rough and tumble of the world, where all is not necessarily love and light.

I value the idealism and optimism about human nature that liberalism — at its best — embodies. But politics is always a question of striking the right balance; between trust and caution, between idealism and realism, between preserving what is good in society and transforming what is not. Moreover, a basic tenet of of our American democracy is that that no individual or point of view has all of the answers. This is also the conclusion of the Toronto study.

I like how the study’s co-author, psychology professor Jordan Peterson sums it up:

“The conservative part of religious belief has played an important role in holding cultures together and establishing common rules. The spiritual part, on the other hand, helps cultures renew themselves by adapting to changing circumstances. Both right and left are necessary; it’s not that either is correct, it’s that the dialogue between them produces the best chance we have at getting the balance right. If people could understand that both sides have an important role to play in society, some of the unnecessary tension might be eliminated.”

Richard Schiffman is a poet, an environmental journalist and the author of two spiritual biographies who is based in New York City. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, NPR and the Guardian amongst other outlets.

6 Comments

  1. Jessica
    Posted March 1, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    I agree entirely that a stronger study would have measured political beliefs pre and post mediation in both intervention and control groups, but I want to point out that 317 is not a small sample size. That's completely sufficient, assuming they were selected into each group in a scientifically sound way.

    As a social scientist, I need to say that journalists often portray scientific studies incorrectly. Big, bold headlines sell newspapers and magazines, but really aren't the stuff of science, which is almost always incremental and unfolds at a measured pace. It would be great if journalists and researchers talked more, so we could understand each other better–journalists could spot and communicate good science, and scientists would better understand how to communicate findings to the public. This would only benefit the public as a whole, as they would have access to higher quality information.

  2. Joe
    Posted March 1, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Liberalism (progressivism is a very bad word, considering it peaked in the early 20th century and was responsible for an alarming support for eugenics) has always had an emotional appeal. There is no emotional appeal to conservatism. Conservatism is a worldview that often conflicts with what we ardently wish were true. Some people are better than others at putting emotions aside and analyzing economics, etc. dispassionately. Policies succeed or fail without the slightest regard for how we feel about them. So while meditation makes people better individual human beings, it tends to simultaneously make them less likely to identify political systems that would be effective, as opposed to those that simply arouse warm feelings. The personal does not segue seamlessly into the political – a very hard lesson for some to swallow, but one that's proven itself true throughout history.

  3. confused
    Posted March 1, 2013 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    are we talking about liberal or neo-liberal?

  4. Darcy
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I have always thought that liberal politics was more open to uncertainty and ambiguity, while conservatism was more inclined towards certainty and fixed things. While a liberal would possibly say, we'll make the decision based on the complex of factors at the time, a conservative might rely more on rules and traditions. A liberal might say, there is no right answer, and we'll do what makes sense given a complex analysis of conditions (even if that decision ends up being wrong due to misunderstanding of what is needed), while a conservative might say, we know what is right, it is what has "always been done", and we'll always do it (even if it hasn't worked in the past). I would think meditation in the West, with it's emphasis on "being comfortable with uncertainty" and openness to present moment experience, might lead a person to think in ways that parallel liberal thinking, as I understand it. It would be interesting to do a study on how meditation in the East, where the emphasis may be more grounded in tradition and history, impacts a practitioner's political views.

    Great summary to the article – balancing the two methods of being open to uncertainty and making context sensitive decisions while also looking back to received wisdom/tradition as the way to create an effective political system. That sounds like real skillful means – including all parts of the spectrum. And a very "middle way" approach.

  5. nobility
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    An unregistered Rohingya child draws on the wall of a classroom provided by the charity democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi as a human rights activist for Burma’s Buddhists. Suu Kyi, he said, is “only interested in the human rights of the Buddhists because they are human beings and the Muslims are not.”

    While the emotion behind the statement is understandable, there is a political calculus at play. Aung San Suu Kyi has little to gain from speaking out against the treatment of the Rohingya Muslims. She is no longer a political dissident, she’s a politician and her eyes are fixed on a prize: winning the 2015 election with a majority Buddhist vote.

    Prior to his lecture in Brunei, Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu sent a letter to Suu Kyi on behalf of OIC in which he pressed the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader to use her enormous awza, or earned societal influence, to help stem the tide of Buddhist racism against the Rohingya and the Muslim population at large. The letter was met with silence. In failing to decry the human rights abuses against the Rohingya, Burma’s iconic leader—who is seen in some Burmese Buddhist circles as bhodhi saddhava (“would-be Buddha”)—has failed to walk the walk of Buddhist humanism.

    Over the course of the past few years an extremely potent and dangerous strain of racism has emerged among Burma’s Theravada Buddhists, who have participated in the destruction and expulsion of the entire population of Rohingya Muslims. The atrocities occurring in the name of Buddhist nationalism in Burma are impossible to reconcile with the ideal of metta. Buddhist Rakhine throw young Rohingya children into the flames of their own homes before the eyes of family members. On June 3, 10 out-of-province Muslim pilgrims were pulled off a bus in the Rakhine town of Taunggoke, about 200 miles west of the former capital Rangoon, and beaten to death by a mob of more than 100 Buddhist men. The crime occurred in broad daylight and in full view of both the public and local law enforcement officials.

  6. Dave
    Posted March 8, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    "Mind is the forerunner of all deeds" said the Buddha, A mind of rigid thoughts is attracted to rigid politics; left or right. A mind of nimble thoughts is attracted to nimble politics; left or right.

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