You Need More Than a Book to Learn Loving-Kindness

If a visitor from another planet arrived on Earth and asked you about the meaning of love, would you point him to Greater Good‘s articles on the subject? Or would you try to do some intergalactic matchmaking?

This question speaks to the eternal debate between book knowledge and street smarts, theory and practice, knowing intellectually vs. knowing experientially.

Now, scholars from the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, and Michigan State University have addressed that question on the subject of loving-kindness, a mental state of unconditional love and compassion for all beings that has its roots in Buddhism and mindfulness. Loving-kindness meditation involves calling up the positive sentiments you have toward another person and then extending them to yourself, strangers, and all beings.

And here, at least, experience seems to trump intellectual knowledge. In a recent study published in the journal Mindfulness, a practical loving-kindness meditation course conferred more benefits than did a series of readings and discussions.

Fifty-four participants who had no experience with loving-kindness meditation were recruited to take a six-week loving-kindness meditation class; but for half of the participants, that course was preceded by a discussion course about loving-kindness. The discussion course involved doing readings at home and participating in Q&As during 40-minute weekly classes. In the meditation class, participants meditated for 30-minutes every week and were asked to meditate at home for at least 20 minutes a day, five days a week.

Before and after each course, participants filled out a questionnaire measuring their positive and negative attitudes toward self and others—from friendly, joyful, and accepting to hateful, mean, and angry. The responses are supposed to reflect the “four immeasurables” from Buddhist teaching—loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and acceptance—but the researchers were able to use these responses to measure the impact of the courses.

In the end, participants benefited from both the discussion course and the meditation course. After initially taking the discussion course, the discussion group felt more positive and less negative toward themselves than the group that hadn’t started the experiment yet.

The participants who did just the meditation course also showed improvements in their positive and negative attitudes toward themselves—but they also felt more positivity toward others. The book-learning didn’t seem to add as much as the practice, for after taking both courses, the discussion group reported no benefits that couldn’t be gotten from meditation alone.

In the scientific realm, this study is part of a larger effort to shed light on why mindfulness programs are so valuable. You’ve probably heard of the wide-ranging benefits of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, but MBSR is not a single activity—it involves meditation as well as intellectual instruction. The researchers have taken a step in teasing out where all these much-lauded benefits come from, so researchers and educators can design better interventions in the future. 

Who knows? We might one day help an alien discover the meaning of love.

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