A new research study finds that people become more politically liberal following meditation or other spiritually oriented experiences. The findings concerning political orientation can be questioned because of how the researchers constructed the study, but I think they reveal something of broader significance: that meditation and developing one's inner life has a transformative effect upon emotions, mental perspectives and behavior, in general. And that can lead to politically liberal positions in our current political culture.
First, the research findings: In a series of studies, researchers at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management initially assessed people's differences regarding their "religious" vs. "spiritual" orientations. The researchers defined "spirituality" in terms of direct experience of self-transcendence and the feeling that we're all connected. In contrast, "religiousness" was defined as a code of conduct that's part of a tradition.
In my view, the two definitions are not at all mutually exclusive, and that contaminates, somewhat, the findings associating political conservatism with religiousness, and spirituality with political liberalism. The researchers explained those in terms of underlying values, that conservatism and religiousness both emphasize the importance of tradition, while liberalism and spirituality both emphasize the importance of equality and social harmony.
The Key Finding
When participants in the study meditated they subsequently reported significantly higher levels of spirituality, and they expressed more liberal political attitudes. That is, meditation led both liberals and conservatives to endorse more liberal political positions.
"Spiritual experiences seem to make people feel more of a connection with others," said lead author Jacob Hirsh."The boundaries we normally maintain between ourselves and the world tend to dissolve during spiritual experiences. These feelings of self-transcendence make it easier to recognize that we are all part of the same system, promoting an inclusive and egalitarian mindset."
But how such feelings translate into specific political positions is questionable. You might consider yourself more conservative or more liberal concerning, say, the role and size of government, personal privacy issues or social policy; and yet be very spiritually oriented, according to the researchers' own definition, independent of your political position.
Nevertheless, to the extent that movement towards politically liberal ideas does occur from meditation, I think that's best understood as one possible manifestation of a broader and deeper phenomena: Meditation triggers awakening. It expands and elevates your overall perspective -- about the relationship of your being to the whole; the "oneness" of life and the universe. You awaken to the flow of ongoing change and impermanence that characterizes life. Self-transcendence tunes you in to the reality that we're particles of stardust, literally, traveling together on this planet at this moment of time.
Awakening pulls you out of the narrow vantage point of the "me" that's defined you; that's conditioned via immersion in the world of human struggles, desires and the pressures to adopt the values and beliefs that surround you. All of that forms the narrowest sense of who you really are. All of us become fixed within it, unable to see that there are so many more facets of who we are -- qualities of emotion, thoughts, creative capacities -- that we're capable of unfolding. Think of a hologram. You can see different parts of its images depending on how you look at it, as different angles of light reflect off it. They're all there to begin with.
Another feature of awakening is that you develop greater compassion and empathy when you focus on them in meditation. Research finds that when you focus on those emotional attitudes regions of the brain associated with them become activated, and brain regions associated more with analytic thinking are more repressed. Of course, combining both empathy and compassion with strategic, analytic thinking is the basis for wise action. But our current culture over-emphasizes analytic thinking, which can swamp and smother the capacity for empathy. The result is an out-of-balance perspective. That's reflected in dysfunctional personal life, but also in public policy and ideology that promotes narrow, selfish objectives at the expense of the public good.
Increased empathy and compassion may occur with age, alone, to some extent. A study of late middle-aged adults found that, in contrast to younger adults, they were more able to react empathically to the experiences of others. They were also more likely to try to look at things from the perspective of others. For some, transformation may occur suddenly, as a dramatic awakening about oneself -- the "Scrooge" experience. Research on people who experienced profound, sudden change found that they did experience overwhelming stress or disaster prior to their breakthrough.
But hitting rock bottom isn't a necessary ingredient for awakening. You can bring it about through conscious effort in meditation. As Deepak Chopra has pointed out:
Our minds influence the key activity of the brain, which then influences everything; perception, cognition, thoughts and feelings, personal relationships. Meditation makes the entire nervous system go into a field of coherence. All the neural networks adhere together synchronistically. And no other experience other than meditation does it quite that way.
That's consistent with the view that meditation and spiritual development enhances positive evolution. You're always changing and evolving in one direction or another, whether you think you do or not. A recent, large-scale study revealed that people change even with respect to personality traits and interests over time that you think remain stable. More significantly, you continuously evolve throughout your lifetime. It's either in a healthy direction, towards greater tolerance and wise understanding of people's differences; and towards curtailing the power that ego and self-interest has on your attitudes and behavior. Or, you'll evolve in the direction of greater entrenchment and stagnation, into the most narrow, limited and deformed versions of yourself.
There, you may descend into greater selfishness, greed, and the endless, frustrating desire for control and possession. That constricts your response to enacting what's possible in life. It can also be psychologically damaging. In contrast, recent research has found that increased spirituality is linked with better mental health. A greater sense of oneness and connectedness with the rest of the universe is associated with lower levels of specific neurotic traits; outgoingness and greater positive engagement with others; and a sense of forgiveness towards people's faults or transgressions.
Overall, spiritual awakening reduces self-absorption and self-interest. As one's sense of belonging to a larger whole becomes strengthened, greater tolerance, empathy and compassion for others do emerge. That may include political opinions that coincide with those that are described as more liberal, in the context of today's political culture and ideological differences. And that may be what the research I cited tapped into.
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. To learn more about him, click here.