October 08, 2008
Researchers Say Ancient Tibetan Practice May Improve Health & Happiness
Data from a new Emory University study suggests that individuals who engage in “compassion meditation” based on a thousand-year-old Tibetan Buddhist mind-training practice (called "lojong" in Tibetan), appears to effectively reduce the inflammatory and behavioral responses to stress that have been linked to depression and a number of physical illnesses. The practice revolves around fostering a sense of heightened compassion for others.
"Our findings suggest that meditation practices designed to foster compassion may impact physiological pathways that are modulated by stress and are relevant to disease," explains Charles L. Raison, MD, a lead author on the study.
The study focused on the effect of compassion meditation on inflammatory, neuroendocrine and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress, and evaluated the degree to which engagement in meditation practice influenced stress reactivity.
"While much attention has been paid to meditation practices that emphasize calming the mind, improving focused attention or developing mindfulness, less is known about meditation practices designed to specifically foster compassion," says Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, PhD, who designed and taught the meditation program used in the study.
Sixty-one healthy college students between the ages of 17 and19 participated in the study. Half the participants were randomized to receive six weeks of compassion meditation training and half were randomized to a health discussion control group.
The thousand-year-old Tibetan Buddhist mind-training practice "lojong" utilizes a cognitive, analytic approach to challenge an individual's unexamined thoughts and emotions toward other people, with the long-term goal of developing altruistic emotions and behavior towards all people. Each meditation class session combined teaching, discussion and meditation practice.
After the study interventions were finished, the students participated in a laboratory stress test designed to investigate how the body's inflammatory and neuroendocrine systems respond to psychosocial stress.
Within the meditation group there was a strong relationship between the time spent practicing meditation and reductions in inflammation and emotional distress in response to the stressor.
"These initial results are quite exciting," says study co-author Thaddeus W.W. Pace, PhD. "If practicing compassion meditation does reduce inflammatory responses to stress it might offer real promise as a means of preventing many conditions associated with stress and with inflammation including major depression, heart disease and diabetes."
Raison concurs. "Based on the promising findings from this study we are planning to offer compassion meditation classes to patients at Emory Winship Cancer Institute, and have partnered with the Emory Predictive Health Institute to study potential long term effects of compassion meditation on health and well-being," says Raison.
The study's findings are published in the medical journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.