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Warning: Meditation Makes You More Politically Liberal!

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Big News: A new study from the University of Toronto claims that meditation makes individuals more politically liberal in their outlook and actions. Although it is just one study, this research is incredibly interesting and brings sharply into focus some of the work on which the Interdependence Project is based.

(photo of IDP sangha during Occupy Wall Street in 2011)

I am personally completely uninterested in having a conversation about whether more meditators are Democrats or Republicans (I am neither, although I voted for Barack Obama in the last election and could not bring myself to support a Republican nowadays). Often the question of politically conscious meditators devolves into a discussion of Democrats and Republicans, Obamas and Boehners, which for me is a nonstarter. It is much more important to to examine how our practice shifts our consciousness toward political issues, not parties or individuals.

For me, it is an unquestionable personal experience that meditation practice has opened me to the truth of interdependence, that nothing happens in a vacuum, that we are all in this together. This basic realization seems, inherently, to move a person towards more progressive political values (note: I dislike the word liberal, as I believe it has basically become  a dirty word in the realm of American politics; I much prefer the term progressive). 

To be fair, I think one could just as easily argue at the same time that meditation practice makes us feel more responsible for our own actions, our own habits, our own karma. Personal responsibility is sometimes a value attributed to more conservative views, although one has to wonder if conservatives really corner the market on taking personal responsibility.

Whatever the case, this meditation study does seem to suggest that practice (and possibly studying Buddhism) makes a person more open-minded to others and to a larger vision of the world in which we live, and those shifts affect political behavior. Does meditation turn people into more politically engaged beings? It seems there is starting to be scientific data to suggest that it does.

For me, my interest in the world and my meditation practice go hand-in-hand. I could not have one without the other I look forward to more studies on the effects of political consciousness of meditation in the future.

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Bubbles of delusiom

This article by David Loy is about sexual abuse by Buddhist teachers, but this intro seemed relevant:

"Why do we usually believe something, such as a particular political ideology? Not because that belief system is based on evidence. It’s no coincidence that children normally have political opinions very similar to their parents’. We learn to believe something because it is believed by others whom we respect/identify with/want to be like/want to be liked by. We are good at finding reasons to justify what we believe, but it is much more difficult to examine critically and sincerely our deepest beliefs. In fact, we are not usually aware that they are beliefs: they are not just true, they are reality. We do not normally distinguish the stories we hold about the world from the world itself.

"The Buddha was aware of this problem, and emphasized the importance of not being attached to views. He applied this to his own teachings, which he described as a raft that can help us to get across the river of samsara (this world of suffering, craving, and delusion) to the “other shore” of enlightenment. He warns us not to think, “This is a great raft, I’ll carry it with me everywhere.” Let it go!

"In place of the Abrahamic duality between good and evil, Buddhism focuses on ignorance and wisdom — the insight that comes with awakening. Delusion (moha) is one of the “three fires” or “three poisons” (the others are greed and ill will) that cause suffering when what we do is motivated by them.

"Because it emphasizes individual awakening and personal transformation, Buddhism has not had much to say about collective delusion. Yet it is of some importance that my delusions are usually not that different from the delusions of other people, especially those around me. I live within a bubble of beliefs that’s not separate from theirs: in fact, our bubbles normally overlap so much that we can refer to group bubbles of delusion. These collective bubbles can help us understand why the world works the way it does, especially the institutional structures that perpetuate social dukkha (suffering)."


meditation expands our bubble

I looked at the abstract for the study, and it appears that the conclusion was based on 300+ volunteers who took part in one guided meditation session involving nature. the abstract doesn't say if they measured people's attitudes before the session and found that they were more liberal after or if more people who took part measured liberal after -- and they may have been some self-selection involved in who took part.


I agree that it's difficult to conceive that meditation would not make people more aware of interdependence and therefor more compassionate -- except that I keep reading about businesses incorporating mindfulness meditation to be more successful at business, which does not to them translate to more compassionate.


I thought your article was going to be one thing, but it was not! It was open and I respect that effort.

You say: "Whatever the case, this meditation study does seem to suggest that practice (and possibly studying Buddhism) makes a person more open-minded to others and to a larger vision of the world in which we live, and those shifts affect political behavior."

I would love to see how different political parties relate to each other in that case. I don't imagine we would live in a world with only one political party. But I certainly think the conversation, governance, and engagement of people with their government would be quite different.

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