Does mediation make you more liberal?

There have been some fascinating studies about the effects of meditation. 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. There have even been controversial studies which purport to show that the practice of Transcendental Meditation lowers crime rates when a critical mass of meditators become active in a community.

But scientists have not explored the impact of meditation on that most un-meditative of all disciplines – politics – until now.

The University of Toronto just released 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 of the political spectrum. And anyone who has followed the decades-long rise of the religious right won’t be surprised to learn that religious believers are more conservative as a class than their secular counterparts— although there are clearly lots of exceptions to this rule.

However, what is truly new is the other finding: 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 authors, 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.”

For the purposes of full disclosure, I should say here that I am both a long-time meditator and spiritual author, as well as a self-described liberal on most issues (although I prefer the term “progressive.”) As you might expect, my first reaction to reading about 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 want 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 opinions of the meditators were compared to a control group. It would have been more persuasive if the researchers had managed to demonstrate that the opinions of the same individuals had shifted from the views which they had previously held. Another weakness of the study is that it 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 which, not only a bit too neatly confirms my own personal biases, but lends itself to being abused to demonize others who don’t happen to share my political views. 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 maybe we should say that 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 this, there may actually be times when conservatives have got a better handle on things than I have.

Even if one believes, as I do, that many right wing views – especially of the Tea Party variety – are fear-based and illusory, we still need to concede that fear and caution are not always inappropriate responses to the dangers that exist in the world. Meditation and spiritual practice undoubtedly help to calm our anxieties, and create more positive and trusting attitudes. By and large, this is a good thing. But as we all have learned from painful experience, one can be a bit too trusting. A conservative might argue that the “blissed out” feelings of safety and good will that meditators report may not always be the best guide to how we should act in the real world.

Politics is always a question of striking the right balance – between preserving what is good in society and transforming what is not. Moreover, a basic tenet of our American democracy is that that no individual or point of view has all 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.”