Can meditation eradicate racial prejudice? Are Shirley MacLaine and Mark Zuckerberg right, that mind-altering calmness and unconditional, unthinking love could bring about world peace and knock the terrorists flat?
New research has supposedly found that just seven minutes of loving-kindness meditation directed to a member of a specific racial group (in this case, a black person) was sufficient to reduce racial bias towards that group. Additionally the researchers measured levels of positive emotions that were either “other-regarding” (e.g., love, gratitude, awe, elevation) and those that were more self-directed (e.g., contentment, joy, pride). They found that people doing loving-kindness meditation showed large increases in other-regarding emotions. Those emotions were found to be what drives the reduction of bias.
The study, from the University of Sussex, was published in the journal Motivation and Emotion. It used the Buddhist meditation technique of loving-kindness meditation, which promotes generating thoughts and feelings of unconditional kindness towards oneself and others.
Good science? Or silliness?
First of all, meditation, however it’s done, will not change anyone’s mind about anything. If a person recovers rational thinking after a period of relaxed meditation, the rational thinking must have been present, at least subconsciously, in the first place. Meditation did not create the rational thinking; it simply provided a means of recovering it.
Racist ideas are formed by an overall attitude of collectivism, that group identity matters more than individual identity, action and choice. Whether one’s racism is against blacks, Hispanics, Asians, whites or any other group, racism happens because of the way the racist thinks. Among other things, a racist thinks the way he or she does because of an erroneous assumption that you can determine a person’s character by the color of one’s skin or one’s racial ancestry. Unchosen genetic characteristics have nothing to do with individual character, and therein lies the error of racial prejudice.
This study is ideologically biased. Its researchers assume that focusing on “loving, positive emotions” in which you engage in “other-regarding” (as opposed to contentment, pride, self-worth) will somehow lead to a transformation in one’s world’s views and, without the benefit of reason, facts or logic, eradicate one’s racial prejudice. It’s absurd. Minimizing one’s individual pride, self-esteem or contentment will put the racist in even a worse mood, likely unleashing greater racial hatred, if anything.
The only way to convince a racist to stop being racist is to promote individualism. It’s an uphill task, at best. People with racist attitudes are usually afraid. Sometimes their fear is irrational, as with conspiracy theories and the like. Sometimes their fears are valid, in that they fear an erosion or elimination of their individual freedoms and liberties. Valid fears do not excuse racism, because racism, aside from its moral implications, is based on the logical fallacy of collectivism. You’re not going to restore or preserve individual freedom by promoting an idea such as racism, which is based on the power of the group over the individual.
These are complex issues, intellectually as well as emotionally. Sitting still, letting the mind rest or even go blank, will not alter a thing. Intellectual and psychological change requires active thought and work, not passive receptiveness and compliance.
The researchers also assume that emotions are what cause bias and prejudice. Exactly wrong. Racial prejudice refers to emotions. Emotions can be based on rationally true or irrationally wrong ideas, or a mixture of the two. You don’t change an emotional reaction by somehow infusing opposing emotions into a person’s psyche (or your own psyche). It does not work that way. In order for us to change the way we feel about something, we first have to change – really change – the way we think. The emotions will eventually follow. People who do evolve, change or grow out of irrational mindsets like racism (rare, but it happens) do so because they change the way they think, on a very profound level.
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., commenting favorably on the study at psychologytoday.com, wrote the following:
“…prejudices of all sorts are learned and conditioned from a variety of social and cultural forces; and, they can be consciously altered. Knowing this is especially important in our current era of reactive prejudice towards those who are ‘different,’ and whose presence is increasingly visible as our society becomes ever-more diverse.”
Ideas are learned, i.e. absorbed and eventually accepted. It can start in childhood, or more likely take hold in adolescence or young adulthood, when the young person becomes capable of more abstract thinking. Ideas can be learned or changed at any time, even late in life. So long as a person is able and willing to think, alteration is possible. But you need a whole lot more than silent, calm meditation infused with “happy thoughts” about the alleged joys of selflessness.
If anything, this is the worst thing you could do for a racist. Racists are already bogged down in mistaken thinking that devalues the individual—which, by extension, must include his or her own individuality. The racist does not suffer from too much self, but lack of a rational, integrated and healthy self. The racist needs to explore the power of his or her own individuality, and by extension learn to appreciate the individuality of others.
Meditation is fine when used as a method to help one refuel, recharge, calm one’s mind and body, and be more present-focused for a few moments so as to better take on the challenges of the day, and all of life. Think of a car. You don’t spend most of your trip at the gas station. You stop and refuel, and then you get on with it.
Deliberately shutting down one’s consciousness for the sake of evading thought, and then telling oneself lies about the desirability of only thinking about others, will not change a thing. Nor should it. Thinking and reason are the way to fight prejudice and bias. Anything else is magical thinking.
Follow Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest. Also follow Dr. Hurd on Twitter at @MichaelJHurd1