In a recent post, I talked about the adaptation of various Eastern spiritual practices by Westerners, and how in the process these practices became more or less belief-free techniques for living a better life within the limitations of being thinking meat. This story from Science Daily is a good example of what I was talking about.
Past research has suggested that when people contemplate their own mortality, they tend to become more biased and judgmental. The idea is that when people feel uneasy about facing death, they are more strongly inclined to defend the beliefs that give them some feeling of stability. However, new research has found that more mindful people were more tolerant of different world views than less mindful people after being reminded of their mortality (specifically, they had to write about what would happen to their bodies after they died). (The Science Daily story and the abstract of the paper don’t say how they determined who was more mindful, and the paper is not available for free, so I can’t find out; I’m guessing they chose people who regularly practiced mindfulness meditation.) Mindfulness involves a calm acceptance of reality that might help people face even the threat of death more open-mindedly.
I wonder if, by extension, people who regularly practice mindfulness might be less inclined to give the expected knee-jerk response when faced with political rhetoric designed to push people’s fear buttons. My own attempts at mindfulness are quite amateurish, but my understanding of the concept is that it can give you an instant of decision before you fall heedlessly into your typical reaction to something, which can be useful if your typical reaction is not helpful. That little bit of freedom to choose a response might make quite a difference. Christopher Hitchens described us as “partly rational animals with adrenal glands that are too big and prefrontal lobes that are too small.” Maybe mindfulness helps us give the prefrontal lobes an edge over the adrenal glands?
The complete citation is:
Christopher P. Niemiec, Kirk Warren Brown, Todd B. Kashdan, Philip J. Cozzolino, William E. Breen, Chantal Levesque-Bristol, Richard M. Ryan. Being present in the face of existential threat: The role of trait mindfulness in reducing defensive responses to mortality salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2010, 99 (2):344. (Link goes to the abstract.)