Meditation practices purportedly help people develop focused and sustained attention, cultivate feelings of compassionate concern for self and others, and strengthen motivation to help others who are in need. We examined the impact of 3 months of intensive meditative training on emotional responses to scenes of human suffering. Sixty participants were assigned randomly to either a 3-month intensive meditation retreat or a wait-list control group. Training consisted of daily practice in techniques designed to improve attention and enhance compassionate regard for others. Participants viewed film scenes depicting human suffering at pre- and posttraining laboratory assessments, during which both facial and subjective measures of emotion were collected. At post-assessment, training group participants were more likely than controls to show facial displays of sadness. Trainees also showed fewer facial displays of rejection emotions (anger, contempt, disgust). The groups did not differ on the likelihood or frequency of showing these emotions prior to training. Self-reported sympathy--but not sadness or distress--predicted sad behavior and inversely predicted displays of rejection emotions in trainees only. These results suggest that intensive meditation training encourages emotional responses to suffering characterized by enhanced sympathetic concern for, and reduced aversion to, the suffering of others.
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