Two studies on South Koreans compared changes in existential isolation and compassion for others between Koreans who practiced Buddhist (Zen) meditation and those who went on a summer vacation of equal length. Results showed that existential isolation decreased in the meditation group compared to the vacation group, while compassion for others increased in the mediation group. The study was published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.
Existential isolation is the feeling that even though we can talk and be close to others, we can never fully understand exactly what it’s like to be inside someone else’s mind. It stems from the understanding that each person’s subjective experience is unique and cannot be fully shared. While humans can communicate and connect to some extent, they can never fully bridge the gap between their inner worlds. Existential isolation is different from loneliness, as a person can have intense relationships with others and still feel existential isolation.
Studies have found individuals who feel strong existential isolation to be more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. Higher existential isolation has also been linked with low egalitarianism/humanitarianism, prejudice and discrimination, and self-reported aggression. On the other hand, when individuals feel existentially connected (the opposite of existential isolation) they tend to become more confident, relaxed, less self-focused, and more capable on focusing on others and giving to others.
Study authors Young Chin Park and Elizabeth C. Pine wanted to examine the relationship between meditation and feelings of existential isolation. They note that previous researchers proposed that mediation might be able reduce feelings of existential isolation by blurring or dissolving the boundary between self and others. However, no studies explicitly tested whether meditation really produces this effect.
These researchers conducted two studies focusing on effects of Korean Zen meditation of the feelings of existential isolation and compassion for others. Korean Zen meditation is a form of Buddhist meditation that emphasizes direct insight into one’s true nature. It involves sitting in a specific posture and focusing on breath or a particular question. This meditation practice aims to quiet the mind, cultivate mindfulness, and ultimately attain a deep understanding of reality and the nature of existence.
Participants in the first study were 60 adult South Koreans. Their age ranged from 18 to 69. They were 38 years old on average. 32 were males. 30% of participants were Buddhists, 22% were Catholic or Protestant Christians and 48% had no religious affiliation.
There were two groups of participants – the meditation group and the vacation group. Participants for the meditation group were recruited from people participating in a 7-day intensive Mihwang-sa TempleStay program in Haenam county, South Korea. During the meditation program, participants had intense meditation sessions and practiced a strict Korean Buddhist vegetarian diet. They completed psychological assessments before and after the meditation program.
The vacation group were individuals planning to go on a 7-day summer vacation recruited from several research-related companies in the Seoul area of South Korea. They completed the assessments before and after their vacation.
Participants completed assessments of existential isolation (the Existential Isolation Scale), interpersonal isolation/loneliness (the Emotional-Social Loneliness Inventory), and Other-focused compassion (the Compassion scale). They also completed assessments of self-compassion (the Self-Compassion Scale – short form) and Life satisfaction (“How much are you satisfied with your own life?”).
Participants of study 2 were 75 South Korean adults (50 females) who participated in the TempleStay program in the summer of 2019. They were recruited from 5 different intense 7-day meditation groups similar to those in study 1. All participants completed the study assessments before and after their 7-day meditation program. Additionally, in this study, participants were asked about their expectations from the program, level of engagement in the program, and willingness to participate in another session in the future.
Results of study 1 showed that the two groups were equal, on average, in both existential isolation, loneliness and compassion for others at the start of the study i.e., before the vacation/meditation program. After the meditation program/vacation, participants in the meditation program reported, on average, lower levels of existential isolation than participants who went on vacation. However, there was no difference between the two groups after the meditation program/vacation in average loneliness (i.e., interpersonal isolation) levels. Individuals who had higher existential isolation before vacation/meditation program, tended to report feeling lonelier afterwards. The meditation group also reported higher levels of compassion for others than the vacation group after the meditation program/vacation.
Researchers tested a statistical model proposing that meditation reduces existential loneliness, which, in turn, increases compassion for others. In this way, existential isolation would be a mediator of the link between meditation and compassion for others. Results showed that such a relationship is possible.
Results of study 2 confirmed the results of study 1. After the meditation program, participants, on average, reported lower levels of existential isolation and higher compassion for others compared to the time before participating in the meditation program. However, average interpersonal isolation (i.e., loneliness) levels did not change after the meditation program compared to what they were before the program.
“Across two studies, we found that people who underwent a 7‐day Zen meditation experience at a TempleStay in South Korea reported decreases in existential isolation and increases in other‐focused compassion, self‐compassion, and life satisfaction. We did not observe any changes in interpersonal isolation. In Study 1, these findings emerged relative to the experiences of people who went on a 7‐day vacation; in Study 2, they emerged in a pre–post longitudinal design.”, study authors conclude.
The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding of the effects of Korean Buddhist meditation on the feelings of existential isolation and compassion for others. However, it also has limitations that should be considered. Notably, the mechanism through which the effect was achieved remains unknown. Additionally, participants were self-selected for the two programs (meditation vs vacation). A study on participants who were randomly assigned by researchers to a meditation or a summer vacation program might not yield equal results.
The study, “The effect of a 7‐day intensive Buddhist meditation on existential isolation, interpersonal isolation, and compassion among South Koreans”, was authored by Young Chin Park and Elizabeth C. Pine.