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[epistemic status: very experimental]

The idea

Many people I encounter are onboard with the "Effective" part of EA. If you're going to do something about all the suffering in the world, then do it in the most effective way possible, duh. Some of those people have told me they struggle much more with the "Altruism" part, i.e. the ability to care much about the well being of unknown people and animals.

While listening to this meditation by Tara Brach, an idea came to me: What if I could create a guided loving-kindness meditation (LKM), some form of metta, which helps people to care? Combine this with an EA mindset and it could be pretty cool.

The first thing that came to mind was “500 Million, But Not a Single One More”. I find it really moving every time I read it.

I was also reminded of this picture:

© Angelos Tzortzinis, Greece (AFP) 

Most of you are familiar with the research that our emotional reaction to seeing a single person suffering is stronger than seeing 1000 people suffering. Maybe one could harness the emotions that come with considering such a moving picture and use that to foster care and compassion for all beings. 

The experiment

So here is what I tried out for a 30 min LKM:

First, I did regular metta practice for 10 min. As I recently wrote about, it can be helpful to start out with focusing on a loved-one and then yourself. It is important not to just say the phrases in your mind, but to really mean them, trying to evoke the feeling in your body. This helped me to first get into the groove of metta. Then, for 15 min, I experimented with silently reciting the following four mantras:

  • May I be able see all the suffering in the world
  • May I take inspiration and strength from our victory over smallpox
  • May I realize my capability of reducing suffering
  • May I work with others to make the world a better place

During that, I concentrated on the picture above and reminded myself of the feeling I get while reading the smallpox eradication article. The phrases I used can definitely be improved to be more salient, I only came up with them in a few minutes. My idea was to: 

  1. Be made aware that there is a lot of suffering.
  2. Notice that one can do something about it.
  3. Try to create a desire to actually implement this. 

In the last 5 min, I switched to a more regular metta practice again, by focusing on all beings. I adapted my phrasing to “May all beings be well, no matter where and when they live. May we all be healthy, happy and free of suffering. May we all know peace.” with more of an EA-vibe.

My conclusion after this initial experiment was that the progression of regular metta, then "EA metta" and finishing up with an adapted mantra for all beings worked well. Afterwards I felt similar to what I usually do after LKM, namely rather content and peaceful. Yet there was a slight urge to do something. This tinge of motivation was more prominent during the meditation. I still haven't freed myself 100% from guilt-based motivation but this desire was largely a genuine wish to improve the lives of others. 

Final thoughts

If anyone is looking to fund a weird idea, what about paying someone with a nice voice (e.g. David Whyte) to record a guided meditation like this? Also, I know very little about Secular Solstice but they seem to be hitting on a similar idea.

This post is in line with a few others which have focused on not only helping other EAs to do highly effective work, but to help them do so cheerfully. I am looking forward to hearing your impressions and thoughts on the idea. 


Thanks to Aaron for reading a draft of this.

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This sounds a bit similar to tonglen meditation, which I found interesting and somewhat useful.

Relatedly, I think it's worth practicing feeling a higher level of compassion and desire to change things as the imagined scale grows.

Cool! I remember doing tonglen a few years ago after I saw  a nice info-graphic about it. Wish I could find it again, but thanks for reminding me of its existence. 

I agree, feeling more compassion is what I was trying to achieve here.  Yet I didn't explicitly try to counteract scope neglect in that way. 

Thanks for writing this. I really like the idea. One thought is that this is a great activity for local EA groups to do and maybe an organizer with a particularly nice voice can lead it. At the group I help organize at Vanderbilt, there seems to be a lot of desire for activities that focus more on the altruism and feeling behind EA.  

Thank you for coming up with the idea and trying it out! I had good experience with metta meditation and including an EA mindset appeals to me. I wonder if there is an approach where you could try out different phrases with different people to optimize them before potentially making a recorded guided meditation.

Yes, I think it is very much worthwhile to experiment with your own phrasings and with different people. There are nuances and potentially you will find out which phrases work best for you.  

Great stuff. I'm still very much a beginner with metta, but this seems like a fantastic aspiration, so thanks!

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