The Shamatha Project, Part IV: Background & Far Reaching Implications

Editors note: Thanks to a recent $2.3 million Templeton Prize Research Grant from the John Templeton Foundation, researchers are revisiting the results gleaned from Shamatha Project and further analyzing those results. In the Post I and Post II of this four-part series we offered people unfamiliar with the project the chance to learn more about the project and its researchers. In Post III we discussed the next stage of this project funded by the Templeton Prize Research Grant. And in this final post we are taking a closer look at the lead researcher, Clifford Saron, and the history behind the project.

By Sarah Sutherland

Clifford Saron

Clifford Saron

In 1992 Clifford Saron embarked on Fetzer Institute-funded study of Buddhist monks in Dharamsala with three other researchers. Struck by the monks’ calmness and peacefulness, they wondered whether the monks were simply extraordinary people or whether their extraordinary qualities resulted from their meditation training. Eleven years later, one of those researchers, Alan Wallace, contacted Saron about another project. Why not measure the effects of meditation on people in an intensive retreat setting in the West? The Shamatha Project was born.

Saron, interested in meditation since his undergraduate days at Harvard University, first learned of similar research by Joseph Goldstein at The Naropa Institute during its inaugural summer of 1974. “At that time my understanding of the mind from neuroscience, introspection and now Buddhism came together,” explained Saron in a TEDx UC Davis talk last May. “I was hooked.” He went on to do a number of meditation retreats and was an early researcher at the Center for Mind and Brain at UC Davis, a new university center with the ambitious long-term goal of understanding the nature of the human mind from interdisciplinary perspectives.

With sponsorship from Shambhala Mountain Center and the Mind and Life Institute, the Fetzer Institute, and other organizations and individual donors, Saron gathered a stellar team from a variety of disciplines to harness methods and views from cognitive and affective neuroscience, scientific psychology, molecular biology and anthropology. In 2007, they embarked on the Shamatha Project, which we outlined in The Shamatha Project Part I (link). Since then, Saron and his colleagues have presented results of the project to audiences around the world. Saron has also shared the findings on several occasions with the Dalai Lama, who has endorsed the project.

As both a scientist and a practitioner, Saron believes the Shamatha Project has far-reaching implications. “There are multiple domains of society that can benefit from slowing down and ramping up introspection,” he says. “With the Shamatha Project and other studies pointing to the benefits of meditation, there is potential for contemporary society to recognize the need for a refuge that’s accessible to people so they can bear the conditions of their experience in skillful ways, whether their experiences involve caring for the dying, parenting children with autism, or working at Google—all examples of areas where mindfulness practice is taking hold and proving helpful.”

And with more data on the horizon, new findings on the benefits of meditation on our mental, physical and possibly societal health are likely to be unveiled for years to come. Just remember to breathe deeply while you wait. For more information on the project and research publications visit this website.

The Shamatha Project, Part III: Forging Ahead

By Sarah Sutherland

Editors note: Thanks to a recent $2.3 million Templeton Prize Research Grant from the John Templeton Foundation, researchers are revisiting the results gleaned from Shamatha Project and further analyzing those results. In the first two posts of this four-part series we offered people unfamiliar with the project the chance to learn more about the project and its researchers. In this third post we are discussing the next stage of this project funded by the Templeton Prize Research Grant. And in our final post we’ll take a closer look at the lead researcher, Clifford Saron, and the history behind the project.

Templeton Foundation logoIn Part I and Part II we discussed the inception of the Shamatha Project and the results of the project. Now, thanks to a recent $2.3 million Templeton Prize Research Grant from the John Templeton Foundation, lead researcher Clifford Saron and his colleagues will be taking the Shamatha Project to the next level, further analyzing and expanding the mountains of data they collected in labs they built in the basement of Shambhala Mountain Center’s Rigden Lodge six years ago.

“Sixty percent of the new funding provided by the Templeton Prize Research Grant will help our team wrest meaning from the original data,” said Saron. “We’re taking a very broad view of human experience as seen through multiple lenses because two people who received the exact same meditation training might have entirely different responses to it.” Subsequently, the team is not necessarily looking at the effects of the retreat itself, but rather on how individual differences—including participants’ worldviews, motivation, stages of life, and relationships—affected their training and, ultimately, their personal growth. With these analyses, the researchers can better understand which physiological and psychological measures recorded during the retreats are linked to beneficial long-term growth, and which ones aren’t.

“The beauty of this project,” Saron said, “is having leaders in statistical techniques aggregate the data to predict a trajectory of change in participants’ lives.” Such findings could help explain why some people change for the better, while underscoring what aspects of a person’s spiritual profile are requisites for meaningful change.

With the new funding, allocated over three years, the researchers will also interview the participants again as well as their family members, friends and colleagues to further explore whether the meditation retreat impacted the participants’ daily lives and how those changes, if any, continue to affect them.

“We’re relating how things that we measure in the laboratory reflect meaningful changes in people’s lives,” explained Saron in a UC Davis press release announcing the research grant.

The Templeton Prize Research Grant, which debuted this year, honors each year’s Templeton Prize laureate by funding research related to the laureate’s life’s work. Templeton Prize winners are individuals who have made “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama won the 2012 Templeton Prize in May for his ongoing work in bringing relevant scientific research to bear on the question of compassion and its potential to alleviate the world’s fundamental problems. The grant that Saron, co-director Baljinder Sahdra of the University of Western Sydney, and their colleagues won was announced in November at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion during a special session in honor of the Dalai Lama.

Read the final part in our series on the Shamatha Project: Part IV: Background & Far-Reaching Implications

The Shamatha Project, Part II: Collecting Data

The Rigden Lodge

The Rigden Lodge. Photo: Adeline van Waning

Researchers also measured brain activity in the EEG lab

Researchers also measured brain activity in the EEG lab. Photo: Jim Cahill

In the blood lab researchers prepared serum, plasma, and white blood cell samples for further analysis. Photo: Adeline van Waning

In the blood lab researchers prepared serum, plasma, and white blood cell samples for further analysis. Photo: Clifford Saron

By Sarah Sutherland
shamatha project eeg capEditors note: Thanks to a recent $2.3 million Templeton Prize Research Grant from the John Templeton Foundation, researchers are revisiting the results gleaned from Shamatha Project and further analyzing those results. In the first two posts of this four-part series we’re offering people unfamiliar with the project the chance to learn more about the project and its researchers. In our third post we will discuss the next stage of this project funded by the Templeton Prize Research Grant. And in our final post we’ll take a closer look at the lead researcher, Clifford Saron.

Last Friday we introduced you to the Shamatha Project, a comprehensive meditation study done on the psychological, physical, and behavioral effects of intensive meditation. The study, done in two three-month retreats by Researcher Clifford Saron and others in 2007, revealed some astounding results.

“The findings have taught us a lot about the benefits of meditation on our mental and physical health,” said Saron. So, how did researchers measure the results, and what did they discover?

To measure the outcomes, researchers used a comprehensive approach, including interviews, computer-based experiments, physiological measures, behavioral measures, questionnaires, and self-reporting from participants before, during, and after the retreats. In some experiments, participants completed difficult computer-based tasks aimed at gauging attention and perception while their brain waves, heart rate, blood pressure, and other physiological indicators were recorded. At other times, facial expressions were additionally recorded as they watched disturbing images. In a separate, on-site blood lab, participants’ blood samples were collected and processed for later testing for telomerase, an enzyme that repairs genetic material lost during cell division, as well as various hormones and proinflammatory cytokines, which are molecules that trigger inflammation when we’re stressed.

In one key finding, the research team, in work led by Katherine MacLean and Baljinder Sahdra, has detailed how the retreat participants, compared with the control group, were better able to sustain visual attention through improved perceptual sensitivity and inhibit habitual responses. Importantly, the response inhibition improvements predicted psychological improvements as measured in increases in such traits as empathy, openness, and wellbeing and in decreases of depression, anxiety, and difficulty regulating emotions. When the control group entered the retreat, these same improvements became apparent. Many improvements lasted for months after the retreats.

To examine emotional changes from intensive practice, the researchers, led by Erika Rosenberg, studied how people responded to film scenes of human suffering. When responding to painful images, retreat participants showed a decrease in emotions such as anger, disgust and, contempt compared to controls. Instead, retreatants were more likely to respond to the suffering of others with sadness.

In looking at psycho-biological markers, the researchers, led by Tonya Jacobs and Elissa Epel and including co-investigator Elizabeth Blackburn, a molecular biologist who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine for her work on cellular aging, found increased levels of telomerase in retreat participants. In fact, levels of telomerase at the end of the first retreat correlated with an increased sense of purpose in life, as reported by retreat but not control participants. Also, participants who reported greater mindfulness had reduced stress hormones. Both findings point to a positive link between meditation, health, and possibly longevity, which Saron is eager to explore further.

“There is much more data to analyze and learn from,” he stated. And now, thanks to a recent $2.3 million Templeton Prize Research Grant from the John Templeton Foundation, he and his colleagues can take the Shamatha Project to the next level.

Read the third part in our series: Part III: Forging Ahead or Read the first post.