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 I

 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.

By Sarah Sutherland

If you’ve ever done a retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center, it’s likely that at some point following the retreat, you noticed a difference in yourself. Maybe you felt calmer, or had more patience. Or perhaps you just felt better about your place in the world. And you probably wondered how long the changes would last. If so, you’re not alone.

In the Shamatha Project—the largest and most comprehensive study ever done on the psychological, physical, and behavioral effects of intensive meditation—researchers studied (and still are studying) the effects of meditation on people who participated in three-month retreats at Shambhala Mountain Center in 2007.

“This project represents a true long-term perspective on the developmental consequences of intensive meditation training,” said lead researcher Clifford Saron in a press release from the University of California, Davis, where he is an associate research scientist. “Nothing quite like this has been done before.”

Saron and a team of research assistants, graduate and post doctorate trainees, and nearly 30 investigators and consulting scientists from universities across the United States and Europe looked not so much at what people do while they meditate, but rather at what people do differently because they meditate.

“Three months sounds like a long time to meditate full time, but actually in terms of reshaping the way you regard the world emotionally, it’s not really that long,” Saron explained in a TEDx UC Davis presentation last May. “The study suggests that after three months, retreat participants showed an enhanced ability to keep in mind complex and painful realities without pushing them away. This may be the crucible for the arising of a compassionate response when confronted with suffering in yourself and others.”

With 60 volunteers, recruited mainly from advertisements in Buddhist publications, the researchers created two randomized groups of 30, with the first group entering the three-month retreat, while the second group served as a control group and were flown to Shambhala Mountain Center for testing just like the retreat group. Six months later, the second group completed their own retreat as well.

As part of the project, retreatants received instructions from Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace, the contemplative director of the project and a co-author on study publications. Dr. Wallace taught shamatha meditation and the Four Immeasurables, practices to tame the mind and open the heart.

Shamatha, which is the Sanskrit word for meditation, means resting in a state of quietness, or calm abiding. It is a simple, yet profound practice in which you place your awareness on your breath, following the sensations as you inhale and exhale and coming back to the breath when your mind has wandered off. The point of shamatha, according to Wallace, is to make our minds serviceable—stable and clear—and lays the foundation for cultivating the Four Immeasurables: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

In contemplating the Four Immeasurables, we generate qualities of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity toward ourselves and toward all beings. Different yet complementary to shamatha, the Four Immeasurables is a heart-opening practice that deepens our relationship to ourselves and to others.

During their three-month retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center, participants meditated alone for about six hours a day and met in groups twice daily for guided meditation and discussion. They also met weekly with Wallace for meditation interviews. The results were astounding. To find out more, read the second in our series on the Shamatha Project: Part II: Analyzing the Results.