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