The Shamatha Project
The Shamatha Project is one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies of meditation ever conducted. The study investigated the effects of 3 months of full-time meditation practice in a residential retreat setting at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes Colorado. Taught by Buddhist scholar, teacher and translator B. Alan Wallace, the meditation training emphasized the cultivation of relaxed, stable, and clear attention through practice of shamatha meditation techniques. Generative practices (loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity) for cultivating beneficial aspirations for self and others were also taught. In keeping with these training emphases, we conducted experiments to measure changes in attentional and socioemotional processes. Given the departure from daily stressors entailed by the retreat environment we also examined biological measures related to stress and cellular aging. As such, the project represents a unique and rich dataset that utilizes a multidisciplinary approach to assess the impacts of the training and retreat environment.
Participants: We randomly assigned 60 healthy individuals (age range = 20 to 69) with prior meditation experience to an intensive 3-month meditation retreat (n = 30) or to a matched wait-list control group (n = 30). We verified group matching through use of pre-assignment assessment measures. During this initial retreat (Retreat 1), the control participants lived at home, but traveled to the retreat center to be tested in the same way as retreat participants. Three months after the end of the first retreat, the control participants then attended their own 3-month retreat (Retreat 2). Assignment to group was stratified by age, sex, and meditation experience. The project’s design allows for two kinds of comparisons across time: 1) between-group comparisons of training and control participants across the first 3 month retreat; and 2) within-group comparisons of Retreat 2 training participants with their prior status as waitlist controls in Retreat 1.
Procedure: Laboratory assessments of all participants were obtained before, during, and after their respective retreats. Participants practiced alone about 6 hours a day over the 3-month period and came together in the morning and evenings for meditation instruction, discussion, and talks by Dr. Wallace. Initial data were gathered in spring and fall of 2007 and follow-up assessments were conducted around 6-months, 18-months, and 7-years after the retreats. To assess people’s skills and behavior before, during, and after such intensive meditative practice, we employed cognitive and perceptual tasks, emotional provocation paradigms, validated questionnaires, and structured interviews—as well as electrocortical (88 channel EEG) and autonomic psychophysiological measures (heart rate, respiration, skin conductance). We also collected blood and saliva for biochemical monitoring of stress-related hormones, and biological measures related to inflammation, affiliation and cellular aging.
Preassignment Assessment (i.e., before random assignment to group)
Self Report Measures:
Demographics; General Health and Meditation Experience; Handedness, Color Blindness; Dispositional Positive Emotions Scale (DPES); Big Five Inventory (BFI); Rosenberg Mindfulness Scale; Ekman Emotional Experiences Scale; Experience in Close Relationships (ECR; attachment style); Difficulty in Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS); Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS-X); State-Trait Anxiety Scale (STAI); O’sullivan Compassion Scenario Inventory; Medical History and Personal Health Inventory. See also Shaver et al., 2008.
Computer-based behavioral tasks:
Color Word Stroop; Emotional Word Stroop; Implicit Attitude Test (fat/thin); METT - Ekman’s Microexpression Training Tool Test; Visual Perceptual Threshold Procedure (PEST)—used subsequently in our Response Inhibition Continuous Performance Task.
Measures collected during 3-month retreat periods:
Demographics, Health, Meditation Experience; DPES; BFI; Rosenberg Mindfulness Scale; Baer 5 Facet Mindfulness Scale; ECR; DERS; Block’s Ego Resilience Scale; Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index; PANAS-X; STAI; Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D); Ryff’s Well-being Questionnaire; Questions regarding personal relationships.
Computer-based Behavioral Tasks (with out physiology):
O-Span Attention Task; Affect-Primed Lexical Decision Task, Schooler and Smallwood's Gibberish Detection Mind Wandering Task; Posner Covert Spatial Orienting ask (Retreat 1).
Paper and pencil Behavioral tasks (with out physiology):
Visual Acuity; Raven's Progressive Matrices; Rest's Defining Issues Test .
Tasks with concurrent 88 Channel EEG & autonomic psychophysiology:
Eyes Closed Resting (4 min); Eyes Open Resting (4 min); Visual Descrimination Vigilance Continuous Performance Task (CPT); Response Inhibition Visual Descrimination CPT; Color Stroop Task; Emotion-Potentiated Startle Task; Emotional Film Recall Task, Levenson and Ruef Empathy Task; XZ Flanker Task, Posner Covert Spatial Orienting Task (Retreat 2). Emotion-modulated Attentional Blink Task; Shamatha Meditation Practice - Mindfulness of Breathing (12 min); Compassion Meditation (12 min).
Telomerase, IL-6, IL-10, oxytocin, vasopressin, BDNF, cortisol and DHEA-S.
Daily Diaries (filled out by all participants whether at home or on retreat):
Meditation practice log (type, duration, brief quality), Other activity log (hiking, exercise), PANAS-X, Notable events of the day, Sleep log, Dream Diary (completed the following morning).
Semi-structured interviews were conducted on-site by Dr. Baljinder Sahdra in Retreat 2 and videotaped for transcription and thematic coding (Pokorny et al., 2018).
Every 2 weeks participants privately recorded a ~15 minute “self-interview" regarding ongoing retreat experience.
At this point we have published 14 peer-reviewed publications from this rich dataset. Additional manuscripts are under review and in preparation. Below we very briefly describe our retreat-related findings to date.
Changes in Self-Reported Psychological Traits
The Shamatha Project involves a collaborative team of investigators and consulting scientists from universities across the US and Europe.
Clifford Saron, PhD (Research Scientist)
Alan Wallace, PhD
Current Staff and Trainees:
Alea Skwara, MA (PhD Student)
Brandon King, MA (Post Doc)
Quinn Conklin, MA (PhD Student)
Former Staff and Trainees:
Alex Norman, PhD
Anahita Hamidi, PhD
Anthony Zanesco, PhD
Chivon Powers, PhD
David Bridwell, PhD
Jen Pokorny, PhD
Katherine MacLean, PhD
Shiri Lavy, PhD
Stephen Aichele, PhD
Tonya Jacobs, PhD
Baljinder Sahdra, PhD
Emilio Ferrer, PhD (UCD)
George R. Mangun, PhD (UCD)
Phillip Shaver, PhD (UCD)
Elissa Epel, PhD (UCSF)
Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD (UCSF)
Erika Rosenberg, PhD (Stanford)
Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD (Stanford)
Hirokata Fukushima, PhD (Kansai U)
Jonathan Schooler, PhD (UCSB)
Jonathan Smallwood, PhD (U York)
Jue Lin, PhD (UCSF)
Karen Bales, PhD (UC Davis)
Paul Grossman, PhD (U Hospital Basel)
Perla Kaliman, PhD
Susan Bauer-Wu, PhD (U Virginia)
Synthia Mellon, PhD (UCSF)
Akaysha Tang, PhD (U New Mexico)
Amishi Jha, PhD (U Miami)
Antoine Lutz, PhD (Lyon Neuroscience Research Center, CNRL)
Barry Giesbrecht, PhD (UCSB)
Charles Raison, MD (Emory)
Ewa Wojciulik, PhD (UCD)
Manish Saggar, PhD (Stanford)
Margaret Kemeny, PhD (UCSF)
Matthieu Ricard (Shechen Monastery)
Mingzhou Ding (U Florida)
Owen Wolkowitz, MD (UCSF)
Paul Ekman, PhD (UCSF)
Richard Davidson, PhD (U Madison)
Ruth Baer, PhD (U Kentucky)
Funding & Support
John Templeton Foundation
Mind and Life Institute
Yoga Science Foundation
Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies (Co-Sponsor)
Shambhala Mountain Center (Co-Sponsor)
National Science Foundation
Hershey Family Foundation
Tan Teo Charitable Foundation
Mental Insight Foundation
Grant Couch & Louise Pearson
Caroline Zecca Ferris
Meditation Awareness Peace Research Foundation
Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada
Anonymous and other individual donors
Changes in Attention and Perception
Changes in Emotional Responses to Suffering
Changes in Neural Markers During Meditation and Rest
Changes in Biological Markers of Stress and Cellular Aging
- Improved visual perception and vigilance – behavioral evidence - MacLean et al., 2010; electrophysiological evidence; Zanesco et al., 2019.
- Improved response inhibition was related to improved psychological function (Sahdra et al., 2011)
- Maintained meditation decreased cognitive aging decline in response inhibition (Zanesco et al., 2018)
- Improved voluntary attention with training was related to baseline inflammatory markers (Shields et al., 2021)
- Decreased mind wandering during reading was observed after retreat (Zanesco et al., 2016)
Changes in Emotional Responses to Suffering
- An analysis of facial expressions in response to short graphic film clips of human suffering showed a greater probability of showing sadness after the first retreat compared to the control group. However, participants reported that rather than feeling sad, they felt sympathy. In a related finding, we saw a decreased number of anger, contempt, or disgust expressions after the retreat compared with the control group. Taken together, these findings suggest an altered response to suffering in others suggestive of increased compassionate responses (Rosenberg et al 2015).
- Physiological indices of attentional engagement (cardiac deceleration) with still images of suffering and threat showed marked shifts in the response to suffering after the first retreat, compared with controls. Responses to threatening stimuli were unchanged. The pattern of response was suggestive of greater sympathetic activation (related to the flight or fight response) to suffering before the retreat and more parasympathetic (suggestive of increased intake of information) after training. Furthermore, 7 years after retreat, we found that memory for images of suffering seen at the end of retreat was associated with greater cardiac deceleration (parasympathetic pattern). Remembered images were associated more with cardiac acceleration (sympathetic pattern) when seen before the retreat (Brandon King – Published dissertation 2019)
Changes in Neural Markers During Meditation and Rest
- EEG changes during mindfulness of breathing meditation were associated with decreased central parietal beta power (Saggar et al., 2012).
- Computational modeling of the mindfulness of breathing EEG data based on thalamocortical loops suggested greater oscillatory stability after training and shifts in a number of modeled thalamic parameters after training (Saggar et al., 2015).
- We segmented the EEG during eye-closed rest into a time series of transient EEG microstate intervals based on clustering of topographic voltage patterns. We also observed reductions in the strength and duration of EEG microstates across both retreats. Importantly, changes in the dynamic sequencing of microstates were associated with daily increases in felt attentiveness and serenity during training. Our results connect shifts in subjective qualities of meditative experience with the large-scale dynamics of whole brain functional EEG networks at rest (Zanesco et al., 2021).
Changes in Biological Markers of Stress and Cellular Aging
- Telomerase activity (the enzyme that repairs the shortening of Telomeres) was significantly greater in Retreat 1 participants than in controls at the end of the retreat (this analysis was only done in Retreat 1). Interestingly, the effect of the retreat on telomerase was mediated by increased Perceived Control from the Ryff well-being scale and decreased Neuroticism. Additionally, increases in Purpose in Life directly mediated the telomerase group difference. This was the first study to link meditation and positive psychological change with telomerase activity. Although we did not measure baseline telomerase activity, the data suggest that increases in perceived control and purpose in life, as well as decreases in negative affectivity, contributed to an increase in telomerase activity, with implications for telomere length and immune cell longevity. (Jacobs et al., 2011).
- Self-reported mindfulness and p.m. cortisol were measured near the beginning and end of both 3-month retreats (N=57). Mindfulness increased from pre- to post-retreat. Cortisol did not significantly change. However, mindfulness was inversely related to p.m. cortisol at both pre- and post-retreat. (Jacobs et al., 2013).
- Skwara, A. C. (2022). Expanding the circle of care: An EEG spectral and microstate analysis of compassion meditation and rest during an intensive meditation retreat (Order No. 28869186). Available from Dissertations & Theses @ University of California; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I. (2665557840). Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/expanding-circle-care-eeg-spectral-microstate/docview/2665557840/se-2?accountid=14505
- Zanesco, A. P., Skwara, A. C., King, B. G., Powers, C., Wineberg, K., & Saron, C. D. (2021). Meditation training modulates brain electric microstates and felt states of awareness. Human Brain Mapping, 42(10), 3228–3252. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.25430
- Shields, G. S., Skwara, A. C., King, B. G., Zanesco, A. P., Dhabhar, F. S., & Saron, C. D. (2020). Deconstructing the effects of concentration meditation practice on interference control: The roles of controlled attention and inflammatory activity. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 89, 256–267. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.BBI.2020.06.034
- Zanesco, A. P., King, B. G., Powers, C., De Meo, R., Wineberg, K., MacLean, K. A., Saron, C. D. (2019). Modulation of Event-related Potentials of Visual Discrimination by Meditation Training and Sustained Attention. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience; 31(8): 1184–1204. doi: https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_01419
- King, B. G. (2019). Cultivating concern for others: Meditation training and motivated engagement with human suffering (Order No. 27544958). Available from Dissertations & Theses @ University of California; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I. (2384487035). Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/cultivating-concern-others-meditation-training/docview/2384487035/se-2?accountid=14505
- Pokorny, J. J., Norman, A., Zanesco, A. P., Bauer-Wu, S., Sahdra, B. K., & Saron, C. D. (2018). Network analysis for the visualization and analysis of qualitative data. Psychological Methods, 23(1), 169–183. https://doi.org/10.1037/met0000129
- Zanesco, A. P., King, B. G., MacLean, K. A., Jacobs, T. L., Aichele, S. R., Wallace, B. A., Smallwood, J., Schooler, J. W., & Saron, C. D. (2016). Meditation training influences mind wandering and mindless reading. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 3(1), 12–33. https://doi.org/10.1037/cns0000082
- Saggar, M., Zanesco, A. P., King, B. G., Bridwell, D. A., MacLean, K. A., Aichele, S. R., Jacobs, T. L., Wallace, B. A., Saron, C. D., & Miikkulainen, R. (2015). Mean-field thalamocortical modeling of longitudinal EEG acquired during intensive meditation training. NeuroImage, 114, 88–104. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.03.073
- Rosenberg, E. L., Zanesco, A. P., King, B. G., Aichele, S. R., Jacobs, T. L., Bridwell, D. A., MacLean, K. A., Shaver, P. R., Ferrer, E., Sahdra, B. K., Lavy, S., Wallace, B. A., & Saron, C. D. (2015). Intensive meditation training influences emotional responses to suffering. Emotion, 15 (6), 775–790. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000080
- Jacobs, T. L., Shaver, P. R., Epel, E. S., Zanesco, A. P., Aichele, S. R., Bridwell, D. A., Rosenberg, E. L., King, B. G., Maclean, K. A., Sahdra, B. K., Kemeny, M. E., Ferrer, E., Wallace, B. A., & Saron, C. D. (2013). Self-reported mindfulness and cortisol during a Shamatha meditation retreat. Health Psychology, 32 (10), 1104–1109. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0031362
- Zanesco, A. P., King, B. G., Maclean, K. A., & Saron, C. D. (2013). Executive control and felt concentrative engagement following intensive meditation training. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 566. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00566
- Saggar, M., King, B. G., Zanesco, A. P., Maclean, K. A., Aichele, S. R., Jacobs, T. L., Bridwell, D. A., Shaver, P. R., Rosenberg, E. L., Sahdra, B. K., Ferrer, E., Tang, A. C., Mangun, G. R., Wallace, B. A., Miikkulainen, R., & Saron, C. D. (2012). Intensive training induces longitudinal changes in meditation state-related EEG oscillatory activity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 256. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00256
- Jacobs, T. L., Epel, E. S., Lin, J., Blackburn, E. H., Wolkowitz, O. M., Bridwell, D. A., Zanesco, A. P., Aichele, S. R., Sahdra, B. K., MacLean, K. A., King, B. G., Shaver, P. R., Rosenberg, E. L., Ferrer, E., Wallace, B. A., & Saron, C. D. (2011). Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36 (5), 664–681. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2010.09.010
- Sahdra, B. K., MacLean, K. A., Ferrer, E., Shaver, P. R., Rosenberg, E. L., Jacobs, T. L., Zanesco, A. P., King, B. G., Aichele, S. R., Bridwell, D. A., Mangun, G. R., Lavy, S., Wallace, B. A., & Saron, C. D. (2011). Enhanced response inhibition during intensive meditation training predicts improvements in self-reported adaptive socioemotional functioning. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 11 (2), 299–312. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022764
- MacLean, K. A., Ferrer, E., Aichele, S. R., Bridwell, D. A., Zanesco, A. P., Jacobs, T. L., King, B. G., Rosenberg, E. L., Sahdra, B. K., Shaver, P. R., Wallace, B. A., Mangun, G. R., & Saron, C. D. (2010). Intensive meditation training improves perceptual discrimination and sustained attention. Psychological Science, 21 (6), 829–839. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797610371339
- Shaver, P. R., Lavy, S., Saron, C. D., & Mikulincer, M. (2007). Social foundations of the capacity for mindfulness: An attachment perspective. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 264- 271. https://doi.org/10.1080/10478400701598389
- Saron, CD (2013). The Shamatha Project Adventure: A Personal Account of an Ambitious Meditation Study and its First Results. In: Compassion: Bridging Theory and Practice. T Singer and M Bolz (Eds). Munich, DE: Max Planck Society. Free eBook available here.
- Saron, CD (2013). Training the Mind—The Shamatha Project. In: The Healing Power of Meditation. Fraser, A (Editor). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications 45-65.