Spirit Rock II
In this study, we collaborated with Spirit Rock Meditation Center to assess the effects of a month-long, silent, residential Insight meditation retreat on markers of cellular aging, social affiliation, and inflammation, which are important for physical health, longevity, and behavior. We also examined relations between these biological changes in psychological traits that may underlie improvements in personal adaptive functioning.
The Intervention: Insight meditation is a form of vipassana meditation rooted in the Theravada tradition. Core practices include mindfulness of breathing and redirecting one's focus to present moment-experience. Participants also received instruction in ancillary practices intended to cultivate aspirational qualities known as the four immeasurables: loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. Silent, residential retreats are designed to support continual practice throughout the day, and include up to 10 hours of practice alternating between sitting and walking meditation in 30-45 minute intervals, meals, and an hour of work meditation, such as housekeeping or kitchen duties.
Participants: There were two groups of participants. Retreatants participants (n=28; 14 female, 13 male, 1 transgender; mean age 51.9 years, range 27-69) were recruited from groups of meditators registered for month-long, silent, residential Insight meditation retreats at SRMC. Comparison participants (n=34; 23 female, 11 male; mean age 49.3 years, range 25-68) were recruited from the larger Spirit Rock community through flyers and presentations at regular meditation sessions. Comparison participants were selected based on similarity in age, gender, and prior meditation experience to the retreatants. Comparison participants were required to have attended at least two retreats of 7 days or longer in the vipassana style of meditation.
Measures: We collected blood samples and self-report measures at the beginning and 3 weeks into the retreat. Blood samples were used to measure telomere length, telomerase, and telomere related gene-expression, cytokines, oxytocin, vasopressin, brain-derived neurotrophic factor and inflammatory gene expression. Self-report measures included: 1) the Lifestyle Profile II; 2) Experience in Close Relationships (short form) to measure attachment; 2) the M-scale to measure Mysticism; 3) the Non-attachment Scale; 4) the Self-Assessed Wisdom Scale; 5) the trait portion of the State Trait Anxiety Inventory; 6) Block's Ego Resiliency Scale; 7) the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire; 8) the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale; 9) Ryff’s Psychological Wellbeing Scale; 10) the Three Dimensional Wisdom Scale; 11) the States of Consciousness Scale; 12) Big Five Inventory to measure personality; and 13) the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale.
Findings: To date, we found that telomere length increased in the retreat group, as compared to control group, and that personality measured predicted these changes. Higher levels of neuroticism and lower levels of agreeableness at the beginning of retreat, predicted the greatest gains in telomere length (Conklin et al., 2018).
Clifford Saron, PhD
Quinn Conklin, MA
Brandon King, MA
Anthony Zanesco, PhD
Jen Pokorny, PhD
Anahita Hamidi, PhD
Elissa Epel, PhD (UCSF)
Jue Lin, PhD (UCSF)
Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD (UCSF)
Perla Kaliman, PhD
Synthia Mellon, PhD (UCSF)
- Conklin, Q. A., King, B. G., Zanesco, A. P., Lin, J., Hamidi, A. B., Pokorny, J. J., … Saron, C. D. (2018). Insight meditation and telomere biology: The effects of intensive retreat and the moderating role of personality. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 70, 233–245.
- Álvarez-López, M. J., Conklin, Q.A., Cosín-Tomás, M., Shields, G.S., King, B.G., Zanesco, A.P., Kaliman, P., Saron, C.D. (2022). Changes in the expression of inflammatory and epigenetic-modulatory genes after an intensive meditation retreat. Comprehensive Psychoneuroendcrinology.
- Zanesco, A. P., King, B. G., Conklin, Q. A., & Saron, C. D. (2023). The Occurrence of Psychologically Profound, Meaningful, and Mystical Experiences during a Month-long Meditation Retreat. Mindfulness. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-023-02076-w
- VandenBos, S.V., King, B.G., Conklin, Q.A., Zanesco, A.P., Saron, C.D., (2020, June). Examining the intersection of Buddhist nonattachment and attachment security in experienced meditators. Mind and Life Summer Research Institute. Garrison, NY.
- Conklin, Q.A., King, B.G., Zanesco, A.P., and Saron, C.D. (2019, June). Competing narratives and questionable assays: Does participation in a silent meditation retreat affect circulating oxytocin levels? Mind and Life Summer Research Institute. Garrison, NY.
- Shebloski, K.L. Conklin, Q.A., King, B.G., Zanesco, A.P., and Saron, C.D. (2019, June). Comparing first- and second-person metrics of meditation experience. Mind and Life Summer Research Institute. Garrison, NY.
- Conklin, Q.A., Patterson, C.E., King, B.G., Mellon, S.H. and Saron, C.D. (2018, November). Serum BDNF shows no change during 1-month retreat involving meditation only. International Symposia for Contemplative Research. Phoenix, AZ.
- King, B.G., Conklin, Q.A., Zanesco, A.P., Saron, C.D. (2018, November). Personality correlates of lifetime meditation experience and retreat practice engagement. International Symposia for Contemplative Research. Phoenix, AZ.
- Conklin, Q.A., Patterson, C.E., King, B.G., Zanesco, A.P., Lin, J., Epel, E.S., Mellon, S.H. and Saron, C.D. (2018, August). BDNF predicts retreat-related increases in telomere length in experienced meditators. 48th International Society for Psychoneuroendocrinology Annual Meeting. Irvine, CA.
- Conklin, Q.A., King, B.G., Zanesco, A.P., Hamidi, A.B., Pokorny, J.J., Lin, J., Epel, E.S., Blackburn, E.H., and Saron, C.D. (2015, September). Increased telomere length following three weeks of intensive Insight Meditation retreat. 45th International Society for Psychoneuroendocrinology Annual Meeting. Edinburgh, Scotland.
- Conklin, Q.A., King, B.G., Zanesco, A.P., Hamidi, A.B., Pokorny, J.J., Weinstain, T.A.R., Bales, K.L., and Saron, C.D. (2015, June). Decreased oxytocin following three weeks of intensive Insight Meditation Retreat. Mind and Life Summer Research Institute. Garrison, NY.