THE SHAMATHA PROJECT

Tibetan Pecha as Contemplative Technology
[The Shamatha Project] is among the best direct tests of a meditation-induced altered trait in attention we have so far.

— Daniel Goleman & Richard J. Davidson
Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes
Your Mind, Brain, and Body, 2017.

The Shamatha Project

The Center for Contemplative Research (CCR) is building on the enormous success of The Shamatha Project, the most thorough scientific study of meditation ever performed. Working with numerous colleagues, Dr. B. Alan Wallace and Dr. Clifford Saron co-designed this landmark study, which was conducted at the Shambhala Mountain Center (Colorado, USA) in 2007.

The study consisted of two three-month meditation retreats, each with 30 contemplatives. The second retreat acted as a wait-list control group, with the contemplatives matched on age, sex, and years of meditation experience.

Under Dr. Wallace’s instruction, the contemplatives meditated for six hours or more each day, practicing primarily shamatha meditation, which consists of an array of techniques for cultivating the stability and vividness of attention, grounded in relaxation. The shamatha methods were complemented by practice of the four immeasurables — loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and impartiality — which are designed to increase one’s positive aspirations toward greater well-being.

Led by Dr. Saron, a multidisciplinary team of neuroscientists and psychologists collected data from the contemplatives using multiple methods, including computer-based cognitive and perceptual tasks, mental-health questionnaires, and blood samples that were used to track biological markers associated with well-being.

The Shamatha Project and follow-up studies have provided compelling evidence that shamatha meditation can significantly improve one’s attentional faculties, together with other benefits. Specifically, these studies demonstrated the following effects:

  • an increase in attentional skills (e.g., perceptual sensitivity) over the course of the retreat, and up to seven years after the retreat;
  • an increase in emotional and psychological well-being, with the contemplatives’ behavior also suggesting increased emotional engagement; and
  • an increase in the activity of telomerase, an enzyme that is positively correlated with levels of well-being.

Building on
The Shamatha Project

The Shamatha Project’s two three-month retreats were among the longest in any scientific studies of meditation, yielding terabytes of data that continue to be analyzed today, 14 years later. The study has led to the publication of over a dozen peer-reviewed research articles, with the latest published in March 2021.

All the contemplatives at the CCR will complete retreats of at least three months, with most committing to much longer retreats (i.e., years or even decades). The CCR thus presents unprecedented opportunities for longitudinal studies that build on the groundbreaking work of The Shamatha Project.

PEER-REVIEWED PUBLICATIONS

Below are peer-reviewed publications that have resulted from The Shamatha Project, listed in reverse chronological order.

Zanesco, A. P., King, B. G., Powers, C., De Meo, R., Wineberg, K., MacLean, K. A., & Saron, C. D. (in press). Modulation of event-related potentials of visual discrimination by meditation training and sustained attention. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

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, hbm.25430. https://dx.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://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2020.06.034

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://dx.doi.org/10.1037/met0000129

Zanesco, A. P., King, B. G., MacLean, K. A., & Saron, C. D. (2018). Cognitive Aging and Long-Term Maintenance of Attentional Improvements Following Meditation Training. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, 2(3), 259–275. https://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s41465-018-0068-1

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://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cns0000082

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://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000080

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://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.03.073

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://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0031362

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. https://dx.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://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2010.09.010

Saggar, M. (2011). Computational Analysis of Meditation [Doctoral dissertation, University of Texas at Austin]. Institutional Repository at the University of Texas at Austin. https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/ETD-UT-2011-08-3964

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, 11(2), 299–312. https://dx.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://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797610371339

Saggar, M., Aichele, S. R., Jacobs, T. L., Zanesco, A. P., Bridwell, D. A., Maclean, K. A., King, B. G., Sahdra, B. K., Rosenberg, E. L., Shaver, P. R., Ferrer, E., Wallace, B. A., Mangun, G. R., Saron, C. D., & Miikkulainen, R. (2010, July). A computational approach to understanding the longitudinal changes in cortical activity associated with intensive meditation training. Nineteenth Annual Computational Neuroscience Meeting: CNS 2010, San Antonio, TX, USA. https://bmcneurosci.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2202-11-S1-O7

Media References

7-Year Follow-Up Shows Lasting Cognitive Gains From Meditation” — Andy Fell UC Davis, 2018.

Minding Mindfulness: Issues, Models, and Findings in the Scientific Study of Meditation” — Clifford Saron, Mind & Life Institute (International Symposium for Contemplative Studies (ISCS) 2016.

The Less Dust the More Trust: Participating In The Shamatha Project, Meditation And Science Adeline van Waning, Mantra Books, 2014.

The Shamatha Project” — Sarah Sutherland, Shambhala Mountain Center, 2013.

Inside the Shamatha Project” — Adeline van Waning, Lion’s Roar, 2011.

How meditation might ward off the effects of ageing” — Jo Marchant, The Observer, 2011.

The Shamatha Project” — B. Alan Wallace, Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, 2009.

The Shamatha Project” — Center for Mind and Brain, University of California, Davis.

The Shamatha Project” — The Saron Lab, University of California, Davis.