The Shamatha Project: Meditative Quiescence, Loving-Kindness, and Human Flourishing
Longitudinal Studies of Effects of Intensive Meditation Practice on Attention, Emotional Regulation, and Their Neural Correlates
Recent studies of the effects of meditation practices on stress management and emotional stability and of meditation as a therapeutic agent have produced exciting results. But the studies conducted to date have been short-term and have generally used non-intensive interventions. We have engaged a team of talented neuroscientists and psychologists in a longer-term study, with state-of-the-art methods, to examine the effects of intensive meditation training on attention, cognitive performance, emotion regulation, and health. This effort, the Shamatha Project, has garnered the endorsement of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and initial funding from three private foundations, The Fetzer Institute, the Hershey Family Foundation, and the Yoga Research and Education Foundation. The training methods, taught by Dr. Alan Wallace, will include deep, intensive meditation training that fosters attentional vividness and stability as well as compassion, loving-kindness, empathetic joy, and equanimity. The expected benefits will include greater attentional control and increased ability to regulate emotions and apply prosocial values and motives.
The questions we address include: What measurable changes in attentional ability occur as a function of intensive meditation training? What are the neural correlates of these changes and the range of their consequences? Is it true, as Buddhist contemplatives claim, that improvements in the voluntary control of attention and associated improvements in attention systems in the brain make it easier to recognize and overcome negative emotions, maintain resilience in the face of stress, and improve relationships with other people? Do the changes persist after meditation trainees return from the retreat experience to the cacophony of everyday life in a modern society?
The Shamatha Project will study participants in two three-month, full-time meditation retreats that will be conducted at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. During the first retreat, already completed, we studied the retreatants and a matched, randomized wait-list control group, who then became full-time participants in the second retreat. This allowed us to determine the effects of meditation training on attention, emotion-regulation, stress-related hormones, and immune-system factors. The retreatants and controls were assessed throughout the first retreat with field-laboratory studies of attentional vigilance, stability, and freedom from distraction, as well as tests of emotional reactions and voluntary control of emotions. Participants kept systematic daily diaries of moods and personal insights and experiences, which are being studied in tandem with data from the quantitative, objective measurements. Participants' brain activity was examined using 96-channel surface electroencephalography, and changes in autonomic nervous system activity was assessed with measures of heart rate, skin conductance, and respiration. Participants' emotions were assessed with self-report measures, performance on emotion-regulation tasks, and monitoring of physiological and behavioral variables. Attitudes and social reasoning tendencies were explored with tests of community problem solving.
The second retreat which began in September 2007 is currently still in progress. Overall, we expect that three months of shamatha training, combined with cultivation of the four "qualities of the heart," will result in improved attentional performance (vigilance, selectivity, and metacognitive control) as well as greater compassion, security, and ability to down-regulate negative emotions.
Fall 2007 Update
Among the 70 participants in the two 3-month shamatha retreats, at least 14 are continuing in full-time meditative practice, intent on fully achieving shamatha. Among them, the Santa Barbara Institute is subsidizing their living expenses for those in financial need, and I am offering them all continued guidance in meditation without cost.
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