The Shamatha Project, Part IV: Background & Far Reaching Implications

Clifford Saron

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 Post I and Post II of this four-part series we offered people unfamiliar with the project the chance to learn more about the project and its researchers. In Post III we discussed the next stage of this project funded by the Templeton Prize Research Grant. And in this final post we are taking a closer look at the lead researcher, Clifford Saron, and the history behind the project.

By Sarah Sutherland

Clifford Saron

Clifford Saron

In 1992 Clifford Saron embarked on Fetzer Institute-funded study of Buddhist monks in Dharamsala with three other researchers. Struck by the monks’ calmness and peacefulness, they wondered whether the monks were simply extraordinary people or whether their extraordinary qualities resulted from their meditation training. Eleven years later, one of those researchers, Alan Wallace, contacted Saron about another project. Why not measure the effects of meditation on people in an intensive retreat setting in the West? The Shamatha Project was born.

Saron, interested in meditation since his undergraduate days at Harvard University, first learned of similar research by Joseph Goldstein at The Naropa Institute during its inaugural summer of 1974. “At that time my understanding of the mind from neuroscience, introspection and now Buddhism came together,” explained Saron in a TEDx UC Davis talk last May. “I was hooked.” He went on to do a number of meditation retreats and was an early researcher at the Center for Mind and Brain at UC Davis, a new university center with the ambitious long-term goal of understanding the nature of the human mind from interdisciplinary perspectives.

With sponsorship from Shambhala Mountain Center and the Mind and Life Institute, the Fetzer Institute, and other organizations and individual donors, Saron gathered a stellar team from a variety of disciplines to harness methods and views from cognitive and affective neuroscience, scientific psychology, molecular biology and anthropology. In 2007, they embarked on the Shamatha Project, which we outlined in The Shamatha Project Part I (link). Since then, Saron and his colleagues have presented results of the project to audiences around the world. Saron has also shared the findings on several occasions with the Dalai Lama, who has endorsed the project.

As both a scientist and a practitioner, Saron believes the Shamatha Project has far-reaching implications. “There are multiple domains of society that can benefit from slowing down and ramping up introspection,” he says. “With the Shamatha Project and other studies pointing to the benefits of meditation, there is potential for contemporary society to recognize the need for a refuge that’s accessible to people so they can bear the conditions of their experience in skillful ways, whether their experiences involve caring for the dying, parenting children with autism, or working at Google—all examples of areas where mindfulness practice is taking hold and proving helpful.”

And with more data on the horizon, new findings on the benefits of meditation on our mental, physical and possibly societal health are likely to be unveiled for years to come. Just remember to breathe deeply while you wait. For more information on the project and research publications visit this website.

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