Living At Your Peak column: Meditation’s effects on well-being and health
Meditation is a practice that has existed for thousands of years. Commonly used nowadays to reduce stress and calm the mind, proper training in meditation provides numerous physical and mental benefits. Dr. Clifford Saron is a research scientist at the Center for Mind and Brain and M.I.N.D. Institute at the University of California, Davis, where he studies the brain and behavioral effects of meditation. He focuses on the effects of intensive meditation training and how we can understand the personal and physiological changes brought about by contemplative practice. Saron is also a presenter at Living at Your Peak, a health and wellness summit taking place in Vail Sept. 13-15
While Saron’s work has wide-reaching scientific implications, what the average person can learn from his research is significant. By understanding his findings, you can begin to comprehend the impact that meditation can have on your personal health.
In summer 1974, Saron found himself in an evening meditation class at Naropa University in Boulder. When the room began to darken, the instructor noted that there might be arising in the students’ minds an intention to turn on the light. In that moment, a figurative light turned on in Saron’s mind. He saw that his understanding of the nature of experience from the inside via meditation and from the outside through the study of neuroscience could be closely intertwined, and he wanted to know more.
Nearly 40 years later, he has conducted some of the leading research that has contributed to our understanding of the impact that meditation has on behavior, cognition and psychology.
Saron’s work primarily focuses on training individuals to improve their attention and better regulate their emotions through contemplative practice. Together with Alan Wallace, a Buddhist scholar, and an international team of researchers, Saron embarked on “The Shamatha Project,” the most comprehensive scientific study of the effects of intensive meditation training.
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In 2007, the research team selected 60 individuals to participate in the project. Half of the group participated in a three-month meditation retreat in the spring, and the other half served as a control group, waiting until the fall to participate in another retreat. Researchers hoped to understand if improved attention could be trained through meditation and if training in traits such as loving kindness and compassion could improve people’s abilities to regulate their emotions.
What Saron and his colleagues found has significant implications for personal well-being. Compared to the control group, those who attended the retreat in the spring and were trained in focused attention meditation and the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion experienced increases in psychological well-being, mindfulness, empathy, openness to experience and extraversion. They also experienced decreases in depression, anxiety, neuroticism and difficulty regulating emotions. Five months after the retreat, these changes stayed relatively consistent. The control group showed an identical pattern when they underwent their training in the fall.
Saron and his colleagues, including Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, also discovered that meditation may affect the aging process. When comparing blood samples between the meditators and the group who had not yet experienced training, the researchers found that the meditators had 30 percent more telomerase, the enzyme that helps repair telomeres. Telomeres are protective “caps” at the end of our chromosomes, which become shorter as we age. Telomere length is related to longevity, so these results have implications for the health of the immune system and ultimately may be related to processes that promote longevity.
Learn more about how meditation can improve your concentration, health and psychological well-being at Living at Your Peak. Event attendees will have the opportunity to participate in a meditation session led by Saron, as well as a discussion that focuses on how to understand the personal and physiological changes brought about by contemplative practice based on his research.
To register to attend Living at Your Peak and to learn more about other speakers and interactive sessions, visit http://www.livingatyourpeak.org. More information and research results from the Shamatha Project can be found at: mindbrain.ucdavis.edu/labs/Saron/shamatha-project.