There have been numerous psychology studies that detail the benefits of meditation, mindfulness, and other Buddhist practices. However, reading and interpreting the results can be confusing or laborious. Sometimes reading the reviews of these studies by popular sources I see errors or misrepresentations. As someone who cares about Buddhism and science, I hope this blog will be a fun and informative way to review the current psychological research. I am open to any suggestions of studies you would like reviewed, or any questions you might have about Buddhist psychology. You are welcome to email me with any suggestions at [email protected]
Meditation Retreat Study
Meditation retreats can be a great way to immerse yourself in meditation practice. Retreats usually consist of periods of sitting and walking meditation, held in the practice noble silence. This means most of the day is spent silently in meditation and without interacting with other people on the retreat. I have been on many retreats and seen the benefits that come from even a few days of intensive practice like this. I usually notice that I feel less anxious or worried and more compassionate. I’ve also observed how after a few days in meditation I start to notice my surroundings more and feel more connected with everything going on around me.
As someone who has been on residential retreats and advocates their benefits, I was wondering if there have been any studies done on the psychological effects of retreat. In 2015 researchers Kozasa et al. conducted a study to see how participants were affected by a nine day Buddhist meditation retreat. Researchers specifically focused on participants that had been on a mindfulness meditation retreat. (Read the study here)
Here is how they did it: researchers were interested in studying a number of variables including mindfulness and attention, self-compassion, and stress or anxiety. Self-compassion and stress were measured by having the participants fill out surveys before and after the retreat. The mindfulness variable was measured with an attention test. They were also fascinated by how retreat might be different for practiced meditators vs. new meditators. So for analysis, participants were broken up into people who had been meditating for less than a year and those who had been meditating for more than a year.
Here is what they found: for people who had practiced meditation for more than a year they found people reported being less stressed, anxious, and tense after the meditation retreat. They also found that this group has higher attention in the present moment and better perception in the present moment after retreat. This means they scored better on the attention test. Finally, they found that practiced meditators had more self-compassion when the retreat was over.
However, researchers did not find the same significant improvement with people who had less than a year of experience with meditation. This finding indicates that meditation retreats have the most benefits for people who have already spent at least a year meditating.
I tend to encourage everyone to go on retreats regardless of how much practice they have meditating. It is important to remember that even for beginners meditation retreats can be great practice and they can begin to build the foundation for the bigger changes that might come later. Just because this study didn’t find significant benefits for the new meditators it doesn’t mean that new people shouldn’t go on retreat. One problem with reading studies about mindfulness is that the results can be easily misinterpreted. This study doesn’t suggest that people who are new to meditation shouldn’t go on retreat, or that they will get nothing out of it. What this study indicates is that the benefits of mindfulness build over time.
I went on my first retreat when I had been meditating for about six months. Even though it was difficult I am glad that I went because it got me into the practice of going on retreat at least once a year. What I like about this study is that it can be a great reminder of how meditation practice and mindfulness build over time. I often hear people asking, when will I see big changes? Or, how long until it works? The truth is that the benefits of meditation don’t always happen overnight. Sometimes it takes a while to see the benefits that have been happening slowly and incrementally.
Elizabeth Key-Comis owns and runs One Mind Dharma with her fiancée, Matthew Sockolov. She is a psychology student at Loyola Marymount University, and will be pursing her Master’s degree next year. Elizabeth has been meditating for 5 years, and enjoys looking at the research surrounding mindfulness, meditation, and other growth practices. Elizabeth writes a bi-weekly column for One Mind Dharma called Mindful Psychology.