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The 2011 Mind & Life Summer Research Institute

The Mind & Life Summer Research Institute was yet again a successful week-long venture into the depths of contemplative science. For a description of the program and its purpose see [Link]. For pictures see picasa [Link] or Flikr [Link] and a montage with Ottmar Liebert is on youtube [Link]. (photos by Dave Vago and Dave Womack)

This was my 7th year attending the SRI and every year since 2005, scientists in this field grapple with operationalizing and deconstructing concepts that originate from an incredibly rich and complex historical context – The Buddhist “science of mind” . With an explosion of research and interest in the domain of mindfulness, science has yet to grasp the subtleties surrounding the heterogeneity of meditation practice and specifically those that seemingly cultivate mindfulness as a state, trait, and in terms of clinical interventions.

This year’s theme was devoted to the theme of ”New Frontiers in the Contemplative Sciences.” It was also paying tribute to Franciso Varela, the pioneer of neurophenomenology and the Mind and Life dialogues. A continued in-depth tri-logue has been the prescription that emerges for pushing this emerging field of contemplative science further…a trilogue between scientists, contemplative scholars/practitioners, and academics who have the ability to translate what one perspective or source of information can benefit in dissemination or integration with the other two.  By continuing this trilogue, scientists will better be able to distinguish between what they should be studying, what they think they should be studying, and what they truly are studying….

This also translates to the practitioner him/herself who must distinguish between what he/she is doing while meditating in a specific style of practice, what they think they should be doing while practicing, and what they actually are doing.  John Dunne, a Buddhist contemplative scholar/academic provided one of the more thought provoking presentations by challenging our conceptions of meditation and mindfulness as ‘Black box’ terms. He emphasized, “Historical contexts are not important if people are practicing something else”. Essentially, as scientists in this field, we MUST be absolutely clear what states of mind we are studying when we claim to be studying mindfulness.

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Meditation for Health Purposes Workshop — July 8–9, 2008

The purpose of the meeting was to articulate potential goals and directions for research on the mechanisms and efficacy of meditation practices for a variety of health concerns. Experts from a range of disciplines and with a wide range of involvement in the field of meditation research were asked to critically examine the current state of science on meditation for health, and to identify existing or potential intersections and contributions from their fields to further this area of science. This group developed a set of critical questions and approaches that could better inform future research in this area. This meeting coordinated by NIH NCCAM was essentially a focus group to discuss the next steps of meditation research. In attendance were Richie Davidson, Zindel Segal, John Dunne (actually, I think he didn’t make it), and other active meditation researchers and contemplative scholars.

the link for the description of this workshop: HERE

the points relevant for future studies that emerged from the meeting:

  • Foundational clinical research. Foundational research to provide the basic information on which subsequent investigations of efficacy and effectiveness should be built is essential. Such foundational studies must be designed to forecast clinical relevance.
    • Clarify biological mechanisms and pathways by which meditative strategies may impact on health
    • Identify biological measures of the impact of meditation
    • Develop valid, standardized, unbiased, and objective measures and instruments to describe meditative interventions and assess dose effects
    • Develop precise criteria (processes and practices) of intervention fidelity for specific meditation practices
    • Develop indices of expectancy and adherence specific to investigations of meditation practices
  • Treatment development. Studies to develop meditation-based treatments could allow meditation strategies to be optimized for specific health conditions and populations.
    • Develop standardized treatment protocols for specific mental and physical health disorders to improve reproducibility, quality assurance, and cross-study comparability
    • Identify well-characterized patient populations for inclusion in subsequent efficacy studies
    • Develop strategies for monitoring and identifying potential risks and adverse effects
  • Studies to enhance the evidence base for efficacy. A variety of study types and designs are needed to contribute to the evidence base, ranging from retrospective and prospective observational studies to well-designed clinical efficacy investigations. Such studies must be well-controlled and focused, and will further the evidence base for potential clinical applications.
    • Explore opportunities to add measures and gather important descriptive data including recurrent cross-sectional studies such as large national surveys (NHANES, NHIS) and on-going cohort investigations
    • Ensure that studies are sufficiently powered and that the study designs are appropriate to answer the research questions
    • Incorporate inclusion of specific biological and psychological outcomes, with plausible mechanisms linking the specific meditative practice with relevant outcomes
    • Ensure outcomes are clinically significant, measurable, and linked to health importance, including short-term and long-term measures of symptom management, coping with illness, quality of life, prevention of disease, and biological indices of health and disease from multiple systems
    • Develop and incorporate validated and standardized measures of expectancy, treatment adherence, and treatment fidelity for cross-study comparisons. Such cross-study comparisons would be particularly powerful should there be a well-characterized participant specimen repository available for investigations conducted using standardized measures and protocols.
    • Include appropriate control groups that are carefully developed with a consideration of the specific question(s) to be addressed. Factors to be controlled should be specifically identified (e.g., contextual factors not relevant to the specific study hypotheses such as time, attention, built environment, etc)
    • Integrate masking strategies to reduce sources of bias. As with the control group design, such strategies must be developed in light of specific potential sources of bias.