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Diving into the Deep End of Meditation Research

Five Questions with Matthew Sacchet, who directs MGB’s Meditation Research Program.

Matthew Sacchet at brain scanner with a Tibetan monk.
Matthew Sacchet at brain scanner with a Tibetan monk. Photo credit: Bryce Johnson/Science for Monks.

Mass General Brigham’s Matthew D. Sacchet, PhD, wants to make it easier for anyone to access the kinds of transcendent states that advanced meditators can sometimes attain. It’s part of a sweeping new research effort that dives into the deep end of advanced contemplative practices, applying rigorous scientific methods to unlock the kinds of phenomena described over thousands of years in the world’s wisdom traditions.

Sacchet, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS), has been meditating his whole life. He was most likely under its influence in utero, as both his parents are long-term meditators. Even before he started pre-school, he had the clear insight that more people could benefit from the practice, a focus that has driven his life choices ever since. Now, it’s also a driving philosophy of the Meditation Research Program that Sacchet directs at MGB and HMS.

You’ve spoken of your work as the next wave in meditation research. What do you mean?

As with any scientific field, research on meditation has evolved over time, and one way to think about it is in waves. I think of the first wave, which was focused largely on clinical applications, as beginning in earnest in the 1980s. It was slow to build, but eventually delivered strong evidence that mindfulness was clinically meaningful for depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and a list of conditions that’s continuing to grow.

During the 2000s and 2010s, while clinical research expanded, a new wave of investigations focused on understanding the mechanisms underlying meditation and the related clinical effects. How and why does meditation work? Which cognitive and affective processes are involved? Which brain systems?

“I believe we’re on the cusp of a third wave or a third major epoch of meditation research, which is really the next frontier for this entire field.”

I believe we’re on the cusp of a third wave or a third major epoch of meditation research, which is really the next frontier for this entire field. Though it’s informed by and relevant to each earlier epoch, it goes beyond both. It asks what these practices may be capable of, their limits and endpoints, and is informed by what they historically and traditionally were developed for.

Most of the contemplative practices that are mainstream, like mindfulness, are informed in large part by ancient wisdom traditions. Buddhism has been a huge source. Much of Western mindfulness as we know it can be traced in particular to Theravada Buddhism, and, to a lesser degree, Mahayana or Zen influences along with Vajrayana in Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Other wisdom traditions, including Sufism, Jewish Kabbalah, Christian mysticism, Hinduism, and more, also incorporate rich contemplative practices, as do some contemporary evolutions of advanced meditation.

Over thousands of years, these traditions have described radical possibilities that are thought to be attainable through these practices, what you might call psychological transformations. Deep states and ways of being including the end of psychological suffering, various flavors of ecstatic bliss, insights into consciousness, the nature of self or reality, self-transcendence, unification of consciousness with some kind of absolute entity – these and others have all been described in detail. Yet we know very little scientifically about these deep states.

We’re not the first to study advanced meditation; researchers like Richie Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison pioneered the study of such states in the past, but this prior work has barely scratched the surface. So I think this third wave is bringing the focus back to these deep experiences that may be the result of meditation, what we call meditative endpoints in our research. There is so much work to do.

Western medicine has largely ignored those “radical possibilities” rooted in wisdom traditions to make meditation a secular practice. What is driving you to question that path?

We’re moving beyond framing mindfulness and meditation research in the context of stress reduction and asking: What are the limits and endpoints of these practices? It brings a scientific lens to questions of what these phenomena might be, how we might study and understand them, and ultimately, how to use that insight to develop better ways to facilitate more people experiencing them.

I want to be really clear that in going back and investigating the roots of these practices, we’re doing our best to respect and create space for the variety of rich traditions and cultures they come from. At the same time, we’re sticking firmly to the scientific principles that make modern science so powerful.

We’re trying to thread that needle between strong empirical research in a modern scientific framework and these incredibly rich traditions from different parts of the world, and in particular South, Southeast, and East Asia. Both perspectives have much to offer, as we have written about. Can we unite them using rigorous hypothesis-driven scientific investigation? Is it possible to develop the science of advanced meditation in a manner that provides an empirical language and framework that isn’t bound to any single contemplative tradition but helps explain each of them?

It’s still not an easy path, even as meditation practice becomes more mainstream. One of the reasons this work has been relegated to the fringe is because of difficult questions around philosophy of mind and consciousness. You have to integrate very different fields, such as religious and contemplative studies with neuroimaging and computational sciences, in a way that takes each perspective and approach seriously.

Thinking about the benefits of meditation as something much deeper than stress management is a fairly radical idea. Why do you think it will fly now?

It’s definitely radical in that regard. Part of why I think this is possible is because there’s this widespread wellbeing/spiritual crisis happening in the U.S. and globally, a crisis of meaning. The mental health crisis is in full swing, with higher rates of mental illness than have ever been seen before, particularly among young people. Disruption is rampant in our society, with economic and political tribulations, the acceleration of technology including artificial intelligence and cryptocurrency, and so on. At the same time, religious involvement is dropping dramatically.

I think this broader societal context–on top of 30 years of meditation research–helps explain why we’re seeing openness to these kinds of radical solutions, or at least partial solutions, to this crisis of meaning. It may be similar to what’s happening with psychedelics. Psychedelic-assisted therapy is being viewed, at least by some, as this incredible new opportunity to deeply heal mental illness, to do more than apply what might be considered a Band-Aid, a treatment that does not address core mechanisms of suffering.

But is that true? Are psychedelics the answer? Or do we need other practices–like meditation–that may allow one to maintain and integrate the kinds of insights that might be experienced, or perhaps partially experienced, while on psychedelics?

I see psychedelics as more of a window than a door, to borrow a metaphor. They can be very powerful, but also very unpredictable, and oftentimes the insights experienced while on psychedelics don’t stick around. In the psychedelic era of the 60s and 70s, many people who were very interested in psychedelics–including many well-known meditation teachers–eventually drifted toward meditation because they wanted something that might be more sustainable, stable, and systematic, and ultimately more conducive to fostering ongoing wellbeing. I think we may see this happen again.

You’re developing a new Center for Meditation Research at MGB. What’s different about this center?

The idea is to lead the world in the science of advanced meditation, to conduct cutting-edge research, and to be a global hub for this topic, uniting researchers around the planet and fostering the development of this field-within-a-field. We want to bring much-needed attention to the scientific understanding of advanced meditation and how to develop programs to scale it to more people.

“We want to bring much-needed attention to the scientific understanding of advanced meditation and how to develop programs to scale it to more people.”

Part of our research is focused on what I call the foundations of advanced meditation. We want to understand clearly whether advanced meditation is viable to study rigorously using modern scientific approaches, and what those studies might look like. It starts with in-depth interviews, including phenomenological assessments of advanced practitioners in which they describe the particular practices they do and the experiences that they have had. Just getting our foot in the door and asking: Is there anything here?

We’re also conducting massive surveys with hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, to understand how common these experiences are, who experiences them, and what kinds of practices they are doing. This work is foundational to developing an epidemiology of advanced meditation. Can we start to see patterns that could guide future research, which is increasingly comprehensive and mechanistic?

We’re working with state-of-the-art neuroimaging, including ultra-high field magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and concurrent magneto- and electroencephalography (MEG/EEG), to investigate the mechanisms of advanced meditation, using the best systems in the world at MGB’s Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging.

Beyond that, we’re interested in understanding advanced meditation in the context of health and wellbeing, clinically and non-clinically, including the phenomena of challenging or difficult experiences that may arise during practice. We want to create a roadmap of meditative development, or the states and stages of practice that may unfold as expertise develops. And we want to help more people achieve advanced states more efficiently through high- and low-tech training programs, including ones that may incorporate neurotechnology to accelerate practice.

These investigations will contribute to an increasingly comprehensive understanding of advanced meditation from a modern scientific perspective. Many big questions are waiting to be answered. The NIH and other government entities aren’t funding this kind of research; it’s just not in their wheelhouse. They tend to fund more incremental and clinically focused work than what we’re doing, so we have to figure out how we’re getting funded every year.

We want to go bigger. That’s in part why creating this center as protected space is so powerful. It will allow this work to continue in perpetuity.

Do you have a personal meditation practice?

My parents are dedicated meditators, and I grew up meditating every day. Some of my earliest memories are around contemplative practice and meditating, either with my family or by myself. As a very young child–three or four years old–I had the distinct insights that these practices are really powerful, and that I wanted to help other people benefit from them.

Even then, I was searching for rigorous explanations that would help explain meditation in a meaningful way, and I felt dissatisfied with the explanations that were available to me.

Those insights I first felt in early childhood have been driving my whole life. Major life decisions–what I chose to study when I went to university, where I wanted to go to grad school, and so on–have revolved around trying to better understand these experiences in order to share them and help people.

It’s not like I listened to a podcast in 2021 and decided, “This is really cool.” I’ve been playing a certain kind of long game. While advanced meditation has been my primary interest since childhood, it was very much on the fringe – not something you could focus on in a traditional academic career. The fact that we can talk about it now, and that there appears to be so much interest and momentum behind it, feels like a culmination for a body of work I have watched build over the course of my life, wave after wave. I’m relatively young but I’ve been waiting for this for 30 years.

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