Monday, May 17, 2010

Studying Mindfulness in Experienced Meditators

Often studies of meditation are conducted using samples of people taking 8-week mindfulness meditation courses such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Studies of experience meditators are less common. For this reason, I perked up when I came across Fredik Falkenström’s new study of experienced meditators.

The experimenter obtained a sample of Vipassanna meditators who had completed at least one retreat of one week or longer. He used a quasi-experimental design, which means that participants weren’t randomly assigned into groups. The experimenter collected assessments of mindfulness and well-being one-week prior and one-week following retreats of 5 and 7 days in 48 participants. These measures were compared to a control group of 28 experienced meditators who did not participate in a retreat during the time period that the assessments were collected. Mindfulness was measured using the Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills (KIMS) and Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ), which include subscales of observing, describing, acting with awareness, accepting without judgment, and nonreactivity to inner experiences. The findings are quite interesting and easiest to understand grouped by hypothesis:

1. Mindfulness was related to well-being, as predicted.

2. The prediction that meditation experience was related to mindfulness was partially supported. Only the acceptance scales and the KIMS acting with awareness scale were related to meditation experience. Moreover, when controlling for age, only the KIMS acting with awareness scale remained significantly correlated, suggesting that we cannot rule out that greater scores on acceptance were related to age rather than meditation experience.

The authors note that because all the participants were experienced, there may be some ceiling effects, as the entire sample scored higher on the observe scales than the average population.

3. Although mindfulness skills increased following the retreat for the experimental group, they also increased for the control group. Interestingly, the increase for the retreat group was not significantly greater than that for the control group. The author suggests that it is possible the retreat group may have been struggling with post-retreat life following a week in quiet solitude. However, this is conjecture and the results remain intriguing.

4. Although mindfulness didn’t increase in the retreat group any more than the control group, well-being did. The retreat group exhibited significant increases in well-being, and this was greater than the control group.

5. The increase in well-being was associated with increases in mindfulness, but the relationship was not particularly strong.

The author discusses the apparent paradox in the results: the retreat was related to greater well-being, and well-being was related to greater mindfulness, but meditators who completed a retreat didn’t appear to develop greater mindfulness than meditators who did not attend a retreat during that time. Consequently, the authors note, there may be other factors that lead to an increase in well-being during retreat other than mindfulness (e.g., insight); also, it does not rule out that well-being is related to a placebo effect or something more mundane (e.g., the retreatants simply had a break).

Overall, these are fascinating results with much food for thought. Hopefully, the future will bring similar studies with experienced meditators, but with larger samples and greater experimental control.

Full citation:

Falkenström, F. (2010). Studying mindfulness in experienced meditators: A quasi-experimental approach. Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 305-310.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, and a little disappointing too. I am not convinced that we currently have an adequate self report measure of mindfulness. Perhaps condensing relative degrees of mindfulness down to a simple Likert based measures is a little dodgy...


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