Mindfulness refers to an awareness that emerges by intentionally focusing on the present experience in a nonjudgmental or evaluative manner. Evidence regarding its efficacy has been increasing exponentially, and recent research suggests that the practice of meditation is associated with longer leukocyte telomere length. However, the psychological mechanisms underlying this potential relationship are unknown. We examined the telomere lengths of a group of 20 Zen meditation experts and another 20 healthy matched comparison participants who had not previously meditated. We also measured multiple psychological variables related to meditation practice. Genomic DNA was extracted for telomere measurement using a Life Length proprietary program. High-throughput quantitative fluorescence in situ hybridization (HT-Q-FISH) was used to measure the telomere length distribution and the median telomere length (MTL). The meditators group had a longer MTL (p = 0.005) and a lower percentage of short telomeres in individual cells (p = 0.007) than those in the comparison group. To determine which of the psychological variables contributed more to telomere maintenance, two regression analyses were conducted. In the first model, which applied to the MTL, the following three factors were significant: age, absence of experiential avoidance, and Common Humanity subscale of the Self Compassion Scale. Similarly, in the model that examined the percentage of short telomeres, the same factors were significant: age, absence of experiential avoidance, and Common Humanity subscale of the Self Compassion Scale. Although limited by a small sample size, these results suggest that the absence of experiential avoidance of negative emotions and thoughts is integral to the connection between meditation and telomeres.
Keywords: Compassion; Experiential avoidance; Mindfulness; Telomere length.