Mindfulness is everywhere, but what actually is it?
Clinical psychologist Dr Nicholas Van Dam explains that despite it being associated with everything from eating to the army, mindfulness isn’t what many of us think it is
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Mindfulness. These days, we see it mentioned everywhere. It’s applied to just about any problem that exists - relationship issues, alcohol or drug abuse, toxic workplace environments. But what exactly is it? What type of mindfulness or meditation do we need and for what specific problem?
NICHOLAS VAN DAM
I am Dr Nicholas Van Dam. I am a senior lecturer in the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences and I am the inaugural director of the Contemplative Studies Centre at the University of Melbourne.
Nicholas holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology and has done extensive work in cognitive neuroscience and mindfulness and meditation. He also has interests in the fields of anxiety, depression, psychometrics and assessment.
Nicholas Van Dam sat down for a Zoom chat with Dr Andi Horvath.
Dr Nicholas, if I was stuck in a lift with you, how would you describe what you do?
NICHOLAS VAN DAM
Well the stuff that I think is really interesting and what I'm really excited about and sort of what I'm really focusing on these days is how we make meaning. How we sort of think about our world, how we think about ourselves in that world and how we connect with those things. So my work is really focusing increasingly on mindfulness and meditation - so the practice of exploring our internal selves, our narratives, our minds, how we think, how we experience things and really trying to understand and explore how connected we are to those things.
You mentioned mindfulness. It seems like the last decade and a bit, it's been a thing. Is it hype or is it a very real solution to being human and human well-being at that?
NICHOLAS VAN DAM
It's a bit of both to be honest. It's a bit hype and it's a bit of truth and I guess the difference then is what kind of mindfulness are you talking about and that's really I think the sticking point and something that I've spent a lot of time talking about. So as mindfulness has become something that everyone is excited about and that you see everywhere, the kind of how that term gets used has been really diluted and so it gets added to things like colouring in or it gets added to various things in business or in the military even.
The version that is being offered there is often quite different to the traditions that it sort of - it originated from, so these meditation practices. So I think what I would say is that the mindful colouring in stuff is probably a lot of hype. The mindfulness meditation and the implications of that kind of practice shows real potential for us to be connected.
You also mentioned military. How does mindfulness and military occur in one sentence?
NICHOLAS VAN DAM
Look well that's a really tricky one, right, and it's something that the community that studies this - so there's a lot of researchers, there's academics, there's contemplative practitioners that study this and work in this space, we get together regularly and sort of chat about these - so look, they're really fun get togethers. They're very interesting and one particular academic in the US that I know started talking about doing work with the military. It was a very touchy issue for the community. So there was this concern about well what is it that you're going to train people?
I think the people who are doing mindfulness in the military, the perspective they're often coming from is they really want to help facilitate resilience, they really want to help facilitate people connecting better with their emotions and understanding their experiences to help prevent them from developing things like post-traumatic stress disorder.
The tricky part is - and something that I often talk about a lot - is that what's the end goal though? What are we training people to do? This is where I think there's this whole idea of ethics that kind of gets embedded in the historical context of mindfulness that we don't talk about and this is for me where mindfulness in the military is problematic. Because I'll often say, you know, if you think about well what are the characteristics of being mindful, it's being aware of your body, being aware of your surroundings, being aware of the breath, being aware about how your thoughts and muscle twitches and heartbeats and all of those things affect your behaviour. Even what you had for breakfast or lunch or arguments you may have had - all these things impact what you do on a moment-by-moment basis.
A sniper sounds like they fit the bill on all of that, right, but then the end thing that they're doing is pulling the trigger and killing someone. That's where it really deviates from what I tend to think of as authentic mindfulness, where the goal is actually to make the world a better place, to facilitate connection, to foster better understanding of ourselves and to improve our relationship with others, with the world and really towards a greater good. That's not really quite on the same page as training that sniper.
So is there a shifting sand with the definition of what is mindfulness? I'm kind of going to put that question to you. I first got introduced to mindfulness by eating a sultana really, really slowly, but I'm not sure how that helped my well-being except that for in the moment I just thought yeah, that's kind of cool but I didn't know what to do with it.
NICHOLAS VAN DAM
Yeah. It's - look, there's a lot of exercises that get used to try to help people connect more strongly with their senses. In fact Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote a book called Coming to Our Senses which was an excellent title that, sort of made recognition of both aspects of that play on words. So a lot of these exercises like the raisin exercise is often used as a way of going okay, when you normally eat anything, you often just throw it in your mouth, chew it quickly and swallow it or you know, if you're an academic and you're busy, you eat your lunch while you're reading papers or marking exams or whatever.
So the idea is slow down, stop, taste it, smell it, listen to it, look at it and it's all these things that you would never do with a raisin or a sultana. You would just never explore it in that level of depth and the idea sort of is to go okay well, there's all these things that we normally just completely ignore that are available to us. We can sort of have all of these experiences through all - and we would often in the mindfulness meditation tradition talk about six senses, the mind being an additional sense - and the idea being that we just ignore all this rich content.
Sort of what gets talked about and I love the term called the everyday sublime. There's these moments, there's these experiences that are available to us in our day-to-day lives that we just ignore but it's in those experiences that we have access to something truly sublime. So exercises like that are intended to kind of give you a bit of a window into that possibility and they've been created for exactly that purpose.
Now what do they do for well-being? Probably not a whole lot unless you keep at them, unless you do them regularly, unless you integrate them into your life. It's really meant to be a way of sort of showing you, there is this thing that is possible, but unless you commit to this as being part of your life and part of how you want to organise your life, it's probably not going to do a whole lot for you.
Now at the end of the day, your question - is it changing? Yes and no. I mean the term mindfulness has always been a bit amorphous. It's always been a bit ambiguous and Jon Kabat-Zinn who sort of really pioneered mindfulness kind of in the western world, he wrote in an article in 2011 that he really meant it to be an umbrella term. He meant it to kind of be ambiguous and he picked it I think for a couple of reasons.
He sort of says essentially that he wanted something to connect with kind of the Buddhist roots, so that was a particularly good term. There's all these other things in the Buddhist tradition, in the Noble Eightfold Path which is where mindfulness comes from but you know, mindfulness - or speech based stress reduction and livelihood based stress reduction, I mean concentration based stress reduction - none of those things work quite as well, so I think there's a reason that mindfulness got picked.
One thing that's really interesting that he does say is that he meant it as an umbrella term. So he meant it to be somewhat ambiguous, representing all these different practices, all these different traditions and so that ambiguity has been there from the beginning and it's both kind of a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing in that it can stand in for all of these other things. It's a curse in that because it's so hard to define, because it's so hard to pin down, there are lots of people that are using it and using the term to kind of endorse things and support things or give credence to things that are not anything like kind of the mindfulness that Jon Kabat-Zinn was thinking of.
Right, so mindfulness has become a business as well as a Buddhist practice that's entered the mainstream.
NICHOLAS VAN DAM
It's become a huge business and so this is part of what I think of as one of the major problems we grapple with which is that there are companies out there, some of them very well intentioned, some of them not so well intentioned, some of them very authentic, making efforts to sort of really facilitate people's well-being, connecting with the traditions, but when you talk about billion dollar companies, you know Calm - $1 billion company, it's the first one of its kind - Headspace, the app company. Again, the revenue they're bringing in, the number of books, the number of workshops, the number of retreats. These things have just soared through the roof.
So when you have those kinds of pressures and when you have executives and corporates that are beholden to their board members, they're beholden to their shareholders, it's easy to see how some of the intentions of doing better and sort of helping people and making the world a better place, start to get blurred. That's a great example of when you start to see mindfulness in the military as an example or mindfulness in the workplace. Because I think even people sort of that mean really well, at the end of the day, they're still accountable and this business aspect of things has made it even more challenging to sort of know, well what is mindfulness because the way in which businesses use the term, often doesn't necessarily align with the way that it was traditionally meant.
I want to pick apart mindfulness a bit more before we get into other aspects of it but is it often confused with meditation? I have to just declare here, I can't meditate at all. I've tried. I can be peaceful and calm, but I find it, just the sort of process of it creates all sorts of weird lights and sensations that actually make me feel worse. So I felt very distressed by this because everyone wants you to be able to meditate.
Mindfulness, well, that's something I kind of - when I'm in the thick of my work and I'm concentrating on something it's wonderful because I'm mindful of my work. So to me, that's calming, but I'm confused. Give us some clarity of mindfulness and meditation.
NICHOLAS VAN DAM
Yeah so look, this is something that I guess I'm surprised that we haven't done a better job - and I say we, you know, us scientists and academics, researchers, writers, those of us who work in this space, have clearly done a terrible job of conveying the difference between mindfulness and meditation. Part of that again maybe is intentional. A lot of people really benefit from this kind of ambiguity and sell lots of books by sort of saying that Sudoku is mindful.
Mindfulness and meditation, how they relate to one another, mindfulness is - hypothetically people will talk about it as a trait. They'll talk about it as a state, something that you experience, or as a process, something you do. I tend to think it's the latter, as a process. It's a way of living. It's a way of engaging with the world. Meditation is a much broader set of largely introspective practices, where you're looking inside. Now it can be looking at experiences in the body, it can be looking in the mind, but there's lots of different types of meditation. So there's transcendental meditation, there's mantra based meditation, there's walking meditation, there's looking at flickering flames. So there's repetitive prayer. There's all kinds of meditation.
So when you put those two things together, mindfulness meditation is one specific type of meditation. Now historically mindfulness meditation was viewed as one of the most important forms of meditation and in the context of the historical Buddha, it was one of the practices that sort of - believed to be kind of a direct path to enlightenment or awakening.
This combination of mindfulness meditation is important, but the confusion is - it is very real. So people often think they're interchangeable when they're not. Often when people are talking about mindfulness, they're talking about kind of the quality or the activity, whereas when they're talking about meditation, they're talking about the practice.
Now to your latter point, which I think is a fascinating one, and the first thing sort of that occurs to me is I can't meditate, because I hear that all the time. I can't meditate. I think there are so many misconceptions about what meditation is. So people have so many ideas about what they're supposed to be doing. So it often gets conveyed and you know, look at some of the ads, you see beautiful people on lovely beaches surrounded by palm trees and they're so fit and they look so relaxed, and the waves and the breeze and the sun and what a lovely bikini and how did they get that six pack?
So we tend to think, oh that's what it's supposed to be like. I'm supposed be calm and relaxed and my mind will be free of thoughts and everything will just be lovely and wonderful. The reality for a lot of people couldn't be further from them. The reality for a lot of people is that when you sit down to meditate, it's irritating. It's unpleasant. It's distressing. How many times in a normal day-to-day experience do you sit quietly in a room with no one else, with silence, and just experience your thoughts, look at your bodily sensations? We don't ever do that.
So what happens? Well all the stuff that we've been shoving to the back of our mind, that we don't want to think about, comes straight to the surface, it comes bubbling up. All of the things we don't want to think about, all the bodily aches, sensations, whatever, that we don't want to experience, come flooding to the front. So for a lot of people, the activity of actually trying to meditate is doubly complicated by the fact that they expect that it'll be amazing, pleasant and wonderful and then by the fact that the normal experience for many is actually pretty irritating and sometimes distressing.
The reality - and we know this from both the traditions and well as from a lot of science - that lots of people experience these kinds of things. They find it frustrating, they find it irritating. That's not bad. In fact, that's the norm. That's part of what just happens. So what you're often getting from learning how to meditate, particularly mindfulness meditation, is you're learning how to tolerate how to be with your inner experience regardless of what that experience is.
But even if it is unpleasant you can learn to be with that unpleasantness. So you're learning to go okay well, this isn't the nicest thing in the world but then you also learn that that's okay. It doesn't have to be wonderful, it doesn't have to be perfect. I can be happy with whatever I have in front of me right now.
Now the other side of things though with that unpleasantness that is really important, is that it's commonly said and described that what's the worst that can happen? There's this idea that well it could only possibly help you. So many people will go around and say, mindfulness, everybody should be doing it. It's just like exercise. People love to give this analogy, like it's just like exercise. It's like going to the gym, of course everyone should do it.
I think it's a terrible analogy because rarely do we think of someone exercising and then think about the possibility for harm in exercise. The reality is, something on the order of five to 20 per cent of people who try meditation, actually experience undesirable or unwanted events or effects. So people have panic attacks. Some people experience really extreme events like psychotic breaks or dissociative episodes. The kinds of sensations - tingling, lights, things like that - those are not uncommon either.
Now sometimes those are just a normal part of the experience, you know, what does your mind do? I'm not saying psychotic breaks is a normal experience but the mind kind of going all over the place, throwing weird sensory experiences at you - the mind's really good at trying to get our attention and that's why in the Buddhist context we talk about something called monkey mind. There's this idea that the mind will do whatever it has to do to get your attention, but there are these people for whom it actually is genuinely distressing and it's potentially genuinely harmful and this is a whole area of research that's been largely ignored up until I'd say the last five years or so.
We're now starting to look into this and recognising that there are people for whom this is just not the right way to go and for whom we really need to be providing a lot more support. We're also starting to recognise that we can't just say that everybody should be meditating. It's not a magic fix.
How do we go about the research that you mentioned? Like how do you measure something that's a mindfulness practice and is the science sort of lagging a bit behind where the media is and the various gurus that have become a part of our society for mindfulness and meditation?
NICHOLAS VAN DAM
Look, it's a really tricky area to do scientific research in because we fundamentally rely to some extent on people telling us reliably what it is they're experiencing and what it is they're doing. Now we can add - put people in MRI machines and sort of get pictures of their brain activity. We can hook them up to electrodes and do all kinds of things, but at the end of the day, we're often interested in what people's experience is.
Even though we can give people the best possible instructions and say here's exactly what we want you to do when you're meditating, we don't really know whether they're actually following our instructions. So the process of actually studying meditation is really challenging because we need to find ways of knowing that people are doing what we are asking them to do and we need to find ways of actually interpreting or understanding what it is they're experiencing.
So there's been some interesting movement in that space and with a particular organisation called Mind & Life which is based in the US and they've got a counterpart in Europe, there's been this real push for a combination of first person - so hearing what the person says they're experiencing and doing - second person which I'll come back to and third person observation. So third person essentially is the electrodes and the MRI machines et cetera.
The second person thing is really cool. So with the second person thing, you get someone that sits in between who is someone like - let's say Matthieu Ricard who is a Buddhist monk who also has a PhD in molecular biology. So here's someone who knows a lot about the mind and also knows quite a bit about science and that person can listen to the subject describing their experiences and go oh, that sounds like this thing that I would expect from reading this traditional text and my thinking is that it might relate to this kind of brain activity or this kind of bodily reaction. Then we can go okay does that work, does it all match up.
So I think it's a particularly cool advance in how we do these things, but that really hasn't been around for very long and still sort of hasn't been taken very seriously as, you know, as a scientific community as a whole and it's really challenging to do and there's only one Matthieu Ricard. There aren't that many of these people that can sort of be the go-betweens.
So the reality though I think as you alluded to is that the kind of enthusiasm for this is vastly outpacing the evidence we're able to acquire for it. So people really want these practices. They want them to work. They want something alternative. They want something they can do at home. They want something they can give to their employees and they don't want it to be drugs, they don't necessarily want it to be complicated exercises, they don't want to have to provide expensive equipment, so this seems to fit the bill.
The problem sort of is that because people are so excited, they're often willing to sort of overlook some of the inadequacies in the scientific research. That's not to say that the research is bad. There actually is a lot of really great research. However, the research sort of that's coming out now is sort of suggesting kind of the things that I already said. Yes it works, but it's a qualified yes. It works for some people some of the time. It helps some conditions but not others.
So we're increasingly seeing that well it's not a silver bullet, it's not a panacea. It won't fix every problem for every person. It probably shouldn't be for every child in every school. That kind of thinking just probably isn't going to work and the science doesn't support that, but we're starting to get better. With our randomised control trials and the studies that we're doing to try to understand these practices, we're starting to actually look at comparing meditation practices against good active controls, which is something that's been lacking.
Because we still don't really know how much of what happens as people change in response to meditation is unique to meditation. You can think about in particular one of the things that has often been studied is long term meditators or monks and the complexity with looking at monks is - interesting and exciting as it may be - is they're very unusual people. So you get a monk or a nun who has been practising meditation in a cave for the better part of 30, 40 years. That's not what most people do.
So often they're vegetarian, they may own two sets of robes, maybe they own a pair of sandals, they may have two pairs of underwear. They don't really have a job in the sense that you know, they probably don't have insurance. Basically they're looked after by the community of people around them and that's something that's fairly rare in western society.
So you then take this person and you look at what happens to their brain. Who do you compare them to? I don't know anybody sort of - the other thing is if they've practising for 30, 40 years, they're probably in their 60s or 70s, right? So what 60 or 70 year old person do you know that only has two pairs of clothes, two pairs of underwear, two pairs of sandals, has no job, has all their meals prepared for them?
So it's really a significant challenge because a lot of us look at these studies and these results among these monks and nuns and go wow, I can't believe the capacity, the potential of the mind, but we're not sure whether the capacity is down to the meditation practice, is it their lifestyle, is it - is there something - I mean the other question [I didn't even raise is] well why did they get in in the first place? Who decides to go and become a monk or a nun? There may have been characteristics about them that was quite unique to begin with and it's really hard to control for all of those things.
So that's where these ideas of taking people who have never done these practices and sort of trying to train them to do it, it does allow you more experimental control but that's where you also then need another analogous practice alongside it so that you know well is this unique to meditation. Because people love to say meditation changes the brain, of course it must be amazing. My response is, everything we do changes the brain. Learning to drive a car changes the brain. Learning to play an instrument changes the brain. Learning to do puzzles changes the brain. Everything changes the brain. So the question is, how does it change the brain and can we pin it down to a specific thing like meditation?
I want to talk about mindfulness and the gratitude movement. I mean stopping to smell the roses has been something of an ancient wisdom. Being in the now is something that is a mainstream thing to say and focusing on something for a while is kind of nice because you are in the now. Has this been - not an entire panacea for people but has this actually propelled mental health in a positive way?
NICHOLAS VAN DAM
Again I would say it's mixed. I think to some extent it has, to some extent I think it's actually gotten in the way. I think to the positivity side of things, I think has been a bit misleading. So there's been this push to say, enjoy the now, be in the now, be grateful, be positive, be kind and some of those things are wonderful but there's a limit. There's a limit to how much of that you can do.
Being positive and being optimistic when you have terminal cancer, well the reality is you're going to have to come to grips with the diagnosis. I don't mean to say that in a mean or terrible way, but the reality sort of is you can think as positive as you want, it's not going to change the diagnosis. We see examples of this all the time, where people in terrible working conditions who have a lot of uncertainty about their job, who are being abused or threatened or being treated badly in the workplace are being told, well here's a mindfulness seminar. You go, well what - I mean how does that mindfulness seminar actually do anything about the fact that my boss is a bully, my colleagues are sexist and I'm the only woman in this business and I can't actually wear what I want to wear to work because everyone will be leering at me.
So I think this is one of the biggest problems that we face is, people think we'll just throw mindfulness at them and it'll fix the problem or at least it feels like it's fixing the problem. I think there's a real downside to that element of things.
Dr Nicholas, this is so refreshing to hear. This is not spoken about at all.
NICHOLAS VAN DAM
Well that's [when] you get the brash American. So look, so there's this - I think this overdoing it with positivity and optimism and there's a benefit to it. Certainly going around and being grumpy and negative all the time is not particularly helpful either, but there is balance that's - I think that's the objective and in the traditional settings and the authentic settings, the goal of the practice is the middle way is balanced. It's not too much positivity, it's not too much negativity, it's actually just something in the middle.
I mean the end goal, the way I think about it and many of my colleagues is this term equanimity. You're going for emotional and physical balance. That's your goal. It's not to be positive all the time. It's not to feel bad all the time, but it's just to be in the middle. You don't vacillate, you don't go up and down as extremely or as often and it's really important I think when you think about sort of this idea of - being in the now even is something else that sort of occurred to me that I want to talk about, that historically mindfulness - the term related to that.
So there's this term 'sati' in Pali that actually has an element of memory to it. So when you translate it, there's something to it that sort of has to do with remembering to be mindful. So mindfulness is not as present moment as people often think it is. So it's kind of like a remembering to pay attention, a remembering to be present, a remembering to be aware, however what you're aware of, what you're attending, doesn't necessarily have to be the present. I mean often that's the goal, but as you're sitting thinking or as you're going about your day, the mind will wander to the past, it will wander to the future. That's fine.
It's all about how you engage with that. So again, it's another misconception where it's like well you should be in the present. If you get angry with yourself and you sort of kind of chastise yourself and say I have to be back in the present, it's just more of the same bad stuff. Whereas if you can go hey look my mind just - I was in a daydream for the past 20 minutes thinking about this wonderful dinner I'm going to have tomorrow or whatever, or I was stuck in a memory of a terrible thing that happened to me 10 years ago, the occurrence of that is totally and 100 per cent normal. It's something that everyone experiences.
So what the practice is about is not getting rid of that, not fully about being in the moment per se, it's about how do you come back to the moment when your mind flooded or moved into the past or went into the future. So how do you let go? How do you let go of the pull towards the future or the pull towards the past and come back to where you are?
What would you like to activate in society, given the unlimited funding and power of presidency of Australia?
NICHOLAS VAN DAM
I think there's a lot of good we can do with these practices. I think what I would like to happen is I would like people to spend some time and take a step back from things. Considering what's happened in the context of the pandemic, a lot of people have spent a lot of time exploring what do they want their life to be about. We've been confronted with a lot of things that we didn't think we would. Many of us were working from home. I often talk about you know, I spent time at my desk and my son was watching television next to me - my son's five - and a number of times I sort of thought to myself, what am I doing? My son's sitting over there watching television. He's five years old and I could be playing with him right now.
I know from talking to friends that a lot of people had similar experiences where they sort of went, is this really what I want to be doing with my life? So I think asking that question and being prepared for the answer is really important and asking it authentically. When you ask it authentically and you're prepared for whatever answer comes back, the answer you get sometimes is surprising, sometimes it's scary and I think we need to be prepared to embrace that.
I think - as I think about what the next phase is for me at the University of Melbourne in the Contemplative Studies Centre, we really want to embrace authenticity. There's too much that's going on in the world that is incredibly superficial. There's too many people that are interested in the appearance of doing good than actually doing good. People want to look like they're helping as opposed to actually helping and the fact that we've gotten to that point is really troubling and really disturbing.
So I think we need to get to a point where we can figure out how to be authentic, to look for others who are authentic and be inclusive, be genuine, be open. We need to find ways to better connect with ourselves, to understand what it is that we most want and in doing so, we'll find better ways to connect to each other. As we start to understand ourselves more, we'll understand our fellow humans better and as we understand our fellow humans, we'll understand the animals and the planet and the world and the only place that we can live.
So I think all of this can start, I think, from this process of introspection, of exploring what's deepest and truest to ourselves and that's why I'm so excited about this centre and why I'm so excited and have really committed myself to these practices. Because I think it allows us the possibility of kind of redoubling our efforts in a very real way, to get away from some of the superficiality that kind of dominates life nowadays.
This is really exciting. It's the Centre for Contemplative Studies, is that right?
NICHOLAS VAN DAM
I love the title. Dr Nicholas, next time we hear the word mindfulness somewhere, whether it be in a conversation at the café or in the media, what would you like us to think about?
NICHOLAS VAN DAM
When you hear the word, when you hear the term, I think it's important to think about the context. Who's saying it? What do they want? What are they trying to get? What's their motive for bringing it up? If it's something that is chatting about it or something that is chatting to you about it, what do they hope for you? Where are they coming from? If it's just people talking about mindfulness, even if it's at a coffee shop, what's the context? Explore that a little. Don't just assume that they mean the thing you think they mean because there's so much confusion around the term and it gets used in so many ways, I think it's really important to take a step back and go okay, that's interesting, what do you mean by that?
Particularly if you're conversing with them, oh that's interesting. What kind of mindfulness? Where does it come from? What are you suggesting that we should do here? People say all the time, oh we should be mindful of this. Politicians always say - they love to talk about how they should be mindful of things. What do they actually mean? Is it just a way of sort of saying a nice word that sounds nice and sort of sounds like it's - there's some positivity to it, there's some pro-sociality to it? Or do they genuinely mean, how can we connect, how can we be present, how can find a way to better understand ourselves, other people and our world?
So I think when you hear it, don't just assume oh, it's a good thing, it must be good or the opposite - oh it's that terrible horrible practice where I have to sit down and close my eyes and deal with my unpleasant experiences. Really just explore, kind of try to suspend judgment and go oh what do they really mean?
Brilliant. Dr Nicholas Van Dam, thank you so much.
NICHOLAS VAN DAM
Thank you to Nicholas Van Dam, Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. And thanks to Dr Andi Horvath.
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights - was made possible by the University of Melbourne. This episode was recorded on April 8, 2021. You’ll find a full transcript on the Pursuit website. Production, audio engineering and editing by me, Chris Hatzis. Co-production - Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath. Eavesdrop on Experts is licensed under Creative Commons, Copyright 2021, The University of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this episode, review us on Apple Podcasts and check out the rest of the Eavesdrop episodes in our archive. I’m Chris Hatzis. Join us again next time for another Eavesdrop on Experts.
“One of the biggest problems we face is people thinking ‘we’ll just throw mindfulness at them and it’ll fix the problem’ or at least it feels like it’s fixing the problem,” says Dr Nicholas Van Dam, Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne.
“We’re increasingly seeing that [mindfulness] isn’t a silver bullet, it’s not a panacea. It won’t fix every problem for every person and it probably shouldn’t be for every child in every school. That kind of thinking just probably isn’t going to work and the science doesn’t support that, but we’re starting to get better.”
Dr Van Dam is the inaugural director of the Contemplative Studies Centre at the University of Melbourne, a first point of entry into the world of mindfulness, meditation and contemplative practice.
The Centre focuses on interdisciplinary, evidence-based research into contemplative practice and methodology.
“We’re trying to understand these practices - we’re starting to actually look at comparing meditation practices against good active controls, which is something that’s been lacking,” he says.
“This combination of mindfulness (and) meditation is important, but the confusion is very real. People often think they’re interchangeable when they’re not. Often when people are talking about mindfulness, they’re talking about the quality or the activity, it’s a way of engaging with the world. Meditation is a much broader set of largely introspective practices, where you’re looking inside.
“So mindfulness isn’t as present moment as people often think it is. It’s kind of like a remembering to pay attention, a remembering to be present, a remembering to be aware. However what you’re aware of, what you’re attending to, doesn’t necessarily have to be the present.
“That’s often the goal, but as you’re sitting thinking or as you’re going about your day, the mind will wander to the past, it will wander to the future. That’s fine. It’s all about how you engage with that.”
Episode recorded: April 8, 2021.
Interviewer: Dr Andi Horvath.
Producer, audio engineer and editor: Chris Hatzis.
Co-producers: Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath.
Banner: Getty Images
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