The science and clinical application of mindfulness and meditation


The Contemplative Studies Centre fuses contemplative wisdom, innovative research, lifelong education, authentic dialogue and practice in the pursuit of knowledge to allow us, our society, and our world to flourish. In this video, the Centre Director Dr Nicholas Van Dam gives one presentation on mindfulness and meditation.

Meditation is like exercise in many ways. Not every session feels good, but every session can do you good. Like exercise, meditation can alleviate stress and release endorphins. It takes time to see results and many of us have preconceptions about our aptitude for it.

In exercise, there are those who think they’re not flexible enough for yoga, strong enough for weights or who don’t have a “runner’s body”, whatever that is. In meditation, it is the “hippy-dippy” misconception, the belief that you need to have a particular disposition or that you need to be wearing white robes and levitating in lotus position to be doing it correctly.

You might feel like you have “failed” at meditating if you are thinking about what’s for lunch or when this seemingly endless five-minute session will be over. But, the goal is not to be free of thoughts. Instead, it is to become more aware of and less attached to the 12-to-60,000 odd thoughts we have each day.

By noticing we’ve become distracted and returning to our breath, our body or the repetition of a couple of words (a mantra), it’s “like a biceps curl for the brain”, writes Dan Harris in his book 10% Happier.

And, like exercise, we can train ourselves to get a little fitter via short sessions (five or 10 minutes a day), 20 minutes a day (what most traditions recommend) or work towards the “extreme sport” version (like silent retreats called vipassanas).

The key difference in the approach to meditation, in contrast with exercise, is that the less “effort” you put in the better, and this is because the moment you try to force yourself to relax or be calm, you get tense. The point is not to try at all. You don’t have to do anything but watch and notice what comes up, even if what comes up are delicious thought-bubbles about snacks.


Contemporary Insight Tradition: These secular meditations are drawn from foundational teachings from the Insight tradition. The practices employ different techniques to anchor us into the body and support us to settle the mind. In quietening the mind we can see freshly and insight is given room to arise


Meditation may not have positive effects on everyone, however, says Dr Nicholas Van Dam, the director for the Contemplative Studies Centre at the University of Melbourne. Today, the research paints a “messier” picture than it did five years ago. This is in part due to improved design of studies and in part because meditation will do wonders for some people, little for others and, for about 5 per cent of people, it can be harmful.

So just as someone who is unwell physically should consult their GP before starting an exercise regime, he cautions those with histories of trauma or mental illness to do the same before starting meditation.

“There is no single treatment that will fix any given problem for everyone,” says Van Dam, whose daily meditation practice has personally helped him “a lot”.

For people wanting to try meditation, Van Dam suggests approaching it with curiosity rather than expectation. And though it may not work for everyone, when it works it can be transformative, which says a lot for a practice where you don’t do anything but sit.

“Life in general is easily lived without any real presence or pause or consideration for the moment,” says Van Dam, who notes that in-person programs tend to be more effective. “Any effort towards being more present and being more aware and not being so attached to our thoughts may be likely to have some benefits.”


The science and clinical application of mindfulness and meditation

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