Mindfulness is a modern reworking of ancient meditation traditions. It is designed to help you deal with day to day difficulties by putting you in control of your own mind. In difficult situations such as when a loved one is very ill or we are approaching an anxiety provoking situation (e.g. an exam) or someone makes us hopping mad, we may experience very strong emotions e.g. sadness, anxiety or anger in the above situations. Sometimes these emotions incapacitate us by overwhelming us or lasting a very long time.

Unhelpful thoughts may accompany these emotions such as "I'll never get over this" or "I must be stupid if I'm so scared of this exam". Such thoughts are often believed uncritically and tend to perpetuate the strong emotions which in turn makes it all the more difficult to cope positively with a situation.

What may happen in a mindfulness session?

A mindfulness therapist will help you establish a daily mindfulness practice, often mindfulness of the breath. They may discuss with you what situations and thoughts are problematical with a view to helping you become much more mindful and aware in these situations. There is no attempt to change your thinking, but simply to become more aware of the unhelpfulness of some thoughts. You may be encouraged to reflect on a difficult situation as it is happening or soon after. Similarly you may be encouraged to stay with an upsetting emotion for some length of time so that you can become more familiar with it and perhaps avoid the need to use up a lot of resources in fighting it off time after time.

In essence the aim is to allow you to have a different, easier relationship with problematical thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations. This results in an increased sense of well being, more control over your own mind, and more resources for important activities. Often difficulties can disappear altogether.

What are the benefits of mindfulness?

Your mind is like any other part of your being, there are benefits from understanding how it works and you can train it to work better. Specifically a mindfulness practice has the following benefits:

Stability of mind

-- maintaining your mind in an alert clear space rather than at the two extremes of a dull or agitated mind.

Flexibility of mind

-- the ability to shift your mind to whatever object you choose, rather than having it bounce haphazardly between a number of issues.

Self awareness

-- being aware of the contents of your mind and understanding the typical patterns of your mind.

Acting rather than reacting

-- becoming less reactive, e.g. when you are angry and choosing how you will act.

How does it work?

While most of what we achieve is by 'doing', mindfulness achieves its ends by 'not doing,' simply by observing and becoming aware. Thoughts like "I must be stupid" are subtle and we generally believe them uncritically. By being mindful of our thoughts we gradually get the idea that they are just thoughts that we are having and there is no need to believe them uncritically. Similarly with a feeling like 'anger' we start to realize that it is a feeling that is currently strong within us but no more than that - we currently have anger, but it doesn't define us and it will pass. We stop identifying with the thoughts and emotions. Our mind ceases to be under the control of strong feelings and thoughts and slowly comes under our own control.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is the name most closely associated with mindfulness which he defined as "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally".

Related modalities based in mindfulness are ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy)and DBT, developed to treat borderline personality disorder.

Description provided by: Colin Thompson, Melbourne Mindfulness Centre