What mindfulness is
A ‘working definition’ of mindfulness is awareness that arises from:
- paying attention, on purpose
- in the present moment
(says Jon Kabat-Zinn in the video below)
It is difficult to pay attention like this without a great deal of practice.
One way of practising is to decide to give all your attention to your breath for x minutes, and really be aware of the air coming in and going out for this amount of time. Whenever the mind wanders, as it will, bring attention gently back to the breath. Sort of mental press ups – the more you do it, the easier it gets.
But mindfulness is not about the breath per se; it’s about the paying attention to what is happening right now.
The non-judgment element of mindfulness is suspending judgement (of whether it’s good or bad for your mind to keep wandering, for example) – just experiencing things without assigning a label and an opinion.
How mindfulness alleviates depression
In other words, mindfulness is about developing the ability to become detached controllers and observers of our own minds (this is sometimes called ‘meta-awareness). This enables us to:
- focus our minds on, say, helpful rather than unhelpful things if we so choose
- be aware of what our minds are doing and understand that the thoughts that pop into our heads are just thoughts: they are not us, and they are not necessarily true
- control the meaning we give to thoughts, feelings and experiences
After repeated mindfulness practice – ie this deliberate paying attention – changes start to occur in the structure of the brain, through a process called neuroplasticity. The neural pathways that have developed in our brains over the years to govern thoughts, feelings and behaviours can be rewired when we forge new pathways through mindfulness.
This video explains neuroplasticity:
Here’s Ruby Wax on neuroplasticity (she starts talking about it at 4:51 after a preamble about what lead her to neuroplasticity, which you may have heard before):
Peter Malinowski Meditation and Neuroplasticity: Five key articles 2014