The Mindful Way Through Depression – by Mark Williams et al

This is the self-help book that I used to get started in meditation.

In 2012, I first heard of mindfulness and it sounded like exactly what I needed. I looked up a psychotherapist with mindfulness in their profile and booked an appointment. He did a couple of sessions of guided meditations and then handed me this book.

The Mindful Way Through Depression – by Mark Williams

The first sentence is “Depression hurts”. I’ve read a few books about depression and many of them start with chapters of information describing the damage depression does to society, with lots of statistics and lamentations. But, if you’re depressed, this is hard work. It’s a form of rumination written on the pages. So, when Mark Williams starts with a paragraph that describes the experience of what it’s like to be depressed, then we can start to hope that we’re finally in the right place.

Depression hurts. It is the black dog of the night that robs you of joy, the unquiet mind that keeps you awake. It’s the noonday demon that only you see, the darkness visible only to you.

Following this, there are some chapters that explain very clearly how depression works. This is already helpful because we can see that depression is an understandable process. It can creep up on anyone very stealthily and can be hard to recognise on first experience.

The 8 week program itself is fantastic. The guided meditations that accompany the book are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. These are the gold standard in my opinion and I still use them ten years into my meditation practice.

Repetition Works

I did the same two guided meditations for a year.

I learned to meditate through the self-help book The Mindful Way Through Depression. This describes the 8 week MBCT program which I recommend to everyone who asks how to get started in meditation.

A few weeks into the program, I was doing mindfulness of the breath in the morning and the body scan in the evening. It was working very well for me and I decided to stay at this level for a bit longer. I never got back to reading the rest of the book. So I continued with the same two guided meditations for over a year.

In that first year of meditation, mindfulness really took hold as a quality of mind. There was no point at which I thought I had enough and didn’t want more. The mental freedom of having the quality of mindfulness available kept growing week after week.

The scope of situations when I could be mindful expanded to cover more patterns of thinking and ever more intense emotions. It also included more types of activities including walking, doing chores and talking to people.

Even when the mind felt stable and positive, I could see that the mindfulness didn’t remain static. It was in its nature to look further and learn more. Each level of improvement was a platform for further gains.

In that first year I was excited by the new experiences. I know now that sometimes a practice can plateau and get a bit stale. We can prevent this by choosing to remain curious about our experience, while also being patient about the pace at which change sometimes comes.

Why I Recommend An 8-Week Course To Every Type Of Meditator

People come to meditation for a wide variety of reasons. Some might be struggling with stress and want the medicinal benefit of secular meditation to reduce it. At the other extreme, there are those looking for a deep tradition to add to their spiritual journey.

All of these interests are matched by the wide range of meditation traditions. At the secular end are the amazing programs of MBCT and MBSR, with their evidence-based scientific approaches. Then there are the temples where nuns and monks can immerse themselves in the Buddhist traditions. And there’s everything in-between.

Wherever your goals lie on this spectrum, they will be best supported by establishing a solid base in mindfulness. Without it, I’ve seen people flailing about with poor teachings and unstable practices.

The 8-week MBCT/MBSR programs have been designed for the highest likelihood of success. Even though the programs might seem psychological and un-spiritual, they are the best chance to experience real mindfulness. The course designers know what works; they know how to teach it; and they know how to train the trainers.

What we build on top of this evidence-based foundation is up to us.

Keep Meditating, Even When It Seems Worthless

This has happened countless times. Even when I’ve been really into my meditation practice. I’ve started a sitting, I recall the first minute, then the next thing I know: my timer has gone off to signal the end of the session.

Even worse, this can happen with a guided meditation. I can be so distracted that the sounds become lost in another world while my mind is drifting or is caught up in some imaginary scenario.

Even worse than that, this pattern has sometimes repeated for days.

At such times, it can seem like the meditation isn’t doing anything at all. It can become a question: is there any point in continuing to sit if all I’m going to do is drift for half an hour?

And yet, if I look at the difference between un-mindful meditation and no meditation, it’s clear that these apparently worthless sittings are doing something. The feeling of steadiness continues to be supported.

The answer, in all cases, is to check our experience. Is this leading in the direction of less suffering, in my life, in general? Does it do no harm?

And keep learning. From books, courses, teachers, even websites.


I’ve avoided the phrase ‘bad’ meditation, because there are some things you can do that are unhelpful and can make you feel worse if you don’t figure them out. An example is spending the whole time in negative judgement about failing to be mindful. I have enough experience not to do that, even in the cases I’m describing in this post.

Using An Anchor In Meditation

Our meditation teachers might ask us to ‘anchor’ our attention on the breath.

We do this by setting this behaviour as an intention for the meditation session. We start very deliberately, with some determination that the mind should rest on the breath. Then, each time we notice that the mind has become distracted, we gently return the attention back to the breath. We do this as many times as we forget and remember.

Every time we catch our mind drifting, and return it to our chosen anchor, our mindfulness capacity increases. We strengthen our ability to pay attention, attend for longer durations, bring the attention back more often and bring the attention back more quickly.

The mind is a virtual space, in which almost anything can happen. Since it’s not limited to what’s actually happening in the senses, it can drift in any direction and go to any place. The mind slipping off to somewhere else is very subtle. Having a pre-decided anchor is a way for us to notice that the mind has drifted.

Knowing beforehand where we will return the attention to also means that we are not distracted by having to decide where to put it each time.

Any activity that requires our attention will be supercharged by this capacity for mindfulness.

The purpose of our meditation might be simply to reduce distraction and rumination, so we can function with less mental agitation. Stability itself can be soothing, giving us the sensation of being centred rather than scattered.

If our meditation session has some additional purpose, such as the body scan, then we can spend more time benefiting from the body scan. We acquire more information, and apply any guidance more diligently.

The breath isn’t the only anchor we can choose, but it is the most commonly useful.

The Practice Is To Notice

Even after years of practice, I needed to be reminded of this.

I was on a course and a teacher was doing a guided meditation. My meditation felt heavy and oppressive. I was noticing my ongoing symptoms of brain fog, and feeling quite frustrated that it was there again, changing how my practice felt. I started pushing against the experience rather than settling into the meditation.

Then the teacher reminded us that the intention is to notice what’s happening.

This non-fixing is what Mark Williams calls the being mode, as opposed to the doing mode. We can notice when we are getting caught up, trying to make things different.

Doing mode is one in which we try to close the gap between the way things are and the way we think they should be. We respond to what we hear as a call to action – and it can make us feel worse.

“Another mode of mind is required when it comes to dealing with unhappiness. Evolution has bequeathed us with an alternative to critical thinking. … It is called awareness.”

Mark Williams, The Mindful Way Through Depression. Audiobook.

Kindness Adds Direction To Mindfulness Practice

It’s often assumed that mindfulness has kindness built-in. I don’t think this is true. A counter-example is the way that some beginner meditators criticise themselves for not being mindful enough. It’s an act of unkindness towards one’s self.

Mindfulness needs to be deliberately filled with the quality of goodwill.

As well as making a healthy static meditation practice, kindness can also be used to give a sense of direction to the practice. It’s the first signpost that we are moving along in the direction of less suffering.

Mindfulness without kindness is like standing on one leg. It won’t get us very far along the path.

Definitions of Mindfulness

Job Kabat-Zinn gives us a definition of what mindfulness is.

Mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.

Jon Kabat-Zinn. Mindfulness for Beginners. Sounds True. Hardback Edition.

Thich Nhat-Hanh’s is more a definition of what it feels like.

Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment.

Thich Nhat Hanh. Happiness. Parallax Press. Kindle Edition.

Add Kindness To Your Mindfulness Practice

One of the biggest mistakes that a new meditator can make, is to become judgemental about their ability to be mindful.

The scenario is that a meditator is being asked to place their attention on an object, such as the breath. When the mind drifts, the student is to bring the mind back to the breath. However, instead of bringing the mind back, the student starts criticising themself for ‘failing’ to keep the attention on the breath. This is a mistake because the criticising thoughts compound the distraction.

There is a simple counter to this self criticism – it’s kindness. You should apply it proactively. So now the instructions are like this: Place your attention on the breath. When you notice that the mind is no longer on the breath, fill yourself with the quality of kindness. Then, remembering your original intention, ride the kindness back to the breath.

If you find it hard to bring the quality of kindness to life, then practice it. Mindfulness and kindness are the two legs of a beginners’ practice. You need them both, so you can move along.

Why The Breath Is A Good Object For Mindfulness

It seems like mindfulness teachers are obsessed with the breath. They are always telling us to pay attention to it. But it’s the attention rather than the breath that we are developing. So why is the breath always chosen as the object of mindfulness?

The breath is subtle

Most of the time, the breath is noticeable enough that we can pay attention to it, but subtle enough that we can ignore it. This makes it a perfect challenge for training the mind.

Once we have gained some skill with mindfulness, we can also let the breath fall into the background, while we notice the shape of the mind in the current moment. That’s when things start to get really interesting.

The breath is in real time

Since the breath is something we perceive through our senses, our minds are focusing on what is happening in real time. Attending to the body brings us back to the present moment.

The breath is always with us.

The breath is portable. We always carry it around and we never leave it at home.

The breath has a rhythm

When the mind drifts away, breathing is a cycle of events that can eventually remind us that we were meant to be doing something.

The rhythm is just the right frequency to prompt us in the next interval in our distracted thinking. If you miss this breath, there’ll be another one along soon.

The breath is private

No-one has to know what you are doing. You can bring your attention to the breath in a meeting, during an argument, at a bus stop – anywhere.

The breath is essential

No matter how bad things are, the breath is usually available.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “If you are breathing, then there is more right with you than wrong with you.”