This essay is a brief, usable introduction to mindfulness meditation. Now the first question Westerners usually have about meditation is “What’s in it for me?” There are many potential benefits of the practice, both obvious and subtle. But let’s begin with the simplest and probably most familiar. To many folks keeping abreast of health news, this will come as no surprise: a daily practice of mindfulness meditation may be helpful for decreasing both anxiety and depression, at least in their milder forms. Of course significant mental health issues should always be addressed first with a licensed professional. And anyone experiencing adverse effects from meditation should not continue with it. But that being said, the potential benefits of the practice are not difficult to understand. First let’s briefly introduce the process of meditation itself. Mindfulness meditation has two components. The first is being clearly conscious—mindful—of the present moment, whatever happens to be going on in each instant. The second is being relaxed about this process, just calmly allowing your awareness to be what it is, without interference. As one teacher phrased it, meditation consists of the "two A's": being attentive and allowing, or if you prefer, aware and accepting. This type of meditation is known as Vipassana practice. Vipassana means “seeing into” or “seeing through”, and is usually translated in the West as “insight”. The practice is associated with the Theravadin tradition of Southeast Asia, and based on what appear to be the earliest written records of Buddha’s teaching. So how to start? Well, begin by sitting down. There are several traditional postures, but usually the easiest one for beginners is just plain sitting in a good old fashioned chair. Nothing wrong with it. If you do meditate this way, keep your back off the back of the chair; this will help alertness. And keep your feet flat on the floor; this will help stability. Vipassana practice invites you to observe your experience with clarity and calmness. But what is your experience? Well, it’s everything that can go on in your mind: sensations from all of the senses, thought, and emotion. But in the beginning it is usually best to limit the experience on which you will focus. In more advanced types of practice the limits will be transcended, but in the beginning things need to be manageable. So it is often best to begin with closed eyes in a quiet place, and to sit for twenty to thirty minutes per day. If possible, aim for thirty minutes: you’ll find it often takes fifteen or twenty minutes for your mind to even begin to settle. Many folks find morning the easiest time of day to sit, but of course the choice is yours. The most common recommendation is to begin by focusing on the breath: simply following the in and out flow of air. The focus can be on the entire path of the breath, or on a more limited portion of it, such as sensations at the tip of the nostrils, or the rising and falling of the abdomen. If it helps to focus, breaths can be counted up to ten, starting back again at one. A less common initial focus, but one quite suitable and perhaps more engaging for many people, is the entire arena of bodily sensations. Here the focus is on any sensation that becomes briefly prominent—tension in the shoulders, coolness in the room, pressure on the buttocks, whatever. But the focus is also on calmly letting go of each sensation as it changes, for change it will. Let it go and become mindful of whatever arises next. In the beginning it may be helpful to mentally label these sensations as they arise and pass away. For example, the unspoken labels might be “top of head, chest, whole body, left arm, breathing, right wrist, heartbeat. . .” and so forth. Eventually it will become more natural to drop the sub-vocal labels and simply be aware of each sensation as it comes and goes. Early on you may discover that what we separated descriptively as awareness, on the one hand, and acceptance, on the other, actually converge as one process. You can’t be clearly aware of something unless you fully allow it to be present. Also early on you’ll discover that as soon as you start this process, things seem to get in the way. And far and away the most noticeable of these is thought. We think all the time. The conscious mind evolved as a problem solving device, and that is what it tries to do, repeatedly, just about every waking moment. Now since thought is responsible for most of culture—and all of technology—it is something to which we owe a great debt. But nonetheless it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Ceaselessly pushing and pulling a thought around, always striving to think our way into getting or avoiding something, quickly becomes more stressful than helpful. And usually we’re not even aware we’re doing it. So the strategy here is not to eliminate thought—that is impossible. Rather, it is to remain aware, to notice when we’ve become “lost” in thought. This phrase is an extremely apt metaphor. During your sits you will become lost in thought again and again. And when you do, simply note the thoughts and let them go. Initially it may help to label them with a sub-vocal “thinking”, but again this prop can be dropped later on. The same approach holds for, say, a sound that suddenly captures your attention. Just note it and then return, gently, to your primary focus on body sensations. Remember not to push out the sound, not to push out the thought. Just remain aware and gently let it pass. This gentleness is a crucial part of the process. Don’t condemn yourself—“why can’t I focus!”—just allow and return. Now what about this process makes it helpful for anxiety and depression? Probably many factors are involved, but for simplicity let’s focus on just two dimensions. First: the element of time orientation. Depression is often focused on the past—guilt, shame, regret, and so on. Anxiety, of course, is focused on the future—real or imagined dangers that lie ahead. The awareness in meditation, however, is by definition present centered. Thoughts of the future or past may arise, but always the focus is on gently returning to the present. In this way one steers a helpful middle course: between a sometimes depressive history, on the one hand, and an often anxious future, on the other. Second: the element of activation. Depression tends to involve lowered activation—thoughts and actions may slow down, and concentration becomes difficult. Anxiety, on the other hand, involves heightened activation—thoughts may race, we may be physically agitated, and so on. Mindfulness meditation tends to be corrective for both of these states. The “allowing” or “accepting” focus, of course, is inherently calming, thus becoming a balm for anxiety. The “aware” or “attentive” focus, however, can be helpfully activating. Simply remaining clearly aware of the present moment—becoming re-engaged with one’s experience, as it were—can itself be slightly energizing, and thus somewhat anti-depressive. Again one steers a moderate course: a livable middle path between too much activation, on the one hand, and too little, on the other. If meditation seems of interest to you, there are many, many books out there you may find helpful. And if you ever become ready to meditate in a group setting under the supervision of a teacher, an online search will probably reveal a mediation center near your home.