Twenty years ago, “meditation” may have conjured images of Tibetan monks seated cross-legged, hands facing palm up in their laps, soft chants of ohm and the scent of incense floating in the air. Today, meditation is practiced by many public figures – from New Jersey Senator and 2020 presidential candidate, Cory Booker, to basketball legend, Lebron James. Public schools, prisons, and rehabilitation centers have all incorporated meditation into their programs. Gone are the days where meditation was reserved for monks, hippies, and The Beatles.
Meditation, quite simply, is awareness. It is the practice of sitting or lying down in a quiet spot with the intention of focusing your attention on an image, word or phrase, sound, or feeling. Though there are numerous types of meditation ranging from secular to spiritual, a common foundation to build upon is focusing on the in breath and the out breath.
Many people new to meditation feel defeated before they even begin. These people usually believe meditation is the practice of clearing one’s mind from all thought, an all but impossible task. Here’s the good news, anyone who sits down with the intention to meditate is already doing it. Awareness began at the moment of intention. Thoughts may come and go, but the intention to create a still, quiet place remains.
Neuroscientists and psychologists began studying the impact of meditation on the brain in the 1990s. Over the last 20 years of study, researchers have found numerous physiological and psychological health benefits to maintaining a meditation practice. Meditation has been shown to reduce blood pressure, decrease stress, and alleviate insomnia. One study showed meditation to be as effective as anti-depressants in treating mild to moderate anxiety and depression. Some studies even suggest meditation may slow, stall, or even reverse the effects of aging on the brain.
While the early research on meditation has shown positive health impacts, there are some who question the results of these studies. One of the biggest challenges to the empirical data gathered from the last two decades of research is that it is virtually impossible to qualify what a study participant is thinking about during meditation. Are they in a meditative state or are they fondly remembering the lyrics to their favorite Tom Petty song? Or worse, are they reviewing mental notes for their pressure cooker board meeting scheduled for the following day?
Those who have dedicated meditation practices agree with the research. Debbie Darrin, a board member at Napa Valley Insight Meditation, credits her practice with bringing more compassion into her daily life. “In any situation that might cause stress or negativity, I’m able to not immediately react. I’m able to approach the situation with curiosity and non-judgment, and look at it from the other side of the equation with joy and happiness.”
Dr. Jacqueline Weisbein, a pain management doctor at Napa Valley Orthopaedic Medical Group, credits meditation for sharpening her focus. “Whether I am operating, performing an injection, or riding horses, meditation has helped me with clarity and presence.” Dr. Weisbein goes on to say, “Meditation has also helped me relax, which has been the most utilitarian benefit.”
Another Napa local, Alexandra Meraud, LMFT, uses meditation in both her therapeutic practice and her personal life. She has seen meditation ease symptoms of anxiety, depression, and pain. When her clients adopt a dedicated practice, they gain more control over their emotions, a greater ability to focus, and less reactivity. Meraud practices meditation to help slow her own racing thoughts, decrease anxiety, and help heal a history of trauma and chronic pain.
There are numerous apps available to ease anyone into meditation via their smart phone. Three of the most widely used apps on both iPhone and Android are Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer. Headspace is ideal for meditation novices, providing structured guidance and helpful tips on overcoming the most common challenges. Calm is particularly popular for its meditations geared to ease users into a peaceful night of sleep and features an easy to use interface. Insight Timer has a robust library of guided meditations from world-renowned mindfulness experts and easy to filter search results based on how much time you have for meditation and if you’d prefer a spiritual or secular guide. Headspace and Calm offer free trials, but require monthly or annual purchases to continue use. Insight Timer is free to use.
For those whose home is not a quiet space or those seeking camaraderie in their practice, Napa Valley has several options for group meditations. All offerings are free, though donations to the organizations are welcome.
The Center for Spiritual Living in downtown Napa holds a secular meditation on Wednesdays from 6:30-7:15 p.m. Grace Episcopal Church in St. Helena provides group meditation Monday through Saturday. Both Zazen and Centering Prayer meditations provide practitioners the opportunity to seek stillness inside the quiet stone walls of the historic sanctuary. Visit grace-episcopal.org/meditation for a full schedule.
Napa Valley Insight Meditation, a nonprofit serving Napa County for the last 7 years, meets on Tuesdays from 7:00-8:30 p.m. and Thursdays from 8:00-8:45 a.m at the Unitarian Universalists’ sanctuary in north Napa. Napa Valley Insight Meditation was formed based on founder Forrest Hill’s belief that a community of practitioners helps deepen everyone’s personal meditation practice. Tuesday evening meditations feature either a guest speaker, or a discussion led by Hill, or his colleagues, Lori Stelling and Mike Coughlin, followed by a silent meditation. On April 16, Napa Valley Insight Meditation will host a talk by Wes Nisker, co-founder of the Theravada Buddhist journal, “Inquiring Mind.” Thursday mornings offer a silent meditation followed by an open discussion. For a complete schedule, visit napainsight.org.
“Meditation completely changed my life,” said Hill. “It brings me insights into who I am and allows me to be more accepting of who I am. I have more gratitude and more joy.” Napa Valley Insight Meditation brings different views on mindfulness and meditation to the community and is open to anyone. Hill, Stelling, and Coughlin teach for free because, as Hill says, “It’s a gift to share.”