THE IDEA OF sitting still and silent, clearing the mind of thoughts, might send some active Marinites — especially those of us who carry running shoes in our car and a running “to-do” list in our heads — into a small panic attack. But settle into one of the comfy floor seats for Gina Vance’s “Guided Journey” meditation class at Soulstice Mind and Body Spa in Sausalito, and the worries drift away; follow her clear, comforting instructions and somewhere along the way you’ll realize that not only are you meditating, but — shocker! — you are enjoying it.
According to Kayse Gehret, founder of Soulstice, a wellness center offering a range of meditation and mindfulness classes, type As have no reason to worry. “People are hard on themselves and think they have to be sitting and completely devoid of thought to be meditating,” she says, “and that is absolutely not true. Whether you’re silent or using mantra and sound, seated or doing a walking meditation in nature, it’s the clarity of awareness that you’re looking for.”
The growing understanding that there is no set-in-stone way to meditate may explain why a growing percentage of the population, not only in Marin but across the nation, is integrating some form of meditation into daily life. From hospitals to schools and churches, from remote mountain retreat centers to the conference room at work, the number of local mindfulness support groups and meditation classes is a testament to the popularity of the practice in the county. “The great thing about Marin is that people are extremely open and very curious here,” Gehret says. “So we can offer this wide variety of approaches and meet people where they are in their practice, whether they have an existing practice or are absolutely brand new.”
Why meditation? Transitions, financial or medical hardship, anxiety and depression, or simply a desire for personal growth and a deeper sense of well-being: the circumstances that draw Marin residents to meditation classes and retreats vary widely. “We’ve had people come in and they are in a crucible in their lives — moving, changing jobs, going through divorce. We’ve had a lot of people with a cancer diagnosis and treatment,” Gehret says. “It can’t change your external circumstances, but it can change your perception and resilience when [you’re] going through rough patches in life.”
A meditation class at Soulstice.
Extensive research on meditation offers evidence of very real health benefits for those dealing with high blood pressure, inflammation, insomnia, irritable bowel, colitis, menopause and insomnia. Regular meditation also appears to ease symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as agerelated dementia. Studies about meditation and aging point to an increase of neuroplasticity, gray matter and cortical thickness — all associated with decision-making and memory — in the brain. Mill Valley resident Christine Curtin Savala, whose mother passed away from Alzheimer’s last year, believes in meditation as preventive medicine. “I’ve seen the effects of Alzheimer’s up close,” she says. “Keeping my brain healthy is definitely a motivation for my practice.”
Who meditates? A recent report using data from the 2017 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) found that the percentage of people in the United States who meditate rose significantly over the past five years, from 4.1 percent in 2012 to 14.5 percent in 2017. Worldwide, estimates range from 200 million to 500 million engaging in this ancient practice for spiritual, emotional, mental and physical reasons.
Savala, a psychologist with four children, had always had a spiritual interest in Buddhism, but her original impetus for exploring meditation was at least somewhat practical. Twenty years ago she noticed that Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center had a family program some Sunday mornings, so she and her husband could join a sitting meditation class while the kids participated in their own activities.
“I can get pretty distracted with the kids and the job and other people’s issues, and meditation creates a grounding and calm, a space between emotion and action. I need that because I can sometimes be a little fiery,” Savala says, laughing. This “space” has become essential to her work as a psychologist and a parent. “Meditation helps me, with my kids and my clients; it makes me be more gentle in life. More deeply empathetic and forgiving.”
Bill Hoppin, also of Mill Valley, had just gone through a divorce when he signed up for a weeklong sitting meditation at Spirit Rock in Woodacre. “I went from zero to 160 when I joined that retreat,” he says. The first three days were a struggle, he admits. He felt unsettled and slept through many of the sessions, but during days four through seven, he began to feel extraordinary physical and mental benefits. “I don’t think I would have arrived in that space if I hadn’t struggled during day one through three,” he adds. “The memory of the relaxation I found on that retreat is something I now carry with me every day.”
Sausalito resident Carol Hoang works in biotech and turned to meditation a year and a half ago to improve her workplace experience and performance. “We in Marin are so often the best of the best in our fields, but we can work so hard we drive ourselves right into the ground,” she notes. “I enjoy my work, but I wanted tools to enjoy it even more, to manage the physical and mental damage of a demanding job, and to be able to perform better.” Now Hoang meditates and uses meditation techniques almost every day — standing at a whiteboard or in a contentious meeting at work. “When that reptilian brain starts to kick in, it helps me make better decisions,” she says. “I have more brain capacity.”
How much time does it take? Kayse Gehret has clients who, like Hoang, come to class four or five times a week. Other people stop in every once in a great while. Most find that classes and retreats offer the most meaningful experience, but they supplement their practice at home, using a meditation app or what they’ve learned in class. “I think one of the things is realizing that there’s no ‘perfect’ way to approach meditation; there are no strict guidelines like you’d have with a diet,” Hoang says. “You practice and try different approaches and discover what works in your life.”
Hoppin now practices integrated yoga as his primary form of meditation, while Savala takes an “as needed” approach, which means there are times when she meditates every day and other periods when the sitting is much less regular.
Where can you learn to meditate in Marin? You can find opportunities to try different forms of meditation throughout the county, from free hourlong introductory classes to fee-based weeklong retreats or training sessions.
- Anubhuti Meditation and Retreat Center in Novato holds a Creative Meditation class every Sunday 10:30 a.m.–noon (donations encouraged), as well as talks, workshops and retreat
- Buddhist Temple of Marin in Mill Valley has free Introductory Buddhist Meditation classes every Tuesday night from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.
- Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Muir Beach offers a Sunday meditation instruction and Dharma Talk at 10 a.m. On the first Sunday of the month a Family Program has special programming for kids.
- Marin General Hospital Mindfulness Meditation and Relaxation classes are free every Monday, 10–11 a.m. • Soulstice Mind and Body Spa in Sausalito holds fee-based meditation and mindfulness classes and offers massage therapy, yoga, qi gong and a variety of mind-body experiences.
- Spirit Rock in Woodacre has a full calendar of fee-based residential and drop-in classes, retreats, speakers and training programs.
- Tamalpais Shambhala in San Rafael offers a Sunday Morning Community Meditation class from 10 a.m. to noon (donations encouraged), plus a variety of workshops and special programs.
Spirit Rock in Woodacre.
Daigan Lueck of Green Gulch (left) and meditation room at Spirit Rock (right).
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline “Sweet Clarity”.
Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist who writes about all things North Bay, with special attention to the environment and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans. She also works and teaches in school gardens. Kirsten’s poetry collection, When The House Is Quiet, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and three of her poems received a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Novato with her husband and three children and tries to spend as much time as possible on our local mountains, beaches and waterways. For more on her work visit KirstenJonesNeff.Com.