Californians Turning to Meditation and Mindfulness (Even More Than Usual)

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Elizabeth Sale now meditates briefly every morning while sheltering in place at her home in Vallejo, a practice she says helps keep her grounded during stressful times. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Sale)

Until recently, Elizabeth Sale wouldn’t have described herself as someone who was serious about meditating.

"I mean, I’ve been a patchwork, hit-and-miss, erratic meditator, on and off, forever," she told KQED via video chat from her home in Vallejo.

But over the past few weeks, Sale has started doing breathing exercises and other simple, mind-focusing practices every morning.

"It's the first thing I do when I wake up," she said. "I treat it like brushing your teeth."

In times of high stress and anxiety, experts say having a mindfulness practice like meditation can be helpful.

It’s no surprise that Google searches for the word “meditation” are now at an all-time high thanks to the heightened level of anxiety brought on by the coronavirus.

Sale, a video producer, has experienced her fair share of disasters, including the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, Hurricane Sandy in New York and several wildfires — so she’s no stranger to stress.

But Sale said the COVID-19 pandemic is testing her limits. She’s worried for the safety of close family members working on the frontlines. And she’s grappling with her own health issues that make her particularly vulnerable.

"Every time you wake up and leave the house, you have to think about masks and social distancing," she said. "And do we have, you know, disinfectants?"

Sale has come to rely on her daily meditation practice to stay grounded.

"It reminds me that there's a tiny, safe place to kind of come back to every day," she said.

California is a hub for mindfulness traditions.

The state is home to some of the country’s best known meditation centers, like the Esalen Institute in Big Sur and Spirit Rock in Marin County.

Californians have a long history of turning to meditation during difficult times, said Craig Chalquist, a professor in the East-West Psychology program at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco, where he teaches classes on psychology, folklore, storytelling and mindfulness practices.

Chalquist recalled the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake that violently shook the San Fernando Valley.

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"My clients were asking for mindfulness techniques to help them deal with not only the emotional aftereffects of the earthquake, but aftershocks as well," Chalquist said.

Mindfulness apps like Headspace and Calm, both headquartered in California, have seen a surge in user signups over the past month.

"Since mid-March, as news of the global health crisis steadily increased, Headspace saw, in comparison to the previous 30 days of usage, more than double spike in new users installing and signing up," said Headspace spokeswoman Olivia DeJesse.

And meditation coaches and centers across the state are also reporting an uptick in interest.

"I've never been busier," Los Angeles meditation teacher Laurie Cousins said.

Cousins said she’s glad people are considering meditation at this volatile time, whether it's through individual coaching, group classes, online videos or apps.

"It's becoming more accessible, which is wonderful," she said.

Cousins said individuals should explore different offerings to find what works best for them.

"Maybe it's formal or maybe it's informal. Maybe it's a concentration practice, maybe it's an open awareness practice, maybe it's a compassionate practice," she said. "There are many ways you can meditate."

Interested in exploring the world of mindfulness? Here are some useful resources suggested by the people featured in this story:

Craig Chalquist's Suggestions

A five-minute meditation break

On the power of mindfulness

Breathing techniques

A nice, little visual meditation from CIIS

A short video by Chalquist on "staying sane during the coronavirus" 

Elizabeth Sales' suggestions

"Rick Hanson is one of the most trusted psychologists, Buddhists and neuroscientists in the Bay Area. He has great meditations, exercises, lectures and talks (podcasts) on mindfulness and the power of meditation to help rewire the brain for resilience, steadiness, strength and courage during tough times."

"Tara Brach’s guided meditations are good for relaxing and soothing through deep triggers, emotional stress and finding loving kindness in ourselves. Her exercise 'RAIN' is exceptionally helpful for calming emotional stress and paying attention to calming breath and bodies when we feel flooded."

"Kristen Neff is one of the pioneers in the self-compassion movement. Her meditations, in particular, connect us with soothing ourselves through self-kindness."

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"Ziva Meditation is the practice I’ve been sticking with during the COVID shelter in place. It’s got a basic and easy foundational framework for busy people who want something steady that’s fairly easy to commit to everyday. There is a cost involved in the training after a 15-day trial, so that may not be as appealing to some people."

Laurie Cousins' suggestions

"UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center offers a secular approach to mindful awareness through education, research and training for students and the public to promote well-being and a more compassionate society."

"University of California, San Diego Center of Mindfulness is a multifaceted program of professional training, education, research and outreach intended to further the practice and integration of mindfulness and compassion into all aspects of society.

"Insight LA is a nonprofit meditation center teaching the highest quality mindfulness practices in locations throughout the greater Los Angeles area as well as online. They offer practices of inner peace, compassion and mindfulness to all people, and no one is turned away for a lack of funds."

"The Den Meditation offers guided meditations led by teachers in a variety of contemplative disciplines and other non-traditional styles."

"Insight Timer is a top-rated free app for guided meditations. The app is helpful for dealing with anxiety, stress and sleep issues."