As the meditation began and people took their seats in the sparsely decorated meeting room, Jason DeCruz sat with his eyes closed and his palms resting in his lap. Occasional car headlights flashed in from the parking lot outside and the front door swung open and closed, but DeCruz didn’t break his focus or open his eyes.
It seemed like an effortless act of concentration for the soft-spoken 26-year-old graphic design student, but he has worked for years to achieve this pocket of peace.
Suffering from major depression since he was 13, DeCruz said he used to get overwhelmed by anxiety, especially at the academic testing center where he worked. Now, with about half an hour of meditation a day, he can step back when anger, despair or other emotions arise and ask himself: “Is this a direction I want to go?”
“It’s a different relationship with yourself,” said the El Dorado Hills resident. “I was very self-critical. I always beat myself up over small things. I learned to stop doing that and do the opposite and say, ‘It’s OK, everybody goes through this type of thing,’ and, in a way, become my own therapist.
“Being able to carry that wherever you go and in whatever situation, that’s extremely powerful.”
The walking meditations and breathing exercises that have helped bring balance to DeCruz’s life began centuries ago as the core tenets of Asian religious practices. Today, they’ve evolved into “mindfulness,” a physical and mental health regimen that has taught employees, students and others how to cope with a range of stresses.
Silicon Valley companies such as Google and Facebook are incorporating mindfulness into their office culture, with meditation rooms and workshops, while some school districts have embraced transcendental meditation to help ease disciplinary problems and lift student performance.
First popularized by molecular scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s, mindfulness training seeks to accomplish the same goal as yoga and tai chi chuan, offering busy Americans the calming effects of Asian spiritual disciplines but without their religious trappings.
“There’s a lot of technology and a lot of disconnection from ourselves and our surroundings,” said Ken A. Verni, a New Jersey-based mindfulness teacher and the main consultant for the new book “Happiness the Mindful Way.” “People are hungry for this kind of return to the direct relationship with their lives, so it’s taking on a lot of momentum.
“On some level, it taps into some basic truths about the nature of our minds and the basic truth about the nature of happiness. On some level we know that chasing happiness tends to be a disappointing adventure. So it’s about rediscovering happiness inside ourselves.”
Central to mindfulness training is the need to calm the mind and focus attentions on the present moment, an idea popularized by Eckhart Tolle’s best-selling book “The Power of Now.”
In the class that DeCruz attended, mindfulness teacher Gayle Wilson started by helping people direct their thoughts to their neck, then their chest and finally their feet. The idea was to help them tune them into the sensations inside their bodies at that moment.
“Present moment is the only time we have to live our lives,” Wilson said. “The future is just thoughts. The past is just thoughts. Happiness, creativity is in the present.”
Another key is teaching the mind how to let go of thoughts, rather than follow them to the same practiced stories and reactions, Verni said.
“We’re not going to stop our thoughts, but we don’t really have to follow them wherever they go,” Verni said. “And that’s where for me breathing and consciously inhaling and exhaling are such an essential part of mindfulness.”
Scientific research has laid out the health benefits of awareness training – from higher measures of physical well-being to greater workplace productivity – in studies fostered by groups such as UC Berkeley’s Center for the Greater Good.
Some companies have seized on those ideas as smart business.
Aiming to build “the healthiest and happiest work force on the planet,” Google developed mindfulness programs for its employees, which spawned the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. That San Francisco-based nonprofit group holds awareness trainings around the country that have drawn, among others, tech industry workers trying to survive notoriously high-pressure workplaces. The institute’s board of directors includes media mogul Arianna Huffington and former PG&E Corp. executive Rand Rosenberg.
In today’s fast-paced business world, there’s an ever greater need for self-care and well-being, said institute CEO Marc Lesser. “The more stressful an environment is, the more there’s a need for this kind of centering and not being so caught in the moment.”
For former office administrator Karen Cornell, learning mindfulness has taught her for the first time to be “systematically aware” of her thoughts and act as an observer to them rather than a hostage. Like DeCruz, the 65-year-old Placerville resident has suffered from depression, which she said meditation has helped her overcome.
“The ability to witness my own thoughts and emotions and work with them before I react or respond either to myself or someone else has been super valuable,” Cornell said. “It ripples out into my life.”
Jack Chang: 916-321-1034, @JackChangJourno
For more information about Gayle Wilson’s mindfulness-based stress reduction class, visit MBSRsacramento.com.