Congressman Tim Ryan Talks Mindfulness & Its Role In American Culture

It wasn't so long ago that a practice like mindfulness would have been confined to the fringes of American society, deemed too "New Age-y" for mass consumption. In a relatively short period of time, though, we at MindBodyGreen have seen an explosion in the popularity of mindfulness, and not just among yoga teachers!

That's why I was so excited to have Congressman Tim Ryan agree to talk with me over email about his advocacy for mindfulness. In his sixth term serving Ohio's 17th and, more recently, 13th congressional districts in the House of Representatives, Congressman Ryan earlier this year released A Mindful Nation, a book that describes his personal journey to mindfulness and how the practice is linked to traditional American values.

Ryan, who was the youngest Democrat in Congress when he was entered office in 2003, told me about his mindfulness practice, the reactions his colleagues have had to the practice, and what he and others can do to make mindfulness a basic tenet of American health and wellness.

MBG: What techniques do you find most helpful for maintaining a mindfulness practice?

Rep. Tim Ryan: My breathing, really trying to focus on my breathing and any tension in my body. When I start feeling tension, I begin to try to focus on the present moment. When I notice myself becoming anxious about the past or the future, I come back to the breath.

In your book, you make the case that mindfulness and traditional American values are closely linked. How did you come to this conclusion?

Practicing mindfulness is very much about taking responsibility for your own state of mind and your own condition. It’s very much about self-reliance. With regard to healthcare, it’s very much about participating in your own healthcare — obviously I believe there is a time and a place for medical care, but it all starts with how you take care of your own body and mind.

What kind of response to your support for mindfulness have you received from your Congressional colleagues?

Most of my Congressional colleagues don’t really know what it is, but there are more and more members of Congress who are open to different approaches to dealing with the high levels of stress that come with this job. There is an openness to mindfulness unlike there has been in the past — in response, I've begun a weekly Quiet-Time Caucus held in the House Chapel before the first votes of the week. We turn off our Blackberrys and iPhones and spend thirty minutes in silence. I've had six or seven different members come so far, and it's slowly but surely its gaining momentum.

I also hold a weekly staff meditation session where instructors from an array of different meditation backgrounds teach different techniques to Congressional staffers. We have had about 30 staffers on average showing up at these sessions.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in spreading your message about mindfulness?

I think the biggest challenge I have faced advocating mindfulness is the lack of awareness. People don’t really understand it. They may have heard about it, but they don’t see the simplicity of it. They don’t know that it's not something you go out and get; it's something that is already there.

You’ve introduced a bill to promote mindfulness in schools; do you believe that you can legislate mindfulness more broadly — for example for military veterans, private work places, or low-income areas — and what would Washington need to do to make it happen?

I believe now is the time to start promoting mindfulness more broadly, especially in healthcare and with our veterans. The question is: what is the best way to introduce mindfulness in these areas, and how we do expand mindfulness practice? I believe the best way to expand mindfulness is through the expansion of mindfulness training curriculum and programs. How do we teach doctors and nurses about it so they can teach patients; how do we teach teachers so they can teach their pupils and parents of those pupils; how do we teach it to the Veterans Administration (VA) so they can teach our veterans? There needs to be a comprehensive approach to introduce this mental discipline to hospitals, medical schools, the VA and the military.

So there’s not going to be a ton of legislation. It’s going to be more asking how we take current training and educational programs that we already have in the books, and infuse mindfulness into them.

What are your future plans for promoting mindfulness to a wider audience?

I will be continuing to talk about mindfulness and constantly striving to bring my message to a wider audience. I have planned on doing speeches on the floor of the House of Representatives. I am going to keep doing interviews on my book; Time Magazine and have recently sat down to talk to me about A Mindful Nation. My book is about promoting the people who are doing this work — look at the scientists, look at the teachers, look at these people who are doing the work. They're seeing positive and scientifically proven benefits. I intend to have an ongoing push for national media coverage on mindfulness, to show people that this is very much a mainstream idea, grounded in science, that can have a real and lasting effect on our nation.

If you could leave MindBodyGreen readers with one takeaway about your message and mission, what would it be?

I'm trying to speak about mindfulness in a broad sense and not necessarily in a traditional mindfulness practice of sitting in a chair or on a cushion and cultivating your awareness. Mindfulness can be anything you can do personally to slow down, to discipline your mind to be in the present moment, and to actually listen deeply to others. That is the sort of mission I am on.

I want readers to know that they have to be a part of the solution. They don't need to change the word overnight; they should start small with their local communities. I hope to see an organic, grassroots effort to bring mindfulness into individuals’ daily routines across the country.

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