A Mindful Congress?

By Anna Soref
Editor in Chief

t.ryan-headshotThis past November I attended the Mindful Leadership Summit conference on behalf of Calmful Living in Washington, DC. One speaker who stood out was Tim Ryan, a fifth-term congressman from Ohio. I knew about his book, Mindful Nation, but hearing the affable and funny politician speak hit a chord. To hear someone in the political trenches—wearing a suit, no less—discuss mindfulness gave me, and the packed room, a new view of Washington.

Ryan, a lifelong Catholic who grew up in the Midwest, is not someone you might tag as a mindfulness spokesman. But when the stress of daily life pushed him to try a weeklong mindfulness retreat, he saw its potential and found that daily meditation changed his life. He went on to explore the scientific findings of mindfulness and how the practice can be applied to helping schoolchildren improve their ability to learn, veterans heal from trauma, and CEOs become more effective leaders. He now advocates making mindfulness practices more mainstream.

Conflict Meets Mindfulness

Ryan’s talk started with what many might consider a political, not mindful, topic: conflict. It’s often assumed that mindfulness means the avoidance of conflict, but Ryan disagrees—and he knows a lot about conflict. “Congress is where conflict comes to happen,” he said with a smile to the standing-only room. “You’re making big decisions and trying to govern a country of 313 million people; there’s conflict all the time.” How mindfulness plays in is how you deal with the conflict, Ryan asserted. A mindfulness practice can help you have a higher level of awareness and see things more clearly and make better decisions, he explained. “So in spite of the passions in your own life or the body politic, in spite of conflict, you are still able to maintain and sustain relationships, still have some progress, and still move the country forward despite all of life’s challenges.”

Ryan also touched on what he says is another misperception about mindfulness: that it will eradicate conflict. “Some people who start a mindfulness practice believe that all of their problems are just going to go away by sitting on a cushion for 45 seconds in the morning. Well, hell, if that was it, then everyone would be doing it. And I think a lot of people feel that way about politics—like, ‘God, if we could all just get along!’ That’s never happened and it’s never going to happen. There’s always going to be a rub when you have a free country where people have a lot of opinions. There are going to be some frictions; it’s how we operate in that environment that’s the key here and where mindfulness can help,” he stated.

Quiet Caucus

A few years ago Congressman Ryan founded and still runs a weekly half-hour Quiet Time Caucus on Capitol Hill. “We go into the house chapel, and you can do whatever you want as long as you’re quiet—it’s the only place on Capitol Hill where there are people but no talking for half an hour. We’ve had members come in and out, but for the most part it’s been Tony Cárdenas from California and me.” But Ryan isn’t deterred by the lack of joiners and says he will continue to hold the caucus because “I get teased about it, but then someone will walk up to me and say, ‘Hey, what’s that stuff you’re doing? I’m really stressed out and could use something.’ You never know when someone will try it out.”

There’s also a weekly quiet session at his office for his staff, with guided meditation or quiet time and guest lecturers. Between twenty and forty staff members attend. “It’s good these people come because these are influencers; these are future chiefs of staff, future members of Congress, and they are just getting comfortable with it. I’ve overheard a couple of times afterward people in the hallways saying, ‘Oh my God, that was unbelievable,’ and it was just that little pause—you know, 15 minutes. We’re going so fast and they appreciate it.”

The meetings and awareness to mindfulness have created a certain office dynamic, according to Ryan. “The tone that we are trying to set is an appreciation for what everybody brings to the table. Not judging—which is a big part of mindfulness. When you are working in a real collaborative environment it’s easy to get judgy with people, and I think in my offices we’ve created an environment where people listen to each other. And I hear that from others—how my staff listens to constituents when people call in with a problem. It’s really rewarding when you are at a bowling alley and someone comes up to you and says somebody on your staff really listened when they called in for 20 minutes. So the mindfulness filters down into the organization.”

Congressman Moonbeam

From the Atlantic Monthly calling Ryan “Congressman Moonbeam” to jabs from colleagues, being known as the Mindful Congressman is not always easy: “I have to be mindful all the time—I can’t forget my keys,” Ryan jokes. But his belief in the benefits of a mindfulness practice is something he takes seriously and is happy to discuss with any of his dubious colleagues. “We’ll talk about it from the science perspective, the work that’s helping veterans. If you want to make fun of how we are helping veterans, so be it; but the whole idea of giving them 12 or 15 prescription drugs to help them is not working,” he said.

Ryan believes strongly that a meditation practice is a tool that will make the entire country run better. “I tell my Republican friends, ‘You guys want to balance the budget, reduce the deficits, increase individual responsibility and self-reliance, and make sure kids have self-control, can regulate their own emotions, have mental and physical discipline—well, this is it; this is how you do it.’ I would love for more Republicans to be involved in this movement because I believe we could really start moving the needle. I love what Jim Wallace used to say: ‘Don't go left, don’t go right, go deeper.”

Find out more at mindfulnation.org