Can a Meditating Politician Use Mindfulness to Change the Direction of National Priorities?
In the midst of the recent spate of sometimes-less-than-encouraging developments on the food rights front, I haven't had a chance to post about an uplifting event I attended in suburban Boston more than a week ago. It was an event that made me feel at least a little better than I might be entitled to about our nation's political dialogue and priorities.
It was a talk by a Washington politician who is a meditation practitioner. As someone who has practiced meditation for more than a decade, I was intrigued on a number of levels.
That this politician, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, has been meditating regularly for more than six years.
That he's from America's heartland, central Ohio, an area that takes in all-American towns like Youngstown and Dayton.
That he was just re-elected, as a Democrat, to a sixth term...with nearly three-fourths of the vote.
And that he's written a book about meditation as an antidote for many of our nation's ills, A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit. (The regular practice of meditation encourages development of mindfulness, or "paying attention to whatever is going on in one's experience moment by moment," according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of America's best known teachers, and author of the foreword to Ryan's book.)
Listening to Ryan speak, as I did along with about 250 other attendees on the Monday after Thanksgiving, I heard things I never expected to hear from a national politician from a Rust-Belt state.
He recounted going to a multi-day meditation retreat in 2008. "I had to check my Blackberry at the door. There was no talking with other participants, complete silence. We did walking, sitting, walking, sitting."
A former high school football quarterback, he recalled an instance of being "in the present" while meditating, and seeing things clearly. "I equated those few moments to an athlete being in the zone. I thought, wow, you can train your mind to be in the zone. I thought, this needs to be in our schools...in our health care system."
I could tell he was serious because he wasn't preaching, but rather had a sense of modesty, self deprecation. "I developed a daily practice...But I still do a lot of stupid things. I forget the keys, I say things that are stupid that hurt someone's feelings. I just do those things a little less."
He's gotten a bit of media attention, such as this writeup in the Washington Post. He told the audience last week that CBS was planning a news profile. The producer wanted to see him meditate. He says he told the CBS people, "You're not going to see a lot happening. I just sit on a cushion and breathe." They were disappointed. "Isn't there some chanting or dancing?"
He sees an important connection between mindfulness and health, as well as between food and health. Here are a few quotes from his book:
"Our body is naturally resilient and will fight off invasions and infections to the best of its ability through the immune system...If, in fact, mindfulness can boost our immune system to fight off disease and infection, that is real prevention, and at the low cost of paying more attention to what's happening in our own body."
"...increased awareness can give us insights that help us make better lifestyle decisions...Perhaps we haven't been eating well and we need a good meal, so we take the time to eat healthy food. And maybe that also causes us to take more time to have a leisurely paced meal with our loved ones, which can relax us (at least some of the time!)."
"In a mindful nation, our citizens need an innovative health-care system that asks each person to actively participate in his or her own health care. This will take great courage on behalf of all of our citizens. It is difficult to look closely at what we are thinking and feeling and how those thoughts and feelings are affecting our health."
"We have to love and care for ourselves enough to recognize that the easy answer usually does not work. Cultivating our mindfulness is simple, but it is not easy. It takes time and work."
Rep. Ryan said he's been pleasantly surprised by the positive reaction he's received from Washington colleagues about his book--at least they are saying positive things. He'd like to assemble a group of like-minded Washington politicians to join him in a regular group meditation practice. He had something going the last couple years with two other members of Congress who are also interested in meditation, but they both lost in last month's election...so he needs to find new practitioners.
I like the inscription Rep. Ryan wrote in the copy of his book I purchased at the event. "Help us build a mindful nation." Amen.