Mindfulness for the Nation

Tim Ryan, Mindful Congressman (Photo by Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

Excerpt from "In Meditative Mindfulness, Rep. Tim Ryan Sees a Cure for Many American Ills," by Neely Tucker, The Washington Post, Apr. 4, 2012:

Rep. Tim Ryan (D) is a five-term incumbent from the heartland. His Ohio district includes Youngstown and Warren and part of Akron and smaller places. He’s 38, Catholic, single. He was a star quarterback in high school. He lives a few houses down from his childhood home in Niles. He’s won three of his five elections with about 75 percent of the vote.

So when he starts talking about his life-changing moment after the 2008 race, you’re not expecting him to lean forward at the lunch table and tell you, with great sincerity, that this little story of American politics is about (a) a raisin and (b) nothing else.

“You hold this one raisin right up to your mouth, but you don’t put it in, and after a moment your mouth starts to water,” he says, describing an exercise during a five-day retreat into the meditative technique of mindfulness, developed from centuries of Buddhist practice. “The teaching point is that your body responds to things outside of it, that there’s a mind-body connection. It links to how we take on situations and how this results in a great deal of stress.”

For Ryan, the raisin was the beginning of a transformation. The retreat, conducted by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, led Ryan on a search into how the practice of mindfulness — sitting in silence, losing oneself in the present moment — could be a tonic for what ails the body politic.

In “A Mindful Nation,” published last week, Ryan details his travels across the country, to schools and companies and research facilities, documenting how mindfulness is relieving stress, improving performance and showing potential to reduce health-care costs. It is a prescription, he says, that can help the nation better deal with the constant barrage of information that the Internet age delivers.

“I think when you realize that U.S. Marines are using this that it’s already in the mainstream of our culture,” he says. “It’s a real technique that has real usefulness that has been scientifically documented. . . . Why wouldn’t we have this as part of our health-care program to prevent high levels of stress that cause heart disease and ulcers and Type 2 diabetes and everything else?”

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