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Washington was making Rep. Tim Ryan sick … until he found mindfulness

Ohio Democrat touts emotional, cognitive, health benefits of meditative practice

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Rep. Tim Ryan (back to camera) signs a copy of his book, “A Mindful Nation,” for Cullen Kowalski (center) of Washington, at an event in Arlington in June. Mr. Ryan, Ohio Democrat (left), noted “Between the fundraising, being away from family, the environment of hyperpartisanship, Washington is really stressing people out. They’re getting sick.” (Preston Keres/The Washington Times)

When Rep. Tim Ryan recently published a book touting the benefits of a meditative practice known as mindfulness, the Ohio Democrat had a target audience: anyone and everyone suffering from chronic stress, emotional exhaustion, information overload.

In other words, himself.

His co-workers.

Oh, and pretty much the rest of America, too.

“I don’t want to give away names, but I’ve had members of Congress approach me and say, ‘I want to learn more about this,’ ” Mr. Ryan said. “Between the fundraising, being away from family, the environment of hyperpartisanship, Washington is really stressing people out. They’re getting sick.

“And I haven’t met anyone in the country that isn’t feeling a high level of anxiety right now, given the economy and what’s going on in the world. So mindfulness is for everyone.”

In his book “A Mindful Nation” and during regular public speaking engagements, Mr. Ryan asserts that mindfulness is a simple, largely overlooked tonic for what ails us. That it not only can help individuals cope with the pressures of modern life, but also help treat traumatized veterans, raise better-educated children and reduce ballooning health care costs — all while fostering a less divisive, more productive Washington culture in which solving problems takes precedence over scoring political points.

If all that sounds a bit implausible — if not downright Panglossian, a mushy mashup of self-help pablum, former NBA coach Phil Jackson’s Zen master koans and the Beatles going to India — then surprise: Decidedly unsentimental science backs Mr. Ryan up.

According to a growing body of research, regular meditation alleviates depression, boosts memory and the immune system, shrinks the part of the brain that controls fear and grows the areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotional regulation.

Small wonder, then, that corporations ranging from Google to Procter & Gamble Co. offer mindfulness training for their employees. Or that the U.S. Marines are experimenting with a pilot program of their own.

In 2007, the National Institutes of Health reported that 9.4 percent of American adults practiced meditation, up from 7.6 percent in 2002.

“I think this is going to be the equivalent of the physical exercise revolution in this country,” Mr. Ryan said. “Once desk jobs became the norm, everyone realized you have to run and work out, and gyms popped up everywhere.

“Today, mindfulness will be a response to the wars, struggling to make ends meet, the general anxiety out there — and in Washington, to the daily rhetoric and screaming at each other on TV shows. This can be transformational. It should be mainstream. We need this.”

An unlikely advocate

Like many of his House colleagues, Mr. Ryan starts most days with a cup of coffee; unlike many of them, he then spends about 45 minutes sitting in a half-lotus position — legs crossed, palms open — thinking about … nothing.

Not his busy schedule.

Not the bad-and-worse morning news.

Not the day’s coming political combat, or the endless scramble for campaign funds.

Instead, Mr. Ryan focuses on breathing. On recognizing his thoughts and emotions. On inhabiting the moment. His heart rate slows. His body relaxes. External noise and distractions slip away. He feels calm, centered and focused.

This, in a nutshell, is mindfulness — a purposeful awareness of one’s self in the present, fostered by meditation.

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About the Author
Patrick Hruby

Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.

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