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Congressman Tim Ryan: Working to Create a Mindful Nation

Date Posted: Thursday, May 02, 2019
Congressman Ryan touring Washington, DC's war memorials with Professor Elizabeth Stanley of the Mind Fitness Training Institute.
Congressman Ryan touring Washington, DC's war memorials with Professor Elizabeth Stanley of the Mind Fitness Training Institute

Congressman Tim Ryan’s journey into contemplative practice started just after he graduated high school, when his local priest taught him about Centering Prayer. For the next several years, on and off, he read and studied the teachings of practitioners like Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra, practicing meditation and occasionally attending weekend retreats. Yet he never developed a consistent practice.

It wasn’t until he’d been in Congress for about five years that he knew he wanted – and needed – more. “It was right after the 2008 election. With all the travel, stress of my job and campaigning, I felt like I was on the road to burnout,” explains Tim. That’s when he decided to do an extended retreat, something he felt he needed to jumpstart a daily practice. He attended the Power of Mindfulness retreat with Jon Kabat-Zinn in November 2008 and says the experience of mindfulness and the retreat was life-changing – especially when he looked at mindfulness through his legislator’s lens.

“I sit on the House Appropriations Committee and deal with all these issues around physical and mental health,” he says. “I began to think about all the ways mindfulness could play a role in the work I was doing.” When he talked to Kabat-Zinn after the retreat, he realized there were already a lot of people laying the foundation – looking at social and emotional learning as well as the science behind mindfulness. That, he says, is when the seed was planted for his first book, A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit.

Mindfulness in Action on Capitol Hill

tim-ryan2.pngTim continued attending retreats and learning about mindfulness. He became more involved with the CFM, taking part in a series of events including serving on a panel discussion with former CFM Executive Director Saki Santorelli and other experts about the science of mindfulness and how it can influence public policy.  At the same time, he also began arranging spaces for members of Congress and staff to come together and engage in contemplative practice. “We would have teachers come in once or twice a month to talk about health and wellness,” he says. This was followed by a practice based on personal preference – whether mindfulness, meditation, Centering Prayer, praying the rosary or just quiet reflection. Today, those informal gatherings have evolved into a full-fledged wellness program for the House of Representatives and the entire legislative branch of the government. “They are offering diet and nutrition counseling, and currently have six or eight people training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to be available to teach the thousands of people who work on Capitol Hill,” he explains.

Bringing Awareness Practices to the VA and Schools

Tim also remains committed to infusing the concepts of mindfulness and MBSR into the country’s institutions. He recently introduced the Veterans Posttraumatic Growth Act with colleagues Congressmen Guy Reschenthaler and Steve Watkins and is working with the VA to create a model of patient-centered care that will make practices such as MBSR, yoga, Tai Chi and acupuncture accessible to veteranstim-ryan3.png across the country. There’s a role in schools too, Tim says, in terms of helping students teach themselves how to de-escalate or increase their focus through awareness practices. In 2017, he and Congresswoman Susan Davis introduced the Teacher Health and Wellness Act to help teachers across the country reduce the health-related implications of stress. “Mindfulness really gets to the root of the issue,” he says. “There are physical and biological changes that happen during practice that don’t necessarily have to be seen in the context of a religious experience.”

Tim says mindfulness is a way to connect to the best and deepest part of who we are. “My life is a life of action and interaction. It’s very public and social. My mindfulness practice gives me that time to get prepared to go out into the world and do what I need to do – to be connected to the world without being overly influenced by the chaos of everyday life and the world we live in.” For him, mindfulness is something anyone who is feeling anxiety can practice to get beneath the surface turbulence and access their true self.

Learn more about Tim’s focus on issues around health and wellness, which includes mindfulness, on his website at https://timryan.house.gov/issues/health-and-wellness.

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