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Should Society Fund Mindfulness?

by Sarah Stankorb

August 30, 2014

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

One can imagine that the relentless, backbiting pressure cooker that is Washington, D.C. takes its toll. (Just watching Congress do all that backbiting certainly does.) By his third term in office, Washington was making Ohio congressman Tim Ryan sick. But Ryan, a Democrat who penned the book A Mindful Nation, found a balm for his frenetic mind after his 2008 campaign: a Jon Kabat-Zinn retreat that taught him the link between mind and body. Ryan began practicing mindfulness (45 minutes each morning in his office), and also decided that he “would advocate in Congress and on the Appropriations Committee for integrating mindfulness into key aspects of our society.”

I’m originally from Ryan’s district, a spot along the Rust Belt full of rough-and-tumble, blue-collar folks (many of whom struggled for decades to secure decent jobs). It’s a deeply Italian-American area where, in season, you can always find a good Lenten fish fry, and pizza is sold from church basements year-round. It’s a population that one might not immediately associate with a practice derived from Eastern philosophy. But somehow Ryan has become the poster boy for mindfulness back home and in Congress—so much so that a conservative blogger dubbed him “Congressman Moonbeam.”

Ryan isn’t all granola and hemp, however. He’s a bulky former high school football player and altar boy. Today, he sports nice suits and attends policy briefings. But as Molly Ball recently described him in The Atlantic, Ryan “is that guy you know who’s just started meditating and can’t stop talking about it, only with the ability to propose legislation.”

We laugh at friends who swallow self-help books, who adopt gurus and stumble blithely behind them. A congressman who has appeared with Deepak Chopra can be easily lumped in with those who’ve spent too much time discovering their aura’s color. (It’s a trope that’s too easy—the Beatles in India or Eat, Pray, Love— and it perhaps denotes some latent bigotry toward a religious and cultural tradition unfamiliar to most Westerners). Forget that these mindfulness-adopters are truly attempting to improve their lives. Forget that Ryan, like good legislators are supposed to, has found something that could help his constituents.

In a Washington so apparently devoid of quiet reflection, according to The Washington Times, Ryan has had other members of Congress privately approach him hoping to learn more about mindfulness. He has sponsored a bill to increase holistic medical offerings through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and secured earmarks for relaxation training in his district's schools.

He’s managed to turn mindfulness into a public good. While corporations like Google, Target, and Proctor & Gamble have found enough worth in the practice to establish corporate contemplation and mindfulness trainings, Ryan’s earmarks make these coveted skills available to public schoolchildren early in their education thanks to secular programming based on Social and Emotional Learning principles. In elementary schools in the towns surrounding my childhood neighborhood, to neutralize emotional outbursts and behavioral issues, kids learn take deep breaths and still themselves. They lay down their burdens in a “Peace Corner.” They discover how to create time and space to alleviate stress in order to facilitate the day’s lessons.

According to a recent article in the area’s Warren Tribune Chronicle, school faculty members view the program as having positive effects in the classroom, though those results have not yet been quantified.

We live frenzied, plugged-in lives these days, with reams of information begging for our attention every waking second. Just as the societal transition from hard labor to desk jobs meant that we had to carve out time for physical fitness, we are now adjusting to an era in which the majority of us have an increasing need for mental fitness. Investing in that, and all the long-term positive health impacts of meditation—decreased anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure, relief of chronic pain—certainly offers the potential to create a happier, healthier citizenry.

With added evidence that meditation makes people more patient and empathetic, less hostile, angry, and fearful, there appears to be merit in Ryan’s quest to bring mindfulness to this particular Congress. So before you dismiss the Congressmen Moonbeams of the world, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and reflect on exactly what he's advocating for—a low-cost proposition that could improve public health and teach our children to live more balanced lives.

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