Can a Meditating Politician Use Mindfulness to Change the Direction of National Priorities?


Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, speaking in Newton, MA, last week.In the midst of the recent spate of sometimesless-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 beingin 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.

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12 Comments on "Can a Meditating Politician Use Mindfulness to Change the Direction of National Priorities?"

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Sylvia Gibson
Sylvia Gibson
December 7, 2012 7:09 pm

Jon Kabat-Zinn, has done wonders towards chronic pain relief and stress reduction, with instructing mindfulness, etc. The mind is a fascinating organ, and it is trainable and mallable. <~~this is a few years old

December 9, 2012 12:33 am

Keep on hoping for change,
Another gem from a true liberal, Glenn Greenwald, on the revolving door between big pharma/ag, etc. and DC

December 9, 2012 1:48 am

Can anybody explain how the members of the Senate Finance Committee are able to take $50 million dollars from lobbiests and then deliver to the industries the lobbiests represent legislation that hands those industries untold amounts of profits? Isn’t this conflict of interest? Senator Max Baucus profits $1.5 million from the health industry lobbiests and then delivers to them legislation that makes the health care (aka “sick care”) industry untold amounts of money? It seems like we just don’t have a chance. This is evil incarnate. Do these people have a conscience?

December 9, 2012 4:06 pm

Want to know what Vilsack thinks of “rural American,”?

Yep, all you farmers, you just need to learn to have an “adult conversation” about how we have exploited and oppressed and harassed you all for decades, destroyed your communities, poisoned your families, decimated your economies to feed our greed and lust for power…

December 9, 2012 4:44 pm

“Revolving door”- in all reality this is a non-issue, isn’t it? I read the subtext as meaning that the matters should instead be controlled, influenced, decided, by some schlub, chosen at random off the street, ignorant of all matters of substance, and that that person should have a controlling say. Or worse, it should be an enemy of all matters of substance that is given that position. This begs common sense doesn’t it? I think, fairly, that the “other side” will, with some good reason, look at it like this.

If it is as I describe, then any words spent decrying “the revolving door” are a pure waste of time and energy.

We have many and very great problems, there is not one whit of doubt, but this ‘revolving door’ is not one of them.

I doubt “meditation” is capable of sending many soldiers to the battle-field either, but that’s just me.

Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain autobiography I highly recommend for multiple reasons.
Merton had a very wide circle of friends, one of which was the late John Howard Griffin, who I admire.

Have a great day everybody,
Mr. J. Ingvar Odegaard

December 9, 2012 11:19 pm

The only thing wrong with the “revolving door” theme is that it may tend to reinforce the fraudulent “public” vs. “private” dichotomy, when really there’s nothing but power, which is either democratically dispersed and localized, or usurped and concentrated up hierarchies.

But the corporate state is a monolith, and corporations and government are completely fused. There’s no demarcation – corporations are created by government and are extensions of it, while government’s only role is to serve as corporate welfare bagman and thug arm. So the revolving door is a purely cosmetic thing. Michael Taylor has always been the same Monsanto cadre, no matter what nominal jobs he’s held.

I agree that when anyone from the power structure says “meditate”, it’s the same kind of thing as “shop”, “change light bulbs”, etc. It means, “the system’s not to blame, so whatever you do, don’t organize and fight.”

December 9, 2012 11:24 pm

Wishful thinking on his part. But the end of cheap fossil fuels may have something different to say.

It’s funny how the most worthless and destructive childish brats are precisely those who are the most supercilious about how “serious” and “adult” they are and how childish everyone else (all their victims) is. Such lies are the only thing propping them up. (I agree that the passive masses are childish in continuing to trust and obey these criminals.)

Sylvia Gibson
Sylvia Gibson
December 10, 2012 3:29 am

“U.S. pork and beef exports to Russia could come to a halt on Saturday following Moscow’s requirement that the meat be tested and certified free of the feed additive ractopamine, a move analysts said smacked of political retaliation.”

It’s a shame that so many are blinded to the fact that the govt et al don’t care about people. When our own govt allows the people to be poisoned, it just re-inforces my need to obtain my foods on my own, to include using my neighbors for slaughtering my animals, etc. I would trust my neighbor far more than any govt entity.

D. Smith
December 10, 2012 9:33 pm

Your statement about cheap fossil fuels prompted me to post this. It’s long but if you don’t read the whole thing it doesn’t all fit together. This effects the health of the people, the land, the animals, the water – all end up being collateral damage. Only the corporate world could get away with this and have the basic approval of the EPA (a laughable entity to begin with, but still . . . ).

Mary McGonigle-Martin
December 11, 2012 2:01 am

Mark, here is a customer for RAWMI

December 11, 2012 11:50 am

Collateral damage is right, since it’s all a premeditated, intentional sacrifice of all values and life itself to the totalitarian corporate maw.

(Though these alleged “unconventional oil” booms, far from being a sign of the infinitude of fossil fuels, are really a sign of how the extraction industry is finding it harder and harder to continue extracting at this rate, as almost all the easy oil’s gone.)

The EPA’s the same kind of triangulating corporatist bureaucracy I described in my FDA comment at the newest post.

D. Smith
December 15, 2012 11:16 pm