Congressman Moonbeam

Can Representative Tim Ryan teach Washington to meditate? 
John Cuneo

Tim Ryan’s job was killing him.

By the time he was 35, the Democrat was already in his third term in Congress, and he was exhausted. Campaigning, fund-raising, legislating, barnstorming through his swing state for presidential candidates, governors, and senators—it had all taken a toll. So just after the 2008 election, he signed up for a retreat led by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the author of Wherever You Go, There You Are and perhaps America’s foremost popularizer of “mindfulness.” Expecting to de-stress, Ryan ended up having a profound experience that would dramatically affect the course of his career. A pivotal moment came during an exercise involving a raisin. Gazing at it, his mouth began to water—proof, he realized, that the mind and body are inextricably connected. “I decided,” he later wrote, “I would advocate in Congress and on the Appropriations Committee for integrating mindfulness into key aspects of our society.”

Ryan, who is now 41 and in his sixth term representing northeastern Ohio, is that guy you know who’s just started meditating and can’t stop talking about it, only with the ability to propose legislation. “I came out of it”—the 2008 retreat—“with a whole new way of relating with what was going on in the world,” Ryan tells me. “And like any good thing that a congressman finds—a new technology, a new policy idea—immediately I said, ‘How do we get this out?’ ”

Ever since, he has busily worked to make himself meditation’s man in Washington. He has appeared with Deepak Chopra and Goldie Hawn. He has sponsored a bill to increase the holistic-medicine offerings of the Department of Veterans Affairs. He has secured a $1 million earmark for relaxation training for elementary-schoolers in his district. He has written a book, A Mindful Nation, that—according to its foreword, by Bill Clinton—purports to “explain how the simple act of self-reflection can help us build a better America.”

Ryan is eager to have you know that his isn’t some sort of flaky, new-age conversion. He is a former altar boy and high-school football star, raised by a single mother in a blue-collar Italian American suburb of Youngstown. What sealed the deal for him, he says, was knowing that the legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson had taught his players to meditate. “I knew he did something like this with the Bulls and Michael Jordan,” Ryan says, pausing to note that last year’s Super Bowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks, had also been encouraged to meditate. Ryan began to believe that, as usual, Washington was the last to pick up on something that the rest of America was already on to. “The more I researched it, the more I realized: if this is presented as something that’s universal, everyone can benefit,” Ryan says. “Football players, marines, my constituents—this is for everybody.”

Which is how we have come to be here, in the hearing room of the Budget Committee of the House of Representatives—a high-ceilinged chamber with microphones sprouting from dark wood desks and paintings of stern white men lining the walls—for what Ryan has termed a “quiet-time session.”

The assembled group reflects Ryan’s determination to showcase a diversity of meditation practitioners. Billy Birdzell, a fast-talking former marine who’s now a fund-raiser for the National Rifle Association, credits meditation with helping cure his post-traumatic stress disorder. “My cortisol levels are normal, my hormone levels are normal, I sleep great, everything’s fine, I get invited back to parties,” he says.

Keith Mitchell, a former Pro Bowl linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, saw his career end a decade ago, when a hard tackle left him paralyzed for six months. Doctors didn’t know whether he’d walk again; Mitchell attributes his rehabilitation to yoga and meditation. Beaded bracelets peek out beneath the cuffs of his khaki suit. “I was tapping into the modality that we inherited to heal ourselves,” he says. “We have this within us all.”

Bernie Hammock, a Vietnam veteran, learned breathing exercises at the VA and likes to meditate to lull himself to sleep. “I don’t know how much time I got left on this Earth, but I know it’s going to be being conscious,” he says.

After Ryan summons the room to order, a couple dozen staffers, advocates, and other interested parties take their seats. It’s time for the meditation session to begin, but first, there are certain things a congressman has to say at an event like this. “When it’s over, I don’t want to ruin, like, the chill-out mode with talking,” Ryan explains. “I just want to say how appreciative we are to all of our veterans for coming here.” Another Vietnam vet, Hughie Adams, shouts out, “Thank you, Congressman. You’re all right!”

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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