Can Representative Tim Ryan teach Washington to meditate?
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!”
Mitchell, the former New Orleans Saint, settles into a chair to lead us in meditation. There is alternate-nostril breathing. There is a sermon about loving without judgment, connecting with your body, and letting go. Pranayama and chi are invoked. The room is silent for three and a half minutes, and then Mitchell brings our attention back to our bodies, beginning with our toes.
“Take a big inhale. Exhale. Sigh it out,” he says. “Namaste.”
Throughout the exercise, Ryan sits erect, eyes closed, hands on his dark-suited knees. He meditates alone every day, and hosts a weekly session for congressional staff as well as another session, in the House chapel, that’s restricted to members of Congress. Ryan believes meditation ought to appeal as much to conservatives as to liberals: it jibes, he insists, with self-reliance and fiscal responsibility. But so far, the only regular attendee is a Democrat from California.
Ryan says that since he adopted meditation, he has been able “to let things go a little bit. There are stressful situations that really grind on you”—like trying to help Hillary Clinton win the Ohio primary, for example, or serving on the Appropriations Committee—“and you find yourself always going back over it.” With mindfulness, “you let go of it. It’s really having some space in your mind.”
In his book, Ryan cites studies showing the positive effects of meditation on everything from skin rashes to anxiety disorders to heart disease. Kindergarten teachers in Youngstown whose classes have adopted deep breathing thanks to Ryan rave about their students’ improved behavior. “Mental discipline, focus, self-reliance, deep listening—these are fundamental skills that are essential to kids’ education,” Ryan tells me. “We yell at kids to pay attention, but we never teach them how to pay attention.”
Ryan thinks Washington would work better if more members of Congress meditated, but in the meantime he’s focused on meditation’s other policy implications—for example, bending the cost curve in health care by reducing stress-related illnesses. He happens to have been the first member of Congress to sign on with the Ready for Hillary committee, which is laying the groundwork for a potential Clinton presidential candidacy, so I ask him whether he thinks Clinton would back his meditation crusade. Ryan pauses to consider this.
“Hillary is smart,” he says. “I think that she would see the benefits of this, you know, more so than probably most politicians would. The way she sees the world is the way I see the world, and this has the potential to save a lot of money.”
As Ryan talks to me, the crowd thins, the meditators dispersing to their Capitol offices. At the back of the room, Mitchell greets an old friend with a back-patting half-hug, half-handshake. This is Derrick Dockery, another former NFL player, whom he’s known since childhood. Dockery’s now an intern for the Budget Committee, working for Representative Paul Ryan; he implies that he is thinking of eventually running for office. (Contacted later, Dockery demurred, but then added: “Who knows what might happen one day.”)
“Did you like it? Did you get into it a little bit?,” Mitchell asks his friend, smiling broadly. Dockery, who is 6 foot 6, with massive shoulders, looks eager to make his escape. “Uh, I didn’t love it,” Dockery admits.
“It takes time,” Mitchell says, with perfect serenity.
“Yeah,” Dockery says, eyeing the door. “Good seeing you, man.”
For all of Tim Ryan’s insistence on meditation’s mainstream potential, it’s still not for everyone. I ask him whether it has been an uphill battle to get political types to see its merits. (A conservative blogger back home in Ohio, after all, has nicknamed him “Congressman Moonbeam.”) In fact, Ryan says, he finds himself doing as much diplomacy in the other direction—convincing the meditation world to give Congress a chance. “A lot of these people in the mindfulness community, they’re not necessarily involved in the political process,” Ryan says. “They meditate, they do yoga, and they stay away from all that. I tell people who do it, ‘You’ve got to be part of the process to help us change it.’ To transform the process, you’ve got to be part of the process.”