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Ryan’s Book Reveals His Mind(fulness)
“A quiet revolution is happening in America. It’s not a revolution fueled by anger lurking on the fringes of our democracy. It’s a peaceful revolution, being led by ordinary citizens; teachers in our public schools; nurses and doctors in hectic emergency rooms, clinics, and hospitals; counselors and social workers in tough neighborhoods; military leaders in the midst of challenging conflicts; and many others across our nation. …
“At the core of this revolution is mindfulness.” — A Mindful Nation by U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- When an elected official aspires to higher office, writing a book is often a prerequisite. In that regard, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan appears to be following the playbook. But a book about slowing down, breathing deeply and paying attention to the present? He laughs loudly as the question is framed just that way.
“I had to do it,” the five-term Democrat says. “You get elected to lead. It’s helpful to me, in so many different ways, and I see the potential of what it can do.“
Ryan’s book, A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit, was published March 27 by Hay House Inc. of Carlsbad, Calif., a self-help publishing house. His first book signing took place April 5 at a Barnes & Noble in a Columbus suburb. Considering a run for governor in 2014 as political insiders speculate? The book’s first review was published the day before in The Washington Post. Looking ahead to national office as his inner circle dreams?
But back to the present, and “not getting caught up in the past or fantasizing about the future,” as Ryan describes one attribute of mindfulness.
“Mindfulness grounds you in the present moment,” he says. “I liken it to when I used to play sports. You’d be in the zone, you were completely present to the situation, things were clearer and all of your mind and body were in the moment.”
So what does mindfulness – essentially meditative practice – have to do with political policy? Everything – and nothing to do with partisan politics. “It’s back to the basics,” Ryan says.
“America’s challenges today stem from long-term systemic problems. They will not be solved with a legislative silver bullet created in Washington or our state capitols. Clearly we need … new approaches that can draw out our deep inner resources.”
He suggests that new approach begin with Americans understanding their own mind-body connections, the individual’s power to reduce his stress through meditative practice, which leads to better, and less expensive, health-care outcomes, greater educational attainment – even in the poorest performing inner-city schools, and solutions for stressful challenges facing the military, business and government leaders.
“We’ve been looking for ways to transform education, to reduce health care costs, to build resiliency among military men and women before they go off to deal with nasty situations, and also help them when they return.”
“What the studies are saying is that the mindfulness acts almost as a cooling agent for your system as you begin to reduce your stress,” Ryan says.
“He is suggesting that how we pay attention, and not just what we pay attention to, can lead to significant changes in the quality of our lives, as well as to profound healing and transformation in our country,” explains Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
“This book is a remarkable and unusual gift to the world,” Kabat-Zinn writes in his foreward to A Mindful Nation. “It is remarkable that it is written by a sitting politician who is advocating that we look deeply within ourselves to discover what is most trustworthy and most beautiful about us as a people.”
Kabat-Zinn introduced the congressman to mindfulness during a retreat he conducted in upstate New York in November 2008. It began with participants holding a single raisin close to their lips to make their mouths water. “The point was that what we see, hear, and think about in our mind has a direct effect on our bodies,” the congressman writes.
“After becoming aware of the body-mind connection, we began over the course of five days to slowly reduce how much we talked.
“As the week moved on, we spent an entire 36 hours in silence (Imagine that on Capitol Hill!).”
In the weeks that followed, Ryan landed a coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee, and decided to use his position “to advocate in Congress and on the Appropriations Committee for integrating mindfulness into key aspects of our society.”
And so, in 2009, the congressman secured a $982,000 budget earmark to fund the implementation of the Skills For Life social and emotional learning program in the Youngstown and Warren city schools (See related story Page 7). And he began to meet with neuroscientists studying mindfulness in relation to brain function. Ryan’s research took him across the country, for instance to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to meet with the director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, Richie Davidson. And he came to understand the work of The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California-Berkeley, where he will speak May 2.
Ryan is remarkably candid in explaining how his life-changing retreat revealed his inner, often harsh, narrative. “It turns out that over the years, I unknowingly created a big story in my head. I shared it with no one, not even my own conscious mind. I needed to have a highly successful political career, marry the perfect woman, be worth millions of dollars, and write a few books and movies.
“I was so caught up in my story that I missed my own life.”
He tells much about his early life in the book, the influence of his mother, grandparents, friends, pastors and teachers, then and now. As he progresses from explaining mindfulness, chapters focus on its applications in schools, in improving personal health and the health-care system, and the performance of the military and first-responders. The final two chapters relate meditative practice to rediscovering personal and national values, and reshaping our economy.
A heavy lift, for sure. But one sourced with 13 pages of references and resources, and bullet points at the end of each chapter slugged “What You Can Do.”
For those who may doubt the ability of mindfulness to transform public policy, there is no doubting Ryan’s sincerity or depth of knowledge. His book is not another ghostwritten guide to political pablum. Who knows? In 10 years I might be very glad my copy is autographed.
EDITOR'S NOTE: First published in the MidApril edition of The Business Journal. CLICK HERE to subscribe.
WATCH for the video version of this story on Thursday's Daily BUZZ webcast, and more about the real-world applications of Ryan's book tomorrow on our home page and on the Daily BUZZ.
Copyright 2012 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.