Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Mindfulness

Barry Boyce, Mindful’s Editor-in-Chief, on the process of finding the right journalist to profile Congressman Tim Ryan, author of A Mindful Nation.

Photograph by Mark Mahaney

It’s 95 degrees, I have sweat in my eyes, and I’m squinting at four women in brightly colored Spandex tops and cropped pants.

That’s when I spot the guy who suggested I try this yoga class.

The congressman has flipped his dog. He’s turned his downward dog almost inside out—back bent, belly up.

The moment offers one answer to the central question of this story: How does Representative Tim Ryan truly live his mindfulness practice?

As I stick with downward dog, he looks like he could hang out upside down all day, and the more I get to know him, it’s clear his steadiness is not limited to the yoga mat.

Meet Congressman Tim Ryan

Ryan is not one of those bomb-throwing members of Congress, the type who generates sensational headlines on Hardball. No, he’s not that Ryan, the one who was on the Republican presidential ticket. He’s the Democrat. The one who has quietly continued winning races in his Ohio district. The one with “that mindfulness thing,” as one of his fellow members put it.

Ryan’s book, A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit, reads a bit like what presidential candidates publish two years before they start to show up at the Iowa State Fair, full of broad statements like this one from the close: “It’s helping us all recapture the spirit of what it means to be an American. Join us.”

But it’s also pretty simple—taking a mindfulness approach to your life can make it better. And it can make America better. Children can be smarter and better prepared for the world. Soldiers and firefighters can become more resilient. The book hasn’t generated the same buzz as the typical Washington political tell-all, but it’s done what Ryan wanted: it’s garnered him dozens of appearances across the country to talk about mindfulness; it’s inspired teachers, doctors, nurses, and veterans to contact him about how they’re applying mindfulness practice in their lives; and the policy ideas in the book may well be catching on in the halls of the Capitol.

And that’s what Ryan is counting on this year, as he steps up his efforts to translate mindfulness into legislation.

During the time I spent with Ryan, in his home state of Ohio and in Washington, I witnessed a politician who—unlike many others I’ve interviewed— hasn’t adopted a cause because it does well with focus groups. He’s adopted it because he believes it will help our country. And from what I’ve seen, this guy isn’t faking it.

He says mindfulness practice gives him a feeling of calm that allows him to manage his day, especially necessary in an increasingly bitter Washington. “If something arouses some anger, I try to see it, and then let it go. As the days get hectic, I make myself stop, take a breath, and pay attention to that breath,” Ryan says.

Our journey began on a drizzly Friday, as I drove with Ryan 319 miles from his Capitol Hill office to Niles, Ohio. He sat in the front seat in shorts and flip-flops with his shirt sleeves rolled up; looking like he could have been on his way to a football game, not coming from a congressional office. His aide, Merv Jones, son of the late Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio, was behind the wheel of the SUV.

Ryan describes his almost-daily meditation practice as “classical”: he sits on a cushion and follows his breath, usually giving himself 40 to 45 minutes before a church-bell timer sounds on his phone. He meditates at home in front of the fireplace or in the House gym.

He says mindfulness practice gives him a feeling of calm that allows him to manage his day, especially necessary in an increasingly bitter Washington. “If something arouses some anger, I try to see it, and then let it go. As the days get hectic, I make myself stop, take a breath, and pay attention to that breath,” Ryan says.

Among the practices Ryan highlights in his book are waiting in the morning until you’re fully out

of bed and stirring before looking at your email, instead of reading it the moment you wake. And

no television before bed: “I sleep better.”

Back to that question if he’s for real. I decide to tally how often he looks at his device. 1:10 p.m. is the first glance, and he pops off a quick text message. He turns his eyes to the screen about once an hour, and at more frequent intervals as we get closer to home, perhaps because we’re arranging to meet his family at a festival.

In all, Ryan looked at his iPhone only 13 times during our more than 7 hours together. Meanwhile, I was going through BlackBerry withdrawal, and Merv didn’t look like he was doing much better.

Hometown Hero

As we pulled into Youngstown, Ohio, Ryan sat in the front of the SUV, animated. He pointed out new developments along the main drag, boasting about the city’s 80% commercial-occupancy rate. There’s his great uncle’s house, the golf club where he used to caddy, parts of his district added through redistricting, and the Youngstown State University stadium where he played one football game “before I cashed it in.”

As a teenager Ryan dreamed of being a pro quarterback, but a blown knee forced him to, as he puts it, “reconstruct my life.” He’d already been exposed to politics, working in then Representative James Traficant’s district office and in his office on the Hill. He got a law degree but never practiced, and he was, as he describes it now, “just floating around thinking about what I ought to be doing.”

Ryan considered coaching but kept coming back to politics and a desire to offer leadership. He ran for the state senate at age 26, and when Traficant landed in jail, he ran for his old boss’ seat in Congress. His surprise victory in the primary made him the youngest Democrat in Congress the following year.

Pat Lowry, Ryan’s district press secretary and longtime friend, isn’t surprised at how his political career has played out. Lowry tells me that in 1991 Ryan was named player of the year, and the next day “the coaches in the paper didn’t talk about his abilities, they talked about his leadership.”

Now, he’s a hometown hero.

We drove up bucolic Fifth Avenue, then off to his neighborhood in Niles. His house is just down the way from his mom’s. A little farther is the home where his grandparents took care of him. Family is everything.

His father left his mother when Ryan was eight, and the family became even more close-knit. As a boy, Ryan found their Catholic church to be a calming place. He smiles when he talks about his grandparents’ peaceful home where he could always find them saying the rosary. They were early role models for mindfulness. “I always think about my grandparents. They worked hard, but it wasn’t everything,” he says. “They spent time in the garden, they celebrated birthdays, they went out dancing to big bands, they hosted parties and dinners.”

We stopped at the church’s souped-up Italian festival, which seemed more like a county fair. We walked only a few feet before someone called out for “Timmy.” Everywhere we go he has roots. He ushered me into the beer tent his grandfather used to run. I didn’t get to meet his mom; her shift at the dried-baloney stand wasn’t until the following day.

We all ordered the Italian sausage Ryan says is the festival tradition. Eating like this matters politically—northeastern Ohio’s Italian and Portuguese roots are a distinctive part of the local culture. Ryan taps into that easily; his family embodies his district’s working-class demographic.

As I ate one of those giant sausages, Ryan’s sister-in-law was gabbing about how he’d gotten them all into yoga. A discussion among his friends and family about a new hot yoga studio with Tuesday and Thursday classes provoked high fives. Every member of the family, and loosely defined extended family, seemed attentive, in the moment, enjoying each other. 

As Ryan’s three nieces and two nephews ran around, he would scoop one of them up and play the role of doting uncle. It was obvious they adored him. As Nicky and Dommy mounted the trapeze swings, Ryan appeared laser-focused on their performances. “Go for it, Dom!” he cheered.

Carrie Ryan beamed when I told her that during our drive, her brother-in-law had sung her praises as a mindful person. The congressman had called her “super present,” noting that she doesn’t use email outside of work. He told me “she’s a great mom.”

Before hitting the dance floor with the kids, Al Ryan shared his impression of his younger brother. “He’s always seeing the good in people, and he’s able to stay centered with an understanding of what you can control and what you can’t. It’s just how he’s built.”

Mindfulness in Washington

The central tenet of Ryan’s philosophy may be gaining some traction these days, but in Washington, a city many Americans think of as toxic, and with partisan rancor and discord at historic highs, it’s a surprising message to hear from a politician. In January, Ryan sent out a “Dear Colleague” message announcing weekly all-are-welcome meditation meetings from 9:30 to 10 a.m. each Wednesday the House is in session. About 30 staffers attended the inaugural session in the Rayburn House Office Building. “It’s a nice little technique for people in a high-stress environment to learn. There’s no belief structure you need to sign on to,” and everyone can benefit from “having a quiet space for 10 to 15 minutes during a hectic week,” Ryan told the Capitol Hill newspaper and website, Roll Call. Ryan has also invited his colleagues to join him for a half-hour “quiet time” before the first vote each week, in a room near the House chamber in the Capitol. “Members can use that time in whatever way they like—a specific religious contemplation, mindfulness, or just silent reflection,” he says.

I ask Ryan if he worries that his push for mindfulness could make his colleagues take him less seriously. “I probably should worry,” he admits, but adds that he has the backing of “the Marines, science, Google, and Phil Jackson—the coach who won the most NBA championships.” The congressman senses an “openness now that wasn’t there five years ago, because everybody feels overwhelming stress in their lives and they don’t know what to do about it.”

Now that his colleagues know what he’s up to, Ryan can move beyond the occasional mention of mindfulness in committee hearings. He plans to take advantage of open floor time available to members and enjoyed by C-SPAN viewers to get into the science of mindfulness and explain in detail the legislation he’s crafting. That could be a bill supporting mindfulness teacher training or carving out space for stress reduction in health care, military, and veterans’ programs. The legislation will be written in consultation with experts in each field.

Cultivating Interest in Mindfulness

Ryan is deeply concerned that he sees so many veterans “ending up in the obit sections of the newspapers in my state, having committed suicide.” He thinks it’s a supreme tragedy when people so highly trained, whom so many people look up to, take their own lives. He’s conceptualizing a sort of veterans corps that would help returning service members by teaching them yoga and meditation. It would be led by veterans in individual communities, allowing those who want to participate to avoid having to work through the department of Veterans Affairs. Many veterans won’t go to the VA for fear of being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. They don’t want the stigma.

Of course, in Washington these days it is hard to pass any piece of legislation, no matter how badly it is needed, and Ryan admits he’s frustrated. But he notes that the president or first lady could accomplish a lot even without legislation.

“The mindfulness agenda cuts through a lot of the current political divides. Because it is based on self-care, preventing illness, and increasing your overall well-being, it saves health-care dollars and promotes individual responsibility,” Ryan says. He also believes it can be a key element in job retraining. “Mindfulness increases a worker’s resiliency and creativity in the face of challenges, her ability to change what she’s doing if she has to respond to economic realities. We need that in today’s economy.”

Ryan doesn’t want to out other members of Congress who have been joining him for meditation in the House gym or his colleagues—Democrats and Republicans—who tell him they’ve read his book and agree with its ideas. So I won’t name names. But let’s just say the politicians starting to see his point of view, and even engaging in deep breathing, are plentiful. They know stress when they see it, and they’ve had enough.

“The mindfulness agenda cuts through a lot of the current political divides. Because it is based on self-care, preventing illness, and increasing your overall well-being, it saves health-care dollars and promotes individual responsibility,” Ryan says.

Ryan sees his own role as cultivating interest in mindfulness practice over time. When Republicans tell him they do yoga, he listens and invites them to join him. Or he suggests they drop by the weekly meditation session in Rayburn.

With the support of his congressional colleague Jared Polis (D-CO), the Mediator’s Foundation, which encourages leaders to work for a “peaceful, just, and sustainable world,” sent every member on Capitol Hill a copy of A Mindful Nation. Ryan wishes he could have convinced the Republicans who have read it to write a blurb for the paperback edition that’s just come out.

I ask if he tries to pitch his mindfulness agenda when he senses a lawmaker who is open to the idea. Not right away, Ryan says. “I want them to understand mindfulness on a very personal level and experience it themselves, then they will understand why I am pushing legislation and why it’s important.”

Months later, we’re talking about guns in the wake of a new tragedy—the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Ryan believes the nation has an opportunity to take a fresh look at mental health. “The experts tell us we need to prevent mental illness by intervening as early as possible,” he says. “Part of the prevention we could maybe agree on is social and emotional learning programs and a little bit of mindfulness practice in the schools.”

Ryan’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Education has directed nearly $1 million to schools in his district for a study to evaluate the effectiveness of mindfulness and social and emotional learning, known to educators as SEL.

He has been told that when mindfulness is taught in an educational setting, behaviors such as pushing on the playground are less frequent and fewer kids are sent to the principal’s office. Instead, they sit in the “peace corner” when they act up. His aim? Standardizing the practice so it’s part of the fundamentals of being a teacher. He argues, too, that schools can use meditation as a recruiting tool because the statistics prove its effectiveness.

How Congressman Tim Ryan Got Into Mindfulness

This brings us to a discussion of how Ryan ended up practicing mindfulness. “I was always interested in trying to figure out how to discipline my mind, calm my mind down, and be in a peaceful place,” he says, referring to his earlier days as an athlete. “My mind was very active and it was hard for me to focus. I would stay out and shoot baskets in the driveway. I’d shoot a million times, just me and a ball and a hoop.” Sometimes it was a football through a tire in the front yard.

In spite of his commitment to discipline and reputation for leadership, “I still felt a nagging inability to really be present,” says Ryan. It wasn’t until a five-day silent retreat after the 2008 presidential election, with Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, that he found a way to decrease stress and stay in the moment more often. “After that intense election campaign, I was burned out, so I signed up for this retreat, turned in my two BlackBerrys at the door, and sat quietly and walked attentively. It’s when I discovered how effective this method could be. If it worked for me, I thought, it ought to work for others. I also began to realize that it’s another version of the same old thing I had always been drawn to: discipline. But now it was discipline not just of the body but also of the mind.”

Ryan mentions running the Cleveland marathon, where he raised $5,000 to help returning troops learn mindfulness to aid their transition to everyday life. Under sunny skies, the temperature hit the mid-80s in 80% humidity. “Talk about mindfulness,” he says, laughing. “The bombardment of negative thoughts toward the end was almost overwhelming: ‘I’m stupid, I hurt, look at that big hill, why did I do this?’ But you have to keep going back to your breath. You can think about how hot it is or you can hydrate and keep going.”

Ryan staffers say he’s encouraged them to be more mindful, too. One says the congressman convinced him to stop using his iPhone as an alarm. And three or four often come to the weekly mindfulness sessions in Rayburn. Former Representative John Sullivan of Oklahoma, a Republican, isn’t shy about how Ryan has influenced him for the better. They were co-chairmen of the Addiction Caucus (Ryan took over the helm at former Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s request, with the agreement he could push mindfulness) and frequently met in the House gym to meditate.

“Tim convinced me to try it and it was nothing like I thought it would be. I really liked it,” says Sullivan. It even helped him cope with the surprise of losing his seat to a Tea Party activist in a 2012 primary.

Sullivan predicts Ryan will use A Mindful Nation to demonstrate the benefits across government. “He’s the person who can bring new light to this,” he says. “A guy like him who is charismatic, he’s going to be able to take this book to a level that can show so many benefits.” 

Ryan, naturally, agrees. “Republicans will see a lot of people in the suburban districts who do yoga and meditate, and not all of these are Democrats,” he says. “Republican parents are likely to be just as pleased if their kids learn to have better attention spans. If it’s only a bunch of liberals talking about meditation in schools, it’s not going to work. It’s got to be mainstream and bipartisan.”

As he steps up his national profile, Ryan has been wrestling with a career choice based in part on how he can make the most difference putting mindfulness into practice. Does he run statewide in Ohio or stay in Congress and exert influence through spending bills as an Appropriations Committee member?

“The ability to transform the way we run our government and implement programs at the state level is appealing,” Ryan tells me in January, just after former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland announced he would not seek a rematch with the Republican who unseated him in 2014. Ryan has made no secret of the fact that he’s interested in a gubernatorial bid, but is the timing right?

As governor, you’re “basically the superintendent of all the schools,” Ryan says. Not to mention overseeing the prison system, state Medicaid programs, and the colleges and universities. It’s a chance to make big changes quickly. He doesn’t say this, but state executives also tend to run for president.

Another option is to inch slowly ahead in the House, where power lies in seniority. That could mean moving up on Defense Appropriations and getting the Pentagon to do the research that will “build a body of evidence” for how mindfulness training programs can increase health, well-being, and resiliency.

As he faces these decisions, Ryan says he wants to make the best choice for advancing mindfulness. “Mindfulness training makes a valuable investment in the most important asset we have—well-functioning human beings. My goal is to be the person who gets it implemented in current programming,” he tells me. But, he admits, “the congressional track is a lot more long-term.”

Either strategy carries risks: he could lose at home running for governor and find himself in the political wilderness or his party could remain in the minority in the House and he could find himself bordering on irrelevance. On March 15, Ryan announced that he had decided to forgo a run for governor. For now.

“Mindfulness training makes a valuable investment in the most important asset we have—well-functioning human beings. My goal is to be the person who gets it implemented in current programming,” he tells me. But, he admits, “the congressional track is a lot more long-term.”

All of the people I talked to describe Ryan as someone who doesn’t appear to have extremes. “He’s the one guy who never gets stressed in our office. He absorbs it all and tells us what he wants to do,” says Wiley Runnestrand, his campaign manager.

When I began this profile, Ryan was spending his weekends back home campaigning for his pals in Congress who needed more help than he did for re-election. He helped boost turnout in northern Ohio for President Obama and was sent back to Washington for a sixth term by a nearly 150,000-vote margin.

The day after the Italian festival in Niles, we picked Ryan up at his girlfriend’s house so he could headline the opening of the president’s local campaign office. As Ryan stepped in front of a few hundred Obama supporters, he apologized for his flip-flops and shorts: “I’m a little underdressed, but I’m going to my niece’s birthday party, which we all know is a little more important.”

Suddenly it was as if he had flipped a switch. He spoke the first overtly political words I’d heard since we met in the car 24 hours prior, and he knew what he was doing. He urged the volunteers to get out and “draw this distinction between what Romney stands for and what President Obama has already done.” That included the auto industry bailout, a central issue in Ohio, and the fact that “Osama bin Laden is no longer around.” Ryan told the group: “This guy has done a lot of what he’s promised.”

When we parted ways outside the Obama campaign office, Ryan recommended I try hot yoga.

He started it to strengthen his back and goes a few times a week. He said he’d be there on Monday night, and when I show up for the 7:45 class, there’s Ryan in the front corner. Merv is there, too.

I take the opportunity afterward to ask the class instructor, Derek Waddy, some questions about the congressman. His alignment? “Perfect, he’s doing a great job.” Does Ryan do headstands? “Jury’s still out.” Does anyone in the class know they are trying to hold eagle pose next to someone who belongs to a club so exclusive it has just 535 members?

“You know,” Waddy says, “when you’re in there all sweaty, you’re all the same.”

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