Trying Compassion on Capitol Hill

Can you extend compassion toward a difficult person in your life? Congressman Tim Ryan tries a practice to help him reach across the aisle.

Greater Good Science Center

Episode 33 of the Science of Happiness Podcast from the Greater Good Science Center, featuring Tim Ryan in conversation with Dacher Keltner. 

Episode 33: Trying Compassion on Capitol Hill

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CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: Recently in my own campaign for re-election I had an opponent who was just bashing me for not doing anything and never got anything done for the area and all this stuff. This kid fly in from New York – he hadn’t been in the area for 10 years – and then he comes in and he starts lobbing bombs at me for not doing enough. I’m like, “Wait a minute. I’ve been here in the foxhole for 15 years, where you been?” You know, that kind of thing.

I took it personally. You know the Buddhist story about, if someone’s shooting an arrow at you, don’t be there? Well my ego was there so I got hurt. And I was like, ‘Well, how dare you question me?’ You know?

I think anger was the initial feeling that I had, and then you work your way through that and then you get a little deeper understanding of where the other person is coming from. And that ultimately gets you to some level of compassion for them and an understanding of, ‘Alright. Let it go. Everything’s going to be fine. Make your arguments, tell people what you’ve done. Don’t judge this kid. He’s gotten you focused now. So thank you for that. And, you know, let’s go.’

DACHER KELTNER: Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan has had his fair share of political opponents since first winning election to the House of Representatives in 2002, representing Northeastern Ohio. In today’s political climate what has kept him going is mindfulness

He’s on the House Appropriations Committee and has also created the Quiet Time Caucus in the House of Representatives, where members of Congress and staff meet regularly to meditate. He sums up this work in A Mindful Nation. It’s a book about how to reduce stress and capture the spirit of the United States.

On each episode of our show we have a happiness guinea pig try out a science-based practice to increase kindness, connection and happiness – even around our opponents. This week, we’re honored to have my friend Congressman Tim Ryan on our show. Tim, thanks so much for joining us on the Science of Happiness.

CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: It’s so great to be reconnected with you.

DACHER KELTNER: I want to ask you about how you discovered mindfulness and started to build meditation into your political life. How’d that go?

CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: I went on a five-day retreat right after the 2008 election and that blew the top off my head. And I’ve been meditating ever since.

DACHER KELTNER: When you started to integrate mindfulness into your life as a political presence in our country, how did it change your thinking about politics, about our country, about your constituents?

CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: It’s got me focused on the fact that we’ve got to figure out how to come together. Just seeing things disintegrate before our very eyes is really frustrating. So it helps me kind of stay on task, stay focused on that. It helps with focus and then, you know, not judging. I mean, it’s really been helpful for me just to not judge. It’s so easy to slip into that mode. ‘The other side’s stupid and the other side’s wrong. And they’re’—you know, on and on. We could live in that space forever.

It’s so easy to slip into that mode. ‘The other side’s stupid and the other side’s wrong. And they’re’—you know, on and on. We could live in that space forever.

DACHER KELTNER: Tim, you’re at that life where you’ve got your hands full—you’re a parent of three kids, including your youngest, Brady, who’s just four years old. And you’re also navigating your work on the Hill, and your home life, and being on the campaign trail. How in the world do you keep up a mindfulness practice going?

CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: What I try to do is is really try to carve out time every day and I’ve been really trying to do the breathing techniques before before I start my meditation. Because it seems to get my mind in a place where I can really just drop in. And so I’m normally now doing 10, 15 minutes of breathing before I even start with kind of sitting in silence.

DACHER KELTNER: So Tim, you did the compassion meditation, which is a practice begins with cultivating feelings of compassion for someone we really care about, and then it transitions to cultivating that same feeling towards somebody we have conflict with, or actually an enemy. What you do is, you first find a comfortable place to sit, you relax. There’s actually a guided meditation on the Greater Good in Action website that walks you through it.

DACHER KELTNER: You continue to focus on your breath for two minutes, noticing the sensations in your body while you breathe. Then you picture someone who is really close to you. And then you notice what physical sensations around your heart. Then notice how this love makes your heart feel. So Tim, who did you think about in this first step of the Compassion Meditation?

CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: I would think of Brady, who’s just, you know, love of our lives and just the immediate pure connection to joy. Just warmth and relaxation. And it’s almost real to the extent, you know, you just sit there with your eyes closed. It’s almost like the dude’s right there.

DACHER KELTNER: Did you see his face?

CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: Oh, yeah. Just big, smiling, shit-eating grin on his face that just just cracks me up, and so to kind of connect to that when you’re not with him is just amazing. And so just—yeah, that was great.

DACHER KELTNER: With Brady, first you sort of walk through these phrases or say them in your mind about wishing Brady happiness and freedom from suffering and the like?

CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: You know, may you be peaceful. CMay you have love, and feel love. CMay you have joy. I don’t know if I followed exactly what the phrases are but you know, my version of that which I think is important, to kind of make sure you make it your own.

DACHER KELTNER: And then you think about that same person and it gets a little trickier—you focus your attention on a time when that individual was suffering emotionally or physically. What did that feel like in your heart?

CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: Very real, real pain. You’re empathizing with him. Whether he’s sick, or hurt himself, or got his feelings hurt. If you sit there and you focus on that. It’s real. And that’s the goal, is how do you try to you know feel the pain? That’s how you connect.

DACHER KELTNER: Compassion for children, especially our own, can be easy; it’s hardwired in us by evolution. But we’re not as great at showing compassion towards ourselves. The next step in the Compassion Meditation is to think about a time in your own life where you were feel suffering, and then you share that love and compassion you felt for your son Brady with yourself. How did if feel to orient the compassion towards yourself?

CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: I haven’t done that in a long time. And it’s almost like just accepting that you have pain in your heart from wherever it came from. And that was very relaxing almost because you didn’t have to like fight and pretend like you’re tough guy. And so it was very decompressing and I was like, ‘Okay, I don’t have to pretend like I’m the only human being who’s made it through forty-five years of my life without being heartbroken.’ You know, you just kind of sit with it. You realize how that pain helped you in some way, develop in some way. Got you where you are in some way because it’s a lot of times that heartbreak’s a big motivator.

It’s almost like just accepting that you have pain in your heart from wherever it came from. And that was very relaxing almost because you didn’t have to like fight and pretend like you’re tough guy. And so it was very decompressing and I was like, ‘Okay, I don’t have to pretend like I’m the only human being who’s made it through forty-five years of my life without being heartbroken.’

DACHER KELTNER: The next move then is to think about a neutral person who you don’t have strong feelings, positive or negative, and you start to direct some compassion towards that person. Who was that?

CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: Well, I won’t give the name, but a family member. [laughter]

DACHER KELTNER: You have a neutral person in your family? I can’t believe it!

CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: Yeah, well, I mean, they’re not all neutral. [laughter] You begin to see what you bring to this neutral experience that sometimes isn’t so neutral. So, you know, you got up first like, ‘I’m neutral with that guy,’ and then it’s like you’re in a little bit and you’re like, ‘Maybe I’m not neutral. Maybe there’s something there.’ [laughter]

But, you know, wishing them to not have suffering and wishing them joy and peace and love. So that was kind of a nice transition into some of the more complicated relationships.

DACHER KELTNER: Yeah. Next comes the hardest part, where you practice the Compassion Meditation where you really focus your attention on somebody you don’t like. You’re in conflict with, who’s insulted you, who’s caused problems in your life.

CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: You’re taking on emotions that—you’re not afraid of them, you’re not trying to push them down. That’s the same kind of thing like, OK, breathing in the negative emotion or the negative thought and, you know, as a tough guy, old football player quarterback I’m like, ‘Yeah, bring that fear in here! I’ll breathe you right in, baby!’ [laughter]

DACHER KELTNER: Chew it up and spit it out! Take that!

CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: Yeah like, “You’re not going to control me!” I kind of I really like that because I think we have a tendency, unwittingly, to really stuff that stuff down and really try to ignore it. And so to breathe it in and face it.

DACHER KELTNER: Take it on.

CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: Yeah, you take it on and then it helps you with conflict outside of the practice, obviously, which I’m assuming is the whole purpose here of all this, is not to just do it when you’re on the cushion, but applying it.

What’s powerful about this practice, and it’s not just the wishing them well in so many different ways, but it’s also I think understanding like why they are like they are and how like the negativity that you feel about them comes and stems from some negativity that they got from somewhere else. And they are, in some ways, perpetuating that. And then the practice is really about letting go of all that energy and it’s almost a forgiveness practice in so many ways.

DACHER KELTNER: Yeah, yeah. Finally, you open up the practice to the entire world, wishing happiness and joy and love and the absence of suffering for all human beings. Who did you think about?

CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: One of the committees I sit on is the committee that funds the Defense Department. And our operation’s intimately connected with everybody in the world. And to really see the suffering in these places—the whole issue now is caravans coming to the United States, about the wall and all this other stuff. And the reality of it is there are a couple countries in Central America where there’s so much pain, there’s so much suffering. And parents getting shot if they try to protect their kids. And so it got so bad where people, the best option for parents is to pay somebody to take their kid and run them through the desert through Mexico and try to get to the United States. When you think about compassion for all the world, my mind kept going to these countries and these families that are there that are experiencing so much pain and how we are intimately connected with the problems that are happening in that country. And the real compassionate move would be to try to stabilize it ahead of time so it doesn’t get to that point

DACHER KELTNER: Tim, now that you’ve tried compassion meditation, do you think there is room for something like this on Capitol Hill? Especially in our political climate?

CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: Whether it’s a compassion meditation or just straight, you know, slowing down. You know, I was just on a joint interview with the Republican colleague of mine. He said, “The problem around here is nobody listens to each other.” And these practices are inherently teaching you how to deeply listen. And that is going to be the trick of us getting out of this mess that we’re in right now, is for us really to start listening to each other. And having compassion for each other I mean, if someone has a view on how to fix something that’s not your view on how to fix something, you know, they have a reason why they think that way. But if you really sit down and your intention is to solve a problem, you will get there, if that’s what you want. And that starts with listening.

DACHER KELTNER: Tim, we are honored to have you on the Science of Happiness and grateful for the bold work you’re doing out in the world.

CONGRESSMAN TIM RYAN: Awesome, man. Thank you so much. Keep up the great work.

DACHER KELTNER: We live in politically tense times. The polarization between blue and red, or Democrats and Republicans, has really increased. Makes it hard to connect with and to humanize the people who are on the other side of ideological disputes. The real test of compassion is to see how it works in these kinds of contexts. I love how Congressman Tim Ryan is trying to bring the practices of compassion and mindfulness to Capitol Hill. This isn’t just about good intentions—there’s actually solid science behind it.

Helen Weng is an expert in the science behind the benefits of training ourselves to be more compassionate. In one recent study, she randomly divided people into two groups.

One group was told to think about a specific experience in their lives differently so that they felt less upset and stressed. The other group listened to the audio of the compassion meditation 30 minutes a day for two weeks.

HELEN WENG: After two weeks we found that the people who learn compassion were more generous in an economic exchange task to a stranger. They witnessed an unfair economic exchange that a stranger went through, and they were more willing to spend their own money—and it came out of their study payment—to help out that person they didn’t even know.

And then we found changes in the brain that corresponded to how generous they were. So in the brain scanner we showed them pictures of people suffering before and after the two weeks and asked them to evoke a sense of compassion towards those people who were suffering. And the more changes we saw in empathy networks, the more generous they were to strangers.

So basically, the more they could change their brain to be more empathic—while regulating, right, you have to be less distressed in response to someone suffering and also focus on their well-being—the more it actually change their behavior. What I like to say is that although you’re attending to things internally when you’re meditating, for some people it can actually change how you act towards people on the outside. So it’s internal to external transformation.

Produced by the Greater Good Science Center and PRI. Episode 33 of the Science of Happiness Podcast by the Greater Good Science Center, featuring Tim Ryan in conversation with Dacher Keltner.