Wait, Congress Has a Meditation Guru?
In fact, it does.
Think you're crazy-busy? Meet Tim Ryan, the U.S. representative from the 13th district in Ohio serving his seventh term. Amid the dual demands of lawmaking and diaper-changing (he has a 10-month-old baby with his wife, plus two older stepchildren), he still finds time to meditate 30 minutes each day, a habit he's kept for the past seven years. This has led Rep. Ryan to become Congress' de facto mindfulness guru, organizing regular meditation sessions for fellow legislators and staffers.
Aside from providing stress relief and improving concentration, meditation may also help lower heart disease risk, ease anxiety, and even treat chronic pain. And Rep. Ryan, for the record, has other wellness interests, too: On top of his 2013 book A Mindful Nation ($11, amazon.com), he also published a clean food opus last year called The Real Food Revolution ($18, amazon.com).
RELATED: A Meditation to De-Stress
May happens to be National Meditation Month, so we spoke with Rep. Ryan to get his tips on beginning a lasting practice and how to sneak it into your day.
How do you make time for your meditation practice?
I used to do it every morning. I'd have a cup of coffee, get myself together, and sit for 30-40 minutes. But now with the baby at home [10-month-old Brady], I just fit it in whenever I can. I still try for 30 minutes at a time, and in the past year I've added 5 or 10 minutes of deep breathing beforehand to help my body calm down, give it plenty of oxygen, and balance out the system.
What do you do if you can't meditate every day?
The key thing is to learn how to take mindfulness off the cushion and into your life. Now, whether I'm changing a diaper or chasing Brady around the house, I just try to bring mindfulness to those moments.
Can you really bring mindfulness to changing a diaper?
Sure. Even if you're not meditating, mindfulness is about coming back to your breath, coming back into your body, and trying to observe what state the mind and the body are in. You're working on building a habit in which you're aware in any situation. Maintaining a sense of humor about life helps, too.
How would you advise getting into meditation if you're a beginner?
They key is to just start. Don't feel like it has to be 45 minutes, or that you have to go off to a cave in the Himalayas. Just start by taking a minute or two, turn off all your electronic devices, experience a little silence, do some deep breathing. Do it again for a couple of minutes each night. There's no excuse for not doing some deep breathing before bed.
Even if you start in small increments, you'll start to notice that things change. You'll start to say, "Wow, that two minutes in the morning helps me behave differently during the day." Once you experience that, you might say, "Next time, I'll do it for or four or five minutes."
Why is mindfulness training so important?
If you play sports, like I did, you always hear that the game is 90% mental. If you make time for physical training, like many of us do, why shouldn't we also make time for mental training? So many feelings of physical anxiety come from the mind, so this mental practice is very important for people's overall well-being, particularly those of us with hectic lives.
You've been working on bringing mindfulness to schools. What benefit can mindfulness have for children?
One of the keys to being a successful person is regulating one's emotional state, and to do that, you have to be aware of your emotions. By using mindfulness and breathing, through a process called social and emotional learning (SEL), we can help kids become aware of their emotional state. They learn to answer questions like, "If I'm mad at someone on the playground, how can I express it without punching that person?" By learning to be aware of feelings, and using deep breathing, they're cultivating the steps they need to handle a variety of situations and problems.
If we want our kids to be leaders, to be independent, to think for themselves, to avoid peer pressure, to get along, and to be connected, we need to teach them how to handle stress properly from a young age.
What other applications of mindfulness show promise?
The big one for me is working with veterans. Twenty-two veterans a day take their own lives. I'm involved with a project called Welcome Home Troops that brings breathing meditation to vets. We had a group in just the other day, veterans who have served 2 or 3 tours, who have lost friends, who have been in a bad place for 10 years. And having found this approach to mindfulness, they've gotten off medication, they're finally sleeping through the night. We want to get the message out to vets that there are these other methods that can help you better than taking 10 or 12 pills a day.
You're a Democrat. Do you think we can use mindfulness to reach across the political aisle?
Our regular "Quiet Time Caucus" for staffers is pretty well-attended. We get Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partyers, and they're all curious to learn about the different applications of mindfulness, to hear about the science behind it. I'll have staffers grab me in the lunch line and say, "I'm a conservative Republican, I've been stressed out for a long time, and this is really helping me."
How is mindfulness valuable on a societal level?
I believe that the personal anxiousness we experience in our lives is reflected in our collective approach to the issues we face, in our politics and in our public discourse.
There's so much disconnection in our society today. People are disconnected from their families, from their communities, from each other. We get so wrapped up in our work that we wake up one day and realize our kids are 20 and we don't know what happened. We put up fences around our backyards and stay away from our neighbors.
Mindfulness, and the practice of slowing down, helps us establish the connection between mind and body, and in turn, helps us reclaim connections to other people, to our loved ones, to our neighbors. When we recognize the connections we have with others and get to work on reconnecting, it will change society for the better.
This interview has been edited and condensed.