Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Meditating Congressman

Meditation: congressmen and kids do it
The other night I went to hear Congressman Tim Ryan talk about his meditation practice, his new book called A Mindful Nation, and why mindfulness practice makes sense in American schools, our military, and just about every institution. It was empowering to see someone in the most quintessentially mainstream institution in America talking about mindfulness. It gave me hope that meditation is no longer just a fringe practice for punks and hippies to keep secret when they grow up and get real jobs. 

Congressman Ryan pointed out that the Marines are studying and using meditation. Schools in his district of Youngstown and Warren, Ohio are using meditation and seeing test scores improve dramatically. Google and Proctor & Gamble teach it to employees. The Cleveland Clinic is using it with patients and seeing speedier recoveries. Even coach Phil Jackson of the LA Lakers and the Chicago Bulls has been teaching it to his players, so they can use it to get their minds in the game.

The first thing I noticed is that the Congressman never once mentioned the word meditation. He used only the word mindfulness.  Fair enough. The Congressmen is a Catholic and politician, and he needs to use the language that will make sense to his constituents. A lot of Americans are going to have a hard time accepting the idea of meditation in its institutions. Even among liberals in DC, meditation can conjure images of kooky freaks doing weird stuff in their pajamas.

Marines do it
But there is hope. The Congressman mentioned that often he'll be talking to constituents about mindfulness, and just when he thinks he's found the tough guy who is going to say he hates meditation, the guy will open up about how for the first time in his life he he went to his daughter's soccer game and felt like he was really there, in mind and body.

The second thing I noted was that the Congressman looks and talks like a dudes' dude. He has an athletic build. He doesn't walk into the Levi's store asking where to find the skinny jeans. I liked watching a guy who looks like he could crush me, talking about how America is at its best when Americans have, "the strength to be gentle."

An Iraq war vet next to me, who writes a blog about dealing with PTSD through mindfulness practice, pointed this out and noted that for vets to benefit from mindfulness practice, it can't be seen as something weak. For some reason our culture has focused on the gentleness and forgotten that meditation has always been an essential element of martial arts at the advanced levels. As my teachers have taught me, we need to develop soft fronts, but strong backs. People haven't been doing this for 3,000 years because it makes us better pushovers.

Having never heard Congressman Ryan speak, I didn't know what to expect. I couldn't resist showing up to check out the spectacle of a meditating Congressman. But the third thing that was obvious to all of us is that the Congressman really believes that mindfulness practice should be taught to every child, every soldier, every policeman, every politician. He noted that it will save us taxpayer money and it empower Americans to learn better, take better care of themselves, and maybe even make better decisions.
Even pro basketball players do it!

It was encouraging to think about at least one person in the House of Representatives who has the presence of mind to call time out when grown men and women start calling each other "socialists" and "fascists" from across the aisles. It makes perfect sense that a person in a high stress, high-power job would meditate to maintain sanity, but the sad truth is that there has never been a Congressman open about having a meditation practice.

Why do Americans so often write off a practice that could make them happier, healthier, more empowered, more efficient and just plain smarter? All I can think of is that Americans are afraid of something they don't know. If so, we need more people like Congressman Ryan to step out on a limb and show people that there is nothing to be afraid of.

This isn't just for Buddhists and Hindus. This is for anyone that wants to have his/her body and mind in the same place at the same time and to turn the mind into an ally.


  1. Great article. I'm curious on your thoughts on the intersection between military values and military personnel doing mindfulness? There is a history of meditation being used for war, and, there is also a very strong belief in Buddhism towards non-violence. Mindfulness can be used to improve any skill, in a value neutral way. And, one hopes, contining meditation will cause the practitioner to go beyond simply improving a skill to changing his or her perspective from one of dualistic competition/self improvement to engaged unity or non-violence.

    In my fantasy I see the military, overtaken by a passion for mindfulness, become inspired to truly be "peacekeepers"! What would that look like, what you describe as "gentle strength"?

    And, this is a great start. Habits change one breath at a time.

    1. Thanks for the comment Darcy.

      I think you provided a pretty good answer in your first paragraph. I see no problem in military personnel practicing mindfulness.

      In fact, Chogyam Trungpa turned this whole conversation up on its head when he started a military wing of the Buddhist lineage that he started! This military wing, the Dorje Kasung, still operates today. Their slogan is, "victory over aggression," or "victory over war."

      Your comment about the military becoming true peacekeepers seems right on to me. If you ask me, the military performs a necessary function in society. We should not alienate them because they have a dirty job, but work towards a society where warriors perform their duties with dignity, respect, mindfulness, compassion, etc. Many military personnel already do. I don't think it is an impossible vision!

  2. Loyal military are needed in a very powerful way in DC, right now, to meditate.