Calming Congress


Barbeques, baseball and meditation. That’s right. Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) meditates for 45 minutes a day and says he thinks meditation needs to become the new American pastime.

He started a serious practice of meditation and mindfulness in November 2008, six years after he was elected to office, and says it’s made a difference in the work he’s been able to do in Congress. He’s less stressed, has more insight, more kindness and is better able to listen to his fellow representatives. Even those whose views he disagrees with.

The congressman is bringing that message to Boulder on April 30 for a talk at Naropa University.

“We have big differences in the country, but I think we can all deal with it without being unkind to the other side,” Ryan says.

And while it might help mend the cross-aisle talks, it wasn’t his fellow members of Congress he had in mind when he wrote the book A Mindful Nation. It was his constituents.

“I’ve just been watching my constituents suffer so much over the last 12 years in public office and some of that is obviously economic and inequality and healthcare and all these things, and I really saw mindfulness as a way to bring relief to my constituents in the long term and the short term,” he says. It’s not a fix for those problems, but it’s a way to manage and reduce the stress that accompanies them.

Ryan has already been involved with implementing meditation programs in some Ohio schools.

“I say not so jokingly that that may be the most important thing I do in my life — to bring this to my schools in my community,” he says. The program was granted $1 million a few years ago, and is now implemented in schools.

“Walk into a school and you just see the principals and the teachers say how much the classroom has changed, the school has changed,” he says. “You just can’t help, you get teary eyed because this is giving kids hope again — kids that are in a situation that most people in society would just write them off, and we’re not writing them off, we’re giving them what they need to succeed.”

These are kids from poor, urban neighborhoods with records for violence.

“I think there’s a lot of people in our country that just have thrown up their hands and said, ‘We don’t know what to do. That’s just going to be our segment of our population that’s not going to be able to get out of that situation,’” he says. The mindfulness practice helps these kids calm down, concentrate and develop a feeling of being in control even when they can’t control their environment.

The practice has been implemented in organizations as disparate as Google and NBA teams and the U.S. Marine Corps, and telling those stories and reporting the science behind the practice is the focus of his book.

“The message really — from an Irish-Italian Catholic Congressman from Ohio — is that this is something that needs to be mainstreamed in America,” he says. “It’s important that the average person that may think of that [meditation practice] as something that’s way out there, they may need to think of who’s doing it, who’s studying it and realize it can be helpful in their own lives and lead to a real renaissance in America.”

Just slowing down for a few minutes a day could add calm and a sense of connection to the rest of day, even if the frantic pace continues.

And while Boulder may already have more than its fair share of people who meditate, the message he’s delivering is one that needs to be taken off the meditation cushion.

 “If you’re a practitioner of mindfulness there are a lot of seeds that need to get planted in school systems and healthcare systems around the country,” he says. “I hope the talk is about how we move out of the OK, we’re all going to sit on our cushion and feel good phase to OK, a lot of people would find this helpful and we’re going to offer it up to them and try to push it out into society.”

The message can be free from religious affiliation and political party, says James Gimian, publisher at Shamabala Sun Foundation and, who helped organize Ryan’s appearance at Naropa.

“He has a very deep confidence in the goodness and creativity of the American people regardless of faith or religion or even political outlook,” Gimian says. “By slowing down, centering on what are really some basic fundamental American values of self reliance and innovation and caring for your neighbors, together we can apply this to these great emerging challenges of our time whether it’s the economy or the environment.”

Rep. Tim Ryan, with an introduction by Rep. Jared Polis, will speak at 7 p.m. Monday, April 30 at the Nalanda Events Center, Naropa University, 6287 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder. Free and open to the public.