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Mindful : June 2013
leadership 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 cong ressman has flipped his dog. He’s turned his downward dog almost inside out—back bent, belly up. The moment offers one a nswer 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. Ryan, 39, is not one of those bomb-throwing members of Cong ress, the type who generates sensationa l headlines on Hardball. No, he’s not that Ryan, the one who was on the Republican presi- dential 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 Perfor- mance, and Recapture the American Spirit, reads a bit like what presidential ca ndidates publish two yea rs 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 a nd better prepa red for the world. Soldiers and firefight- ers 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, a nd vetera ns to contact him about how they’re applying mindfulness prac- tice in their lives; a nd 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 poli- tician who—unlike many others I’ve interviewed— hasn’t adopted a cause because it does well with focus g roups. He’s adopted it because he believes it will help our country. And from what I’ve seen, this guy isn’t faking it. Our journey began on a drizzly Friday, as I drove with Rya n 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 cong ressional office. His aide, Merv Jones, son of the late Representative Stepha nie Tubbs Jones of Ohio, was behind the wheel of the SUV. Ryan describes his almost-daily meditation prac- tice 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, especial- ly necessar y 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 Rya n 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 gla nce, 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 arrang ing to meet his family at a festival. In all, Ryan looked at his iPhone only 13 times during our more tha n 7 hours together. Meanwhile, I was going through BlackBerry withdrawal, a nd Merv didn’t look like he was doing much better. As we pulled into Youngstown, Ohio, Ryan sat in the front seat of the SUV, a nimated. 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, a nd the Youngstown State University Ryan says mindfulness practice gives him a feeling of calm that allows him to manage his day, especially necessary in an increasingly bitter Washington. 44 mindful June 2013