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Mindful : June 2013
leadership family about a new hot yoga studio with Tuesday and Thursday classes provoked high fives. Every member of the family, a nd loosely defined extended family, seemed attentive, in the moment, enjoying each other. As Ryan’s three nieces and two nephews ran around, he would scoop one of them up a nd play the role of doting uncle. It was obvious they adored him. As Nicky a nd Dommy mounted the trapeze swings, Rya n appea red laser-focused on their performances. “Go for it, Dom!” he cheered. Carrie Ryan beamed when I told her that during our drive, her brother-in-law had sung her praises as a mindful person. The cong ressman had called her “super present,” noting that she doesn’t use email outside of work. He told me “she’s a g reat mom.” Before hitting the dance floor with the kids, Al Ryan shared his impression of his younger brother. “ He’s always seeing the good in people, and he’s able to stay centered with an understanding of what you can control and what you can’t. It’s just how he’s built.” The central tenet of Ryan’s philosophy may be gaining some traction these days, but in Washing- ton, a city many Americans think of as toxic, and with partisan ra ncor and discord at historic highs, it’s a surprising message to hear from a politician. In January, Ryan sent out a “Dear Colleague” mes- sage announcing weekly all-are-welcome medita- tion meetings from 9:30 to 10 a.m . each Wednesday the House is in session. About 30 staffers attended the inaugural session in the Rayburn House Office Building. “ It’s a nice little technique for people in a high-stress environment to lea rn. There’s no belief structure you need to sign on to,” and everyone can benefit from “having a quiet space for 10 to 15 minutes during a hectic week,” Ryan told the Capitol Hill newspaper and website, Roll Call. Ryan has also invited his colleagues to join him for a half- hour “quiet time” before the first vote each week, in a room near the House chamber in the Capitol. “Members can use that time in whatever way they like—a specific religious contemplation, mindful- ness, or just silent reflection,” he says. I ask Ryan if he worries that his push for mind- fulness could make his colleag ues take him less seriously. “I probably should worry,” he admits, but adds that he has the backing of “the Marines, science, Google, and Phil Jackson—the coach who won the most NBA championships.” The cong ress- man senses an “openness now that wasn’t there five years ago, because everybody feels overwhelming stress in their lives and they don’t know what to do about it.” Now that his colleagues know what he’s up to, Ryan can move beyond the occasional mention of mindfulness in committee hearings. He plans to take adva ntage of open floor time available to mem- bers a nd enjoyed by C-SPAN viewers to get into the science of mindfulness and explain in detail the leg- islation he’s crafting. That could be a bill supporting mindfulness teacher training or car ving out space for stress reduction in health care, milita ry, and veterans’ programs. The legislation will be written in consultation with experts in each field. Ryan is deeply concerned that he sees so many veterans “ending up in the obit sections of the news- papers in my state, having committed suicide.” He thinks it’s a supreme tragedy when people so highly trained, whom so many people look up to, take their own lives. He’s conceptualizing a sort of vetera ns corps that would help returning ser vice members by teaching them yoga a nd meditation. It would be led by veterans in individual communities, allow- ing those who want to par ticipate to avoid having to work through the department of Vetera ns Affairs. Many veterans won’t go to the VA for fear of being diag nosed with post-traumatic stress. They don’t want the stigma. Of course, in Washington these days it is hard to pass a ny piece of legislation, no mat ter how badly it is needed, a nd Ryan admits he’s frustrated. But he notes that the president or first lady could accom- plish a lot even without legislation. “The mindfulness agenda cuts through a lot of the current political divides. Because it is based on self-ca re, preventing illness, a nd increasing your overall well-being, it saves health-care dollars and promotes individual responsibility,” Ryan says. He also believes it can be a key element in job retraining. “Mindfulness increases a worker’s resiliency and creativity in the face of challenges, her ability to change what she’s doing if she has to respond to economic realities. We need that in today’s economy.” Ryan doesn’t want to out other members of Con- gress who have been joining him for meditation in the House gym or his colleagues—Democrats and A shelf in Ryan’s office offers a snapshot of what inspires him. 46 mindful June 2013