Rep. Tim Ryan’s Big Idea: Giving Americans a mental timeout
The Big Idea is a series that asks top lawmakers and officials to discuss their moonshot — what’s the one proposal, if politics and polls and even price tag were not an issue, they’d implement to change the country for the better?
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, wants to make Americans healthier, happier and more productive. And he thinks these often elusive goals can be achieved without some grand government expense or even Americans having to shell out any cash.
Ryan, the one-time 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, is pitching the big idea of mindfulness. And it starts with Americans taking time each day to stop, breathe and meditate for a few minutes.
“Over time, it just has amazing effects on your body and mind,” Ryan, 46, told Fox News.
Back in 2008, a stressed-out Ryan went on a five-day retreat with mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn. He emerged from the getaway changed. More than a decade later, he’s not only maintained his meditation habit, but he’s committed to using his position in Congress to spread the power of mindfulness.
At a time of 24-hour news, Twitter wars and never-ending smartphone screen time, Ryan is advocating for something that seems so counter to the era: silence.
“We need a quiet revolution,” said Ryan, who has served northeast Ohio in Congress since 2003.
He’s studied how mindfulness can have enormous positive effects on veterans, school children, athletes and in health care. He even wrote a book in 2012 about the powers of the simple daily ritual called “Healing America.” Now he’s on a mission to get mindfulness more integrated into U.S. schools, health care, veterans services and politics.
Ryan explained his big idea for making mindfulness more mainstream to Fox News. (The interview was edited for brevity and clarity).
Q: What is your big idea?
RYAN: My big idea is how do we get mindfulness practices or contemplative practices in all of our institutions–in the [Department of Veterans Affairs] to help veterans deal with trauma, as a part of trauma-informed care for our kids, as a part of our health care system to get us healthy, get our body and minds functioning well, and really to help us build strong, focused and resilient kids.
Q: How do you practice mindfulness?
RYAN: It’s very simple, but it’s very hard. Very difficult. You literally you just sit and you put your phone away. Turn off the TV and any kind of noise or technology. You literally just sit and you try to anchor your mind into the present moment and you can use your breath — breathing in and breathing out. You can feel your butt on the seat, your feet on the floor. But it’s just this constant practice. Your mind goes off. Past or future conflicts in your life that you’re dealing with, work challenges, family challenges. … You think about this and it dominates your mind, but then it’s over. Bring it back to the present moment and ground yourself and your breath and your body. And over time, it just has amazing effects on your body and mind.
Then you practice it for a few minutes every day. So when you go out into the world, you’re actually present for the conversations that you’re having. The work that you’re doing, you’re actually there. But it takes a lot of practice and a lot of discipline to be there. But it enhances your performance, too, as you’re completely locked into the present moment. You’re not distracted. You’ll see the quality of your work go up and the quality of your relationships go up.
Q. How can mindfulness practices can help kids, patients and veterans?
RYAN: What we’ve seen with mindfulness practices, for example, there’s been 20 years plus of literature on understanding how our brains work. What the practice does is it begins to sharpen and focus our brains to be in the present moment. And all of the anxiety comes from regret about the past and fear about the future. But if you stay in the present moment, you can put yourself in the best position.
It also has significant benefits for learning, for example. So when you are in fight or flight mode or you have some deep trauma, it literally shuts down the part of your brain, your prefrontal cortex, that you need to learn. Your working memory, your ability to focus, decision-making is all done in your prefrontal cortex. So imagine the millions of kids in America now who have some trauma, have some anxiety. They’re in fight or flight. They literally can’t access the part of their brain that they need most to learn. So these practices get them out of fight or flight mode and then they can reengage their prefrontal cortex. And you see test scores go up. You see behavior goes up, focus, grit, determination, resiliency, all become part of their personalities because they learn how to let go of those negative thoughts and to be in the present moment.
Same for health care. You have people who have tremendous amounts of stress and that prevents your body from healing itself. This practice helps them get out of those stressful mindsets and therefore allows the body to heal itself.
And [we] see it healing veterans all the time who have post-traumatic stress. It helps kids. It helps teachers. Frontline workers like police and fire are using this technique. A lot of athletes are using it now. The most prominent was the series on the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, “The Last Dance.” In the last episode, the first five minutes, they were commenting on Michael Jordan’s presence. And they said that was the difference between Michael Jordan and every other player. It wasn’t his talent. It wasn’t his ability. It was the fact that he was amazingly present all the time. And that was the difference. So why wouldn’t we want that for our kids?
Q: This sounds personal to you. How did mindfulness become a priority for you?
RYAN: Yeah, I had a priest teach me centering prayer, a Catholic priest, and it was more of a religious meditation. My whole life, on and off, I would do it. And then in 2008, I was in Congress. I was starting to get really overwhelmed and stressed out. And I did a five-day mindfulness retreat with the person who really brought secular mindfulness to the United States, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and I began an almost daily practice of this. And it’s just it’s kept me sane in the heat of modern politics.
The partisanship, the vitriol, the negativity — really being able to train your mind to let that stuff go. I mean, I’m clearly not perfect at it. I do get engaged in negative thinking, too. But bringing your mind back and having that skill is really one of the most important things.
And the realization that I feel a certain way. Thoughts proceed your feelings. The thoughts come first. And so if you can become more aware of what you’re thinking about that’s driving negative emotions and feelings, then you can start backing it up a little bit. Then you start changing what you’re thinking about. You realize it’s a choice of what I think about.
Q: So you wrote a book about mindfulness back in 2012 called “Healing America.” Do you think people are being more mindful of their mental health since you wrote the book?
RYAN: Yeah, I wrote “Healing America” and just re-released it. I think more and more people are becoming aware of these practices … but it’s not out there enough because the issues around mental health are really going up. …This is why I really believe that if we could push out these kinds of practices in a broader way to society at large, that it’s going to have a big impact.
… It’ll help us all calm down, too. I think it can help the political conversation … I wrote in my book that we need a quiet revolution. The whole noise thing and the chaos thing isn’t really working out well for us. So if we could quiet down and strategize, come together, have a focus on a plan for the country and then execute that plan, that’s going to make a big difference. But it all starts with disengaging from the noise. And if we don’t do that first, then we’re never going to get to the kind of positive country that we all want for ourselves and our kids.
Q: How do you think a quiet revolution can happen in this age of Twitter and constant social media that seems to have dominated our politics right now?
RYAN: Well, I think a quiet revolution is going to happen because people are recognizing that we’re all at the end of our rope now. And I think the coronavirus is actually giving everybody an opportunity to take a step back. There’s a ton of anxiety around the economic situations and the health situations. But for the vast majority of people, we’re stopping. We’re having more time with our family, more time at home and more time for reflection. And so I think are people saying, ‘I don’t know if I want to go back to the noise and the chaos.’
Q: A recent Census survey showed a third of Americans are showing clinical signs of depression or anxiety in light of the coronavirus pandemic. How do you envision a daily practice of meditation helping to alleviate some of these very real concerns that people are having right now with sickness and death, job loss, stress about children being home from school?
RYAN: … Be open to trying something that has been around for thousands of years. You don’t have to put on a robe and go sit in a cave. It’s well beyond that. This has been well researched. Everyone’s doing it across demographics and business and sports.
Things are going to get more complicated, not less. And the best thing you could do for yourself, for your family, no matter how difficult the situation you’re in, is to be completely present, to be as aware of your emotions and your thoughts and your feelings as you possibly can be because that will put you in a position to make the best decisions possible moving forward.
And so give it a try and you’ll be amazed at the stress reduction. That’s just the beginning stages. You will be amazed if you do this every day. Just a few minutes, five minutes, eight minutes, whatever it is, you’ll be amazed. Just days later you’ll go, ‘I feel a little different.’ And then you’ll remember, ‘Oh, I’ve been doing this practice a little bit.’
Q: In terms of your daily life, how is mindfulness part of your habits?
RYAN: I try to take 20 or 30 minutes early in the day to just have silence. To do my practice and not be engaged with my technology. And then periodically throughout the day, just kind of hit the reset button, just for 10 seconds. Just try to come back to the present moment and try throughout the day to catch myself if I’m having negative thoughts.
Look, I’m not here to say I’m the best at it. But I try my best to disengage from the negative thoughts and try to get reconnected to a more positive view of whatever situation I’m dealing with. So I practice in the morning and then just take moments throughout the day to touch back into my body and my breath.
Q: Are you doing yoga practice in the morning or meditating in a lotus position? What does your practice look like?
RYAN: Sometimes I just sit in the chair and do it, and sometimes … I have a cushion that I sit on. And then I do practice hot yoga where the room is about 95 degrees. I do that periodically to just to stretch and sweat and open up. That’s very good too. You’re moving while you’re trying to have your mind on your breathing and your body. It’s another technique to really coordinate mind, body, breath, spirit, all in the same moments. There’s all kinds of different disciplines.
Q: Doesn’t actress Goldie Hawn have a program that teaches children about mindfulness?
RYAN: Goldie has a great program called MindUp. It’s a social-emotional learning-based program. And there are what she calls ‘brain breaks.’ So for ten minutes, a couple of times a day, the kids engage in quiet time. It’s about training your mind, getting yourself in the present moment, becoming aware of your emotions.
What we’ve seen with robust social-emotional learning programs is an 11 percentile point increase in test scores. It absolutely closes the achievement gap. A 10 percent increase in positive behavior and a 10 percent decrease in anti-social behavior. This has the support of both the Heritage Foundation, which is a kind of a right-wing think tank, and the Brookings Institution, which is kind of a left-wing think tank. So we actually have bipartisan support for something that is foundational for learning, which to me is very exciting. I think social-emotional learning can be a huge step forward for trying to heal some of the wounds in the country.
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge to getting mindfulness embraced more broadly?
RYAN: I think the biggest challenge really is an awareness, which is why I wrote a book about it. I just think it could be really healing for the country. … I think a lot of people have heard about it. They’ve heard about, you know, Kobe Bryant and now LeBron James doing advertisements for the Calm app that you see on TV. So they’re seeing it kind of penetrate the psyche of the country. And I think people are becoming more and more open to it. And so I’m just trying to promote it from within the Congress, but also from without and getting people more and more comfortable with it. There’s no grand piece of legislation. There’s not going to be a Secretary of Mindfulness or anything. It’s just going to be a way we reform and then transform the institutions we already have.
Q: What role would the federal government have in bringing more mindfulness to healthcare, education and veterans?
RYAN: We already have training programs. We already have medical schools and colleges of education. So we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to really put these practices out there. You don’t have to join a religion or anything like that. It’s very secular. And so we can just train our teachers, train our doctors, train our nurses, train our people in the V.A. and in the military, and the workforce. The current programs need to include a component like mindfulness-based stress reduction because it just enhances your own mind and body and productivity. So we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, just infuse this into the current institutions.
This would not cost a lot of money. And I think at the end of the day, it would save us a lot of money. … This would just be really training people that are in these institutions on how to practice this themselves and then how to teach it to students or patients. So the costs would be very, very minimal. And the transformation of the country would be really significant.
Q: How have you advocated to make mindfulness part of healthcare, education and veterans work?
RYAN: I have pushed for social and emotional learning in our schools, which is having a tremendous impact. … We’re doing a lot to continue to promote this in the military, in the health care system, promoting mindfulness-based stress reduction and encouraging people to get trained in that.
Here in the House of Representatives, we started a well-being office in which we have six or seven mindfulness-based stress reduction teachers that can teach staff here. It’s a very high-pressure situation here on Capitol Hill so staff can utilize the training.
You’re seeing at the V.A. now. They have mindfulness-based stress reduction groups at some of the VA’s around the country. They have yoga classes, taichi classes and they’re packed… It’s healing our vets. … We’ve literally seen veterans who are on 12 or 13 different prescription drugs doing some of these practices and over time see a dramatic reduction to where they’re on maybe two or three prescription drugs. Some of the biggest advocates for this stuff are veterans because they’ve had so much trauma and they’ve seen these practices heal them.
I’ve been to the Washington, D.C. V.A. and have sat in a group meditation with Vietnam veterans. It brings tears to your eyes for them to tell me how they’ve gotten their life back because of this practice. And so it’s working now. I’m trying to scale it up.
We’ve put a lot of money behind it in the V.A., around patient-centered care, where the essence of the whole program is about mindfulness and it’s working. And then the social, emotional learning in the schools, it’s working. Test scores are going up. We don’t have to go look anywhere. These solutions are here. And so we just need to scale them up … These new programs have data and science behind them are healing our vets and helping our kids really be able to function and learn in the 21st century.