2012-12-06

A Midwestern Congressman Named Ryan

It’s been one month, now, since the election. To judge from where most of the attention was focused, you might have thought that the election was only in Ohio. It was, it turned out, a national election, and down here in Florida, in fact, we breathed a sigh of relief that this time it didn’t come down to us.

We elected a a president, vice-president, and a slew of senators, governors, and representatives. We elected politicians, and we generally don’t have a very high opinion of politicians. Politicians are generally not well liked.

There’s one congressman, though, that captured my attention: a Midwestern congressman named Ryan. I don’t mean Congressman Paul Ryan from Wisconsin’s 1st congressional district. I mean Congressman Tim Ryan from Ohio’s 13th congressional district. First elected in 2002 at age 29, he was re-elected a month ago to his 6th term.

Last March, Tim Ryan came out with a book: A Mindful Nation. Wow. "A Mindful Nation." Not what I would expect from a sitting congressman. Full title: A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit. It seems that sitting still and being quiet for a while each day – and trying to be mindful throughout the day – is not only a spiritual discipline but a patriotic duty.

Mindfulness is now a key concept in psychology, referring to a psychological quality that involves:
  • “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally;”
  • “a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.”
Mindfulness is paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is. So it has two aspects:
  • bringing attention to immediate experience – particularly, noting mental events as they happen.
  • being open, curious, and accepting of whatever it is that you’re noticing.
From a calm awareness of bodily functions, of sensations, of emotions, of thoughts as these things arise, wisdom emerges.

That's easy to say. It takes a lot of practice to develop the habit of doing it.
Congressman Tim Ryan, bringing
mindfulness into schools

Tim Ryan’s journey to mindfulness began with Jon Kabat-Zinn. Jon Kabat-Zinn is himself an interesting guy. Born Jon Kabat in 1944, he hyphenated his last name to Kabat-Zinn when he married Myla Zinn, the daughter of Howard Zinn (1922-2010), the great historian/social activist. Jon, as his father-in-law was, is a man committed to transformation.

A professor of medicine and a long-time student of the Korean Zen master, Seung Sahn, in 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn integrated medicine and Zen and created MBSR – Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction – and began teaching it at his Stress Reduction Clinic. Today, over 200 medical centers and clinics in the US and elsewhere use the MBSR model.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is the author of, Full Catastrophe Living:How to Cope with Stress, Pain and Illness using Mindfulness Meditation; and Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. Then, in 2005, Jon Kabat-Zinn came out with another book: Coming to Our Senses:Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. There was a 100-page section on mindfulness and politics, so Kabat-Zinn’s publisher mailed a copy to each of the 535 members of Congress. Casting bread upon the waters. You never know. Maybe one of them will read more than a page.

And one of them did. . . .

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Mindful Nation."
Next: Part 2: "Mindfulness and Reactivity"