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• No making eye contact with others.

• No talking in general, and no talking at all for a 36-hour period.

• No smartphones.

“I had two BlackBerrys,” Mr. Ryan said. “I checked them at the door. You learn to follow your breathing, appreciate how your mind works. When it starts to wander off, you come back to your body.

“By the middle of the retreat I felt my mind and body sync up. Like being in the zone. I was enjoying it. The only problem is that once you leave, it can quickly go away.”

Mr. Ryan was determined not to let that happen. After the retreat, he approached Mr. Kabat-Zinn.

This needs to be in schools, he said. And the health care system. And couldn’t we use it to help soldiers?

There’s already a lot going on, Mr. Kabat-Zinn replied. If you’re truly interested, there are people I can put you in touch with.

“When you taste this stuff, it has profound effects,” Mr. Kabat-Zinn said. “That’s why it has lasted 2,600-plus years. It’s not just some silly quaint thing they used to do in Asia because they had nothing better to do. It’s a way to stay healthy.”

The science of mindfulness

Mr. Ryan took Mr. Kabat-Zinn up on his offer. While researching his book, the congressman met with actress Goldie Hawn — who has started a foundation that teaches meditation to schoolchildren — and also Richard Davidson, a University of Wisconsin neuroscientist who studies the effects of mindfulness on the brain.

On a Super Bowl Sunday, Mr. Davidson showed Mr. Ryan a meditating subject undergoing a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan — the same kind of brain scan used in studies showing that meditation appears to strengthen brain circuits responsible for concentration and empathy, and that habitual meditators experience permanent changes in brain structure and function.

Tim was interested in the potential of this, the impact this research might have to shape policy, bringing these kinds of methods into education, health care, leadership,” said Mr. Davidson, the director of University of Wisconsin’s Lab for Affective Neuroscience. “To actually see the inside of the brain of a person who is meditating is very instructive.

“There’s a huge amount of suffering that can be prevented with healthy habits of the mind. Decreased substance abuse, suicide, bullying, drunk driving, anxiety and depression. The benefits are considerable and wide-ranging.”

Since the 1970s, studies have shown that meditation can help reduce chronic pain and high blood pressure; improve stamina and reaction time; even reduce the severity of symptoms in irritable bowel syndrome, a mysterious chronic disease that has no cure, no known cause and produces pain, cramping and bloating.

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