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Washington was making Rep. Tim Ryan sick … until he found mindfulness

Ohio Democrat touts emotional, cognitive, health benefits of meditative practice

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2012

When Rep. Tim Ryan recently published a book touting the benefits of a meditative practice known as mindfulness, the Ohio Democrat had a target audience: anyone and everyone suffering from chronic stress, emotional exhaustion, information overload.

In other words, himself.

His co-workers.

Oh, and pretty much the rest of America, too.

"I don't want to give away names, but I've had members of Congress approach me and say, 'I want to learn more about this,' " Mr. Ryan said. "Between the fundraising, being away from family, the environment of hyperpartisanship, Washington is really stressing people out. They're getting sick.

"And I haven't met anyone in the country that isn't feeling a high level of anxiety right now, given the economy and what's going on in the world. So mindfulness is for everyone."

In his book "A Mindful Nation" and during regular public speaking engagements, Mr. Ryan asserts that mindfulness is a simple, largely overlooked tonic for what ails us. That it not only can help individuals cope with the pressures of modern life, but also help treat traumatized veterans, raise better-educated children and reduce ballooning health care costs — all while fostering a less divisive, more productive Washington culture in which solving problems takes precedence over scoring political points.

If all that sounds a bit implausible — if not downright Panglossian, a mushy mashup of self-help pablum, former NBA coach Phil Jackson's Zen master koans and the Beatles going to India — then surprise: Decidedly unsentimental science backs Mr. Ryan up.

According to a growing body of research, regular meditation alleviates depression, boosts memory and the immune system, shrinks the part of the brain that controls fear and grows the areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotional regulation.

Small wonder, then, that corporations ranging from Google to Procter & Gamble Co. offer mindfulness training for their employees. Or that the U.S. Marines are experimenting with a pilot program of their own.

In 2007, the National Institutes of Health reported that 9.4 percent of American adults practiced meditation, up from 7.6 percent in 2002.

"I think this is going to be the equivalent of the physical exercise revolution in this country," Mr. Ryan said. "Once desk jobs became the norm, everyone realized you have to run and work out, and gyms popped up everywhere.

"Today, mindfulness will be a response to the wars, struggling to make ends meet, the general anxiety out there — and in Washington, to the daily rhetoric and screaming at each other on TV shows. This can be transformational. It should be mainstream. We need this."

An unlikely advocate

Like many of his House colleagues, Mr. Ryan starts most days with a cup of coffee; unlike many of them, he then spends about 45 minutes sitting in a half-lotus position — legs crossed, palms open — thinking about ... nothing.

Not his busy schedule.

Not the bad-and-worse morning news.

Not the day's coming political combat, or the endless scramble for campaign funds.

Instead, Mr. Ryan focuses on breathing. On recognizing his thoughts and emotions. On inhabiting the moment. His heart rate slows. His body relaxes. External noise and distractions slip away. He feels calm, centered and focused.

This, in a nutshell, is mindfulness — a purposeful awareness of one's self in the present, fostered by meditation.

"I notice a difference when he doesn't do it," said Jacquelyn Calderone, Mr. Ryan's girlfriend.

At first glance, Mr. Ryan seems like an unlikely advocate for an exercise that has deep roots in Buddhism. A five-term incumbent from an Ohio district that includes Youngstown and part of Akron, the 38-year-old congressman is a 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound former high school football star and a lifelong Catholic.

Mr. Ryan is quick to point out that mindfulness is not a religious practice, but rather a secular mental technique that can be effective regardless of spiritual beliefs. He compares it to his grandparents praying the rosary — and also to the athletic feeling of being "in the zone."

"Your mind and body sync up into a flow state, without a lot of mental chatter," Mr. Ryan said. "It's like standing over a putt. I think I'm going to miss every time. And I do! But good golfers just do it.

"I've heard from CEOs of major corporations and members of Congress talk about their spouses getting mad at them when they're home, because they're spaced out and thinking about work. It's so easy for all of us to have our mind on the last meeting or the next one. Mindfulness helps you to be where you are when you're there. When I'm interacting with constituents who are suffering, that matters."

Mr. Ryan jokes that his football background led him to mindfulness — as a "quarterback who never had a really good offensive line," yoga was all his beat-up body could manage. In reality, however, Mr. Ryan was stressed: frequent travel, perpetual campaigning and an increased workload following the 2006 Democratic capture of the House left him irritable, distracted and on the verge of total burnout.

While playing with his infant nephew, Mr. Ryan realized he was in the moment — focused and aware — and that he was almost never like that at work, or even when spending time with the rest of his family.

Two days after the 2008 elections, Mr. Ryan joined a group of a few dozen business leaders at a five-day mindfulness retreat conducted by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a leading mindfulness advocate.

Held in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, the retreat had a few simple rules:

• No reading, writing or working on computers.

• 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.

Research also indicates that regular meditation makes people better, well, people — more patient, empathetic and altruistic, and less hostile, angry and fearful.

In one behavioral study, meditators reacted angrily half as often as non-meditators when on the receiving end of an unfair offer in the "ultimatum game," a classic economic experiment in which two people are asked to split a sum of money: One player decides the proportion of the split, and if the second player rejects it, both players get nothing.

"Mindfulness is a major tool in the overall toolbox of mental strengths," said Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author of "Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time." "It might seem weird, or from the East, or anti-Christian. But it's consistent with a long line in Western philosophy and culture going all the way back to Socrates, the importance of being aware of your inner workings.

"We also know that these inner skills are basically like working a muscle. You work it a little, you get a little change. If you work it a lot, you get a lot."

How so? According to Mr. Davidson, regular meditation produces positive structural and functional changes in the pathways of the brain that regulate attention and emotion — which in turn are connected to the body's immune, endocrine and visceral systems. Research also suggests that mindfulness-based meditation decreases both inflammation and the production of the stress hormone cortisol, both of which have been linked to a number of chronic diseases.

Mr. Hanson said that cortisol sensitizes the amygdala, an almond-shaped portion of the brain that regulates fear and is linked with aggression; scientists strongly suspect that abnormal amygdala function plays an important role in phobias, autism, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"It's the alarm bell of the brain, tied to ancient circuits, and particularly focused on threats," Mr. Hanson said. "It made sense for cavemen, because rule one in the wild is 'Eat lunch today, don't be lunch today.'

"In modern everyday life, though, just juggling a lot of tasks, running your kids from here to there, worrying about your pension — let alone working in Washington, D.C., which is like warfare without bullets — what all of that does is activate the amygdala, making us feel more and more threatened and reactive."

The result is a vicious cycle: Stress fires up the amygdala, which overreacts to our environment, which begets more stress. The good news? A study last year found that people who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable reduction of gray matter in their amygdalas and an increase of gray matter in the hippocampus, an area associated with learning and memory.

Other studies, Mr. Hanson said, have shown that people who regularly practice mindfulness also experience thickening of the insular cortex, a small area of the brain involved with social emotions — empathy, morality, even joy at hearing music — and monitoring the body's internal state.

"At the end of their training, London taxicab drivers have thicker tissue in the part of the brain that does spatial processing and visual memory," Mr. Hanson said. "We know now that the brain is constantly changing its structure. The question is, is it changing for better or worse — and also, who is doing the changing?"

Liz Stanley, a Georgetown University professor and former U.S. Army intelligence officer, has created a mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training program -called "M-fit" — for the Marines, designed to help soldiers not only perform better under combat stress, but also cope with traumatic memories following deployment.

Three years ago, Mr. Ryan secured $982,000 in federal funding for a social and emotional learning course that teaches mindfulness techniques to students at two elementary schools in his Ohio district.

School officials were so pleased with the effects on student behavior, Mr. Ryan said, that they have added additional mindfulness instructors beyond the federal program.

"Kids are growing up with a bombardment of information through technology," Mr. Ryan said. "We're basically teaching them how to calm down the part of the brain that is preventing them from learning how to pay attention. It's a beautiful thing to walk into classrooms and hear stories about how it's transforming them."

A mindful Congress?

Following a mindfulness conference in New York last October, Mr. Ryan was walking to a restaurant; when it started to rain, he ducked under an awning, within earshot of two sisters who also had attended the conference.

"Was that a congressman I just met? And he's writing a book about mindfulness?" said one sister.

"Yeah," said the other.

"Will he still be a congressman after writing that book?" said the first sister.

"It's common for elected officials to talk about physical things — budgets, guns, potholes," Mr. Hanson said. "It's not very common to talk about the psychological and mental factors that are involved in things going well or badly in public policy. It's as if it's somehow too weak or New Age, too fringe or California. Tim is shining a spotlight on this, and that's brave."

Mr. Ryan doesn't see his mindfulness advocacy as particularly courageous. He sees it as a no-brainer — something that can help cure what ails both our overstressed bodies and the body politic.

"If we can shave a fraction of the health care costs of chronic stress, we're talking about real savings," he said. "Heart disease. Type 2 diabetes. Politically, this cuts across the aisle. You hear one side talk about being compassionate towards kids and investing in education. We also hear about saving money and deficits and individual responsibility.

"Well, what more can you give to a human being than to teach them how to be responsible for their own health by reducing their stress level, increasing their focus and boosting their immune system?"

A few years ago, Mr. Kabat-Zinn sent copies of his book on mindfulness, "Coming to Our Senses," to every member of Congress. Only Mr. Ryan read it.

Recently, however, one of Mr. Ryan's colleagues approached him in his office — praising his book, and noting that while he wasn't yet meditating every day, he wasn't checking his BlackBerry during weekend days while spending time with his children.

"That's a home run as far as I'm concerned," Mr. Ryan said. "What do we do all the time? Digest negative information, from Syria and Iran to veterans and suicides to the economy. Then there's all the political fighting on the news. Why wouldn't members of Congress be stressed out and have active amygdalas? And these are the same people that need to be saying, 'O.K., what's the long-term vision for the country?'

"We don't need to move to the left or to the right. We all need to go a little deeper."

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