The Carroll News talks ‘mindfulness’ with Rep. Tim Ryan

November 15th, 2012

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, from Ohio’s 17th District, stopped at John Carroll University on Wednesday, Nov. 7 to discuss his new book, “A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance and Recapture the American Spirit.” The Carroll News sat down with him for an interview after his talk to students, faculty, staff and community residents.

The Carroll News: Tell me a little bit about mindfulness and how did you get started on this path?

Tim Ryan: Mindfulness is the idea of paying attention to the present moment and really seeing it clearly [to] know if we’re bringing some level of bias to it. It’s about being aware of the present moment and the practice of mindfulness is about cultivating that awareness. It’s not something that we have to go out and get. It’s something that we all already have. All human beings have awareness. And it’s just about disciplining ourselves in a way that cultivates that awareness so we’re not so distracted. It’s kind of like balance, like we all have balance, but we tend to lose our balance but then we get it back. It’s the same with awareness.

It’s a kind of meditation. This is a particular kind of meditation practice called mindfulness practice. There can be religious meditations there can be non-religious, but this is a pretty secular practice. That’s why I think it’s good for our country, because it doesn’t get into any one particular religion. It helps you create some space in your life, so your thoughts and your actions aren’t so habitual. You actually try to become a little bit more and more aware of what you’re doing. Athletics is a very good example. You really see it in sports. You can’t not pay attention in sports or you’re doomed.

CN: What started you on this path?

TR: Growing up Catholic. My mom [and] my grandparents prayed the rosary a lot so there was lot of appreciation for some contemplation and quiet time and prayer. Later on, I started doing some centering prayer, which is a Christian-based mediation. I knew I was better when I did it. I knew I was more focused. I knew I could be kinder, more tolerant, less stressed. I knew I felt better.

I had a point in my life in 2008 when I was very stressed out with work, and just really busy with congressman stuff and campaigns and what not. I said ‘I gotta jump start my practice.’ I did a 5 day retreat and that was more silence, when I really experienced the silence in my mind and body being synchronized, I thought, ‘this is really good.’ and that’s when I started doing it every day.

CN: College students, similar to Congressmen, have crazy busy schedules; how do you take time to just sit for a few minutes?

TR: “The retreat is so good because once you really taste it you realize that making the time to do it improves the quality of your day and your life in such a way that you realize that you want to do it every single day. Everyone has something that they do that makes them feel better, and you begin to make time to do that. For me it was just a health issue. I don’t want to be distracted my whole life. I don’t want to wake up one day and think ‘I didn’t pay attention to anything that was going on.’ When my nephews were little and my nieces were little, I was not paying attention, and I missed it all. You start to feel like the quality of your experiences [is] deeper. To me, it’s like, why would you want to go back to a more distracted life? Once you start to taste it, you make time to do it.”

CN: What do you think the effect would be on Congress and on politics in general if people started to get into more mindfulness exercises?

TR: People who practice mindfulness tend to notice a change in the quality of their relationships to people, and the quality in relationships to everything – their relationships to food, alcohol, drugs [and] people. I think it could potentially really benefit us by changing the quality of the relationships that politicians have with each other, of people that have different political views the way they talk to each other, the way they approach each other, the way they listen or don’t listen to each other – it could really improve that. I’m not seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, like if everyone practices mindfulness that all these problems will go away; they won’t. The way we address them will, I think. And the way we deal with conflict will. And how we move forward as a country. And I think we begin to see how connected we are. That’s the one thing when you stop and slow down you really say hey you know I really am connected to you in so many different ways. And you work out your differences or tolerate them more. Like not hate each other for being different. Really in an ecosystem or in society, diversity is an asset. Diverse opinions, diverse approaches are assets to be appreciated, not to hate each other for. Hopefully a little touch of mindfulness can help bring that out in all of us.

CN: What issues, locally and nationally, do you see as important for you?

TR: I’m going to spend a lot of time trying to rebuild my district economically […] and really try to spend time building the next generation of manufacturing. I’m also going to try to get mindfulness in the schools in my district. Nationally, we do have to deal with the long-term budget issues that we have and we do have to deal with tax reform and we do have to deal with entitlement reform and do it in a way that is fair and balanced. That is going to be a huge issue when we get back next week. And begin to see that the American people want us to work together. We got a Republican House [of Representatives] again, and a Democratic Senate again. They reelected Barack Obama overwhelmingly. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

CN: You said congress is a reflection of the electorate and of the people that sent them there. What do you think this election, yesterday’s actions shows about America and the direction they want to take the country?

TR: I think what the people have said is that we want a balanced approach in how we do this. We don’t want a Tea Party radical approach. We want a balanced approach. I think the reason we didn’t see gains in the House of Representatives is because of redistricting. Republicans controlled redistricting in a lot of states, so they consolidated their gains in a lot of states. They got really solid red districts that were hard to win. But the states as a whole were flipping or going slightly Democratic. The senators won pretty handily. So I think they were saying ‘we want a balanced approach.’ We want to ask the wealthy to pay their fair share we know we need entitlement reform but we want it done in a way that doesn’t harm our seniors and doesn’t create huge levels of unfairness. We have also realized there are going to be some tough decisions made but we want them made in a balanced way.