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Toward a More Mindful Nation

By Tim Ryan | April 25, 2012 | 4 comments

Economic insecurity. A broken health care system. Youth violence. Congressman Tim Ryan explains how mindfulness can help.

A quiet revolution is happening in America. It’s not a revolution fueled by anger. It’s a peaceful revolution, being led by ordinary citizens: teachers in our public schools; nurses and doctors in hectic emergency rooms, clinics, and hospitals; counselors and social workers in tough neighborhoods; military leaders in the midst of challenging conflicts; and many others across our nation. This revolution is supported by the work of scientists and researchers from some of the most prominent colleges and universities in America, such as the University of Wisconsin, Stanford, UCLA, the University of Miami, Emory, Duke, and Harvard, to name just a few.

At the core of this revolution is mindfulness.

Put simply, mindfulness is about finding ways to slow down and pay attention to the present moment—which improves performance and reduces stress. It’s about having the time and space to attend to what’s right in front of us, even though many other forces are trying to keep us stuck in the past or inviting us to fantasize or worry about the future. It’s about a natural quality each of us possesses, and which we can further develop in just a few minutes a day.

I started a daily mindfulness practice a few years ago and immediately began to appreciate its practical benefits in my everyday life. It quiets the mind. It helps you harness more of your energy. It increases your focus and allows you to relax and pay better attention to what you’re doing and to those around you. My football coaches would have loved it. It’s the kind of performance enhancer any athlete would be eager to have. And it’s definitely all-natural.

Like many who have tasted the benefits of increased focus, decreased stress, and a quieter mind, I was motivated to share it with my family and friends. Given my work as a United States Congressman, I was also motivated to see its benefits shared on a much larger scale. I recognized its potential to help transform core institutions in America—schools, hospitals, the military, and social services. I felt that this simple practice could help my constituents face the many stressful challenges of daily life. The pain of war. Economic insecurity. The frustrations of being sick or taking care of sick relatives in a broken health-care system. The challenge of teaching children to pay attention and be kind to themselves and others as they swim in a world of distraction and aggression.

I wrote my new book, A Mindful Nation, to promote the values of slowing down, taking care of ourselves, being kind, and helping each other. It seems to me that if we embrace these values individually, it will benefit us collectively. And our country will be a little bit better off as a result.

In writing my book, I met many heroes doing mindfulness work in this country—people with a collective and powerful vision for America. And this vision is contagious, because it’s based on a deep concern for the well-being of their fellow men and women. Their research and innovative approaches provide us not with just hope for a better world, but with an alternative vision that moves us forward—together.

Mindfulness heroes

A few of these heroes are particularly close to my heart because they are working with people with addiction and mental health issues, young people, and expectant parents, and by doing so are building social capital—the economic value that results from taking care of one another and working together to create a healthier society.

As co-chair of the Congressional Addiction, Treatment, and Recovery Caucus, I’ve had the opportunity to learn just how much damage addiction is doing to American communities. So the first person I want to mention here was a pioneer in the study and treatment of addiction.

Alan Marlatt died an untimely death in March of 2011 before I had a chance to look him up. Director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, Alan also served on the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse. As founder of Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention, Alan became the father of a movement to apply mindfulness techniques as part of drug treatment, and now drug counselors across the country are beginning to help substance abusers get clean and stay clean with the help of mindfulness practices.

Congressman Tim Ryan Congressman Tim Ryan

Of course, many addictions find their source in mental health problems. And mindfulness is also making important inroads in the treatment of many mental health concerns, from depression to social anxiety to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

There are heroes putting this research into action on the streets, helping at-risk youth turn their lives around. Vinny Ferraro and Chris McKenna at the Mind Body Awareness Project (MBA) in Oakland, California, are two tough dudes bringing mindfulness to youth in a postindustrial city with a high rate of gang activity. They do work in juvenile halls, detention camps, and at-risk schools in California, serving young people with histories of violence, substance abuse, and deep trauma.

I visited these guys in Oakland during one of their training sessions for counselors. They have an impressive ability to cut through the rhetoric and gamesmanship that young adults (and all of us at times) put forward. As Vinny says, they get “super-duper real” with the kids. Through mindfulness techniques, the MBA counselors are able to let 12 and 13 year olds see for the first time that it’s okay to be who they are, and that they don’t have to belong to a gang to attain self-fulfillment.

One child in “juvie,” hardened by all the deaths of friends and family to drugs and violence, hid behind a rock-hard exterior. That is, until a session with an MBA counselor. The counselor simply let him talk and then allowed a long silence during which the counselor began to cry, and the young boy himself began to cry, prompting an older boy in the group to say, “It’s okay. Men cry.”

The brothers Atman and Ali Smith, along with Andres Gonzalez, run the Holistic Life Foundation in Baltimore, Maryland. They connect with the most at-risk kids by teaching them hip-hop, but simultaneously they are integrating yoga and urban gardening into the kids’ lives. The kids are changing before their very eyes, and Baltimore is a better city because of the foundation’s work.

Yoga helped me synchronize my mind and body and build resiliency when I was young. So seeing these kids sitting on yoga mats practicing mindfulness, I immediately wanted to replicate the program in cities across the nation.

Vinny Ferraro (center, wearing hat) of the <a href=“http://www.mbaproject.org/”>Mind Body Awareness Project</a> leads a mind-body awareness  workshop at a juvenile hall in the Bay Area. Vinny Ferraro (center, wearing hat) of the Mind Body Awareness Project leads a mind-body awareness workshop at a juvenile hall in the Bay Area.

Johns Hopkins did a preliminary study that suggested that the work they’re doing had a positive impact on problematic responses to stress—including rumination (continually thinking about the same thing), emotional arousal (being overly reactive emotionally), and intrusive thoughts (having thought patterns that create ongoing anxiety). The university is now funding a larger-scale study of the program.

Gina Biegel, a licensed marriage and family therapist in her mid-thirties with boundless energy and inspiration, is doing great work in the area of teen stress reduction, in a program she calls Stressed Teens. She has adapted Jon Kabat Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program for teens and is arming them with the skills they need to keep themselves balanced in a world that can be difficult and complicated for young people.

These people and many others all over America and the world are changing the way we approach chronic poverty and disconnection. These programs reveal to our children that a negative and dangerous life is not their only option. With mindfulness skills they see that they have choices and the wherewithal to overcome the adversity in their lives. As these programs grow and lead to deep, systemic change, our country will be a safer and healthier place because of it.


Mindful about compassion

A mindful nation is about recognizing that we are all connected: we are in this together. At present, we feel divided and scared, and have been made to believe that independence means we are totally on our own. But our experiences—as individuals and as a country—tell a different story. We know that when we join together, work together, and care about each other, our freedom actually increases. Real independence emerges when we know how to support each other. The Declaration of Independence was a communal act.

Kids learning mindfulness from the Holistic Life Foundation in Baltimore, Maryland. Kids learning mindfulness from the Holistic Life Foundation in Baltimore, Maryland.

When Karen Armstrong, the great religious scholar, is asked what unites all our major faiths, she responds, “Compassion.” Our evolutionary psychologists tell us the same. And Charles Darwin, the man often misquoted to justify the brutality of capitalism, wrote, “Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic [i.e., empathetic] members, would flourish.”

The every-man-for-himself model cuts against what all of our great religions have taught us; it also goes against what our great scientists are teaching us, and it denies what we know in our hearts. It’s time for compassion to come front and center in our public discourse. We need to get away from worshipping at the altar of profit and markets as if they were flawless deities. If we care about each other, invest in each other, and put the well-being of human beings first, we will soften the rough edges of the market system and we all will profit more.

Mindfulness can help us slow down enough, and pay attention enough, to see clearly the basic human truth Darwin stated. We’re not going to get this from the business talk shows: they will tell us that if we buy the right stock, we’ll flourish. We won’t get it from the news channels: they’ll tell us that if we have a certain political view, we’ll vote the right people into office, and then we will flourish as never before. We won’t get it from the commercials telling us that the latest product will bring us deep satisfaction. We’ll get it by slowing down and seeing how powerful compassion can be.

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About The Author

Congressman Tim Ryan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002 and is currently serving his fifth term representing Ohio's 17th Congressional District. This article is excerpted from A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit © 2012 by Tim Ryan. Published by Hay House.

  

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I have to say that this is one of the best things I have read all day.  There are so many wonderful people, organizations, and companies working so diligently to help promote these ideas of cooperation and love, rather than competitiveness and greed.  I love that you quoted Darwin, as he’s most known for survival of the fittest, when in fact, his work in reality emphasized that humans thrive most in cooperative, loving societies.  This mission is what I’ve chosen to
dedicate my efforts to, and I am encouraged by this post.  Thank you for sharing these important ideas.

consciousparents.org | 2:21 pm, April 25, 2012 | Link

 

Thank you for sharing your mindfulness practice and vision.  I am an American, living abroad in Canada.  I have found mindfulness practice to be transformational in my own life and relationships.

As a pediatrician, I have been teaching mindfulness to teenagers suffering from chronic pain and stress.  The experience has been inspiring and rewarding.

This is truly a path of healing for our nation, and for the world.

Dzung Vo, MD | 9:17 pm, April 25, 2012 | Link

 

Yes yes yes. It is crucial that we develop sustainable ways
to bring mindfulness in multiple forms to our major
institutions in this country. I have to point out that many of
the heroes highlighted in this article are men.  I point this
out because women have quietly been leading a mindfulness
revolution for decades. Counselors, therapists, yoga
teachers, artists, healers of many types tend to be women
working with other women on moving away from our
society’s strong focus and value on independence and
competition and towards interdependence, empathy, and
collaboration.  I see such a strong masculine voice in this
movement towards mindfulness as a good sign..that we are
all moving in the same direction. I just want us to
acknowledge and honor the women in this work and that
quiet attention and interpedence is a feminine superpower
that all of us can access to change the world for the better.

Lynn Johnson | 2:16 pm, May 1, 2012 | Link

 

It is very relieving to find a US Congressman, someone in the House, that understands the power of mindfulness and compassion.  This comes at a time of complete turmoil and partisanship in DC.  Knowing that you are in the House and can fight the good fight is a breath of fresh air.

This article is great in so many ways, but the last two paragraphs really hit home.  I only have 4000 characters, but could write a book here.  I’ll focus on three areas that I find enlightening.

Every Man For Himself

“The every-man-for-himself model cuts against what all of our great religions have taught us; it also goes against what our great scientists are teaching us, and it denies what we know in our hearts. It’s time for compassion to come front and center in our public discourse. “

This model is so pervasive in our society that I feel it undermines future growth to such an extent that it can’t be ignored anymore.  You are right in stating the we’ve all been guilty of perverting Darwinism to foster this Ayn Rand view of free-market capitalism and every man for himself mentality.  There are those in positions of power whom love to claim that any entitlements are there to foster laziness and create a society of “takers”.  This message is crafted in such a way as to pull on the emotions of a relatively ignorant populace to such a degree as to anger those who feel that they are working to “give away everything” to those who “choose” to collect entitlements.

This undermines any compassionate response and further erodes the acceptance of services set up by our society to help those who need it the most.  Sure, there are those who game the system, but discard compassion because of a few bad apples, and all else will rot.  We are only as strong as our weakest links.  Let those links “pull themselves up by their bootstraps alone” and we’ll see how far we fall.

Gangland

This article provides a great little discourse on teaching mindfulness to gang bangers and other at-risk youth.  I can’t think of a more effective and better way to break the hardened facade that many of these people live behind, and get then back in touch with their humanity.  Most, if not all of our faults seem to come from threats to our ability to be loved and to love others.  The colorings spoken about in the Yoga Sutras seem to stem from this at the core.

Stress Response

Oh I love this one.  The Johns Hopkins study is revealing, especially on rumination.  When we sit to meditate, rumination can be our number one enemy.  It strips us of our ability to quiet our minds and get present.  Rumination is horrible as it gets us stuck in loops that can spur emotions and physiological reactions that take us out of the present.

Our minds will create fantasy that can take over our entire lives.  This goes into fight or flight response, and has lasting affect on our lives.  The Relaxation Response by Dr. Herbert Benson is a great read on this.  I find that mindful practice can eliminate this problem in time.  At least it lets us see what is happening in our own minds.

Using mindfulness is key to understanding our humanity at the core.  I’m so pleased to see this book released by someone who’s attained a level of clout and position with enough weight to bring this to the public awareness, especially in DC.  This book should sit on the desk of everyone in both chambers of the Capitol building.

Thanks!!!!!!!!

practicingmindfulness.com | 1:49 pm, January 5, 2013 | Link

 
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