The Politics of Mindfulness: An Interview with Tim Ryan




DEMOCRATIC CONGRESSMAN Tim Ryan of Ohio is up for a fight — against the jabbering mind.

At the time of his election to Congress in 2003, Ryan, at age 29, was the youngest Democrat in the House. With his regular calls for strengthening and revamping the Democratic Party, Ryan is not afraid to embrace New Age practices to get there. After Obama’s first election in 2008, Ryan signed off, unplugged, detached from technology and society, and went silent for a full 36 hours. Four years later, he published a book about what politics and the government can gain from a practice of mindfulness. 

I spoke to Ryan on the day the FBI turned in the result of its limited investigation into the allegations of sexual assault against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, now the United States’s 114th Supreme Court Justice. The benefits of mindfulness couldn’t have been further down on the list of topics in the national discussion, nor more necessary.

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CHANNING SARGENT: You published A Mindful Nation in 2012, when there was a strong shift in the zeitgeist toward practices of mindfulness. Why would you say there was such an interest at that time?

TIM RYAN: I think it was an organic movement formed as an antidote to what was happening in people’s lives. People were feeling the stress of the economic situation and the effects that it had taken on their bodies and mental health. They wanted to experience health, and a feeling of wellness — and then there were some prominent people who saw mindfulness as a tool. There were CEOs, athletes, heads of the military, all talking about meditation and mindfulness — from Kobe Bryant to the Seattle Seahawks, Tom Hanks to Ellen DeGeneres talking about Transcendental Meditation, and it really became a word-of-mouth expansion. Mindfulness is no silver bullet — it doesn’t make all your problems go away, but it can impact our lives in such a positive way, and when you experience something so transformative, you tend to want to share that with others.

Things have changed a lot in our nation in the last six years. I’m speaking to you during one of the most divisive weeks in what has perhaps already been some of the most dividing few years in our country. In 2012 could you have envisioned where we are now, politically?

No. I could not have. I thought it was bad during the Iraq War, but it’s gotten progressively worse in the 16 years I’ve been in Congress. I think it has a lot to do with the president. Trump throws gas on the fire. He has no intention of bringing people together, or of finding our common goals, and the common good between us. Then, with media that thrives on conflict, people stay in their own silos. They tend to watch certain channels, or click around the internet in a way that reaffirms their previously formed beliefs without ever looking at the other side, or other ways of thinking. We’ve developed a bunker mentality, where people choose one T-shirt, and just wear that every day. They put on a uniform and stick to it.

Is there anything you see as having improved?

People are definitely frustrated with the current system, and they want it to change. They want to see more mindful ways of doing things, bringing healthy foods and activities into our communities, preparing our kids for healthy futures. Again, I don’t think it’s gelled into a cohesive movement yet, but it’s emerging.

In what ways do you think we’ve perhaps regressed?

In civility, compassion, listening, and in accepting and trying to understand people who don’t agree with you.

In the book, you mention Americans’ resolve during struggles of the past, including your grandpa walking to the steel mill each day to look for work during the Depression. What do you think gave Americans the fortitude to carry on then, before mindfulness was a “thing”?

Using my family as an example, they had religion, prayer, community, a support system … today, people see that the only people who seem to be doing well are extremely rich, or celebrities — the wealth generation in this country remains among the already wealthy. Back then, during the Depression, everyone may have been poor, but most everyone was in the same boat. Communities were very tight knit, and people could relate to one another, and could relate to each other’s troubles, and successes. The American Dream was an achievable idea.

[At this point in the conversation, Representative Ryan begins talking with someone nearby, in what sounded like a transaction at a store.]

You’ll have to forgive me — I’ve actually been getting my four-years-old’s iPad fixed, because he broke it, so yeah, it’s like, really important stuff here. Sorry about that.

I completely understand. We were talking about the wealth disparity in our country — can you talk about what your plans are to address that, and what the government as a whole can do to address that?

I think it happened as our economy moved toward finance and away from manufacturing and the small, mid-sized businesses. We stopped investing in the communities that got hurt along the way, in that move from manufacturing to finance, and we have got to reinvest into those communities. Public policy can really help change this. You know we just did a tax cut that’s going to cost the country about $2.3 trillion, and 83 percent of that cut went to the top one percent of the people in the country. Similarly, all of the income growth over the past 20 or 30 years has gone almost entirely to the top one percent of the people in the country. So the very people who have been benefiting from the economy and globalization and automation are the same people who just got a huge tax cut. We need to see policies that will take that money and reinvest it into the things that will lift up the middle class: education, health care, pensions, rebuilding communities, providing access to technology and broadband. It’s not just money — it’s also bringing innovation into the schools, along with social and emotional learning and mindfulness. You know, really spending money on building the infrastructure that’s going to allow the average person to have opportunity to be their best, to be the most skilled, the most educated, to be as healthy and vibrant as they can possibly be, to rebuild the middle class.

When writing about the polarization that has kept us divided, specifically in the aftermath of September 11, you describe a “fear and desperation to fix things.” As I understand it, a tenet of mindfulness and meditation is acceptance and understanding as opposed to trying to fix things. But it’s the government’s job to fix things — so how can it fix things, mindfully?

When you stop and actually look at things with some clarity, you begin to see how things are interconnected, how we are all connected to each other, how institutions, if they’re going to function at a high level, need to be interconnected, and we need to help those institutions reinvent themselves on that universal principle. That’s where mindfulness really comes into play, as it allows you to see how things are and need to be connected, as opposed to the silos in which we see things today, you know, as in, “I’m a Democrat, you’re a Republican; I’m a liberal, you’re a conservative; I’m white collar, you’re blue collar; I’m urban, you’re rural; I’m from the North, you’re from the South; I’m a man, you’re a woman.” All of these divisions are symptoms of a lack of awareness of the real connection that we have, and that has manifested itself in the government, where you have all these departments: “Here’s the Department of Health, and over here is the Department of Agriculture, and here’s the Department of Education.” Well, really those three things are interconnected: we can become educated about the food we eat and the impact it has on our health, and we should be teaching that in schools. Our food programs and initiatives and agriculture initiatives should all feed into an overall health system. They’re not separate: the food we grow and the food we have access to and can afford and the food we eat is directly related to our health. Mindfulness can begin to help you see those connections.

Right. I was reading about the Clean Up Our Neighborhoods Act Of 2018, a bill you introduced to clean up and revitalize blighted neighborhoods. Are these typically underserved neighborhoods?

Yeah, most entirely. Part of it addresses the psychological impact of driving, every single day, by dilapidated homes and dilapidated commercial properties, and what that does to your worldview. It can’t help but make you feel that you are disconnected and unplugged from the nice communities, the downtowns, the activities of other citizens. It’s about cleaning up these areas, and then reinvesting in them with urban agriculture, urban gardens, community centers, and building out these neighborhoods with restaurants and bars and cafes, and the kinds of things that really can sustain the neighborhood and plug these communities back in. If you look at areas like the ones I represent and you look at where the wealth that’s been generated in the last 30 years has gone — to the top five percent, 10 percent, mostly the top one percent — and then you see these communities that have disconnected from globalization, disconnected from the technological revolution that’s happened, disconnected from the downtowns, and from each other, it goes back to what I was saying about my grandfather and my family during the Depression. They were all poor, but they were connected: to the church, to their family, to the community, to the garden, to the chicken coop that they had, in order to get some meat and protein, to the corner store, to the local tavern. These were all ways of being connected. It’s the same with veterans coming back. You know it’s one of the big issues with post-traumatic stress: these vets go from being with their brothers and sisters in a combat zone to being home by themselves in a community they don’t feel connected to, because there’s no infrastructure to connect them.

At a Wing Ding Democratic fundraiser in August, you urged Democrats to embrace your “Irish fighting spirit” when it comes to Trump. You said, “I am ready to get into a bit of a fight. We need to come together and get in a big fight here in America.” How do you reconcile a fighting spirit with a commitment to mindfulness, and a greater harmony with others?

Well, I think people too often feel mindfulness is an isolated event. I would tease the mindfulness yoga crowds when my book first came out. I’d say, “You sit on your yoga mat or meditation cushion and you want to be one with the universe, except for politics.” You don’t want to be one with the political system, you don’t want to be one with civic aspects of life, and that’s not how it works. So I say get in the game — and it is a fight in some sense. But I think of fight as having the courage to stand there with dignity and integrity, holding your ground, with regard to what you believe, and recognizing that things are not going to be fixed right away, but there’s going to need to be some resiliency and tenacity that comes with being involved.

Okay, so speaking of fight, what do you think are the Democrats chances in November of taking over the House?

I think it’s going to be close. I think we have a good chance. I don’t think it’s a slam dunk. The races that we’re running are very tight, very close races all over the country. But we will see, we will see. It’s going to be a long slog between now and then for sure.

[Representative Ryan begins speaking with someone in his environ. “Where’s your car? I’ll set it next to your car,” he says, and then, getting back on the phone, he celebrates: “I just picked up a yard sign location at the AT&T Store, that’s what I’m talking about,” he says with a chuckle.]

Speaking of interconnectedness, how do you think the Democrats can strengthen the party to include undereducated and underserved communities?

Go there. Be there. Show up. Show them you care about them, and that you have a plan to help them. I think what happened is, we stopped showing up in coal country, steel country, and these older communities, and it became a very political calculation. “We need this demographic and that demographic,” and it came around and bit us on the rear end. And guys like me were trying to say, hey we’re forgetting these working-class people who are losing their pensions, haven’t had a raise in 30 years, who are struggling to make ends meet, have no hope for the future, no vision for their own lives and their families, and that’s a real problem for us. We’ve got to go to them and let them know we’re going to fight as hard for them as we are for women, and immigrants, and all of these other issues. We’ve got to be there for everybody.

It frustrates me when we hear politicians say we don’t need these working-class people anymore. “We’ll get a majority without them.” Okay, let’s pretend you can get there without the working class. Is that really the ethical thing to do? Dismiss them because they don’t vote for you? I say, listen, we all matter. We’ve got to show up in those communities, and then tell them how we’re going to help them.

Have you made a decision as to whether you will again challenge Pelosi for Speaker of the House?

I have not. I’m really focused on getting the house back. We’ll see where we are after the election.

Okay, well, what about a decision on running against Trump in 2020?

I have not. But I do want to be a part of the national discussion of the party getting back to our roots of economic growth and taking care of working-class people and going into these communities that need us to be a strong party.

As the Democratic Party seems to be under pressure to embrace more liberal policies, there also seems to be a long-brewing shift in our country to vote in more women and people of color, to build a government of more diversity. Given that, why do you feel there is such a desire to replace Pelosi?

Because we haven’t been winning. In my mind, it has nothing to do with her being a woman, or her age. It’s about results. If we had won a thousand state legislative seats in the last eight years and we had won 68 seats in Congress and we were in the majority, and we had a great message and a great brand, she could be there for life, as far as I’m concerned. But, the last eight years have been brutal for Democrats, and we’ve lost the audience in a lot of ways. Right now we’re having some success because Trump is such a disaster, in his tone and temperament and many of his policies. So we have an advantage, but that’s because of him and his administration being so inept — it has nothing to do with the Democratic Party. So we’ve got to get the party back on track and have a real competition to figure out who the best leader is going to be to do that.

[A dog barks in the background, and Representative Ryan shouts, “Go in the house, go in the house, Bear.” Then children in the background, saying “Daddy, daddy,” to get his attention.]

Sorry, you’re getting my whole Monty, here.

That’s alright. Just one more question for you. What do you think we can learn from the prevailing issue gripping the country this week, with the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh, and the process of nominating Justices to the Supreme Court?

The Republicans needed to have done a better job of vetting this guy, and it’s basically been a dismissal of so many women who have been in the situation that Dr. Ford was in. That to me has been the heartbreaker. It goes back to the point that you can disagree on policy stuff, but you can also maintain some humanity and compassion for what people clearly have gone through. I hope that’s the lesson we take out of here, but unfortunately I don’t think it is.

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Channing Sargent has a master’s degree in creative writing from USC, and a bachelor’s in acting from NYU. She covers obscure cultures, the arts and (extra)ordinary people for various publications, including LA Weekly, LA Magazine, LA Downtown News, and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

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Banner image by Ron Cogswell.


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