The way Rep. Tim Ryan describes it, mindfulness — an ancient practice of living in the moment, which often occurs through meditation — is the penicillin of mental health, a solution to much of what ails America. It’s a wonder drug.
Properly used, he said, it could lower blood pressure, improve children’s test scores and help veterans returning from the war cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He even cites studies indicating that it can help people speed recovery from psoriasis, a common and sometimes debilitating skin condition.
The Defense Department has begun using it to help soldiers and other service members deal with deployment stress. Google, Proctor & Gamble and other top businesses also embrace the practice.
To Ryan, a Democrat from Niles who recently ruled out a run for governor in 2014, mindfulness is a form of mental fitness. He predicts that in the future it will be embraced just as physical fitness is.
He should know. Back in 2008, Ryan was juggling a lot, even for a member of Congress. He was going to the House floor each night to make speeches as a member of the “30-something” group of Democrats who aimed to take the House back. He was helping campaign for President Barack Obama. He was traveling, raising money to help Democrats take the House back. The to-do list was never-ending.
“I felt like I was going down the road of being burnt out,” he said.
So shortly after the 2008 elections, he went to upstate New York and spent five days at a retreat organized by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
There, without a Blackberry, iPhone or even a journal, Ryan slowly eased into a period of 36 hours of silence. At one point, he realized: His mind and body were in the same place at the same time. He wasn’t distracted.
“It was better than a vacation to me,” he said.
Ryan began practicing it regularly, but also looked into the research. What he found impressed him: Study after study indicating that mindfulness – far cheaper than drugs or doctor’s appointments – worked.
What he found resulted in a book: “A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit,” which he published last March.
“I don’t know how I would’ve been able to stay in Congress” without mindfulness, he said. “It’s been so helpful to me.”
In 2009, Ryan, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, tucked $982,000 into a spending bill for a pilot program on Social Emotional Learning — a curriculum that includes mindfulness. Last week, he wrote to Education Secretary Arne Duncan to urge him to consider using Social Emotional Learning Curriculum as part of its commitment to create safer and more nurturing schools.
He said he plans to push a bill that would encourage states to create Social Emotional Learning standards, and cites research indicating that such programs raise test scores and lower antisocial behavior.
“We always want kids to pay attention, but we never teach them how to pay attention,” he said, calling such programs “the fundamental blocking and tackling of education.”
Jill Merolla, supervisor of community outreach and grant development for Warren City Schools, said the grant — which focuses on social and emotional learning — has been invaluable in the city’s classrooms.
The grant helped train teachers to help students with “life skills,” such as managing emotions, problem solving and assertiveness. They’ve noticed that the program has helped minimize disciplinary issues as kids learn impulse control.
The program also includes five minutes of mediation, which, she said, can often help students “hit the reset” button after coming out of lunch and recess.
“Meditation is kind of a focusing exercise,” she said. “At times you see a kid who is not getting it, not paying attention…they’ll do it for five minutes and the kids get up much more able to focus.”
Classrooms also have a “peace corner” where a child who is out of sorts or sad can go and take some time away. “We take a coffee break for the same reason,” she said. “We’re feeling out of sorts, we need to regroup, so we go get a cup of coffee or take a walk to the restroom. We’re teaching them some self-awareness and how to get their selves on track.”
It’s also used in colleges and universities. Micky Sharma, director of the counseling center at Ohio State University, said mindfulness is part of the mental health services offered at the university. Clinicians and therapists teach mindfulness one on one and in group settings, he said. It’s often used for stress and anxiety, which, he said, has overtaken depression as the number one concern among college kids both locally and nationally.
“What it helps students to do is really being present in the moment,” he said.
Ryan said he’s also spoken with veterans organizations who say that mindfulness helps veterans deal with trauma they’ve been carrying with them for years.
“You break out of some of the rumination,” he said. “What a lot of vets are saying is that with these programs, they’re sleeping through the night now for the first time in years.”