Amid The Chaos Of Capitol Hill, Tim Ryan Offers Reprieve With Quiet Time Caucus

07/25/2013 03:44 pm ET | Updated Jul 25, 2013
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WASHINGTON -- It's 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, on Capitol Hill, and hundreds of aides are swarming the halls of the Rayburn House Office Building. Some are speed-walking with Starbucks coffee; others are juggling two Blackberries as they talk to their companions. Men's voices echo in all directions, as does the clip-clop of high heels, fading in and out around corners.

But in a nondescript room off to the side, about two-dozen aides are sitting together in total silence. They're meditating.

Welcome to the Quiet Time Caucus.

Since last December, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) has encouraged lawmakers to gather each Monday and staff members to gather each Thursday -- just to sit together and be quiet. Consider "caucus" a loose term; the gatherings are open to anyone who just wants to hit pause before launching into another chaotic week on the Hill.

"For most of us, starting off in the morning, your iPhone wakes you up, you immediately start checking emails or texts or whatever, and you're up and running until you go to bed. Normally with the TV on," Ryan said in an interview with The Huffington Post.

"I just wanted to carve out a space for us to just have some downtime," he said. "Just some quiet time, a half-hour. Hopefully, maybe it can just take the temperature down here a few notches. That's the goal."

Ryan isn't exactly someone you'd expect to rave about the merits of meditation. He was the quarterback on his high school football team, and he still looks the part. But the Ohio congressman can tell you anything you ever wanted to know about the benefits of mindfulness exercises, and how those practices are already having a positive effect in schools, in health care services and in the military. He wrote a whole book about it, titled "A Mindful Nation: How A Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance and Recapture the American Spirit."

"Put simply, mindfulness is about finding ways to slow down and pay attention to the present moment, which improves performance and reduces stress," he writes. "The mindfulness revolution is not quite as dramatic as the moon shot or the civil rights movement, but I believe in the long run it can have just as great an impact."

Ryan has plenty of ideas on how to make the mind-body connection more central in policymaking. He's introduced legislation to promote mindfulness in schools, and his office is working with staff for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on a bill that would incorporate alternative medicine into veterans' health services. He's also looking at the savings that could be achieved by using meditation and acupuncture to try and curb certain medical conditions that are becoming more prevalent, like diabetes and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Not that he expects Congress to get moving on holistic health proposals anytime soon. At least, not until 2016, if a certain Democrat ends up running for president.

"Under the current Republican regime here, no shot," Ryan said. "But maybe if we get Hillary Clinton, a strong female that's got a lot of experience all over the world ... Someone like her, I think, can be a transformational figure."

For now, Ryan says he's focused on things he can affect, like the Quiet Time Caucus. It's gotten off to a slow start. While the staff sessions are generally well-attended, only seven House members, all Democrats, have trickled in and out of the lawmaker sessions since they began. Ryan says he knows there's more interest out there, but he doesn't want to push the idea on anyone. Instead, he said he just wants his colleagues to know they're invited to the sessions on Monday evenings in the House Speaker's Chapel.

"There's no agenda. There's no legislative component to it. It's just half an hour where you can come and be in Washington, D.C., and you don't have to talk to anyone and no one is going to talk to you," he said. "You can see if something happens."

Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) has been attending since the start. He said he's not sure why no Republicans have joined in but speculated that some, particularly those who regularly attend prayer breakfasts, may have "the wrong impression" that meditation is something wholly separate from their religion.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," he said. "Priests and nuns actually meditated. It's not religious. It's about centering yourself."

If anything, Cardenas said, members of Congress could benefit more than anyone from a brief period of unplugging.

"When you see a speech on the House floor, interactions in committee, what language makes it into a bill, it is pretty much a whirlwind of activity and can really get people upset," he said. "Meditation is about getting to a place where you're approaching things in a more calm, centering place, rather than allowing yourself to get caught up in it."

HuffPost took a crack at finding that inner calm by attending one of the staff meditation sessions. Unlike the lawmakers' meetings, which are periods of complete silence, the staff meetings include guided meditations and talks by prominent voices in holistic health practices. Andrew Weil, for one, recently came to a session and taught people breathing techniques for stress reduction.

About two-dozen aides were lined up in rows of seats when HuffPost arrived in the small Rayburn room. Most people seemed to know each other and were chatting quietly. The day's speaker was Wayne Jonas, a retired Lt. Colonel and former director of the office of alternative medicine at the National Institutes of Health. He began with a question.

"What percent of American people [take steps to avoid] the top four behaviors that lead to 70 percent of chronic illnesses?" Jonas asked, naming the four behaviors as lack of physical activity, poor nutrition, smoking and excessive drinking.

"Fifty," shouted one woman.

Another said 10 percent.

HuffPost joined in. "Two percent."

The answer, Jonas said, is 1.5 percent of men and 4.2 percent of women.

"The problem is not that they don't know it," he said. "It's a matter of how you engage in that process .... You have to learn how to bring it into new habits. One of the ways to do that is mindfulness."

The more self-aware a person becomes, Jonas argued, the more likely they are to make an effort to lead a healthy lifestyle. He ran through studies that show how mindfulness exercises enhance people's ability to understand each other and mitigate stress. The exercises can also change people's brains, he said, describing brain scans that showed people had increased growth in their frontal lobes after doing mindfulness exercises for brief periods every day.

And then, we meditated.

For 20 minutes, Jonas guided us through an exercise in paying attention to our breathing. We felt our feet planted on the ground. We breathed in the cool air, we breathed out the tensions. The only thing that mattered, he said in his soothing voice, was being right here, right now.

Outside the door, the buzz of congressional life carried on. An elevator across the hall dinged throughout the entire exercise, and dozens of people must have clomped by in clown shoes. One passerby apparently heard the funniest joke she'd ever heard in her entire life. At another point, a horrifically loud buzzer tore through the silence, signaling that the House would be going into session soon.

Still, Jonas said to imagine the noises were "clouds in the sky," drifting by without interrupting anything. Somehow, it worked. By the time the session was over, everyone, including this reporter, seemed to be feeling pretty Zen.

"I think it's a very good thing, particularly here on the Hill, because too many people are constantly going point to point to point," said Sushma Taylor, one of the attendees.

It turned out Taylor isn't even a Hill staffer; she's the president of Treatment Communities of America in California. She said she was in town and knew of the meditation sessions organized by Ryan's office, so she just decided to stop by.

"This is an exercise that constantly centers people," she said. "I just hope that more people become attracted to stopping for a minute and just being."

And then, off everybody went, back to work.

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