How do you understand mindfulness?
More and more health practitioners are telling us that mindfulness meditation can create positive brain function and lead to a happier, healthier lifestyle. That’s how I engage with mindfulness. It’s about finding ways to slow down and be in the present moment.
How does mindfulness practice fit in with your personal spiritual beliefs?
I was raised and remain a Catholic, and there are many elements of my religion where mindfulness is incorporated, although they go by different names. I grew up with contemplative values; my family has always stressed the importance of praying the rosary and taking time out of the day to reflect.
How did you come to mindfulness practice?
After the push to help Democrats win back control of the House of Representatives, which we succeeded at doing in 2006, I immediately transitioned to do my part to take back the White House in 2008. After we got Barack Obama elected, I was honestly beginning to feel burned out, and I knew something had to give. Two days after the 2008 election, I decided to go on a five-day retreat led by (meditation and mindfulness teacher) Jon Kabat-Zinn, and that was when I really began to embrace the practice of mindfulness.
Tell us a bit about your work with mindfulness in schools.
Most school districts I talk to are open and interested in innovative, evidence-based solutions to help improve their school climate. I truly believe that social and emotional learning (or SEL) and mindfulness meditation can successfully teach students how to discipline their minds and control their emotions. This curriculum and practice help students become more present and aware. Students who are taught mindfulness and social and emotional learning exhibit improvement in problem solving, conflict resolution, responsible decision making, and relationship building. That’s why I’ve introduced the Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning Act, which defines social and emotional learning and amends the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to allow funding for teacher and principal training and professional development to be used for SEL programming. As we move forward, I’m always looking for new ways to continue to promote both SEL curriculum and mindfulness meditation for our schools.
You’re also bringing mindfulness into the military.
In fact, the military is applying mindfulness training before our armed forces are deployed and when they return. In 2006, the military was looking for a more innovative way to treat posttraumatic stress disorder. The Department of Defense conducted a study at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center using mindfulness meditation and yoga to help heal the trauma associated with PTSD. This practice is now called integrative restoration, or iRest, and is being used at military hospitals all over the country.
In 2008, the U.S. Marines did a pilot study with Marines preparing for deployment to Iraq and found that those who engaged in mindfulness-based “mind fitness training” show (an) improvement in cognitive functioning, a decrease in levels of perceived stress, and a ... decrease in negative emotions. We’ve seen results that undeniably show that mindfulness is helping our troops.
Suicide is a big problem among returning troops. Has mindfulness been of help with this as well?
Between 2004 and 2008, we have seen an 80 percent rise in suicides among our returning veterans; this is simply unacceptable. Mindfulness isn’t a silver bullet, but we are seeing very positive results. We need to do anything and everything we can to ensure that our troops’ minds are as well trained as their bodies.
Is your interest in mindfulness spreading among your congressional colleagues?
I’ve started a Quiet Caucus that meets just outside the House floor 30 minutes before the first vote of the week. That’s usually at 6 a.m. on Monday or Tuesday. It’s a small but growing group. We just sit together in silence for approximately 30 minutes. In addition, I host a weekly mindfulness meditation session for congressional staff, bringing in experts from different fields who use mindfulness in their professions. My goal is to introduce congressional staff to the many ways that mindfulness meditation is being used around the country—in our schools, hospitals, and military.
I was struck with your notion that mindfulness can help us reclaim the American spirit. What do you have in mind?
I believe, and I think the majority of Americans will agree, that mindfulness and traditional American values are closely linked. Practicing mindfulness is very much about taking responsibility for your own state of mind and your own condition. It’s very much about self-reliance. With regard to American health care, for example, it’s about being responsible for your own health in the sense of being proactive. Obviously I believe there’s a time and a place for medical care, but it all starts with how you take care of your own body and mind.
Share with us a bit of your own personal practice.
I meditate for approximately 40 minutes a day, usually in the morning before I begin work. It definitely helps me get through the daily stresses that a member of Congress endures. It helps me see the bigger picture instead of getting caught in the perpetual cycle of reacting to crises that may at the time seem life altering but in reality are probably minor and easily resolved. I try to remember to take time throughout the day to step back, take a minute to breathe, and focus on the problem at hand.