The Mindful Middle

In a recent episode of  Meet the Press the panel was discussing a change of leadership in the Democratic party and the possibility of Tim Ryan replacing Nancy Pelosi. Mr. Ryan is the congressman from Youngstown, Ohio and has written a book titled Mindful Nation. Panelist Kathleen Parker remarked: Well, one quick note on Tim Ryan, I think his gifts might be better used right now if he could just teach all of us how to meditate. 

Laughter ensues.

Underlying Ms. Parker’s droll throw-away line was a dull recognition of perhaps the only thing both the left and the right can agree upon: the American people are a jingle jangle bundle of nerves. We are an anxious nation. 

I dream of a country where we would all take Kathleen Parker’s silly suggestion seriously. What if we all learned to meditate? All of us, including those who govern and those who are governed.

Especially  those who govern. 

Imagine a Congress composed of non-reactive legislators who could maintain focus and composure. Imagine a compassionate Senate. Imagine a president who was an attentive and focused listener. A hostile person can provoke a crowd; a self-possessed non-reactive person can steady them. A calm attitude, like a hostile one, can be contagious. If our leaders could become a bit more mindful, calmness, compassion and empathy might just trickle-down.

I dream about this as I stand out here on the front lines teaching people to practice meditation. I dream of it especially when I'm facing a room full of skeptics who think of mindfulness meditation as a silly past time, something that should be relegated to the venue of a swami or some other patchouli-scented situation where they would never be caught dead. I ignore their  resistance. I ignore their resistance because I’m stubborn which you may not think jives with someone who teaches mindfulness meditation. But you’d be wrong. There’s nothing more enlightened or less anxious about me than there is about you. But I stubbornly believe if I can get someone to try this out despite themselves, they may come to understand how consistently sitting in stillness and not accomplishing a single thing accomplishes quite a bit.

My least resistant students are those whom we politely refer to as seniors. This is probably because there is so little that surprises them. I don’t know the average age in the independent living community where I teach, but my parents ages 90 and 94 live there and they are not the oldest. This group of meditators are struggling to find a way to accept a challenging state of physical affairs. When they enter the room, it takes a while for them to traverse around the plastic chairs with their walkers. Hearing aides are more common than not. I tell them that having a mindful meditation practice helps you to be non-reactive. It helps you to respond more reasonably to aggravating situations. There’s a kind of pause that you can own when you’ve learned to sit in stillness and observe your own thoughts.

A while ago, one of the ladies came in and said to me: You know that thing you told us about being non-reactive. Well, last week someone asked me to do something and I said, I’ll get back to you.  

I love that. 

On the other end of the spectrum are the little kids. I tell them I’m going to teach them to do something they’ve known how to do since the moment they were born. Even babies can do it. We’re going to learn to breathe. They think that’s hilarious. So do I. But even the kids catch on pretty fast. They take a few deep breaths. We do something called square breathing. Tracing a square in the air with our fingers. Taking an in-breath for the top of the square, an out-breath for the side. Another in-breath for the bottom and another exhale for the other side. And after a few squares, they tell me they feel calmer.

The lawyers are my most difficult students They don’t catch on as quickly as the kids and they like to cross-examine me. They just don’t want to believe something so simple could help them be less anxious. Even less do they want to believe it can help them be more composed and focused. But I give them the scientific evidence and I tell them about neuroplasticity and Sara Lazar and her fMRI studies at Harvard. How the brains of people who have a mindfulness meditation practice are different than those who don’t. The gray matter of the brain improves its texture. It’s just like exercise, I tell them. When you exercise, your muscles become stronger and you increase your endurance. I think that makes sense to them, but I’m never sure. Not even at the seminar I taught last week when there were a room full of them, all with their eyes closed and their mouthes closed, and all except for two of them doing exactly as I instructed them.

The two in the corner of the room held fast to their mobile devices and tapped away with gusto. I accept meditation is not for everyone. Tiny screens have a powerful draw. Still, I plan to stay stubborn and to bring mindfulness into as many people's lives as I can until the words of Kathleen Parker are no longer a throw-away comment and the idea of taking a few intentional breaths and sitting in stillness is no more crazy than the idea of going to the gym.

It's not fair to leave it all up to Tim Ryan. It's important and possible for mindfulness to trickle down from the three branches of our government and also possible for it to drift up from the populace. Then perhaps we might all meet in the mindful middle.