What Mindfulness Can Do For the Nation
A radical proposal to infuse psychology into government
Posted Mar 27, 2012
In his book, A Mindful Nation, Ryan lays out a relatively straightforward plan in which by practicing mindfulness, we as individual citizens can improve our mental and physical health, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, reduce crime, improve our educational systems, and help our military enhance their performance. A bold proposition? Yes. However, he builds the case starting with a simple first step—that the practice of mindfulness can help each of us can improve our internal awareness of our bodies. Once we've passed step one, we'll be more likely to take steps that will make us more effective and capable citizens, and that will create the momentum for a series of changes in how well we can perform, our physical health, our relations with others, and our interactions with the environment.
To learn the details of Ryan's plan, you need to read the clear and easy-to-follow arguments Ryan provides in the book. You'll also be able to learn about Ryan's visits to the psychology labs of notable researchers in the mindfulness field. Here, I'll summarize the gist of his proposal and share the highlights of my recent phone interview with the Congressman.
Let's look at the first step-the practice of mindfulness. The term "mindfulness" precisely conveys its essence: "Mindfulness means being relaxed and aware of what's going on in our own mind. It means calmly paying attention to what we are doing, without being pulled into regrets about the past or fantasies of the future. It's our capacity to fully focus on what we're doing." Sounds easy, doesn't it! However, in our multitasking world, simply slowing down and paying attention to your inner experience rather than your many iGadgets, may seem impossible. Proponents of mindfulness don't expect you to stop everything you're doing and focus on your inner thoughts all of the time, just for a few minutes at least once a day. It's not much of a sacrifice considering the value you gain in improved perspective on the tasks facing you in your job, home, and community.
There's plenty of research to support the value of mindfulness. From eating a healthier diet to getting more enjoyment out of your day, that inner focus can benefit you in a multitude of ways. Mindfulness is becoming an integral component in cognitive psychotherapy for anxiety, mood, and addictive disorders. The key to mindfulness in psychotherapy is that individuals focus on their total experience, even if that experience includes negative thoughts. Rather than trying to fight the content of those thoughts, in mindfulness therapy, people learn to accept all their thoughts, even the negative ones. The key is to become aware of your inner state in a non-judgmental fashion. If you can accept your negative thoughts, so the theory goes, you will have less emotional distress.
Ryan also proposes a radical restructuring of education to bring mindfulness into the classroom. Because mindfulness requires no great sophistication, children can readily learn its techniques. A mindfulness curriculum, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is already being implemented, promoted by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning in Chicago, among other organizations. It goes without saying that helping children to focus their attention through mindfulness can improve their classroom performance, ability to learn and—as a side benefit—their relationships with their fellow students. You don't have to be a child to benefit from mindfulness training. Researchers have found that college students who are constantly on social media during lectures have lower grades than those who focus on their instructor ().
Ryan's proposal that mindfulness can help our environment is also compelling. Rising gas prices are causing us to pay more attention to our driving habits but if the past is any indication, as soon as gas prices dip again, or as we become habituated to more pain at the pump, it's likely that we'll go back to our gas guzzling ways. Mindfulness practice might help to battle that inclination by getting us to think, for example, about whether we need to take each and every trip we make to the store and how we can more efficiently get to work or school. That's one place to start, and building from there, we can also use mindfulness in a larger sense to become more conscientious about our approach to the environment in general. Think twice, in other words, before you toss that plastic container into the trash instead of the recycling bin. Or better still, don't use throwaway plastic containers at all!
Applying mindfulness to enhancing the performance of the military, Ryan cites the success of Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT, or M-Fit). Not only can this lower the stress associated with combat exposure, but by training our soldiers in mindfulness, they can perform more effectively in their roles on the battlefield, a "force multiplier." Mindfulness helps improve cognitive functioning, particularly working memory. When you're thinking about what you're doing, your physical performance will be that much more effective.
Ryan devotes a chapter specifically on the science of mindfulness. Although throughout the book he describes the empirical basis for his proposals, this chapter provides useful additional support. He places considerable weight on a finding from neuroscience known as the "left shift," which is what happens in the brain when we engage mindful thinking. The increased activation of the brain's left frontal regions is associated with more positive emotional states and could, theoretically, account for the reduced distress we experience when we practice mindfulness.
After having the opportunity to read a pre-release version of the book, I was thrilled to learn that Congressman Ryan was willing to speak to me about his work. I was particularly eager to ask him about his vision of mindfulness as a grass-roots movement. At the end of each chapter in the book, Ryan lays out strategies that individual citizens can implement to bring the mindfulness revolution to work for improving our country, community by community. Ryan feels strongly that it's important for mindfulness to take hold at this level, so that we start the long-term process that can eventually bring about the lasting change he envisions. I asked him straight out, however, whether he thought that maybe it was time for the mindfulness movement to take hold of our gridlocked federal government. I agree that we as individuals need to take responsibility by adopting the mindful mindset. However, can't Congress jump start the process a little bit (or a lot)? What about mindfulness workshops or—even better—a bipartisan Mindfulness Caucus? Perhaps if our nation's leaders could model the benefits of mindfulness, ordinary citizens would feel encouraged enough to take action at the local level.
Yet, one could still argue (as I did) that with the big money lobbying groups influencing our publicly elected representatives, how can individuals hope to be heard as we make our plea for greater mindfulness? I pushed pretty hard on this question, but Ryan once again had a well-thought out response. As he pointed out, each one of us can be a "lobbyist," but our voice is particularly likely to be heard when we band together. He cited several cases to support this argument, including a recent anti-collective bargaining referendum in Ohio that failed due to the joint voices of police, fire, teachers, nurses, and public employees. If lobbyists with 5 or 10 K signatures from a district go to DC and say "My people want this," that can counterbalance the money and the influence of the big-money lobbyists.
It's pretty exciting to read such a well-reasoned argument about how psychology can become the basis of a new social movement. It's also pretty amazing to read a politician's book that uses terms such as "meta-analysis" and cites the Journal of Applied School Psychology. And my frontal lobes shifted all the way to the left when, in our phone interview, he talked about the amygdala.
Ryan is definitely onto something. His goal in writing the book is to get mindfulness to be a topic of conversation: "Once you start seeing this as the solution to the problems you begin the implementation process." For all of our sakes, I hope this process starts soon!
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012
Junco, R. (2012). Too much face and not enough books: The relationship between multiple indices of Facebook use and academic performance. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(1), 187-198. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2011.08.026