Peace of the action: The calming yogic technique of 'mindfulness' is catching on in big business and even politics
San Francisco, CA (USA) -- This has become a daily
ritual. In Mr Ryan's world, it's a stretch for people to get this
relaxed. He's a member of Congress.
<< TIM Ryan finds a quiet spot, closes his eyes, clears his mind and tries to tap into the eternal calm.
Increasingly, people in settings beyond the serene yoga studio or
contemplative nature path are engaging in the practice of mindfulness, a
mental technique that dwells on breathing, attention to areas of the
body and periods of silence to concentrate on the present rather than
the worries of yesterday and tomorrow.
Marines are doing it. Office workers are doing it. Prisoners are doing it.
The technique is drawing tens of thousands to conferences and
learning experiences across the nation and world, and studies have shown
it to reduce the symptoms of certain diseases and conditions.
Mr Ryan has written a book, "A Mindful Nation," pushing mindfulness
as an elixir that can tone down political divisions in Washington, get
American schoolchildren learning better, and return the country to an
era of richer personal experience.
"You still forget your keys, you still call people by the wrong name,
you still stub your toe, but you can train your mind to be more in the
present moment," Mr Ryan said.
Benefits in stress reduction and improved performance have prompted
US corporations including Google, Target, Procter & Gamble, General
Mills, Comcast, BASF, Bose and New Balance to offer mindfulness training
and encourage its use at work.
The practice's critics, including some psychologists and religious
scholars, say the approach is little more than Buddhist meditation
repackaged and rebranded for a secular, and often paying, audience.
"The commercialisation of Buddhism has been happening as long as
Buddhism has existed," said Rachelle Scott, an associate professor of
religion at the University of Tennessee and author of "Nirvana for
"It's problematic, because most Americans who are engaging in these
activities don't know the cultural backdrop to that, so in order to gain
access they have to go to one of these retreats, and they are
expensive," she said.
Of the $US34 billion ($34 billion) Americans spent on alternative
medicine in 2009, $US4.2 billion - about 12 per cent - was spent in
sectors that included mindfulness concepts, such as meditation-related
classes or relaxation techniques, according to federal data.
Participation in meditation therapy by US adults rose 6 per cent a year
on average from 2002 to 2007, according to a study by the research group
Marine 1st Lt Scott Williams, 32, of Lancaster, California, said
skills he learned through Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training -
known in the military as MMFT or "M-fit," - allow him to transition
rapidly from one focus point to another, to rid his mind of negative
thoughts, and to recover more quickly from emotional experiences.
"As an infantry officer in the Marines, the mental agility gained by
conducting mindfulness exercises could potentially be the difference
maker as I lead men through chaotic and uncertain environments in
Afghanistan," he said.
The technique has also reached prisons, where it is being used to reduce stress, anxiety and violence.
Mr Ryan, a Democrat from Youngstown, learned the technique at a
retreat two days after the 2008 presidential election - the end of a
stressful campaign period and the beginning of another.
"I was to the point where I was OK, but I thought, 'I'm going to be
fried by the time I'm 40; I'm just going to be burnt out,'" said Mr
Ryan, who was 35 at the time of the election.
For Mr Ryan, a former high school quarterback, the feeling he gets
during mindfulness meditation reminds him of the utter concentration and
single-mindedness athletes feel when they're "in the zone."
In fact, it was Phil Jackson, the legendary NBA coach, who was among
the first to legitimise mind-body techniques in popular culture as he
led the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to 11 titles from 1989 to
Jackson was nicknamed the "Zen Master" for a holistic approach to
coaching that drew upon Eastern religious philosophy. Over the same
period that Jackson was winning titles, brain science was beginning to
validate what practitioners found evident: The brain can be trained to
de-stress, and the body will perform better.
For many, it was a wacky, or at least unconventional, idea -
departing from the wisdom of the day that the brain was more or less
fully formed by the time a child hit kindergarten.
The growing body of research showing the brain has the capacity to
change throughout life is bringing mental fitness onto the same plane as
physical fitness, said Georgetown University associate professor
Ms Stanley, who runs MMFT and conducts research for the Army and
Marines, said mindfulness meditation "isn't touchy-feely at all" in its
"There's something very empowering about learning how and why the body and mind respond under stress," she said.
Ms Stanley said studies involving subjects engaged in repeated
mindfulness have shown that it changes the way blood and oxygen flow
through the brain, leading over time to structural changes. The practice
can shrink the amygdala, which controls our fear response; enlarge the
hippocampus, which controls memory; and make the insular cortex that
regulates the body's internal environment more efficient, according to
recent peer-reviewed studies by Ms Stanley and others.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention are touting several
recent studies that have found the technique can reduce the severity of
irritable bowel syndrome symptoms in women and reduce stress and pain in
chronic sufferers of fibromyalgia and depression.
Google spokeswoman Katelin Todhunter-Gerberg says the company's
"Search Inside Yourself" mindfulness class is among its most popular. It
enhances awareness and performance, which improves productivity and
morale, she said.
One Google lawyer, she said, was able to use her training to stop
taking things so personally, reduce the irritability sometimes evident
in her emails, and elicit immediate kudos from customers.
Not everyone is sold. In her self-help website Mindful Construct,
psychology master's student Melissa Karnaze worries that mindfulness
runs the risk of encouraging participants to suppress valid emotions.
"To imply that typical forms of human judgment are somehow inferior
to a particular type of attention referred to as mindfulness - with
regard to mental health and well-being in general - is a broad sweep,"
she said in an email. "We rely on various types of judgment for
survival, and context matters."
Mr Ryan wants to see fellow politicians embrace mindfulness and abandon the aggressive, around-the-clock grind.
"Nobody enjoys it; nobody likes it. It's become a mess," Mr Ryan
said. "Look at the approval ratings from the American people, look at
how the people who are inside these institutions feel about the gridlock
and the inability to get things done, and the constant campaigning, and
the amount of money that's involved. We're not going to solve the
problem by doing more of it."