Politics, sports and the power of mindfulness meditation
By Reynard Loki
Books by politicians are common. But "A Mindful Nation" by Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) is not your average Beltway fare. It champions one of Buddhism's Seven Factors of Enlightenment: mindfulness. And Ryan argues that this practice can get the country out of the doldrums.
Mindfulness is commonly described as "attentive awareness of the reality of things, especially of the present moment." And while this practice is an ancient one, Ryan's book offers a valuable reminder that being in the present benefits people, and in turn, society.
Part of being attentively aware is not going through life too fast. Perhaps the sheer speed of modernity has hampered our ability to appreciate being in the moment. Through the power of technology, we are so used to instant results, instant communication and instant answers that we even get upset when our computer or digital gadget makes us wait a few minutes or even seconds before completing a function that wasn't possible a generation ago. Just compare the speed of email to mailing a letter through the post, now referred to as "snail mail."
Because we've taken immediate gratification for granted, there's little appreciation for the moment. When we're not griping about missed opportunities and bad decisions, we're hungry for the next big thing. And between getting stuck in the past and planning for the future, something critical to our well-being is overlooked: the beauty, the pleasure and the power of the now.
TAKING TIME TO SMELL THE ROSES: AMERICA'S QUIET REVOLUTION
In the introduction to his book, Ryan writes:
A quiet revolution is happening in America. It's not a revolution fueled by anger lurking on the fringes of our democracy. It's a peaceful revolution, being led by ordinary citizens: teachers in our public school; nurses and doctors in hectic emergency rooms, clinics, and hospitals; counselors and social workers in tough neighborhoods; military leaders in the midst of challenging conflicts; and many others across our nation. This revolution is supported by the work of scientists and researchers from some of the most prominent colleges and universities in America, such as the University of Wisconsin, Stanford, UCLA, the University of Miami, Emory, Duke, and Harvard, to name just a few.
At the core of this revolution is mindfulness.
Put simply, mindfulness is about finding ways to slow down and pay attention to the present moment—which improves performance and reduces stress. It's about having the time and space to attend to what's right in front of us, even though many other forces are trying to keep us stuck in the past or are inviting us to fantasize or worry about the future. It's about a natural quality each of us possess, and which we can further develop in just a few minutes a day.
FROM THE BOARD ROOM TO THE BATTLEFIELD, MEDITATION IS AN INGREDIENT FOR SUCCESS
It has taken 2,500 years, but science is finally catching up with the teachings of Gautama Buddha. Recent scientific research into mindfulness—and in particular, the health benefits of meditation—has been catching the attention of leading journalists like Diane Sawyer, who featured a landmark Harvard study on ABC World News last year.
There is "new evidence that is simple but very powerful—a tool for achieving what you want in life," said Sawyer, noting a National Health Interview (NHI) survey that found that almost 40 percent of Americans use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), especially meditation.
"Meditation, once considered supremely flaky, is now being used by the Marines, by corporate executives from General Mills to Target to Google, by students in classrooms all over America and…roughly 3 million patients on the recommendation of their doctors," said ABC News reporter Dan Harris, referring to data from a study led by Dr. Aditi Nerurkar of Harvard Medical School.
And it has even hit the world of contemporary art: The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles offers free weekly mindfulness meditation drop-in sessions "in the comfortable seats of the Billy Wilder Theater and are open to all who are interested in learning how to live more presently in life." The museum's website describes "mindful awareness" as "the moment-by-moment process of actively and openly observing one’s physical, mental, and emotional experiences."
GRAY MATTERS: AN EIGHT-WEEK EXERCISE PROGRAM FOR YOUR BRAIN
Doctors now have the evidence to back up such recommendations. In another study by Harvard researcher Britta Holzel, before-and-after MRIs of the brains of "16 healthy, meditation-naïve participants…confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus" after just eight weeks of meditation, or "Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction" (MBSR).
"Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared with the controls," according to the abstract of the study, which was published in January 2011 in the journal Psychiatry Res. "The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking."
"This is the first study of its kind to demonstrate structural changes in the brain, longitudinally over time, with meditation," said Holzel. "It's fascinating to see how our brains can change in structure by learning a new skill. Meditation is the act of learning a new perspective—of the world and of yourself, and of being more aware of experiences in the present moment."
THE (PEACEFUL) SPORTING LIFE: COMPETITION, ATHLETICISM AND ZEN
"[Congressman Ryan] challenges the nation to take up meditation in their daily lives and tells us 'why/how' it works," said Phil Jackson, the basketball player and former coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, known as "The Zen Master" for his calm attitude and his practice of meditation in his personal life as well as coaching.
"During many timeouts, instead of talking to the team," writes Henry Abbott of ESPN, "Jackson will instruct them to reenact [their] meditation session by sitting together on the sideline to 'share a breath.'"
"I know this territory and wish [Congressman Ryan] and us Godspeed," Jackson said.
Jackson's own career and approach to life make a strong case for meditation being a key to achieving whatever goal you set your sights on: He's won 11 NBA championships, the most in NBA history.
Congressman Ryan also knows a thing or two about success: By the age of 35, he had been one of the youngest state senators of Ohio and served two terms in Congress. And like Jackson, Ryan's own life reveals the resonances not just between meditation and success, but also sports: He was the quarterback of his high school football team.
Do you meditate? Do you engage in mindfulness? If you do meditate, how has this practice affected you?
Ready to give it a try? Here are two excellent ways to get started.
1. Download a free mindful meditation audio from the Semel Institute at UCLA.
Reynard is the co-founder of MomenTech, a New York-based experimental production studio that explores transnational progressivism, neo-nomadism, post-humanism and futurism. MomenTech coined the term Augenblicksmus (a neologistic variant of the German word “Augenblick,” meaning literally, “in the blink of an eye”) to describe a creative principle based on the primacy of the moment in the creative act. MomenTech has presented projects in the United States, Canada, Greece, Italy, Germany, China, South Africa and the Philippines. Some of MomenTech's projects, like "Mandala-tanque" and "Om Olympi-Mob," investigate the connection between sports and meditation. Their meditation-based project "Field Experiment" was featured in Placebos for Art, published by the Behring Institute of Medical Research in Dresden, Germany. Reynard also writes about cosmology, biodiversity, animal welfare, conservation and ethical consumption on his blog 13.7 Billion Years, and about sustainable finance and corporate social responsibility for Justmeans.com. Reynard is also an associate producer at Art+Practice, an Oberlin, Ohio-based film company that promotes sustainable filmmaking and media ecology. He is a contributing author of "Biomes and Ecosystems," a comprehensive reference encyclopedia of the Earth's key biological and geographic classifications, to be published by Salem Press in 2013.