We all know that GOP Rep. Paul Ryan likes Ayn Rand. Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan -- who recently lost his bid to unseat Nancy Pelosi as his party’s leader in the House -- probably not so much. But what would Ayn Rand think of Tim Ryan hobbyhorse of pushing meditation policies on Capitol Hill? The answer might surprise you.
Whenever politicians talk about meditation, you probably assume they’re either right wing religious nuts or left wing New Age wackos. In an interview ahead of his leadership bid, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace questioned the paucity of Tim Ryan’s legislative record, noting that in 14 years “the two big issues you’ve pushed are. . . that you host meditation sessions every week on Capitol Hill, and that you got some federal money to teach. . . ‘mindfulness’ to students in your district.”
Tim Ryan gave the obvious response that “the capital could use a little mindfulness.” But he then veered into the serious, offering that “if you look at social and emotional learning … they’ve just did a meta-analysis a few months ago of 300,000 kids who are participating in social and emotional learning in the schools. Eleven percentile point increase in test scores, closes the achievement gap. Ten percent increase in good behavior, 10 percent decrease in anti-social behavior, 20 percent swing in the mood of the schools. So we need to start approaching our education system in an innovative way.”
And he’s right.
Let’s put aside whether such programs should be federally funded or whether they belong in schools rather than in the home. Let’s even put aside the content of the particular programs the Ohio Democrat promotes in schools. The truth of which we should be mindful is that learning should be, in Tim Ryan’s words, “based on the latest brain science.”
When Ayn Rand spoke of the “realm of moral or spiritual values,” she explained that “By ‘spiritual’ I mean ‘pertaining to consciousness’." That is the key. Consciousness in all its states, its dynamic features, and the controls we exercise over it—our volition—including practices that were usually held to be the province of religion—the spiritual—in recent decades have been subject to rational, secular analysis.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his breakthrough book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience offered empirical studies and analysis to explain the experience and source of the high that comes with complete absorption in and focus on a task, when individuals lose their sense of time and even of self.
Sam Harris shot to fame as an articulate atheist with his book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. You don’t have to agree with Harris’s rejection of traditional views of free will and the self to appreciate his effort in his latest book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, to use reason and solid research to convince fellow atheists as well as others of the benefits of meditation.
Today, many individuals practice yoga not only to keep physically limber and well-toned, but to center their minds and souls. And many others use Buddhist practices minus the theology for the same reason. They might be unaware of the pioneering work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who decades ago established the Stress Reduction Clinic as well as the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society , both at the University of Massachusetts Medical School to study and explain the results of these practices.
Let’s grant that we still have much more to learn about the human mind. Let’s grant that there is still a lot of psycho-babble and mystic mumbo-jumbo that gets in the way.
But let’s also grant, with Shakespeare, that for most of our problems, “the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Ultimately it is our moral characters, which we create, that determine whether we meet the challenges of life and flourish, or constantly fail and face nothing but frustration. Education of the entire person should, as it has since the ancient Greeks, hone the intellect and character or soul. Aristotle’s Ethics would be a good guide but science today can provide practical knowledge that would do Aristotle proud.
So we should thank Rep. Tim Ryan for calling attention to the benefits of our growing understanding of the human mind. Perhaps it’s for the better that he lost his challenge to Pelosi, because his contributions to the country might actually be elevated and spiritual rather than mundane and political. If more people take up the practices he suggests and improve their minds and spirits, they will need fewer of the programs and policies he and his colleagues in both parties are promoting and we will be a far better society for it!
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.