How One Simple Practice Can Change the Nation

I was first elected to Congress in 2002 at the age of 29. From that day on, I began crisscrossing the country campaigning on behalf of the Democratic Party. First pushing to win back control of the House of Representatives, which we succeeded at doing in 2006; then immediately transitioning to do my part to take back the White House in 2008. After we helped get Barack Obama elected, I was beginning to feel burnt out, out of sorts and just not myself. I knew something had to give.

I grew up with contemplative values; my family always stressed the importance of praying the rosary and taking time out of the day for prayer and reflection. Just after high school I learned Centering Prayer, a Christian meditation. I loved it, but didn’t do it very often. So after the 2008 election, I decided to go to a five-day retreat led by John-Kabat Zinn thinking I would get into the habit. That was when I really began to embrace the practice of mindfulness meditation and learn about how it can positively impact your life.

Mindfulness meditation is defined by Jon Kabat Zinn, who is the leader of Mindfulness in America, as ‘paying attention in a particular way, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally’. This treatment is becoming scientifically proven to reduce stress, depression and anxiety, while increasing awareness and focus. Scientists and health practitioners tell us that mindfulness can create positive brain function and can lead to a happier, healthier lifestyle. It is currently being utilized by a growing number of Fortune 500 companies, schools, hospitals, athletes, and by our Armed Forces and veterans.

I have had the privilege to meditate with many different groups around the country, from first graders learning how to stay still and focus on their breathing to Vietnam veterans grateful to finally have a tool that helps them cope with years of undiagnosed stress and depression.

Today we are seeing an unprecedented influx of information in our daily lives, a mind-boggling rate of technological change, staggering income inequality, unhealthy food marketed to our kids, and a consumer mindset that constantly pulls us away from ourselves and into the world of materialism and ego. Given these deep changes, it is clear that we need a new approach to things.

To me, spending a little bit of time each day in silence is essential to remaining connected to what is most important in my life and how to be grounded in the present moment, not the past or future. This simple practice helps us live the life we intend, as opposed to a life that is dictated by actions that come from mindless bad habits and beliefs.

I try to meditate for about 40 minutes a day, usually in the morning before I begin work. It definitely helps me get through the daily stresses of a member of Congress, which, for the record, pale in comparison to those of a laid-off steelworker with a family or a single mom trying to raise her family. But mindfulness gives me the ability to see the bigger picture, instead of getting caught in the perpetual cycle of reacting to crises that may at the time seem life-altering, but in reality are probably minor and easily resolved. It allows me stay focused on why I am in Congress in the first place, which is to look out for that steelworker or single mom.

We know that when we are stressed, we lose focus. So this practice is for all of us. Because we all need to focus on where we are and how we can best get to where we want to be.