Politics of Wellness with Congressman Tim Ryan


Jonathan: Hey, everybody, Jonathan Bailor, back, with an extra special SANE show. I am so excited and delighted to be bringing you Congressman Tim Ryan, who is blowing upright now.

Tim: Geez.

Jonathan: As you can imagine, getting the congressman here on the show is a wonderful treat, so Congressman Tim Ryan, welcome to the show.

Tim: Thank you so much. I get about three faxes a week, and it happens to be right now that I am getting a fax. Thanks for having me, this is very exciting.

Jonathan: I know you are in high demand, so I can imagine that faxes, texts, podcasts, vodcasts, it is all happening for you right now.

Tim: Yeah, we’ll get through it.

Jonathan: Congressman Ryan, for folks who aren’t as familiar with how you got to become a Congressman from your rather humble beginnings, can you take us on that journey with you?

Tim: I grew up just an average guy in Northeast Ohio, played football, played basketball, went to Catholic High School, graduated, went to College in Bowling Green, which is in Northwest Ohio. I played a little bit a college football before that. And then, I caught the political bug when I went to law school. I worked on a campaign, worked in Washington, D.C., and then came back to an old rust belt town and wanted to be involved, wanted to be a leader. I had been a leader my whole life as a quarterback and playing sports, and just wanted to take some kind of leadership role in helping to rebuild the community, so I said, “I’ll run for political office, and I ran for the state senate when I was 26 years old.

It is a democratic area, and really, the democratic primary is the election, and I won in a 7-8 person democratic primary. The very next year I ran for Congress, same kind of scenario, except I had to run against a sitting congressman, and another congressman who was in prison, that’s another whole story. And we won, and got into Congress in 2003 and had been there ever since, but my main goal was how I could help my area, this old mill town? How do we get into technology? How do we figure out how to diversify our economy? How do we get our downtowns hopping? Quality of life, the arts? Make it a good place for young people to come back to. Fortunately, the people wanted a change, put me in, and have kept me in ever since.

Jonathan: Congressman Ryan, I share your Buckeye heritage. I am from Columbus, Ohio originally, so I know the term brain drain is very familiar to me. I went to school in Greencastle, Indiana, a small liberal arts University known as DePauw University, which I am sure you are familiar with. What did you see as the biggest problems, obviously there are political and economic, but let’s say just in terms of just people, and wellness, and well-being, that you hoped your political influence might change?

Tim: We had corruption issues, and as you mentioned, the economy collapse. We were all into the steel industry. But I think a lot of it was attitude. We had an attitude that was based on the past. We kept asking and wondering, “When are the steel mills going to come back?” And so, we were locked into that, because those, in many ways, were the good old days. Middle class incomes were very high, you could send your kids to college, you could go on a family vacation, so they wanted that back. And I think part of what I brought was, “Hey, we have to change, we’ve got to, for our own survival. If we do want young kids to have an opportunity to come back, we do have to change.”

I think changing the attitudes of people – even when we started to have successes, people couldn’t believe that it was actually happening in Youngstown, Ohio. It was like, “It can’t be happening here.” So, it took years and years of accomplishments for people, but for me it was, “How do you change your attitude? You can do great things. Yes, you.” I would go to high schools and talk to kids and give them a pep talk. “You can come back here. There is opportunity here. You can do whatever you want and we have to get through this mental block that we had about how people do have the ability to thrive with the proper attitude.”

Jonathan: And what have you found? Obviously, working in the political arena, there are many macro level levers you can pull and push, but at that micro level when you are speaking at high schools and colleges and out speaking with individuals who may have had the rug pulled out from underneath them, let’s say, what do you find to be the biggest mental and attitudinal challenges they face, and possible solutions?

Tim: I think, in essence, they don’t believe they can be who they really are. They believe that they have to do the traditional route, and I think that mold has been broken, just the fact that we are doing podcasts and videocasts, and all of this. It’s like there is no mold anymore. And I think for us to communicate as leaders to young people, “You can break out of this mold that supposedly people are trying to lock you into,” and they feel like they have to go down this road. They don’t have to.

Once they tap into – I try to turn kids inward, to look inside. What do you want to do? What drives you? What is your passion? What are you enthusiastic about? What do you like to read about? What makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up? What do you want to do all the time? That’s your route. It’s easy once you turn inward and see.” So, I feel like my job is to get them from looking outward to turning the lens inward, and that’s where all the juice is. That is where all the enthusiasm is for life.

Jonathan: Congressman Ryan, that really resonates with me and will really resonate with our audience, because we see so often that people are looking, especially in the area of wellness, well-being, physical, psychological, spiritual, whichever one, they look outside themselves. “Is this good or bad? Should I eat this or not?” And they eat it, and it makes them feel terrible, and then they are confused. Looking inward really solves that problem for you. It is a bit like, “How is that working out for you?” In a culture where so often we look for experts, we look outside of ourselves, and you are someone that people do look to, so I am sure people say, “Congressman Ryan, what should we do, what is the right answer?” How do you turn that around?

Tim: I’m a big Joseph Campbell fan. He really shaped a lot of my world views coming out of college and all the rest. He had this great expression. He said, “People think they’re looking for the meaning of life, or meaning for life, and what they are really looking for is the experience of life, to actually feel, and feel life, and be in your own body, in your own life.” I feel, ultimately, that is the challenge, how to turn the lens inward, and I think you have to take time.

I wrote a book called, A Mindful Nation, which is about a mindful meditation practice. I think you have to find some technique, some tool, for contemplation, to look inward, to know what is coming up inside you. What are your biases? What has hurt you over the years that is driving certain behaviors? You have to take time. You have to shut all the technology off. Not now, while you’re listening to this, or watching this, but at some other point, take some time each day to reflect on who you really are, what you are really jacked up about, and that will then drive you, and lead you into your own life.

Jonathan: You are a great example of this, because I can only imagine that you have multiple electronic devices, you need to be in this place, that place, you were just on 60 Minutes, and you are living the life of a national figurehead, so how do you personally make time to consciously live your life and look inward?

Tim: I have a new baby that is six months old, and he did not get the memo on my medication practice (laughs), so it has been a little rocky in the last six months, but realistically, you try to just find points throughout the day to just stop, breathe, see what is coming up, and identify it. From a public policy standpoint, which I think really was your last question, what do we do? The government doesn’t have all the answers. The government can’t make you be contemplative, nor should it. But I do think what we need to start teaching, and the investments we need to make, should all say, “How do we raise energy levels? How do we make sure that people are participating at the ultimate level? How do they reach their full potential?”

I think it starts with the food you are eating, the habits we are developing in our young kids, and I really think it is about getting back to the fundamentals. People think that, in Washington, especially, if we have this complicated problem, we need to come up with a more complicated solution, just to solve the complicated problem. And the reality of it is that we need to get back to the fundamentals, and that is why I think in our schools we need to start teaching kids how to pay attention. I think these different kinds of techniques like mindfulness, instead of yelling at the kid to pay attention, teaching them how. This is the how of paying attention, how to cultivate their awareness.

In the military, the marines are starting to do a mindfulness-based fitness training. They call it situational awareness. You are aware of what the situation is around you, but you also have to know what the situation is inside of you. How do we teach our kids how to be aware, how to pay attention, how to listen deeply to somebody else, work in teams, all of those things? And then the food piece. We fill our schools up with pop. We call it pop in Ohio, everyone else seems to call it soda. I went on a book tour and I kept saying pop, and everyone said, “You can’t say pop, no one knows what you’re talking about, you’ve got to say soda.” I said, “We say pop in Ohio.”

So, we fill the kids up with pop, a fruit rollup, and a bag of Doritos. That’s for breakfast. Then we sit them down and say, “Hey, you’ve got to learn algebra now,” and we can’t figure out why we’re 30th in the world in math, and over 24th in science. Well, we fill our kids up with junk. It makes them lethargic and they can’t concentrate. It hampers brain function.

So from a public policy, what can we do? I think we start teaching these things. There should be a garden in every school, there should be a kitchen in every schoolhouse, there should be a salad bar in every school cafeteria. Teach kids how to eat. Build gardens in these urban neighborhoods where there are food deserts. Knock down these dilapidated homes and put up gardens where kids can work in the summer, create some economic activity, produce good food, and start teaching these habits. And I will tell you, the government can’t micro-manage our economy, but if we have healthy young kids, who are focused, with resiliency and high energy levels because they are on a proper diet, the rest will take care of itself.

Jonathan: It’s a fabulous point to tie those implementation strategies back to your point of getting back to basics, where just the idea of cooking and eating, we tend to think that is almost analogous to breathing and that people can just figure it out, but as we are seeing, no, people can’t just figure it out. You are not just born knowing how to cook, or knowing how to navigate your grocery store, especially in the modern food environment. So, do you see hope on the hope on the horizon for stemming this obesity epidemic, starting with our children, or are we fighting against corporate interests which are insurmountable?

Tim: Those are the best fights to have. (laughs) I write in my book the old Irish saying, “Is this a private fight, or can anyone get into it?” I think we are going to have to have a big grass roots movement. We’re going to have to have the fight, and you made a heck of a point, because those things about eating, and family dinners and all that – those were always taught generation to generation. I’m half Italian, and when I grew up we had pasta on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday was pasta fazul. I could tell what was going to be for dinner by what my grandmother picked out of the garden. That used to be taught from generation to generation, and it is not anymore. Those links have been broken due to fast food, and two people have to work to make ends meet in the family.

I do have hope because when I travel the country, I see, in pockets across the country, and across Ohio, urban gardens, farmer’s markets, more people aware, especially moms in suburban Columbus, Ohio, or suburban Cincinnati, Ohio, and Delaware County, who are concerned about what their kids are eating. And I think this crosses political lines, too, because how we balance our budget as a country, which traditionally would be identified as a republican viewpoint – I don’t agree, I think it is everybody’s concern.

But how do we do that if the top two drivers of our budget, Medicare and Medicaid, are health care programs? If we don’t make sure that we curb the cost on those, we are never going to have money to invest in roads, bridges, education, research and development, additive manufacturing, the maker movement, all of these things that are really important for us to invest in because we won’t have the dough to do it, and in the next five years, half the country is either going to have diabetes or pre-diabetes. Good luck trying to balance the budget or drive down costs in Medicare and Medicaid if half the country, one in four teenagers, will have diabetes or pre-diabetes. So, we need this grassroots movement.

I am optimistic, because I think politics 2.0 is about getting back to the fundamentals, it really is. It is about making sure that the folks who are into the contemplative, attention, awareness practices in schools are allies with the people who want good food in the schools. They don’t necessarily know that yet, but you start adding these groups together – the maker movement, the people who are into having 3D printers in schools – these are all people who are thinking about ways of educating our kids, getting back to the fundamentals.

Think about it. Attention, awareness, healthy food, and making things, like a home economics and a shop class 2.0. That’s getting back to the basics. That’s politics 2.0 and I think this is what people want, and I feel like my job is, and your job is, to connect the dots for folks and say, “Hey, we are all on the same page, we all want the same thing, we’re allies. Let’s learn about what each other is doing, and then how do we build this new coalition that will shift the politics and give you the power and the votes to take on those corporate interests?”

Jonathan: That very much resonates with me, Congressman Ryan. That was eloquently put, and I hear the passion in your voice, the excitement in your voice. But what has you most passionate and most excited right now, and what is next for you?

Tim: You mentioned the 60 Minutes piece, for example, on mindfulness meditation, for example. I am getting texts from people who I know, saying “Hey, great. How can I learn about that?” They hear about the food issue. “Great, how can I learn about that?” That’s why I’m so excited, because I think, and I know, there are people out there that are really excited about building this movement. I started with A Mindful Nation, which is my book about mindfulness meditation, and my new book on Real Food Revolution: Healthy Eating, Green Groceries, and the Return of the American Family Farm. Those two things, I feel like, are building blocks. They are like the cornerstones to politics 2.9.

I don’t know where this leads me, politically, but I do get excited about potentially doing more to help build this movement out, because I just know if someone steps up and says, “There is a politics 2.0, there is a new way to do this, here is what I think,” and these two books are an opportunity to help connect the dots, and I think people will gravitate to that. Whether it is me or somebody else, I’m in the fight, and very excited about the word getting out, and guys like you being interested in this, because I think your audience is going to hopefully see this and say, “What do I do?”

I’ll give you one example. My book was lying on a coffee table of a friend of mine. He had his girlfriend over. She picked up the book, and she said, “What’s this?” He said, “My friend wrote this book.” She is a schoolteacher. A week later she had talked her school into putting a garden in the school. Just like that. I think it is about connecting the dots and gaining awareness, and that is why I get excited. That is what it is all about. And for Brady, my six-month-old son, my 12-year-old son, and my 11-year-old daughter, hopefully we can do this in time to shape the world, make it a little better place for them.

Jonathan: Congressman Ryan, I think you are very much ahead of the curve, because, as you said, this is a huge issue for the country, with the diabetes statistics you mentioned, and also knowing that now the economic burden of just diabetes, not obesity, but just diabetes, on this country is 50 billion dollars greater than the economic burden of all tobacco. We know how much we have done to protect our citizens from tobacco if they don’t want to participate in that lifestyle. It seems like sooner, rather than later, diabetes and obesity, these things are going to be undeniable.

It is not about just trying harder. Our country cannot survive unless we find solutions to this. It is very encouraging to see someone who is in Washington already making those connections, because as, let’s say, a newer generation on this planet, when I think about things that I am petrified of for my children and the following generations, it is just like you said, “Look, America cannot exist if every one of its citizens is diabetic.” So what do we do about that? And I appreciate all that you are doing. Where can folks go to learn more about you, your new books, everything you have going on?

Tim: Obviously, amazon.com, you can go and check those books out, The Real Food Revolution, and A Mindful Nation. As I said, those are the two cornerstones. And then, obviously, timryanforcongress.com is my political webpage, if anybody is interested in seeing what we are doing politically. That’s how you get hold of me. In both of the books, I really tried to make a point, at the end of the chapters where we talk about what we need to do, there are examples, there is a resource section, so if you are interested in getting mindfulness in schools, go to the back of the book in the resource section and see the programs that are out there that you could potentially implement.

We try to facilitate. If you are into urban gardening, or gardens in the schools, we try to direct you to where you can go. Really, I wanted both of these to be almost like a field manual for moms and dads who want to start making some moves in their own communities. You have to start where you are, whatever you are enthusiastic about. If there are veterans with post-traumatic stress and you want to find a mindfulness type program to help them, you can do that, if that is where your juice is. If it is about gardens in schools, you can go and find out where they are doing it. If everybody just takes their little passion and lives their own light, and expresses that, we will have thousands of people around the country making this happen and we will start ramping up this movement to really make some significant change, and I think the country is really ready for it.

Jonathan: Brilliant. Congressman Ryan, thank you for all that you do, these wonderful texts, and also for spending the time with us today. This has been helpful and inspirational. I deeply appreciate it.

Tim: Thank you so much. Keep up the great work.

Jonathan: Thank you again. And listeners and viewers, again, our delightful guest today is Congressman Tim Ryan. Definitely check him and his new books out online, and remember, stay SANE.