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Capitol Hill Political Staffers Find Their Zen

Capitol Hill staffers meditate.
Ally Mutnick
Capitol Hill staffers meditate.

Behind every lawmaker on Capitol Hill are dozens of young, ambitious staff members. Frequently pale from exhaustion, they work frenetically, touting the demanding work culture like a badge of honor.

Despite the sense of glory they ascribe to this exhausting pace, there is at least one place where staffers aren't judged for taking a moment to breathe.

Once a week or so, 25 to 50 staff members come together, not for happy hours or Crossfit sessions, but to practice the more reflective art of meditation. This group is casually referred to as the "Quiet Time Caucus." They gather in a ratty-looking meeting room in one of the Capitol's office buildings.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Stephanie Sheridan, a local yoga instructor, was leading the meditation. "Try and sit up tall, so you can shrug your shoulders up towards your ears, as you inhale," she says, breathing in. "And then exhale. Go ahead and release the shoulders back down."

Rather than tell colleagues where they're headed each week, many in this group keep their meditation practice secret.

"The fear is that you're going to be judged as weird," says Denise Fleming, a senior legislative assistant. "Or the worst stigma on Capitol Hill is for people to think you're not working. And so a lot of us here try to avoid that and we just don't tell anyone."

Being a congressional staffer is young people's work, says Fleming, who describes herself as "older," even though she's just 27. The work is "soul-sucking," she says, so she started looking for new ways to bring down her stress. Around the same time, she heard about the meditation group in a "Dear Colleague" email.

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, meditates on Capitol Hill.
Ally Mutnick / NPR
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, meditates on Capitol Hill.

"I think now people would describe me as centered and calm," she says. Today, for instance, Fleming has a very long to-do list to finish before 6 p.m. But during the 30-minute meditation, all that slips away. "I can go back to work calm and refreshed," she says. "I feel like I'll make better decisions."

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, started the Quiet Time Caucus about three years ago. He participates in the staff group and runs another for senators and congressmen. I talked to him in the House Chapel, where legislative members meet. Unlike the staff meeting room, it has an ornate ceiling and stained glass window with George Washington kneeling in the center.

Ryan, a former athlete, told me how corporations and sports teams now use mindfulness practices to get better results from players and workers.

"It's the ultimate prevention," he said, because it can stop people from "doing or saying something stupid."

This, of course, seems particularly vital when weighing decisions of national importance.

Ryan's meditation groups are hardly a side project. He believes the federal government should be integrating mindfulness into all of its policies, from veterans affairs to health care to education.

"Why wouldn't we have an education policy, for example, that would teach kids to regulate their emotional state?" asks Ryan. "Because I know that if you can't do that, we're gonna be paying for you big time down the road."

Ryan hopes to gain an ally in new Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who does yoga and works out for more than an hour each morning. But for the meantime, Tim Ryan's mindfulness policies are having a more microeffect.

Denise Fleming, the legislative assistant, says meditation and mindfulness have given her a kind of personal insulation from the battle-like conditions of Capitol Hill. I couldn't help but think she'd discovered some kind of secret.

Often she sees people shouting back and forth at each other, trying to push their ideas or agenda to victory. She approaches these fights differently. "Many times I've said to my boss or coworkers, 'let's pause and think about this,'" she says. "And that pause has saved a lot of heartbreak or frustration."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Will Huntsberry is an assistant producer in NPR's elections unit, where he produced a piece about Don Gonyea's favorite campaign trail playlists, reported on the one place in Washington where former House Speaker John Boehner could feel like "a regular guy," and other stories that get beneath the surface of American politics.
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