Capitol Hill Political Staffers Find Their Zen Most weeks, a group of congressional staffers meet to practice meditation on high-stress Capitol Hill. Some keep their regular moments of mindfulness a secret from their coworkers.
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Capitol Hill Political Staffers Find Their Zen

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Capitol Hill Political Staffers Find Their Zen

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For the next few minutes, we are going to hear a couple of stores that might change the way you think about familiar sights and sounds. First, we head to Capitol Hill. If you've ever been there, you've seen the many ambitious staffers rushing from place to place. But NPR's Will Huntsberry stumbled on a place where it's OK to slow down for a minute or two.

WILL HUNTSBERRY, BYLINE: The day-to-day pace on Capitol Hill is not for the faint of heart.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hurry, hurry, hurry.

HUNTSBERRY: But even here, where the ambitious and powerful hope to carve a name for themselves, there's one room where you can find a little breathing space.

STEPHANIE SHERIDAN: Try and sit up tall so you can shrug your shoulders up towards your ears as you inhale. And then exhale - go ahead, release the shoulders back down.

HUNTSBERRY: Once a week or so, around 25 staffers gather in this ratty meeting room in one of the capital office buildings for a guided meditation. Stephanie Sheridan is their instructor.

SHERIDAN: So why meditate? Why are you all here? Probably because you want to have some sort of increasing clarity in your mind, maybe you have some sort of anxiety that you're actually facing.

HUNTSBERRY: Anxiety - uh, yeah. And people blow off steam here by going to happy hours and CrossFit, not meditation. But sure enough, here they are sitting in plastic chairs all facing the front, trying to let the worries and power struggles that dominate their lives melt away.

SHERIDAN: So the idea is that when we focus on one object, like the breath, all other thoughts dissipate.

HUNTSBERRY: One of those in the class is Denise Fleming, a senior legislative assistant. She's 27 and wearing a blazer and glasses, sitting towards the back of the room. Her shoulders rise and fall. She says this makes her feel a little more sane, a little more centered, even though on a day like today, she's got an insane to-do list.

DENISE FLEMING: The work here is hard and it's stressful and soul-sucking might be the correct term.

HUNTSBERRY: And when that's the culture, telling people you're going to meditation might not land so well.

FLEMING: The fear is that you're going to be, like, judged as weird, or the worst stigma on Capitol Hill is to, like, assume that you're not working. And so I think a lot of us here try to avoid that, and we just don't tell anyone.

HUNTSBERRY: Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio doesn't care too much if it's weird. He started this group and runs a separate one for lawmakers. He took me to the House Chapel, where that group meets.

TIM RYAN: It has some mood lighting and has stained glass and rich mahogany. And there's a person kneeling in the middle of the stained glass and it's George Washington.

HUNTSBERRY: Stress has a terrible impact on physical and mental health. Ryan says practicing meditation helps. In fact, he has a whole mindfulness platform that goes beyond the meditation classes. He thinks it could be building to things like health care reform, veteran's affairs and even education.

RYAN: So why wouldn't we have an education policy, for example, that would teach kids how to regulate their own emotional state? Because I know that if you can't that we're going to paying for you big time down the road.

HUNTSBERRY: Ryan hasn't exactly made much progress on that platform. But staffers like Denise don't care so much about that. She's just happy to have a space to meditate. I couldn't help but think she'd discovered some kind of secret. Every day, she says people treat work at the Capitol like it's a battle. They try to win by being loudest, but she is centered and calm.

FLEMING: And those qualities have served me well. Many times I've said to my boss or my co-workers, like, let's think about this, let's pause. And that pause has saved a lot of heartbreak or a lot of frustration.

HUNTSBERRY: Taking a second to pause and breathe in Washington seems like a good New Year's resolution. Will Huntsberry, NPR News.

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