On Edge

How Members of Congress Keep Calm in the Age of Trump

"Go gaze upon the ocean and take in its vastness. Go hold some babies. But seriously, do something that helps put it all in perspective."
December 6, 2017, 7:53pm
Image by author via Getty Images

On Edge is a series about stress in 2017.

Serving as a Democrat in Congress during the Trump era seems like the most stressful job in the world to me, but Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison says it's not so bad. "If you're a firefighter, if you're an air traffic controller, if you're a mom, you have more stress than me," he told me over the phone in November. "I have access to food, clothes, and shelter every day. I should not try to claim any kind of victimhood at all."


That doesn't mean to suggest that the congressman is immune from stress. "Self-care in the age of Trump is very important," he said, explaining that the president incites "a level of chaos" that can be disorienting. The way he copes? Eating right, meditation, and prayer.

"I'm a praying person," Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, told me. "I'm not trying to promote religion," he clarified, but if whether you're Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu and going to services "satisfies your heart, then do that, and don't let it go, don't get too busy to do it." If you don't observe any of those religions, "then go in nature and just remember by looking at a mountain that there's greater more wondrous things out there than what's happening in the news every day."

"Go gaze upon the ocean and take in its vastness," the Minnesota congressman suggested. "Go hold some babies. But seriously, do something that helps put it all in perspective."

Ellison isn't the only member of Congress who stays grounded using prayer and meditation. Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan is perhaps the legislative branch's best known meditator. He's been outspoken about his zen lifestyle since the Obama years, and published a book titled A Mindful Nation in 2012. Meditation, he told the Atlantic in 2014, has allowed him “to let things go a little bit. There are stressful situations that really grind on you.” An avid practitioner of yoga, Ryan has been hosting a weekly meditation session for congressional staffers since 2014; he once told New York that he'll put his phone away in his pocket and walk around before each vote, an exercise in being "present."

California Democrat Tony Cárdenas has been attending Ryan's weekly session for years. When I called him, he told me he was sitting in a room off the floor of the House that has a fireplace and a comfortable chair. It's his favorite spot to unwind when he can't get the congressional chapel, where he meditates with Ryan. Cárdenas, who co-sponsored a 2017 bill to designate April as National Stress Awareness Month, told me, "This is the most stressful job I've ever had, and the most difficult job that I've ever had, the most complicated job I've ever had."

It's only gotten more stressful since Trump took office, the California congressman told me. "This president is an incredibly effective interrupter of good thought and he's an incredibly effective interrupter of trying to get people to change what they're thinking about and think about something else," he said.

Still, Cárdenas has a daily meditation routine to keep him grounded. "I set my timer on my phone, and I close my eyes, and I monitor my breathing, and I get into a meditative position," he told me. "On a good day, I'll do it for 20 minutes, but when it appears that I'll be interrupted before that, I'll do that for about ten minutes or so. Every day, twice a day."

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