Most Americans got their last glimpse of Bob Ney in 2006 when the powerful Ohio representative resigned his office and left Washington to begin a 30-month term in federal prison in Morgantown, W.Va. A player in the Jack Abramoff scandal, Ney was a disgraced Republican with a drinking problem and an expanding waistline.
Today, he has been reborn as a sober and slimmed-down follower of the Dalai Lama and is studying meditation techniques with Tibetan monks at a Buddhist temple in India.
Ney is spending his days in Dharamsala, trying to master the Tibetan language and eagerly awaiting the return of the Dalai Lama and the chance to hear more of the exiled religious leader’s teachings.
He has declined multiple opportunities to discuss how he wound up pleading guilty to conspiring to defraud the government and making false statements. Apart from making a few comments to a columnist for The Columbus Dispatch, he has kept to himself.
But this week, Ney talked by phone to National Journal for almost 70 minutes from the guesthouse where he is renting a room for $10 a day. (“You’ve got your own bathroom,” he said.) He discussed life on the rebound, the inner peace he has found in sobriety and meditation, and his work to help wounded veterans and the homeless.
Ney’s permanent residence is a halfway house in Newark, Ohio, but his home since September has been Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s headquarters-in-exile since 1959 when the religious leader fled over the Himalayas from Tibet to escape persecution from Communist China. Ney spent his first five weeks in India taking classes at a monastic college, delving into Buddhist medicine, meditation, anthropology, and the Tibetan language. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is wildly popular there, he notes, because of her criticism of Beijing’s policies in Tibet.
Once the only fluent Farsi speaker in Congress, Ney has always had a knack for languages. He is picking up Hindi, but he admits he is finding Tibetan tough to master and says he is grateful that the Dalai Lama spoke English in the first of two sessions he attended.
“You bring a pillow, or you can buy one,” Ney explains. “They come around with some bread and some butter tea. You sit, and you bring a hat because of the sun—because it is quite warm here. And you sit out there … on stone areas, and he does the teachings.”
Ney did not acquire his taste for meditation until he was in prison; there he found that it helped him deal with the stress of incarceration and his battle to overcome alcoholism. (He lost 60 pounds in the process.)
These days, he can meditate more privately. “You pick a quiet spot, as quiet as you can get. You can do it any length of time you want. I usually do it about 10 or 15 minutes,” he said. “And you focus on your breathing.… Breath in, breath out. If you hear a sound, you acknowledge it and you just move on back to your breathing.”
Ney knows that some people roll their eyes when he extols the benefits of meditation. “They think you’re going to levitate off the floor, or you’re trying to leave your body and look at yourself. It’s nothing on that order,” he said. “The scientists are starting to go along with this whole meditation … to say it relieves stress and gives a lot of focus to people.”
And that is what brings the former lawmaker to the feet of the Dalai Lama. Ney plans to bring a Tibetan monk back with him to Ohio to train others in programs being set up through the Mending Minds Foundation. Ney is the executive director of the foundation, which is the brainchild of Ellen Ratner, the White House correspondent for the Talk Radio News Service. She’s a friend of Ney’s who visited him in prison and guided him into his first post-release job on talk radio.
Ney hopes to build on work in Columbus in introducing abused women to meditation. “They were battered; they were homeless. And they were in this program, and the meditation helped them greatly,” he said. “So Mending Minds could deal with some issues dealing with the homeless.” Even more promising, he said, is the potential value to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. “The U.S. government is just starting … to use meditation instead of just medication,” he said.
A Catholic, Ney is not planning to convert to Buddhism. He stresses, “This is meditation. It is not a religious entity.” To him, the practice is but another key to the joy he feels as he rebuilds his life alongside the Tibetan monks and nuns and the international pilgrims who are his daily companions these days. “My life is good,” he said. “I’m a very lucky person, and I’m just very happy—very, very happy. I’m doing what I want to do.”
Even amid his new spiritual surroundings, Ney pays attention to politics back home. “I did vote this year by absentee ballot,” he said, “with the help of FedEx.”
This article appears in the November 20, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.