the MINDFUL SOCIETY
Can Mindfulness Transform Politics?
By Ed Halliwell
The Labour MP Chris Ruane described it as a seminal moment, and it was certainly a startling one for many. In a packed Committee Room at the House of Commons last Wednesday, with 28 MPs and Lords in attendance, a UK all-party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness was launched.
It was an arresting occasion partly due to the setting—we are perhaps getting used to meditation happening in health centres, private businesses, even schools—but here it was being practised and taken seriously in the symbol of the British establishment, by politicians from all three main parties, offered up as a way to approach some of the most pressing social issues of our time. I think it’s fair to say that the days of mindfulness being seen as something new agey or alternative are coming to an end.
The content of the event was also remarkable. Speaker after speaker gave testimony about the benefits of mindfulness practice, covering wide ground—there was a university professor, a psychiatrist, a criminal justice expert, a schoolteacher (and several pupils), a company chief executive, and a comedian. And then of course, there were the politicians themselves, who not only asked searching questions about the evidence for mindfulness and how it might translate into the hard realities of public policy (“money is tight so everything has to be proven”) but also, significantly, spoke movingly about their own personal practice.
This degree of engagement (it is rare for such a turnout at these events, even rarer for so many Parliamentarians to stay till the end) shows the fruit of Chris Ruane’s cajoling of his colleagues to attend the mindfulness courses he set up in Westminster. The courses have been completed by 80 MPs and Lords, with more signed up for the next round.
Lord Andrew Stone spoke of how mindfulness had helped him face the stress of difficult negotiations during a recent trip to Egypt, while the Conservative MP Tracey Crouch shared how mindfulness has helped her emerge from a place of anxiety that led her to take antidepressants, and about which she’s only just felt able to go public. There was a sense of human connection, openness, even a (brave) vulnerability in the room which I’m told is not common at political gatherings, especially those which stretch across party divides.
Alongside these testimonies we heard about the broad challenges facing UK society: reduced spending on mental health care despite a rising tide of poor well-being (50 million of those antidepressant prescriptions each year—not far off one per person), restricted social mobility, the apparent conflict between attainment and well-being in schools, a pervading sense of pressure and lack of agency in workplaces, and the economic (not to mention human) cost of poor impulse control among offenders.
The politicians’ capacity to come from a place of practice is, I think, crucial. One of the risks of marking mindfulness as a political strategy is that it could be turned into yet another poorly-applied quick fix—throwing a watered-down, mindfulness training-lite at deeply embedded systemic problems is unlikely to have much impact. At best, it may offer some respite from the stress of living in those systems, at worst it could become a way of maintaining them, placing all responsibility for distress on the individual (“Can’t you just be more mindful?”) without recognising the familial, social, and environmental pressures that contribute to our mind states. Following the event, Baroness Ruth Lister, a long-time social campaigner, wrote about such concerns on the House of Lords blog.
I am optimistic. That so many UK politicians have begun the work of mindfulness training is the best foundation for this work. Once you have some experience of both the possibilities and difficulties of working with your own mind, there is more likelihood that you’ll understand the scale of the task in inviting a more mindful world, as well as how such a vast project can gradually be undertaken and begun, aspect by aspect, moment by moment.
If it touches the hearts of enough people, the personal transformation of consciousness—greater awareness and compassion—that so many people report coming with mindfulness training cannot but go hand-in-hand with a wider transformation in systems that are, after all, maintained by collections of people. The problems begin when we are seduced by the prevailing culture and try to separate, ignore, or rush either aspect of this work, either the individual or the collective. Then, as one MP suggested during Wednesday’s session, mindfulness could be warped into another manifestation of the problems we are hoping it could help address. Jon Kabat-Zinn has wisely talked about this being a 1000 year project. At least that long, I would say, even though significant changes, such as the acceptance of mindfulness in mainstream settings, are now happening very quickly.
Lobbying, policy formation and action are vital parts of this work, and fundraising has started to enable a Parliamentary Inquiry, leading to a report next year on how the UK can become a more mindful nation. But mindfulness means little if applied just as a buzzword—to make any real difference it must come from a place of embodiment in those who aspire to share it. So, in my opinion, the most important aspect of the entry of mindfulness into the political landscape and vocabulary is that Parliamentarians themselves have been willing to engage their minds and bodies in the practice, before engaging their mouths in recommending it for others.