I still do a double-take going through security for a mindfulness event at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. It was only six years ago that Jonty Heaversedge and I started work on a book to be called The Mindful Manifesto, and joked about what it would be like if MPs took a pause for meditation rather than automatically jeering at one other over the despatch box in the House of Commons. The jeering still happens, but over a hundred Parliamentarians have now taken a mindfulness course. Following an eight-month public inquiry into the possible benefits of mindfulness for British society, the interim report of the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) was published last week.
At the launch event, all three of the co-chairs of the MAPPG mentioned how glad they were of mindfulness practice when the stress of a looming general election was upon them. “Thoughts are not facts—who knew?” smiled Liberal Democrat MP Lorely Burt, revealing how she has experienced ‘moments of inexplicable joy’ since taking the course. Conservative MP Tracey Crouch spoke movingly of her mindfulness-assisted recovery from depression and subsequent bemusement at becoming a political spokesperson for meditation. Not long ago she was thrown out of a yoga class for laughing—now she uses mindfulness to ground herself before speaking in Parliamentary debates.
Tracey and Lorely, along with the driving force of the MAAPG, Labour MP Chris Ruane, have been steering the work of the Mindfulness Initiative (of which I’m co-director) to produce the report, which makes recommendations for bringing mindfulness further into the UK National Health Service to help with the epidemic of depression, to invite a culture of well-being and resilience in schools, to enable more mindful workplaces, and perhaps to start stemming the tide of mental ill-health and offending behaviour in the criminal justice system.
Lord Richard Layard was one of the first economists to focus on well-being. He suggested mindfulness is a practice that can help address people’s unhappiness.
As well as the three members of Parliament, the speakers at the launch included two more British political heavyweights. Lord Richard Layard was one of the first economists to focus on well-being, and he is largely responsible for improving access to psychological therapies in the UK, which means that British people with depression and anxiety are now much more likely to be offered talking treatments. Lord Layard pointed out that in the early 20th Century, reformers spoke of external problems such as disease and squalor, but neglected the great suffering caused by internal misery. He also pointed out that in a secular society, people lack practices that can help them find peace and well-being. Mindfulness, he suggested, is a practice that can help address people’s unhappiness.
Also addressing the event was Gus O’Donnell, who has been the UK’s most senior civil servant under three different prime ministers. Now devoted to well-being issues, he was able to remind the assembled audience of (mostly) mindfulness practitioners that if their message was to be heard by government, they had to be able to make a watertight economic case, based on high quality evidence. The Treasury holds the key to major policy change, he reminded us, and without such evidence, that key will remain unturned.
Further inroads into the mainstream for mindfulness will require sober scientific development, assessment, and advocacy.
This was a reminder, amidst all the expressions of optimism and heartfulness, that government is led from the head, and that for all the testimonies of personal change—even from MPs—further inroads into the mainstream for mindfulness will require sober scientific development, assessment, and advocacy. For now, though, the very presence of people like Gus O’Donnell at events like this can galvanize people to bring the practices to their living and working environments, raise media interest, and convince ministers in government to take mindfulness seriously as a way to help our societies become happier and healthier.
The first time I attended a Parliamentary mindfulness event, police confiscated my meditation bells—apparently they could be used to create a disturbance, or even as a missile. My heart sunk further when the officer asked what they were for, fearing I’d be barred from entry after giving the (obviously preposterous) explanation that I was coming to discuss and practice meditation with MPs. Instead, her face softened. “Oh, we in the police could use some of that,” she said sadly. “This job can be so stressful.” The inquiry has worked to address her wish, and there are pilot police mindfulness projects now being planned.
The UK seems ripe for mindfulness. The task now, it seems, is to advocate for and bring the practices to people who need it, in ways that are genuine, helpful and appropriate, and to measure the benefits so that further support can be found. For that, we will need quite a lot of hard-headedness, and an even larger supply of open heart. We will work to bring both into the final report of the MAAPG, which will be published this June.
[Photo: Mindfulness in Schools Project]