All Party Parliamentary Group – the mindfulness session.

Thanks to my friend Mark Jordan (from Herts County Council)  last week I was able to grab myself a place in Committee Room 9, in our very own Houses of Parliament, to witness a significant moment in the mainstreaming of mindfulness in the UK.

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Wellbeing and Economics (APPG) has been meeting since (tbd) discussing and taking evidence on the role areas, such as culture and labour markets might have in relation to the improved wellbeing of citizens.

This meeting, on April 8th, focussed on what was described as “a potential policy solution – mindfulness programmes”. In particular the application of mindfulness in the areas of health and education.

I shan’t attempt to cover the content of the meeting in this post. The APPG website already has an overview, including one of the presentations, and promises “full notes” of the discussion soon. (see links below)

What struck me was the very passionate interest from both the people that packed the room (about 150) the speakers and the parliamentarians who were involved. I knew that mindfulness sessions were being offered to MPs but didn’t realise just how popular they have become and what a fine mindfulness champion we have in Chris Ruane MP.

It turns out that over 50 MPs have participated in courses held in Westminster and that new courses are oversubscribed. In a recent article Chris says he hopes it will eventually start influencing policy “the more we can develop mindfulness at the heart of government the more mindful policies we can develop”. Heady stuff perhaps given the very unmindful nature of our political system, yet we know there is a growing appetite for a different way of doing things both among the electorate and the elected.

Prof Willem Kuyken (Exeter) gave a lightening introduction to mindfulness (see his slides on the APPG site) and was followed by Dr Jonty Heaversedge who described his own experience of introducing mindfulness within the London Borough of Southwark, where his practice is based. Later on in the question session it was telling that a participant from LB of Brent voiced dismay that in her borough almost no such availability of mindfulness existed for its inhabitants. This I feel just points up just how patchy availability is in the UK. Similarly we learned that schools around Bangor (close to the Centre for Mindfulness) are involved in a project to make mindfulness widely available. Clearly very different from the rest of the country.

This theme of availability and capacity came up again and again during the meeting. It was one of primary challenges identified: Developing a “stock” of experienced mindfulness teachers, whilst maintaining standards; developing public awareness and building a sound evidence base.

Regarding an evidence base someone made the remark that because the benefits were often diffused say across mental wellbeing, family and relationships as well as life long health, that this made it hard to build a business case in the usual way. It seems to me that business cases can have wide objectives but perhaps the point is that responsibilities are split across agencies who are looking for benefits in “their” area.

The session gave Richard Burnett, from the Mindfulness in Schools, a great opportunity to talk about his brilliant project. dot.Be is the name of the programme they have designed and training courses for teachers are being held across the UK and in Europe. Richard had everyone make an energetic hand clap and asked them to stop and fully become aware the resulting sensations. This is one of the exercises used with school pupils to explore attention and focus. A novel way of working experientially, I thought.

For me the meeting was illuminating in many ways: for example some discussion focussed on the danger of mindfulness being a “happy pill” or “sticking plaster” that is used to help people cope with the symptoms of an unhealthy society whilst lowering their motivation to improve the situation.

Chris Ruane pointed out early on that nothing (including mindfulness) should hinder all our efforts to change a society that creates mental and physical health issues in the first place. Prof Kuyken commented that mindfulness far from bringing about “happy states” often illuminated uncomfortable ones. The point was made that mindfulness well practiced, developed feelings of empathy and that empathy can drive action.

I left the meeting and walked out past the oddly wrapped up statues of the great and the good (?) of previous centuries wondering what they would have made of mindfulness. We have had no (major) revolutions in our history .. could it be that this is the start of a deeper revolution .. one starting in each individual. One can dream 😉


Interview with Chris Ruane

Gods and hungry ghosts

The discussion about the corporatisation of mindfulness is getting interesting. Thich Nhat Hanh has joined in the discussion during his recent visit to US where he held workshops at, among other places, Google and The World Bank. His view: that as long as business leaders practice “true mindfulness” it does not matter if the intention is triggered by a desire for bigger profits, because the practice will “open their hearts” and will develop their desire to end the suffering of others.

He goes on to say (or so it is reported) that having the wrong intention e.g. wanting lots of money, will bring about only be an “imitation” of mindfulness – “you will not have touched its true purpose”.

I can understand this but I am not sure it will prevent the self-help industry for business people offering a shallow version of the practice and for many to be satisfied with it’s limited benefits. The 7 Effective Habits of Successful People will not, I suspect, be quickly replaced by the 8 Fold Path.

Mark Leonard uses the following analogy (I paraphrase – apologise if inaccurate) “If you are throwing life rings to drowning people you do not ask their politics/intentions before rescuing them”

At the time it made me think of an old thanka (wall hanging) I have of the Buddhist “Wheel of life”. It’s a complex early teaching aid but part of it depicts the six realms of being: gods, demi gods, human, animal, hell and hungry ghosts. In each realm the Buddha is shown bring the dharma (teaching) and pointing the way off of the turning wheel.

I got to thinking that we have our own gods and demi-gods these days. Wealthy business people who wield enormous power through their companies and technologies, we have even called some of them “Masters of the Universe! Perhaps Thich Nhat Hanh was just visiting their realm and pointing the way – throwing them a life ring.

Would I prefer to keep meditation unsullied by the world and kept in monasteries. No I think not. It has and will survive misinterpretation in the past. A taste of something beautiful is a powerful thing.

Another news story caught my eye this week that I feel has some resonance. Caroline Murphy is the heir to the Murphy Group (building contractors). She took a proposal to her board to hand the company to the 3,500 staff creating a worker co-op, albeit more like John Lewis. She would have ceded her £40m personal stake in the company creating a staff share ownership scheme. The board and shareholders rejected the proposal. Caroline said she was inspired by her fathers philosophy “ you can only sleep in one bed and only wear one pair of shoes at a time” (coincidentally my own father had his own version but it involved the number of shirts you can wear)

Caroline looks like she will be working for courses outside of the business including workers rights. Here is a business woman taking brave and radical action, and giving away her wealth, to change a business. What happened .. the shareholders blocked it. Maybe they are in the realm of hungry ghosts? – beings who are never satisfied no matter how much they have or eat.

Mark Leonard @ London Mindful Practitioners Group

Remember how sunny last Sunday was? Well yours truly spent it deep under Swiss Cottage Library attending another of the excellent seminars organised by Nick This is for people delivering mindfulness training in London.

Mark Leonard is a founder in The Mindfulness Exchange, a spin off company from the Oxford Centre for Mindfulness which he helped establish.

Mark talked about his TME and their approach to teaching mindfulness in the workplace. He also involved the group in some exercises to illustrate the methodology. TME takes the Mark Williams book “Finding Peace in a Frantic World” as their main text book. Their approach is is to present the scientific basis and evidence for the efficacy of mindfulness meditation right up-front. He strongly advocates this explanatory and transparent approach and sighted some recent unpublished research that shows that people are more motivated to engage in something they understand (very clearly) from the outset.

Mark contrasted this with the classic MBSR approach of focussing on the experience first and letting the benefits reveal themselves through experience and enquiry. He was also critical of those practitioners that mystified the process to put themselves in a power relationship – being the one who knows the secrets.

In an animated chat in the cafe after the meeting there was a good debate about the approaches arising from different schools. One of the views (I am glad to say) Mark and I shared is that the Buddha gave the clearest and most direct explanation and instructions. He (the Buddha) would have no problem with a science first explanation but I think he would have no time for what for some reason got referred to in the meeting as “Woo Woo!” (the mystification of the dhamma)

So I’m going back to my diagrams and explanations but for now I’m holding on to my meditation bowl/bell – it just sounds kinda cool 🙂

Mindfulness and Gov Policy

My good friend Mark alerted me to APPG All Party Parliamentary Group .. on Wellbeing and Economics. On April 9 they have a public meeting on “How Government Policy can improve wellbeing – mindfulness health, education and criminal justice”

I’ve managed to score a ticket and will be there to be amazed at some of our elected representatives talking about meditation. I wonder if they will start with 3 minutes of mindfulness?? You never know. Will post after the event.

Amaravati practice day

Just returned from a glorious day at Amaravati monastery organised by the lovely people in ALBA the Amaravati Lay Buddhist Association.
Walked back over Ashridge to Berkhampsted station in the twilight  got lost in the dark.. but so saw a bright moon and Betelgeuse.

Silent sitting and walking in the morning , followed by a guided meditation and mindful chats on the theme of “why are we here” in the afternoon. Some moving and some very funny stories were shared by the 30 or so participants. Someone shared the answer of a nun. At the point of arriving at Amaravati for the first time, she answered simply … “freedom”.

Jenna Ghouse and Richard Bomber led the day, and I was please to chat with Richard after the silent lunch. I learned about his meditation teaching at Unitarian Church.. no idea it was so old a tradition.. and we shared our concerns over the inexperience of some new mindfulness teachers. I hope we get to speak again Richard.

All the rage

You know when something is going mainstream when mindfulness gets 2 mentions on Radio 4 for within 12 hrs or so. This morning Vishvapani, during “Thought for the day”, talked about the denizens of our parliament taking it up. On “The Bottom Line”  a publisher mentions that over 100 books  about mindfulness were published last year.

All about something that words actually struggle to describe (maybe that is exactly why so many words?)

I’ll be penning mine soon. MBMH Mindfulness Based Mindfulness Hype. Then if this is how a movement happens in the 21st century.. Who am I to complain.. actually who am I.. mmm?

The first post

Hi, starting off a blog is a bit daunting but here goes…

Evidence  for the link between cortisol (the stress hormone) and depression seems to grow stronger. The recent piece of research looked at teenage boys.  The question in my mind is …  given mindfulness seems to lower cortisol levels, does this give credibility to the notion that mindfulness practices can head off depression early in ones life?

BBC Article Test ‘predicts’ teen depression risk