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