In 2013, when the mindfulness programme at the Palace of Westminster was established, its architects brimmed with hope and expectation. A radical transformation of politics was envisaged, with the UK at the heart of a family of mindful nations. Two years later, rhetoric undimmed, the Mindful Nation UK report gushed about pioneering a National Mental Health Service “to support human flourishing and thereby the prosperity of the country.” Not much evidence of that, is there? The gift to the nation turned out to be a decade’s worth of tame self-management programmes that have barely dented the status quo.
The UK Parliament recently celebrated 10 years of mindfulness at Westminster with a report, Mindfulness in Westminster: Reflections from UK Politicians, which examines the impact of mindfulness training on MPs, members of staff, and the wider parliamentary culture. One in 10 serving MPs and 800 employees – equivalent to a quarter of the current workforce of the Palace of Westminster – have taken part in mindfulness courses since 2013. Mindfulness is now a well-established presence in the halls of power. There is talk of a dedicated meditation room as part of a multibillion-pound overhaul of the parliamentary estate. Have you noticed what a difference mindfulness has made to the nation’s elite political institution?
Many people who learn mindfulness on courses such as MBCT and MBSR derive sufficient benefits to continue practising long after their basic training. Some go more deeply into phenomenological enquiry through meditation. Some channel mindfulness into creative and compassionate engagement with the world. Some do both. But others do neither, instead getting stuck in cul-de-sacs of aloof passivity and self-absorption.
Not so long ago, if you sought instruction in the ancient craft of mindfulness you would need to invest time and energy. Perhaps you would do an intensive eight-week course or join a residential retreat. Perhaps you would humbly request bespoke guidance from a geographically accessible meditation master, who might try to discourage you if they intuited you’d get flaky once the novelty of meditating wore off (let’s be honest, that’s true for most of us). Whichever way you went about it, there was a definite starting point to your endeavour and a clear commitment made – by you, to others.
A couple of hours after I heard that the Buddhist monk, peace activist and poet Thich Nhat Hanh (aka Thay) had died in January, I received mail in the post with the words “Mindful eating changes everything“ emblazoned across its front. There was something marvellous about the synchronicity of these two events. As I scooped the mail from the letterbox on that cold winter’s morning, still absorbing the news of Thay’s death, the world of mindfulness split neatly in two.