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.
Part of the problem is a mistaken belief, prevalent in the mindfulness world, that ‘being present’ guarantees a cluster of profound benefits that range from spontaneous altruism to peace on earth, depending on how optimistic you’re feeling. It’s lazy and wishful thinking. Yes, there is a relationship between a calm, clear mind and pro-social behaviours, but how that might extend into systems-level change requires careful tuition, determination and organisational skill. If methods for socially engaged mindfulness are not made explicit in a programme – if they’re not taught – then the social value of mindfulness will be overlooked.
This is the case for mindfulness programmes like the one in Parliament. Their ambition is confined to developing individual psychological flexibility. Even this regularly backslides into unconscious quests for relaxation or self-improvement. Trainee takeaways from courses rarely stray beyond the personal. That’s fine, such is the nature of these courses. But it becomes a problem when people try convincing themselves (and others) that calming the mind and sharpening sensory awareness automatically leads to shifts in collective attitudes, beliefs and assumptions.
Taking the Initiative
Some people involved in the Parliamentary programme understand what would be required if mindfulness really were to fulfil its socially engaged potential in the halls of power. That would include, at least on paper, the Mindfulness Initiative (MI), authors of the latest report from Westminster.
Last year, MI published Reconnection: Meeting the Climate Crisis Inside Out, which affirms the “foundational capacity” of mindfulness for addressing the multiple interconnecting crises that link to climate change. It’s an admirable examination of the “deep-running human story of dominance and disconnection” and our delusion of separateness from nature. It considers how mindfulness, so often “miscast as antithetical to action,” has an important social function. It calls out our resource-intensive lifestyles. It notes the influence of vested interests in party politics that contribute to human disconnectedness and environmental destruction. It concludes, with refreshing bluntness, that “our current approaches have not been enough. More of the same will not be enough.”
MI’s Reconnection report nimbly cuts through greenwashed platitudes to identify the appropriate place for mindfulness in today’s world. It has to be social and environmental, not just individual, in scope. It needs to be wedded to ethical action. It should focus on the interconnection of inner and outer dimensions of the climate crisis. In short, mindfulness practices can and should contribute to a collective paradigm shift from separation to interbeing.
Around the time this report was published I asked Ruth Ormston, then Director of MI, whether she was serious about the radical implications of the Reconnection report. She replied: “This is just the start… Part of the change that’s needed here is systems change. We need to get into that on a much deeper level… We’re meeting people where they are and we see this as the beginning, not the end.” This was the rationale, she explained, for giving Westminster politicians “the language to be able to do the advocacy.”
The Reconnection report and Ruth’s comments declare a vital social function for mindfulness. Its practices are holistic, inclusive, regenerative and revolutionary. They were never meant to be used as relaxants or performance-enhancers. Rather they are a means to working with afflictive mental states that underlie the diverse manifestations of human suffering, including the climate crisis. Into the bargain this report offers a razor-sharp critique of a capitalist system that is driven by greed, violence, exploitation and the quest for limitless profits that is killing us and other species.
This is a very different ‘take’ on mindfulness to the one deployed at Westminster. Mindfulness becomes a socially- and environmentally-conscious pathway that allies inner mental cultivation with radical action, and understands these as being inseparable. This is a path that is not blind to the structural forces and power relations that undermine social solidarity and exacerbate collective suffering. This is a path that is conscientious and compassionate in deed, not just in word.
In daring to trace deep connections between our “mistaken story of separateness”, capitalism, environmental devastation and gross collective suffering, the Reconnection explicitly calls for systems-level change. That means structural change – to the ways we organise our society, to how we are governed, to how our economy is run, and more. Or to put it more precisely, a revolution. Which raises the question (again): Did somebody forget to inform the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group?
It’s safe to say there isn’t the faintest whiff of revolutionary intent in the air when our mindful parliamentarians meditate together. They are, in the main, loyal and unquestioning servants of a neoliberal order that is heavily invested in business as usual. They are, with a few honourable exceptions, happy advocates for an increasingly plutocratic government which works in the interests of powerful fossil fuel, financial and media industries that, in turn, have for decades successfully denied and downplayed facts critical to all of us. Such as the one about Earth’s support systems being so damaged that, as senior scientists put it recently, renders our planet “well outside the safe operating space for humanity.”
Who speaks up on this in Parliament? Who uses their power and influence to push for the kind of systemic change that would give humankind a chance? Not the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group, that’s for sure. It has had 10 years to face up to the avoidance and denial that characterises Westminster politics and embody the conscious concern that real mindfulness is all about. It hasn’t done so. In declining to “turn towards the difficult” it merely colludes with a strong dissociative tendency in British political culture.
The degree to which its mindfulness project has flopped – and why – was inadvertently revealed by one MP quoted in a recent study of the Westminster programme. “I’m like a drunk man going along the street clutching at lampposts. And the weekly mindfulness classes are those lampposts,” he said with apparent satisfaction. Nobody seems to have explained to him that the point isn’t to clutch at lampposts. The point is to sober up, wise up and do something useful.
His is a fine metaphor for McMindfulness, which takes various forms, depending on the context. At Westminster, the most obvious form is all the things that are never discussed or taught on mindfulness courses. Another form, conversely, is lots of big talk about collective mind-shifts, like the unnamed MP who claims that mindfulness “has helped to mitigate the narrowness and the bigotry of tribalism” in our political culture. Then there are the more personal forms like Tim Loughton sloshing about in his bathtub, cleansed of any concern about the impact of his “resource-intensive lifestyle.” But if you want a distillation of these forms into a singular image for mindfulness in Westminster, a drunken shuffle between lampposts is perfect.
Blah Blah Blah
How might the Mindfulness Initiative be feeling about all this? Rather conflicted, would be my guess. Although technically independent – MI is a charity that receives no government funding – its very existence came out of offering mindfulness to UK politicians. MI’s latest publication is, therefore, a report on its own 10 years at Westminster, where its programme serves as the template for what it now offers legislators around the world. Although it has never publicly cast doubt on its own work, MI would be forgiven for having private misgivings.
It must be dispiriting to start out surfing that promising wave towards mindful nationhood only to be reduced to offering a safe space to demoralised parliamentarians seeking refuge in metaphorical lampposts. And unsettling to watch your best work – the Reconnection report – completely disregarded by your client while your uninspiring filler – the Westminster report – is celebrated by that same client because it endorses business as usual. Not to mention embarrassing to see mindfulness, your big-hearted system-disrupting technology, cannibalised before your eyes and hear your pleas for real change sound dangerously like the “blah blah blah” that Greta Thunberg warned us about.
Sadly this is what has happened to mindfulness at Westminster. Billed as a cultural transformation, it became a paid gig propping up a discredited system. It started out with the motive of radical change and ended up writing reports monitoring its own extinction.
Anyone who has ever been co-opted in the way MI has feels a particular kind of feeling that gets more intense the longer you stay in the situation. It’s the blend of anger and shame that comes from witnessing your grand pronouncements about “more of the same not being enough” being used to uphold more of the same. It always hurts to realise you’ve been had, but it’s what you do next that matters. For MI, the honourable thing to do would be to speak out and walk away. No further reports are necessary. Anything from a Caroline Lucas-style resignation letter to something akin to John Lydon’s exquisite brevity when leaving the Sex Pistols would suffice.
Time will tell what choices are made by the Westminster mindfulness community. As 2023 looks on track to be the hottest year on record, with the planet burning and the climate in meltdown, its focus for now remains on that dedicated meditation room as part of that multibillion-pound overhaul of the parliamentary estate. Once they’ve settled in there, all nice and calm, what uneasy feelings might percolate in those weary hearts and minds? What conscience-niggling thoughts might rouse them from their collective complacency? When the hot winds and rising tides are assailing the sandstone walls of the Commons, will they cease their navel-gazing, open their eyes, find their response-ability and, in the true tradition of mindfulness, do something useful? Perhaps, but don’t hold your breath.
Click here for Part 1.