Launching the Mindful Nation UK report in the Houses of Parliament

Launching the Mindful Nation UK report in the Houses of Parliament

The 20th October 2015 was a landmark day for mindfulness. In this blog post we cover the launch of the Mindful Nation UK report and welcome Ed Halliwell, accomplished journalist and author as a guest blogger.

“I think that’s the only time I’ve been in this room and a prolonged silence from the platform has formed an integral part of the presentation, rather than somebody being lost for words.” So quipped Tim Loughton MP, co-chair of the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group, after Oxford Mindfulness Centre founder Mark Williams had led attendees in a meditation practice at last month’s launch of the Mindful Nation UK report.

Silence. Space. Friendliness. Kindness. Non-striving. Patience. These qualities may be considered integral to the practice of mindfulness, but they are rarely associated with politics. And yet, in recent years, something rather remarkable has been happening in the British Houses of Parliament. Quietly, on a Tuesday afternoon, groups of politicians from all major parties have gathered together to meditate.  Over a hundred MPs and members of the House of Lords have taken a course in mindfulness, offered through the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. Inspired by the evidence for salutary benefits, and encouraged to attend by mindfulness advocate and former MP Chris Ruane, along with happiness expert Lord Richard Layard, the politicians have given up their frantic schedules for a time, and, like many thousands of others up and down the country, offered themselves up to stillness. And like many others, at least some of these politicians have found themselves changed.  “I found the ethos, thinking and practice totally compelling…a very, very enriching experience,” wrote one about the course. “Amazingly helpful,” said another. “Of great benefit to me, both personally and professionally,” explained a third.

This groundswell of experience and support led to the formation of the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG), which began an inquiry into the possible wider benefits of mindfulness practice. Eight hearings later, and having listened to the testimonies of eighty expert witnesses, the group was ready to publish its report. Among the recommendations are expanding the availability of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) courses in the NHS, developing mindfulness in education by supporting pioneer schools programmes, offering courses for government staff, and introducing the training to offenders in the criminal justice system. All these measures would be supported by care to ensure high quality mindfulness teaching.

In both genesis and vision, the Mindful Nation UK report is unique. Not only did it spring from the personal practice of the politicians who commissioned it, but it’s the first Parliamentary report to be informed by the art and science of mindfulness. As the creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn, says in the foreword, it “may be a singular and defining document…addressing some of the most pressing problems of society at their very root – at the level of the human mind and heart.”

The report is also unusual in the breadth of support it enjoys. Three government ministers spoke at the launch, including Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, and the audience included a wide range of representatives from influential public, private and not-for-profit sector bodies.  Media attention came from several national newspapers, an extended BBC Breakfast feature, as well as widespread online coverage.

At the event, held in the Attlee Room at Westminster’s Portcullis House, Mark Williams suggested why mindfulness has become such a topic of interest. “This report talks about the consequences and costs of being out of control, in subtle and huge ways. But we can retrain ourselves in the innate quality of being mindfully aware, taking the time to check in, with curiosity and compassion, to see whether our moods and impulses are getting the better of us. Here lies the possibility of changing the trajectory of risk for many people– it’s got the evidence and the evidence base is growing.”

This was a theme picked up by Tracey Crouch, former co-chair of the MAPPG, and now Minister for Sport and the Olympics. “I think we’re really at the start of something. I came along completely sceptical – I’d never done any meditation before. The first week I wasn’t convinced but I went back the second week and was a complete convert. I think it’s an incredible way of dealing with everyday pressures and stresses.”

Alistair Burt, Minister of State for Care and Support, noted the strong cross-party consensus on mental health concerns, and suggested that mindfulness “plays a big part in preventing mental health problems and helping to prevent relapses.” He expressed a desire for more mindfulness training to be offered through mental health services, and also picked out from the report a strong potential for mindfulness to help people manage the stress of physical ill-health.

“Mindfulness has really captured the public attention,” acknowledged Nicky Morgan in her address. “The emphasis on quiet and focus clearly resonates among people today surrounded by the non-stop clutter and buzz of the technological age.” Highlighting the importance of “turning out well-rounded young people” as part of the brief for the education system, she said: “I think we can imagine the benefit that mindfulness can bring to schools, and I’ll be waiting with great interest to see the impact that mindful teaching has on the well-being and education outcomes of our pupils.”

The launch concluded with testimonies from three young people who’ve taken a mindfulness course. Enaya and Haroon, from UCL Academy, spoke of the confidence and choice that the training had given them (“Mindfulness opens up a sixth sense in your head, making you aware of what’s happened and what you can or can’t do” – Haroon), while Adam, a former pupil at Tonbridge School and now a teaching assistant himself, spoke of a subtle qualitative shift that has come from his practice: “Mindfulness may offer ways to cope with anxiety and stress, and maybe it will improve concentration, but it’s the freshness it brings to life that matters most to me.”

Government remains a target-driven endeavour, and the attention being afforded the Mindful Nation UK report is a direct consequence of the positive research outcomes from mindfulness trials over recent years. Able to make its recommendations based on those outcomes, the MAPPG has blazed a trail by bringing the evidence and groundswell of support for mindfulness together, and framing responsible steps for action. But in its willingness to embrace mindfulness as a mode of operation, the MAPPG has brought a subtle qualitative shift – a freshness – to politics too.

Ed Halliwell is a mindfulness teacher, based in Sussex and London, and author of Mindfulness: How To Live Well By Paying Attention. He was on the editing team of the Mindful Nation UK report, and is an advisor to the Mindfulness Initiative, which supported the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group in the running of the Mindful Nation UK inquiry. In writing this piece, he donated his time pro bono to the not-for-profit Oxford Mindfulness Centre.

The Mindful Nation UK Report is a start, not an ending. It hands the baton to policy makers, researchers, mindfulness teachers, mindfulness trainers and others. How can we “be the change we would like to see in the world?”  The OMC is taking forwards some of the report’s recommendations through its ongoing work and we will post some of these initiatives in the coming months.

You can listen to an audio recording of the Mindful Nation UK report launch event here.

Oxford Mindfulness Centre

The Oxford Mindfulness Centre (OMC) is an internationally recognised centre of excellence at the University of Oxford, and has been at the forefront of research and development in the field of mindfulness. The OMC works to advance the understanding of evidence-based mindfulness through research, publication, training and dissemination. Our world leading research investigates the mechanisms, efficacy, effectiveness, costeffectiveness and implementation of mindfulness. We offer a wide range of training, education, and clinical services, all taught by leading experts and teachers in the field, who are training the next generation of MBCT researchers, teachers and trainers. We actively engage in collaborative partnership to shape the field and influence policy nationally and internationally. Through the charitable work of the OMC, we are improving the accessibility of MBCT for those most in need.

Photo: Parliament, R DV RS