Earlier this year, I had the rather surreal experience of closing my eyes to meditate - along with various MPs - in a small room in London’s Houses of Parliament.
It was the interim report launch of Mindful Nation UK, and Rebecca Crane of Bangor University’s Centre for Mindfulness was giving us a glimpse into how it works: taking a few minutes to sit still, breathe deeply and re-focus our attention.
Six months on, the report complete, I’m back in Westminster, and this time Professor Mark Williams, of Oxford University’s clinical psychology department and author of the bestselling book, Mindfulness: Finding Peace In A Frantic World, guides us through a few minutes’ practice - the room falls silent as, heads bowed, we centre our awareness on our bodies and reconnect with a sense of calm.
It’s a welcome reminder to switch out of my all-too-usual ‘nervous energy’ mode; letting go of those lingering mad-dash-from-the-train palpitations and those urges to fill conversation gaps thinking about the to-do list back on my desk.
Once in the moment, things seem less overwhelming, less daunting and so much more absorbing and interesting - and this really is an interesting moment in the rise of the mindfulness meditation trend.
In recent years, the practice - lauded for its benefits for managing stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain and generally helping us become more collected, present and fulfilled - has moved from niche self-help and hippy territory (with a number of celebrity endorsements, Apps and bestselling books along the way), increasingly into the mainstream.
What the Mindful Nation UK report now hopes to do is take that a step further - by having these things officially recognised and worked into policy across a range of areas, with a focus on the healthcare, education and criminal justice systems as well as in workplaces.
It follows 18 months of inquiry, led by the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), co-chaired by Conservative MP Tim Loughton and Labour MP Jessica Morden, with former Labour MP Chris Ruane as Honorary President, into the benefits of mindfulness.
It marks the first time mindfulness has been seriously considered in the context of national public policy - and the firsts don’t stop there: for instance, today, I discover that, to date, almost 200 MPs, Peers and their staff have undergone mindfulness training since January 2013 (after Ruane and economist Lord Richard Layard set up a programme in Westminster), and listen to Tracey Crouch, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Sport, Tourism and Heritage, tell the room about how mindfulness has helped her cope with her own anxiety and depression.
“An MP talking openly about their mental health challenges is not something that would have happened just a few years ago. It’s a sign of how things are changing,” observes Conservative MP Alistair Burt, Minister of State for Community and Social Care - and let’s hope he’s right.
As Oxford University’s Professor Willem Kuyken, director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, notes, mindfulness is “not a panacea”, and “nor is it necessarily an alternative to other things that can be used to develop attention or deal with mental health problems” - which the report also acknowledges - but it does tap into a world of potential benefits.
Take healthcare; the report suggests that for every £1 spent providing Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), £15 could be saved.
The potential savings predicted (and yes, they are just theoretical, but largely based on evidence-based research) are not merely a case of swapping more costly treatments for a cheaper one (ie, a few hours of mindfulness training is less expensive than more long-term antidepressants), but reflect the ‘snowball’ effect that mindfulness potentially offers - as a ‘mindful nation’ we’d become better at managing ourselves, more motivated and ultimately healthier, easing long-term strain on the NHS.
The same principles apply to potential savings across education, the criminal justice and welfare systems.
MINDFULNESS FOR ALL
Schemes have already been rolling out, but next step challenges include ensuring training practices and standards are well regulated, and also ensuring that access extends to those in society who arguably need it most.
“There are groups of people that we need to think very carefully about reaching,” says Professor Kuyken. “Those that are living with long-term mental health problems, those that are living with chronic physical health problems - and they often co-occur.
“The rates of co-occurrence of mental and physical health problems are actually quite high, and the thing about mindfulness is that it can actually give people the skills to cope with both their mental health and the suffering around their physical health. I think there’s also something about reaching the most vulnerable in our society, those in the criminal justice system for example, the people that don’t have good access to good healthcare, don’t have access to good schools, maybe our long-term unemployed.
“How can we find ways of reaching those people?”