How much would a society change if a significant percentage of leaders and policymakers in its national government personally practiced mindfulness technology? Thanks to the efforts of Chris Ruane (a British Labour Party Member of Parliament) and Jamie Bristow (director of the London-based Mindfulness Initiative), we are beginning to get some answers.
Over five years ago, Chris invited Professor Mark Williams and the Oxford Mindfulness Center to introduce British parliamentarians to scientifically validated, non-spiritual mindfulness technologies. Since January 2013, 150 members of the British House of Commons and House of Lords (plus 250 staff members) have taken part in an adapted form of an eight-week Mindfulness- Based Cognitive Therapy course.
“We felt that if members of Parliament experienced mindfulness personally, they would understand the untapped power of the mind to increase focus, reduce stress and increase problem-solving,” explained Chris. “Going to a mindfulness course does not bring on the Age of Aquarius, but it does help you regulate your emotions and helps you make decisions from a place of balance and equanimity. There are issues of public policy that politicians from different parties will never agree on, but this area of wellbeing and human flourishing has lent itself to a more cooperative, non-partisan and collegiate approach.”
In 2014 with the help of Jamie and a wide group of leading teachers and academics, Chris and some of the politicians who had already taken the course formed an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness which, after a twelve-month policy inquiry, issued the world’s first public policy report about mindfulness, Mindful Nation UK. The report’s recommendations seek to improve standards and widen access in the national health service, public education and criminal justice system, among others. Two of these recommendations have already been acted upon in Britain, specifically impacting mental health treatment and training of therapists plus the use of public funds for the first time to study mindfulness training for British schoolchildren.
Over the past two years, Chris and Jamie have made contact with mindfulness advocates interested in taking mindfulness to their national legislatures in 37 different countries. Sweden set up their group in 2011. In the United States, Congressman Tim Ryan set up a group on Capitol Hill in 2012 and groups have also been established in the Dutch and French Parliaments and the Welsh Assembly.
The seed for this effort had been planted nearly 30 years earlier when Chris was a school teacher who had experienced the benefit from meditation for himself and then introduced it to his young students with great success. In 2012, Chris teamed up with Professor Richard Layard of the London School of Economics (and a member of the House of Lords) and Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University’s Mindfulness Center to help structure the program and outreach. Together with Jamie, one of the world’s leading experts on mindfulness and public policy, they set out to implement the program.
How challenging was it for Chris to convince his fellow MPs to come on board? “My personal pitch depended on whom I was talking to,” Chris explained. “If I talk to people in the tea room of the House of Commons and I know someone is struggling a bit, I ask, ‘Do you want to come along? It’s a great tool to rebalance yourself.’ With others who might not have any stress or anxiety issues, I tell them it’s a great way to lead a flourishing life. With the rest, I pitch it from a policy perspective, knowing that they have specific goals in mental health and education. To all, I say, ‘Come along and try it for yourself and see if it fits in your portfolio’. At first, some responded, ‘Chris, I’ll come but don’t tell anybody I am—they may think I have mental health issues.’ The zeitgeist has changed since then and it’s much easier for them to come along without feeling stigmatized.” “There’s been a development within the culture of the group, in that parliamentarians report speaking and listening better to each other, and that is a promising outcome,” Jamie explained. “Tim Loughton, the Conservative co-chair of our group, has said there’s an ‘affinity among those who have been on the mindfulness course that has resulted in a more considered approach to exchanges of differing views’.”
Perhaps one of the most dramatic outcomes of Chris and Jamie’s work is illustrated by Marion Furr, a senior civil servant in the Department of Health. Chris set up a meeting between Furr and Jon Kabat Zinn in 2013. Furr’s agency is made up of 2,000 civil servants who oversee 1,250,000 employees of the National Health Service. Marion Furr went on to personally introduced 1,000 staff members in her department to mindfulness.
She also brought the training to an additional 2,000 other civil servants working for other governmental departments at Whitehall. “So we have peppered the whole ecosystem of decision-making within the British Parliament and within the civil service, including some of the most senior people in the departments,” concludes Chris. “As Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you want to see.’ You can read it from a dusty book or a dry report or even an inspirational book. But if you actually experience the change you want to see, then it makes it so much easier to do that.”