Stop, think, breathe... vote: Mindfulness in parliament

MPs and Peers are taking off their shoes, exploring how meditation-style techniques can be used in policy and asking what a more mindful politics might look like

July 29, 2014
MPs no longer need visiting religious leaders, or religion of any kind, to teach them to be mindful. © Downing Street/PA Archive/Press Association Images
MPs no longer need visiting religious leaders, or religion of any kind, to teach them to be mindful. © Downing Street/PA Archive/Press Association Images

After about a minute with my eyes closed, I sneak a peek at the rest of the class. Everyone sits in perfect, upright stillness around three sides of a large table. Their backs are straight, their breath even. Their eyes remain steadfastly shut. I shut mine again, too.

“See if you can be interested,” I hear our instructor Chris say in his gentle baritone, “in the complete cycle of sensations involved in breathing.” He is not asking us to clear our heads, nor to run away with any thoughts. We are supposed simply to breathe in and out again, focusing on each breath, and allow whatever else happens to happen. When, ten minutes or so later, we open our eyes again, the atmosphere of silent focus and readiness is palpable. It's a sensation common after the practise of “mindfulness,” as this discipline is known. It's something I've experienced before, when I took a similar class a few years ago. But it’s not a sensation I ever expected to find here in Portcullis House, the office building for MPs in Westminster.

A group of MPs and peers invited Professor Mark Williams and Chris Cullen from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre (OMC) to teach an initial eight-week mindfulness course for parliamentarians between January and March 2013. Since then, four more courses have taken place in an on-going programme, and over 85 MPs and peers have done a course or attended classes. A growing number of them meet for a practice session in Parliament each Tuesday. Parallel courses are now running for their staff—it's one of these that I am invited to sit in on. These have, according to Cullen, been “very oversubscribed.” Earlier this year, Labour MP Chris Ruane, Conservative MP Tracey Crouch and Liberal Democrat MP Lorely Burt set up an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG—an informal cross party grouping focusing on a single issue) to explore ways in which mindfulness might be introduced into public policy. It has 20 members from all three parties, ranging from class of 2010 alumni like Labour’s Lisa Nandy to old hands such as Tory veteran Sir Peter Bottomley. Mindfulness is not exactly a majority pursuit in parliament but, says Crouch, “it's acknowledged that it's not some weird kooky kind of fad.”

Mindfulness involves training oneself to live in the present moment. The OMC website defines it as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, with compassion, and open-hearted curiosity.” Mindful people are able to pay close and careful attention to thoughts, feelings and body sensations which arise in their experience, and therefore manage them better. The notion of mindfulness, as distinct from Buddhist meditation practices (to which it is related but not identical), was pioneered in the west by University of Massachussets Professor of Medicine John Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn adapted techniques and practises from Buddhist and other traditions into an eight-week stress-reduction course and accompanying book. Mark Williams built on his work, and it is his updated course the parliamentarians follow. There is a growing body of hard evidence of its effectiveness: NHS trials of mindfulness courses have shown a 50 per cent reduction in the risk of relapse for depression sufferers.

When I meet Tracey Crouch in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Portcullis House, she tells me she has been completely won over, despite initial scepticism. “I'd never done any kind of meditation at all,” she says. “I was thrown out of my yoga class for laughing. But actually I've found mindfulness a completely different art form.” She originally got into mindfulness, she says, not because of her job, but to deal with difficulties in her personal life. But, says Crouch, there are many professional benefits that spring from practising mindfulness. Sometimes the pressures of office make it harder for politicians to be their normal mindful self. “That's where you can see the mistakes being made,” she says (though she’s reluctant to cite specific examples). Advocates of mindfulness often say that it helps you to “respond” rather than “react:” to make decisions having thought carefully about all the options, rather than taking the first instinctive course of action. It's a distinction Crouch agrees with. Chris Ruane, speaking to me in his boxy parliamentary office, says this ability to respond in the most appropriate way to a situation is key. “The name of the game is to live with mind and body in the same place at the same time, so you've got focus, attention,” he says, “whatever's in front of you is the thing you pay attention to.”

Ruane's interpretation is in line with scientific opinion on the benefits of mindfulness. Elena Antonova, a neuroscientist at Kings College London, explains the mechanics. One reason why mindfulness helps people to make decisions which are better considered and more closely related to what is going on around them, she says, is the balance it encourages between different neural networks in our brains. One of the networks, the default mode network, is particularly relevant. Although the network itself is neither inherently good or bad, we tend to use it for worrying and over-thinking things, taking ourselves out of the real world and into what Antonova calls a “virtual reality.” It is also, she says, a metabolically expensive network: over-using it drains a huge amount of our energy. Mindfulness is known to attenuate a habitual over-activity in this network, freeing up our mental and neural resources for problem solving and more efficient response to the present-moment demands.

The potential public policy applications of such a skill are wide-ranging. Cases of depression and anxiety are rising dramatically in Britain, particularly among the young (the Royal College of GPs warned in January that tens of thousands of 15 to 34 year olds are suffering from related conditions). The APPG on mindfulness is still in its early stages, and is hosting a range of talks and discussions over the coming months which will inform any formal reports it releases. But Crouch has already led a delegation to the Department for Education to discuss the use of mindfulness in schools. She points to one scheme with which the APPG was particularly taken, the “.b” initiative. .b stands for “stop, breathe and be,” a mantra which teenagers are encouraged to observe when the pressures of young life threaten to overwhelm them. If a child sees their friend struggling, they can send them a text reading simply “.b” as a reminder of this. The mindfulness in schools project, which created .b, says that an Exeter University trial into the effects of the programme found that children who participated, drawn from a wide range of secondary schools, showed better well-being and less stress at a follow up assessment three months after completing their initial course.

But the practice of mindfulness could have implications within parliament and among politicians, too. “A growing number of MPs and peers... [are] beginning to discuss what a more mindful politics might look like,” says Cullen. He cautions that any change within parliament is likely to be slow-moving (Kabat-Zinn, he says, keeps a poster on his wall reading “remember the thousand-year view”). One benefit he highlights, though, is that the classes provide a uniquely safe cross-party environment in which to talk about the challenges parliamentarians face, and how they might deal with them more effectively. MPs and peers have told Cullen that they've never spoken so honestly in any other forum. One benefit many of them notice, he says, is that through practicing mindfulness they are able to more effectively help constituents who come to weekly surgeries with harrowing stories, as the MP feels able to listen more deeply and be less reactive. This presumably also helps the constituent to feel they are being treated with more compassion. Ruane agrees that the cross-party nature of the classes is a good thing. “There's a code there. People express their vulnerability, and become stronger because of it,” he says. Nobody I speak to has experienced much serious scepticism from parliamentarians, though some inhabitants of the Westminster village are apparently harder to convince than others: one friend of Ruane's likes to greet him with a sarcastic “ommmm.”

But aren't there contradictions here? Politics relies, in part, on adversity, struggle and healthy scepticism. Ruane says that while it will always be the case that “passionate” people go into politics, mindfulness is “a way of tempering that passion.” The rather no-nonsense Crouch doesn't see the adversarial style of British politics as necessarily problematic, and says most politicians are pretty good at not overreacting to the other side's goading anyway. She sees the benefits of mindfulness for politicians as being more practical. For example, she used to find speaking in the House of Commons a challenge—MPs often have to wait a long time to get a turn, mulling their precious few words over and over endlessly in their heads. Since she started going to Chris Cullen's classes, Tracey has come up with a useful new way of anchoring herself during the build-up to a speech: taking off her shoes, relying on the benches in front to shield her socks from the view of the public gallery. She's noticed a few other MPs who've been on the course doing the same in select committees and elsewhere.

Back at the parliamentary staff class, the prevailing impression I get from participants is that mindfulness leads to small but significant changes in the way one goes about one's daily life. It might help you think twice before responding to an email from a constituent, for example. Khobi Vallis, who works for Crouch and was seven weeks into the course when I spoke to her, says that you learn to integrate your practice into your daily routine, turning to it almost instinctively when tricky situations arise. "It [mindfulness practice] has become a go-to now,” she says, “as opposed to something which is a nice idea but I'll never get to without meditating for four hours a day."

The institutions of Westminster are ancient and creaky, and we're unlikely to see Cameron and Miliband sitting down to a “breathing space” before PMQs any time soon. But in politics and elsewhere in public life, an ability to be resilient under fire and not to overreact or lose control can only be a good thing. “I think most people have got innate wisdom, but they're thrown off course by events,” says Ruane, “mindfulness can give you that... It can give you personal equanimity and balance. So when you're thrown off course, you can bounce back.” I'd certainly like to know that the people running the country can keep a steady hand on the tiller through the most challenging of times. If taking off their shoes now and again and remembering to “stop, think, breathe” is one way of getting there, it sounds like a good idea to me.