OPINION Frances Williams

NWR Issue r3

Will Wales Lead the Charge to Become a More Mindful Nation?

You may have been amused, puzzled or simply reassured to have learnt a little while ago that Wales is officially the ‘happiest place to be in the UK’. More specifically, Powys, abundant in rural isolation, is apparently the happiest county, with only Anglesey meeting similar high-levels of reported life satisfaction.(1)

How is it that such concepts of contentment – and their relative measurement – provoke our imaginations? These ‘news’ stories in the popular press are, of course, merely symptomatic of a much longer, more complex story around the cultivation of ‘national wellbeing’ that has now gained urgent attention amongst academics, policy makers, civil servants, teachers, health professionals and corporate companies alike.

‘Wellbeing’ took on a decidedly governmental meaning when David Cameron announced the Measuring National Wellbeing project in 2010, with data emerging out of the Office for National Statistics for the first time in 2012. In doing so, he was taking on the ideas of Richard Laylard and others who challenged the assumption that an increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would necessarily coincide with an increase in the wellbeing of domestic populations.(2) Such arguments, freshly made after the economic collapse, were presented very much as progressive qualifications: on the limit of wealth alone to make people happy and the limit of economic ‘growth’ as the way to best utilise (diminishing) natural resources.

Related to such developments in thinking around public policy and public happiness, although also existing distinct and separate from them, is ‘mindfulness’. This too promises to be adopted into governmental structures, both devolved here in Wales, and nationally. This much-used term actually encompasses a wide range of practices and ideas, but has become shorthand for a new (health/social) movement intent on changing the qualities of attention and compassion we experience in modern, Western contemporary societies.

Mindfulness takes on tangible, pedagogic form through MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), a collection of techniques for reducing anxiety and depression which first developed in a medical context in the USA. Bangor University’s Centre for Mindfulness Research Research and Practice has been a leading academic locus for the dissemination of ideas and practices around mindfulness in the UK, ever since it was first established in 2001(3). It teaches the teachers of MBSR courses in order to proliferate the technique. (People may be surprised to learn that it was in Welsh schools, for example, that mindfulness was first introduced into the classroom, as part of early research.)

More precisely, MBSR courses teach groups of participants a series of ‘exercises’ which focus on bringing awareness of the present moment, especially though the breath, but also by means of cultivating kind, curious, non-judgemental forms of attention, through meditation. Courses can be adapted to suit any number of social contexts. Following on from completing a course, individuals are apparently equipped to integrate this range of practices into their daily life.

As well as learning from teachers face-to-face on officially sanctioned courses such as this, mindfulness courses can also be accessed more informally through apps and websites.(4) These will talk you through guided meditations with titles such as the sedentary ‘Sitting with the Difficult’ or ‘Mindful Movement’, which also includes some gentle physical exercise.

The techniques were initially put together by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a doctor who worked with patients with depression at Massachusetts Hospital in the late 1970s. His eight-week course has now become the standard format for the proliferation of mindfulness practice, utilizing modern psychotherapeutic techniques but also drawing heavily on ancient Buddhist concepts.

Borne out of the counter-cultural interest in Meditation that took place in the 1970s, which saw Westerners learn more about Eastern spirituality and practices, mindfulness’ particular contemporary inflection is that it is framed as a secular form of meditative practice, one underwritten by scientific research. Another variant of the MBSR course encompasses CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) to create the hybrid MBCT course. Evidence for the efficacy of both MBSR/MBCT courses have led to the securing of funding for mindfulness initiatives in in many areas of American life, where it is now considered less marginal than mainstream.

Likewise, a similar direction of travel is taking place in the UK. The technique received official sanction in the UK in 2010 when NICE recommended MBSR as the ‘treatment of choice’ for depression. It has been adopted subsequently within the NHS.(5) But applications of the practice have now widened beyond the therapeutic, not just as a treatment for people with diagnosed mental health conditions, but for everyone experiencing the stress of ‘normal’ everyday life.

Kabat-Zinn, perhaps the defacto leader of what has been termed a ‘quiet revolution’, is rumoured to have been whisked away by David Cameron in 2010 when his ideas were met receptively. (Something easily imagined after Cameron’s adoption of the ‘barefoot’ strategic advisor, Steven Hilton, whose input gave the conservative party its ‘compassionate’ spin as part of the Big Society agenda). Whether this meeting is apocryphal or not, mindfulness advocacy has gained hold amongst cross-party parliamentarians in the last few years with striking speed.

In the high-pressure environment of adversarial politics, many politicians have been convinced through trying out mindfulness for themselves. Over 150 Lords and MPs of all political persuasion have undertaken an MBSR course along with 6 members of the Welsh Assembly. Although perhaps not a huge proportion of the overall governing body, plans to introduce mindfulness into public policy are now being framed very ambitiously, not just across the health sector, but in education, criminal justice and the wider workplace too.

Again, in this story of rapid political adoption, Welsh influence has played a particular role. It was the former Labour MP for the Vale of Clywd, Chris Ruane, who first advocated mindfulness amongst Parliamentarians. He helped set up the Mindfulness Initiative, also ensuring, for example, that mindfulness got a mention in the last Labour Party Manifesto, (although Ruane is the first to laugh and admit that ‘It didn’t do us much good!’ [presumably at the electoral level]).

Ruane also helped lead the Mindfulness All Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) which was set up in 2014. Post election, it is now co-chaired by Jessica Morden MP (Labour) and Tim Loughton MP (Conservative). The Mindfulness Initiative launched an inquiry which has involved more than 8 hearings in Parliament and over 80 speakers giving evidence of their work with mindfulness in their respective fields. A full report, due to be published later this month, will present research and make the case for funding for mindfulness interventions in many areas of the public sector in the UK.

Bangor University has also played a pivotal role in reaching this point of potential proliferation, helping build a body of academic research around it various applications. It is a leading light in a cluster of academic centres that now teach mindfulness (with others including Oxford, Exeter and Sussex). Should the aspiration for public policy initiatives come to pass, then it will present unique challenges for these centres. They will have to think about scaling up the courses so that more people will be able to conduct the teaching of the practice, now under pressure to become ever more professionalised in order to retain its standards of integrity in the face of huge demand.

Only last July, major new funding for research totalling £6.4 million was announced by the Wellcome Trust, supporting Oxford and Exeter Universities in working with thousands of children over many years to assess the effectiveness of mindfulness in learning contexts and its ability to enhance concentration and psychological resilience.(6)

A conference entitled Mindfulness in Society, organised by Bangor University this summer, gave a much needed opportunity to pause and reflect on these rapid developments. To present just one cameo, there emerged, for example, different interpretations as regards mindfulness in relation to public policy in Wales. Whereas some believe that mindfulness can help effect behaviour change for the better, others struggle to define the terms of mindfulness in relation to this particular field of work.

Rachel Lilly believes mindfulness is helpful because it ‘acknowledges that the choices we make are not all “rational”.’ Lilley is a committed environmentalist and author of a new report for the Welsh Assembly entitled Mindfulness Behaviour Change and Engagement in Public Policy. It involved 15 Welsh civil servants undertaking a bespoke mindfulness course.(7) The report concluded that ‘deeper levels of personal awareness of self and others [that were] developed within the course appeared to lead participants to support behaviour change policies that were empowering and non-manipulative.’

She is one in a ‘little team’ of academics from Aberystwyth University who are interested in how ‘nudge’ economics intersects with mindful ways of (re)-thinking the ‘habitual’. ‘How can you think about other people’s behaviour if you don’t understand your own?’ ask Lilley, who believes that a creative collision between behavioural social science and mindfulness offers ‘useful insights; which can unpick a ‘culture of power-over’ citizens employed by government.

However, Dr Nick John, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at Cardiff University, is troubled by the bringing together of these two fields and ‘struggles to find ways of describing how mindfulness could begin to translate meaningfully into policy.’ He fails to understand how individuals, in terms of their behaviour or values alone, can transmit mindfulness and enact change as a result. He characterises this as a ‘drip drip’ tactic which reminds him of ‘trickle down’ economics: ‘It just doesn’t work.’

‘There is a problem with the conceptual framework… it [mindfulness] is too difficult to interrogate. In terms of implementing ‘non-judgement’, I don’t see how that can be done. Public policy is intrinsically judgemental in that it is all about allocating scarce resources between (un)deserving subjects.’ He worries that in relation to public policy, mindfulness itself will ‘become a commodity for sale’ and that it will fulfil circular needs: ‘the system makes you sick and then it sells you the solution.’

Lilley also believes that ‘people aren’t the problem, systems are’ but sees the role of mindfulness here as positive and enhancing: ‘If you give people the education, they are better placed to understand how they arrive at their judgments and the contexts that frame them.’

For many attending the conference, listening to these arguments, it perhaps felt like the wheels on the Mindfulness bicycle were spinning without any pressure from feet on the pedals. Mindfulness has gained so much traction both from the media and government, it has led to unprecedented levels of attention. It’s an intriguing position for the ‘mindfulness community’ to find itself in; a place where society is becoming aware of the awareness that mindfulness brings, a moment you could characterize as one of actualisation.

John Kabat-Zinn and others characterize mindfulness as Buddhist meditation made ‘appropriate’ for our own society and own age. But whether this ‘appropriate’ fit is an awkward one, like a square peg in a round hole, or something more smoothly complicit, is a moot point. There is much in capitalist ‘neo-liberal’ societies that curtails our capacity to conduct our lives with compassion, as William Davies recent critique, [bookdep:9781781688458::The Happiness Industry, points out.(8) Yet there are many ethical values that mindfulness promises to ‘smuggle in’ through the inroads it creates as it makes deeper impressions into society, especially on those in power.

Perhaps this new shared awareness of how exactly mindfulness as a ‘movement’ intersects with contemporary society is difficult to grasp as it is frames its impacts very much as an individual practice. Other practitioners, like Meg Barker, have invented terms to describe a more collective vision, ‘socialmindfulness’: that is to say, making more explicit the links between individual practice and collective forms of experience/consciousness-raising.(9)

But whoever it is that makes up the collective mindfulness movement as it stands, it needs to start to develop its own critical faculties as an outright backlash assembles. How can mindfulness ‘sit with [its own] difficulties’? Without squaring that circle, mindfulness may gather a momentum to itself that even its own teaching practitioners may fail to resist.

Frances Williams publishes on culture and the arts.

The Mindfulness Initiative’s full report is due for publication this month, October 2015: http://www.themindfulnessinitiative.org.uk/

1. Daily Post feature
2. Richard Laylard, Happiness Lessons From a New Science, Penguin, 2011
3. The Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice, Bangor University
4. Mindfulness in Eight Weeks, Michael Chaskalson,
5. mentalhealth.org.uk
6. Wellcome Media Office
7. Mindfulness Behaviour Change and Engagement in Public Policy
8. The Happiness Industry, William Davies, Verso, 2015
9. Meg Barker


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