Mindfulness and Politics

Learning to Disagree Better

By Dan Nixon

I recently spoke to Jamie Bristow, Director of The Mindfulness Initiative—a charitable policy institute which works with politicians in the UK and internationally to explore the case for mindfulness-based programs across a range of spheres of public policy.

Dan Nixon: Jamie, the intersection of mindfulness and policymaking must be a fascinating area to work in. Can you tell me a bit more about what The Mindfulness Initiative does?

Jamie Bristow: It all started from an eight-week mindfulness teaching program for politicians in the British Parliament. That program started running in 2013 and a number of politicians became interested in the science behind the benefits they had felt in their own lives, and to wonder about how it might be used across a range of policy domains.

The Mindfulness Initiative began as an informal group of experts who came together to help politicians explore how the government might take things forward. The MPs (Members of Parliament) interested in this set up the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group—a cross-party forum which carried out a 12-month inquiry into how mindfulness could be applied in different areas of public life.

And the Mindfulness Initiative helped politicians to conduct that inquiry?

That’s right. Eight hearings were held in parliament on how mindfulness was currently being applied, or could be applied: in health, education, the criminal justice system and in the workplace. This led to the publication of the Mindful Nation UK report in 2015—the world’s first political policy review of mindfulness training, as far as we’re aware—which has been very positively received in the UK and internationally, in fact leading to similar initiatives in other parliaments around the globe.

It’s been my job to continue this work: following up on the recommendations of that initial inquiry, but also helping politicians and civil servants inquire into new policy areas where mindfulness training could have a role.

A project that you and I have been working on gets to the heart of what mindfulness is. We argue, in our forthcoming paper, that mindfulness can be viewed as a ‘foundational capacity’: not only for us as individuals, but to support a flourishing society.

That’s right, and the impetus for this project came from politicians’ first-hand experience of practicing mindfulness. We’ve now had over 200 politicians—MPs and Members of the House of Lords—take the eight-week mindfulness course in parliament. What we found is that politicians started practicing mindfulness for personal benefit—to focus better, for example, or to deal better with stress—but quickly moved into thinking about the kinds of benefits that the practice of mindfulness could have at the wider level of society. What’s more, there is interest in how mindfulness could have a positive impact on the political process itself, by recognizing that what matters in the business of debating policies, agreeing on legislation, and so on is not just the ‘what’, but the ‘how’. Mindfulness, it seems, might help elected official to disagree better.

In the words of Tim Loughton MP, the Conservative MP who co-chairs of the All-Party Parliamentary Group, “There’s an affinity (or a connection) amongst those who’ve been on this mindfulness course and a more considered approach to exchanges of differing views.”

Another Conservative politician, a former cabinet minister, said to us recently that the culture within parliament, within politics, needs to change and that mindfulness could be a part of that change because it can help us to listen better. Not just to others, but to ourselves: to examine more closely what our values are and what’s most important to us.

The potential for mindfulness to reconnect us to what really matters—what we value—is one reason why we can think about mindfulness as a foundational capacity. It’s a theme that came up at the ‘International Mindfulness in Politics Day’ that we held in London last year. We had 40 politicians from 14 countries come to the British Parliament for a day of mindfulness practice led by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Mirko Busto, an Italian MP, reflected on how easily you can lose the sense of what’s most important to you, and the clarity of your views, when you’re in an aggressive and a pressured environment. You end up making decisions that are based on that pressure rather than on what you really want to be doing. Similarly a Dutch MP, Esther Ouwehand, said that mindfulness helps her to stay true to what’s most important to her and act in line with her values.

Our individual intentions for practicing mindfulness can therefore move from self-regulation—managing stress, and the like—to self-exploration, in which we’re tuning into our deeper intentions for life and noticing where these might be out of alignment with our everyday behavior.

Another reason why we might view mindfulness as a foundational human capacity stems from the fact that it cultivates our ability to pay attention on purpose to our experience. Being present, whatever we’re doing, seems particularly valuable in today’s ‘age of distractions’?

Absolutely, it is. It’s so easy to have our attention captured by the feeds on our phones and all the other stimuli that are trying to grab it. Mindfulness can help us with perhaps the simplest thing of all: to be clear on where we are at any given moment, where our mind is, what we’re hoping to achieve. It can be like an anchor, or rudder, to what we want to be doing. And, of course, when we talk about mindfulness, we mean staying attentive and aware of the present moment, not in some kind of detached way, but with the attitudes of openness, curiosity, and care.

Living life on purpose can help our responses to situations to be more in line with our deeper intentions for ourselves and the sort of society we wish to inhabit. The more we cultivate mindfulness, the less we react in automatic ways and this can have important social implications. So often when we snap out at another person, when we push in front of someone or, indeed, when we ignore someone: so often these are caused by us reacting on impulse, rather than responding with care. And each time we react like that, we’ve changed the world a little bit because that low-level harm will ripple out: the person on the receiving end is less likely to be pleasant to the next person they encounter, and so on.

But you can also do the opposite. You can realize that when you smile at someone you might perhaps make one person’s day a little bit better, and that person might go on to treat someone else a bit better. As Pema Chödrön said, “we are always at a crossroads, moment by moment”; with the capacity of mindfulness, we can pause, perhaps checking in with the breath, and ask ourselves: who do I want to be in this moment? What kind of world do I want to see? Can I respond with openness and care?

Pausing, before acting, is perhaps needed now more than ever because of the scale of the changes unfolding in the world: technological advances, fundamental changes in the environment and shifts in social and political norms.

Yes – you could say the age of distraction meets with the age of disruption. The result is that it’s incredibly hard to make sense of what’s actually going on in the world—to know where we stand. We naturally seek certainty and stability amidst these changes. Mindfulness can’t offer us certainty about things, but it can help us to stay grounded in our embodied experience of the here and now, and connect us with our values. In the words of one Olympic athlete that I have worked with, mindfulness can help us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

This is not to say that we don’t act on injustice when we find it. To the contrary, mindfulness offers the ground and support for people to make great changes in the world, and to see more clearly where false promises of certainty, or of turning back the clock, take us away from the reality of the situation. Mindfulness can even help us to thrive in this sense of uncertainty, to find within us the equanimity and care required to operate in that state and to be clear and considered in our actions.

Mindfulness could therefore be a key 21st-century capacity. Not just for leaders, but for everybody, when faced with questions like: how do we deal with the anxiety driven by constant change, by everything that’s familiar being disrupted? How do we function in that context?

Sticking with the links between the individual and the collective, you attended a workshop at the Garrison Institute on ‘Generative Social Fields’ recently. How was that?

So the Institute hosted a gathering of scientists and practitioners – including some well-known figures like Otto Scharmer, Dr. Dan Siegel, and Peter Senge—who are at the beginning of what we hope to be a new domain of scientific inquiry looking at the group dynamic as if it were a field. So, analogous to a magnetic or gravitational field, say, they are looking at whether there’s some emergent property between us that has certain characteristics—whether that is actually some kind of energy field that we can’t see yet, or just the way in which our emotional and cognitive systems interact with each other. Sometimes those characteristics may be generative: for instance, they could be self-reinforcing when it comes to developing greater levels of trust, creativity or productivity. Others could be degenerative, such as when a feedback effect collapses trust or shared identity.

Could you give an example of where a generative field might arise, and how mindfulness could be a part of it?

It could be as simple as when two or three people meet and have the kind of interaction or dialogue where you kindle a shared sense of identity, or personality, arising within the group, where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. I think it can also happen in organizations, in teams, and internationally: this sort of loose sense of a group of people who are aligned around a particular vision or idea around which trust, collaboration and creativity grow. I’m amazed by the level of radical collaboration that can happen in the mindfulness field amongst very diverse people who come together because of a vague, but strongly-felt, shared vision. As Harry Truman said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” I’ve just seen that, time and time again, as people come together and just really want to give something in this space.

How might the idea of generative social fields shape your own work going forwards?

I’m really excited by this new framework as a way to understand how it is that we’re generating value at the Mindfulness Initiative—and a language to talk about that. Because we’re not just making recommendations to government about policy interventions for specific problems. We’re also helping politicians to look at political culture, we’re doing thought-leadership work such as the foundational capacity project that we’ve been discussing, and we’re working with the whole mindfulness sector to help it develop in a sustainable and skillful way.

When I say sector, I don’t just mean those studying it or teaching it. I mean those champions across public and private sector organizations who are trying really hard to bring it to their colleagues: from prison officers to police officers, business people to healthcare workers who are inspired to make this particular part of their lives a part of their professional practice. With the energy going into these various initiatives, you can look at what’s going on as emanating a field that has generative, pro-social properties.

Through the Mindful Nation UK parliamentary inquiry into mindfulness that began in 2014, we made a lot of connections in the field, not just between us and others, but between other nodes in the network. We helped the sector become aware of itself, I think. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has worked with us in the UK quite a bit, has said that nowhere else in the world is there the same level of collaboration and what he calls ‘super structures’ in the mindfulness sector that we have over here. Looking ahead, we’re working to extend this social field internationally—building a network of networks, helping local advocates and politicians to launch mindfulness training in the parliaments of more countries (having already helped to set up programs in four or five parliaments), and we’re working with a further 40 or so countries where we’re either in direct contact with politicians or with advocates in those political systems. So yeah, all in all, spreading the generative vibes.

Dan Nixon writes on the human mind, attention, and technology. He leads Perspectiva’s “Paying Attention initiative and is leading a research project for The Mindfulness Initiative on mindfulness as a foundational human capacity for a flourishing society.

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