It can take years, decades even, for ideas to become accepted widely in society, and it seems that meditation in the Western world has taken about 40 years to go from relative obscurity (‘hippy’) to mainstream, and even to McMindfulness and a backlash. The evidence for this acceptance is the recently published Mindful Nation UK report produced by the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) of the UK Government and the Mindfulness Initiative, in October 2015.
This full report (80 pages) builds on a previous report from another government report in Nov 2014, and it addresses how mindfulness is currently being used within four areas (health, education, workplace and the criminal justice system), alongside recommendations for the UK government. It has extensive references to scientific evidence of the benefits of mindfulness in these four areas, and is also based on a number of inquiry hearings held by the MAPPG.
It’s a very worthy publication, and most of its recommendations are for further research, government investment, and training for more mindfulness teachers to meet the demand. If you’re involved in any of the four areas, it’s worth a read. There are also a lot of statistics, some of which are pretty shocking, such as:
- 10% of children experience mental health issues between the ages of five and 16
- over half of those who experience mental illness in childhood suffer it again as adults
- there are now more than 15 million people in the UK living with a long-term health condition, and this accounts for 70% of all our health and care spend; and depression is two to three times more common in people with a long-term physical health problem than in the general population.
The report refers to a myriad of different mindfulness programmes and schemes that run in the four policy areas covered, and it’s great that so many children and adults have been introduced to mindfulness, but, there are a few buts.
The report itself notes that the success of the programmes in schools depend to “a considerable extent on the quality and experience of the teacher’s own mindfulness practice.” They also comment on the problem of varying quality of mindfulness courses for the public, and the training of mindfulness tutors.
The report also makes the very important point, in relation to mindfulness in the workplace, that it should not be used “to prop up dysfunctional organisations and unsustainable workloads.” I think out of the four policy areas, mindfulness in the workplace is where it has perhaps drifted furthest away from its origins. It may well help employees cope with stress, reduce workplace absenteeism, and improve efficiency, but companies should not assume that providing mindfulness sessions in work means everything is ok. It does not address the root cause of the workplace depression or stress. The report notes that workplace issues such as job insecurity, loss of status, workplace restructuring, and increased workload were all mentioned in a recent employment survey. Whilst meditation can help people manage their stress levels, it doesn’t mean their source of stress has gone away.
My final personal concern is covered in one of the concluding five ‘urgent questions’ outlined by the authors. They note that mindfulness courses must “differentiate themselves from simple attention training, by fostering the attitudinal foundations such as compassion, non-judging and non-striving.” (That is, link mindfulness to its origins in Buddhist meditation.) Earlier the report notes that the US military has mindfulness programmes for service personnel. (I was already aware of the US Marines having mindfulness training.) The report references research which shows the service personnel experienced various physical benefits as well as improved sleep, better responses to stress situation, and were better able to cope with PTSD after following the mindfulness training. All well and good. But how does a soldier reconcile the wisdom from mindfulness with being in a war situation? Do they shoot and kill with compassion? Are they really ‘in the moment’ of about to kill someone? A meditation practice over time is, in the Buddhist tradition, part of the way to reduce the causes of suffering, and to increase a sense of peacefulness and wisdom in the practitioner. ‘Right Mindfulness‘ is the seventh path in the Noble Eightfold Path. In the yoga tradition it leads the practitioner to feel empathy with all living beings, to sense a connection, and see the one-ness of life on Earth.
Maybe I’m being too simplistic and pedantic, but it seems that the flip side of the benefits of meditation finally being noticed by those in power is that it is taken out of context and loses some of its integrity.
But let’s not end on a sour note. The fact that over 100 MPs and civil servants have been practising mindfulness meditation is a great thing in itself, and even the production of this report can be considered ground-breaking – as noted by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his foreword to the report. And here in Wales there was a separate Welsh launch of the report, and a separate brief document on how the report’s recommendations can be taken forward in Wales. I shall watch with interest!
You may also want to read another account of the launch of the report by one of the organisations involved in its creation.