Australia21 tries not to take sides in politics: we look to the evidence and call out flawed decisions or support sound public policies, no matter what party is responsible for them. But we have no hesitation offering our congratulations to newly returned Westminster MP, Chris Ruane. Not because his is the first seat that Labour has taken from the Conservatives in this unpredictable UK election, though that’s a notable achievement. The reason we applaud his election is because Chris brought about a fundamental change in the way the British Parliament and civil service operates, before he lost his Welsh seat when the Conservatives won a surprise outright majority in 2015. Then recently, he helped launch Australia21’s Mindful Futures Network.
Chris, a former primary school teacher, believes that learning to still our minds leads to greater clarity in individuals and institutions. So he set up the Mindfulness All Party Parliamentary Group to help MPs and Lords cope with stress and anxiety, control their egos, balance their lives and get their priorities right. The meditation sessions could have been dismissed as psycho-babble, especially in an environment of intense and often cut-throat political machinations. But within minutes of sending out the first invitation, dozens of parliamentarians and their staff signed up. Further interest grew rapidly.
Then in 2015, the Mindfulness All Party Parliamentary Group ran the Mindful Nation UK inquiry, which reviewed the scientific evidence and best practice in mindfulness training and developed recommendations for government, based on the findings. The result was a decision to implement mindfulness in public policy, improving the National Health Service, schools, prisons and workplaces.
Chris has also helped 40 other countries set up mindfulness practices in their legislatures and incorporate them into their civil services. It’s a fascinating story – and one that provides hope, particularly as policy debate is all too-often reduced to political point scoring. It’s an example for Australia.
Chris has already been involved in mindfulness discussions among Australian MPs. In 2015 he conducted a mindfulness meditation session at Parliament House in Canberra, hosted by Sane Australia. He hopes to follow up soon – though we suspect he’ll be a little busy for a while, given the momentous decisions that British parliamentarians face dealing with terrorism, Brexit, the country’s relationship with controversial US President Donald Trump and the future of the NATO Alliance, as well as domestic issues.
In the run up to the UK election, Chris very generously took time out from his busy campaigning schedule to deliver the keynote address at the launch of Australia21’s Mindful Futures Network. MFN aims to chart how innovations in mindfulness, empathy and compassion can contribute to the health and proficiency of public and private organisations here and it is currently in discussions with Federal politicians about setting up an All-Party Parliamentary mindfulness group in Canberra. Although the quality of the webinar feed from the UK was low, Chris’s contribution to the launch was top notch: what he had to say was inspiring. Take a look – you can watch it below, or read the transcript of his key points.
International Parliamentary Liaison Officer
The Mindfulness Initiative (UK)
Keynote address to Mindful Futures Network May 2017
Introduction: When we visit other Parliaments, one of the key recommendations we make is that mindfulness practitioners within that legislature or within that country map out the mindfulness best practice that is in their country already and look at best practice around the world. So, it’s an integral step in setting up mindfulness within a Parliament, so well done on that and well done for everybody for participating on this webinar.
Inspired by devastating rates of depression
00:30 The world health organisation predicts that by 2030 depression will be the biggest cause of human suffering on the whole planet and we’re already getting there. When I saw this statistic a number of years back I put down some parliamentary questions on mental health and mental wellbeing and flourishing. The answers that came back were truly devastating. I asked for the incidence of one or more mental illnesses in each ten-year cohort and from 15 to 24, 32.3 per cent of young people in that group had one or more psychiatric condition and for the next ten years, 25 to 35, it’s 30 per cent.
“So, there’s a huge cohort in the UK, and probably across the world, that’s coming through society who are living, working and existing sub-optimally.”
Another statistic said that 90 per cent of the prisoners in British jails have one of more psychiatric condition. And a devastating statistic that in 1991 there were 9 million prescriptions written for anti-depressants; by 2011 that had gone to 49 million, a 500 per cent increase; and today it’s 65 million.
02:24 I started practising mindfulness about 10 years ago. After 5 years practising it I thought I would take it back to my workplace, the House of Commons, to spread to other MPs and peers. I approached professor Richard Layard from the London School of Economics who was a world expert on wellbeing and wellbeing economics and mental health economics. He approached Professor Marks Williams from Oxford University who wrote Peace in a Frantic World and he came to Parliament and he started our lessons about four and a half years ago.
03:00 Since that time 150 Members of Parliament and Lords – British peers – have had mindfulness training, 250 members of their staff and, in a separate but parallel initiative, 3,000 civil servants – some of them the most senior civil servants in the land, in Whitehall – have had training through the actions of a great civil servant called Marion Furr.
03:20 Gandhi said ‘Be the change you want to see’, so after practising for about two years we decided to have an Inquiry into the uses of mindfulness and how it could help British society, the British economy and the British people.
04:10 The report has been widely welcomed in the UK and around the world and is seen as best practice and I would like to see politicians in other countries do their own Mindful Nation report.
5:26 Our Mindful Nation report looked at mindfulness in the criminal justice system, in education, in health and in the workplace and we made some recommendations to government which we thought were achievable. We didn’t go overboard, we made some key recommendations. I’m pleased to say that many of these recommendations have been agreed by the government. They have agreed to the training of an extra 400 mindfulness counsellors in the National Health Service in the United Kingdom. We’ve raised the issue again of mindfulness in education in Parliament and the Minister has agreed to go and visit a school and actually meditate with the children.
In the private sector, in the workplace, The Mindfulness Initiative has gone on to develop another report called Mindfulness in the Workplace, cooperating with some of the biggest names in UK industry – Jaguar Land Rover, HSBC, Smith Kline Benson – so we’ve had great rapport with the private sector.
And in the criminal justice system we’ve actually had a national UK coordinating committee with representatives from the mindfulness community to see how mindfulness can help out in the jails. We thought there were six prisons that operated mindfulness but when we looked into it there were actually 30, so we’re looking at what the best practice is, what the best science is, so that we can spread it to all of the jails in the United Kingdom.
7:00 In the UK we weren’t the first to develop mindfulness in our political system. (In the United States) Tim Ryan established mindfulness on Capitol Hill in 2012.
Anne Marie Broden, a conservative politician, a conservative Member of Parliament in the Swedish Parliament started her practice for the 350 Swedish MPs in 2011 and 35 of them, or 10 percent, went on a mindfulness training course.
07:30 (Chris mentions practice groups in the Welsh Assembly, Dutch Parliament and German Parliament, then his visit to Australia)
“I visited the Australian Parliament with Jack Heath, the Chief Executive Officer of Sane Australia who took me out there. I met with 12 Australian MPs who were very interested. The timing wasn’t right because it was just before your general election and I wish to visit the Parliament again to see if we can get more interest with Australian MPs from the new intake.”
8:45 Also, I’m currently working with mindfulness advocates in about 40 different countries across the world who want to take mindfulness to their politicians
9:00 (Chris mentions mindfulness practice is also being established in French Parliament and among the Prime Minister’s staff in the United Arab Emirates)
9:50 Mindfulness is spreading among legislatures around the world and I believe this is a good thing because Gandhi said ‘Be the change you want to be’: if we can get politicians personally practising and benefiting from mindfulness they will become that change and (many of them) will automatically, I believe, want to spread that change into their own society – into their own education system, their health system, their criminal justice system and the workplace.
10:25 Just as Lynne (Reeder) is helping to map out the best practice in Australia, I think we should also be mapping out the best practice around the world. I’m amazed by what I see around the world, the best practice. I believe that you have the best practice for mindfulness in universities in the whole of the world – Professor Craig Hassad for 26 years has been practising mindfulness with students and he’s kept the science of it, he’s kept the data to prove how beneficial that is.
10:53 In the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, Professor Mark Williams who I mentioned before introduced mindfulness for repeat episode depression – he did this 13 years ago.
11:06 So if these mindfulness interventions are known to be beneficial, are scientifically proven, why haven’t they been taken up in other countries around the world? I think if we develop this international network of mindfulness practice in politicians and we send them the best practice, we meet on a regular basis, we know each other personally, we swap the science, we swap the research, we swap the policy, then there’s a much greater chance of that mindfulness being taken up around the world. So, there is great interest out there and we hope over the next one or two years that we will have about 40 countries whose politicians are practising mindfulness.
11:50 Once again, I pay tribute to the work that Lynne and others are doing in Australia in promoting mindfulness. And also compassion and empathy, I know, is a key aim for Lynne and for many of you out there. She’s helping me develop my compassion and my empathy and appreciate the science more. I’ve been mindfulness focused – obviously, mindfulness beings forward compassion and empathy – there is much research on compassion and empathy that I think we need to develop as well. I think we can do this, if we can operate and cooperate nationally and internationally we’ve got a much greater chance of creating, as Mark Williams would say, peace in a frantic world.
Real mindfulness takes time and commitment
12.45 (Question: In our instant world people need to understand the practice takes time and commitment to rewire automatic responses. Are you seeing fellow parliamentarians and senior executives take a long term committed approach to the practice?)
13:55 A key integral part of keeping up best practice is having the ability, on a regular basis, to practice together – and it does change the dynamics within that group.
“I’m not saying it’s the age of Aquarius and peace and love and happiness is breaking out, but when you sit and meditate in a room with up to 25 MPs from different political parties – and we express our vulnerabilities in front of each other – when you’re in the Chamber, when you’re down the corridor and you meet those people from different parties, there’s a different dynamic.”
16:00 I see a golden opportunity to influence those young minds, many of those students are highly stressed. They will be going on to be future leaders in world.
16:25 I think there’s a golden opportunity to reach out to those people and help balance themselves, those young students, knowing that they will go on to senior positions around the world and will have benefited by mindfulness and be able to pass mindfulness on in their positions of authority.
18:14 I think if we want to embed it in the political decision-making, the initiatives we’re having with the senior civil servants are just as important as with the politicians. If we’ve got both of them there and also their researchers who are advising the MPs and Ministers on a daily basis, we’ve sprinkled the whole political ecosystem with mindfulness. It’s early days and I don’t want to over-claim for it, but we have seen the effects in policy already with these extra 400 mindfulness advisors and consultants in the National Health Service, counsellors being trained over the next year. We’ve seen more openness in the prisons to accept and spread mindfulness.
“So, I would say that change has come about, change is coming about, but it’s not just in politicians, it’s in the whole ecosystem.”