MPs Slow The Westminster Treadmill With Weekly 'Mindfulness' Meetings

MPs Slow The Westminster Treadmill With Weekly 'Mindfulness' Meetings

Chris Ruane has a treadmill in the corner of his office. But judging by the boxes of loose paper piled high on it, the machine does not get used too often. The Labour backbencher points to it as a rather neat example of his mission to get his colleagues to slow their lives down.

The Vale of Clwyd MP is parliament's leading advocate of mindfulness - a form of meditation he describes as "the breath that allows us to anchor ourselves in the present". And the technique for battling stress has a growing fan base within the walls of the Palace of Westminster, where under-pressure politicians are being taught to spend less time focusing on the things that drain them.

So far 50 MPs and peers have taken part in weekly mindfulness sessions in parliament. And another round of the eight-week course is due to start in February, with a further 25 signed up. Of course not every MP and peer attends every week. "We don't say if you don't turn up you can't finish," Ruane chuckles. "That wouldn't be very mindful."

Meditation is often met with a raised eyebrow and dismissed as psycho-bablle, particularly in a hyper-active Westminster village crammed with people trying to push each other off that political treadmill. But Ruane's office is also proud that within five minutes of sending out a speculative email to MPs and their staff advertising the mindfulness classes, they got 40 replies expressing interest.

"Although initially sceptical," one MP who has attended the course says. "I am a convert. I'll be recommending it to all those who work with the young people in my constituency."

"People are far from their natures," Ruane, a member of the home affairs committee and a former Labour whip, explains. "The whole pace of life has speeded up. We are all on a hedonic treadmill. You get on it in the morning and you're on it all day long," he says. "How fast do you want to go on a treadmill? Have you got the means and mechanisms to slow yourself down or step off? I think mindfulness can help. It's helped for me. And those MPs and Lords speak about rebalancing their lives, re-prioritising, deciding what's important."

Set up by professor Jon Kabat-Zinn and psychotherapist Chris Cullen, the one and a half hour meditation sessions have glowing reviews from MPs. "So much of this job involves rushing about from one thing to the next, so it was incredibly refreshing to find time and space to create a sense of calm," one says.

Another MP comments: "I didn't have to make a decision or give an opinion. I even managed to sleep well that night. Mindfulness enables everyone to do that: no judgement, no expectations."

Mindfulness is now also offered to parliament's employees as well as the staff at the Department of Health. And Kabat-Zinn, the author of many a mindfulness book, has been to Downing Street to press the cause with the prime minister's policy unit. Ruane has also taken the meditation guru, although he dislikes the word, to try and persuade his senior Labour colleagues in the shadow cabinet.

Ruane, a former teacher, came across meditation in 1997 while teaching primary school children. And he hopes that with the increase in the number of MPs taking it up - it will start to inform policy. "The more we can develop mindfulness in the heart of parliament and in the heart of government the more mindful policies we can develop," he says.

In 2004, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) approved mindfulness as a legitimate way to treat depression. And the scientific backing is crucial in persuading GPs and hospitals to prescribe it rather than anti-depressants and for schools to practise it with stressed and depressed students. "The more science that we see the more belief that there is," Ruane agrees. He says of some doctors: "They don't practise it themselves; they don't know the worth of it".

He adds: "It's cheaper in the long term, the science is proven, it puts the individual in control and there are no long term consequences."

Ruane is also full of praise for David Cameron - defending the Conservative prime minister's much mocked wellbeing index that measures the health of the nation not just in economic terms. "When the history is written of this administration one of the greatest things he will be seen to have done is the measurement of wellbeing. Since the 1930s it's only GDP that's being measured, it's the be all and end all, it's what you watch for; it's what you're judged by."

"The prime minister has been switched onto wellbeing agenda since 2006. One of the first things he did when he came into No.10 was ask the Office for National Statistics to develop a matrix for measuring wellbeing and that's being done."

However, he warns the message is not filtering down to Cameron's cabinet ministers such as Michael Gove. "He's given it big political prominence, and yet his ministers in Department for Education are downgrading it."

Ruane fishes out statistics that show the number of times the world "wellbeing" was mentioned in Ofsted's school inspection guidance over the past few years. In the 2009 guides for inspectors it was mentioned 67 times. In 2012 this had been reduced to just two.

"Somebody is giving instructions to almost wipe out wellbeing from inspections. There are massive issues affecting young people that we are not on top of," Ruane says. "It's disappointing to see the issue of mindfulness being downgraded. We need to prove the science of mindfulness in education to convince ministers and shadow ministers."

Statistics that show 32% of people aged 16-24 suffer from psychiatric conditions also deeply worry Ruane. He says this suggests there are mental health problems of "almost epidemic proportions" among young people - and that it may only get worse. "It's one of those issues like national security, like care for the elderly where you could develop consensus on it. Mental health is a massive issue with huge financial costs. There are societal issues that I think mindfulness could help to address."

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