If Britain's MPs started meditating, what would happen? And what if doing that became contagious among professionals, corporate leaders, health workers, educators and - even more surprisingly - the police?
We now have a preliminary answer to that question. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness has just published its findings and presented them at the Palace of Westminster.
This is a historic initiative. I know of no other parliamentary group anywhere in the world doing this sort of investigation, let alone experimenting with this kind of mind training themselves.
The MPs' 82-page report, Mindful Nation UK, is based on hearings and research they have conducted on mindfulness training in health, education, the workplace, and the criminal justice system. It concludes:
"what is already clear is that it is an important innovation in mental health which warrants serious attention from politicians, policymakers, public services in health, education and criminal justice as well as employers, professional bodies, and the researchers, universities and donor foundations who can develop the evidence base further."
The Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group, largely inspired by former Welsh MP Chris Ruane, now includes as its Co-Chairs Tim Loughton, the Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, and Jessica Morden, Labour MP for Newport East. The Vice-Chairs include members of the House of Lords. Among them is Lord Richard Layard, Programme Director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science.
What is mindfulness?
Much is made of mindfulness these days. What is it? The report gives a succinct definition:
"Mindfulness means paying attention to what's happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment, with an attitude of curiosity and kindness. It is typically cultivated by a range of simple meditation practices, which aim to bring a greater awareness of thinking, feeling and behaviour patterns, and to develop the capacity to manage these with greater skill and compassion. This is found to lead to an expansion of choice and capacity in how to meet and respond to life's challenges, and therefore live with greater wellbeing, mental clarity and care for yourself and others."
The report describes the method used for mindfulness training. A number of MPs have undertaken the training as part of the group's work. They point out that it is not the same as improving concentration. "The development of curiosity, acceptance and compassion in the process of patiently bringing the mind back is what differentiates mindfulness from simple attention training," they state.
"Although initially sceptical, having completed the course, and attended every session, I am a convert," says one of the MPs quoted in the report. "It's just logical that we could all do with simple techniques to help us remember to live in and appreciate the present moment. I'll be recommending it to all those who work with young people in my constituency."
"The mindfulness course has been of great benefit to me both personally and professionally," says another. "The mindfulness breathing techniques and practical exercises have helped me to cope much better with the stresses and strains of a highly demanding job and gain a better work-life balance."
Health, education, workplace, criminal justice system
The report makes 13 specific recommendations. It urges the NHS to make mindfulness training available to the 580,000 adults who are at risk of depression throughout the UK each year - starting with providing training capacity for 15% of these as a first step.
Under the Department of Education's Character Education Grant programme, it recommends a £1 million Challenge Fund to which schools can bid for the costs of training teachers in mindfulness.
Among the report's recommendations for the application of mindfulness training in the workplace - including the public sector - is the proposal that "the National Institute of Health Research should invite bids to research the use of mindfulness as an occupational health intervention and its effectiveness in addressing occupational mental health issues such as stress, work-related rumination, fatigue and disrupted sleep."
One of the striking features of the report is the relevance it sees for mindfulness training in the country's criminal justice system. It recommends that "the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service should fund a definitive randomised controlled trial of Mindfulness-Based Interventions amongst the UK's offender populations."
Major Crimes and Mindfulness
The report also highlights the relevance of mindfulness training in policing - part of a range of evidence from workplaces such as Transport for London, the Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation, Google and the energy industry.
Among those who agreed to offer a personal testimony for publication in the report is
DCI Mark Preston, Major Crime Team, Surrey & Sussex Police Force.
"I'm responsible for murder investigation - the pressure can make this a very lonely role," he says. "Policing is more than a full-time job. Since I started practising mindfulness in 2013, I've noticed that I'm calmer and more likely to feel compassionate towards victims, witnesses and even offenders. I think that has implications for evidence-gathering, crime detection, victim satisfaction and community relations."
"Learning that I have a choice as to how I respond to something has helped remove the causes of some of my stresses in life," he says. "Mindfulness has also helped me to de-escalate conflict and to deal with everything happening in my life - I honestly believe it has helped me become a better father and husband, but also a better leader for those I'm honoured to lead."