Sunday, 23 May 2010

Mindful Politics - part 2

Further to my post last Friday, it seems meditation practice might indeed have reached into the upper echelons of the British government - according to the Guardian, both new foreign secretary William Hague and new deputy prime minister Nick Clegg have practised Transcendental Meditation. According to the UK TM website, quoting interviews from the Times and Telegraph, Hague still uses it to help him keep calm and sleep better, while Clegg practised regularly for five years in his 20s but doesn't have the time anymore. No news yet on whether Gordon Brown might consider taking up a practice - could be useful for noticing when radio mics are still clipped on...

Mindfulness in the Military

One of the great advantages of mindfulness training is its capacity to help in almost any situation - as Michael Chaskalson puts it: "Is there anything worth doing that wouldn't go better if you practised mindfulness?" Relationships, work, studying, sport, or appreciating beauty - all are enhanced if we can pay genuine attention...

So what about war? A new study is being used to suggest that mindfulness training could help soldiers cope better during the stress of combat. The study found that the training improved US Marines' emotional regulation and working memory, and that mood, problem-solving abilities and emotional control all got better the more they practised mindfulness techniques.

Of course, one interpretation of this is that mindfulness might enable soldiers to manage difficult situations more reflectively - leading to less violence and suffering. Mindfulness has already been shown to be useful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, common among soldiers returning from war zones. But one of the dangers of studying mindfulness in isolation - stripped of ethics - is that its capacity for training attention, improving decision-making and regulating emotion will be used for unethical ends. I'm reminded of a story told by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche about a man who thought he was being especially mindful when paying attention to shooting wildlife for sport. Historically, mindfulness - at least in its buddhist context - has been closely allied to ethics. It is meant to be practised within a framework of compassion and gentleness. Of course, gentleness and compassion are qualities it may be possible to cultivate and practice in a military context too, but there is a clear danger that unscrupulous aggressors could use mindfulness training to pursue selfish, murderous ends.

As the power of mindfulness practice becomes more widely known, we can expect it to be taken up in all kinds of contexts, and the danger will be that its power will be misused. And unless we are also willing to train in kindness and compassion, perhaps that misuse is inevitable?

Friday, 21 May 2010

Investigating The Buddhist Mindset

I've written a piece for the Guardian about the new Centre For Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin. The centre is the leading centre for neuroscientific research into mindfulness and meditation. You can read the piece here

Friday, 14 May 2010

Mindful Politics

For those of us used to a politics characterised by open warfare between entrenched tribes, the sight this week of two formerly opposing British party leaders agreeing to work together in a new coalition was surreal. Just a week previously they had been trying to discredit each other, suddenly they were laughing at each other's jokes.

In chapter one of the Mindful Manifesto, we envisage "a mindful parliamentary system where, instead of shouting at each other over the dispatch box, politicians worked together to find the most workable approaches to government." It's a bit premature to hope that this might be the kind of mindful politics we are espousing, with collaboration, careful reflection, common interest and kindness replacing crude competition and back-stabbing - the fact that the Clegg-Cameron 'love-in' was so gobsmacking is a sign itself of how far we have to go. But while it may have been prompted by political necessity, any increased co-operation seems a step in the mindful direction. And if the smiles, warmth and cross-party cameraderie do - as seems likely - sink under the pressure of cuts, crises and simmering division, at least we will have seen, for a few short hours, how a different kind of politics might look.

Several people with links to the last British goverment - the Labour peer Lord Layard and former Downing Street policy advisor Matthew Taylor among them, have recently enthused about the benefits of mindfulness training. Let's hope some key figures advising Messrs Clegg and Cameron are in the same place. Ten minutes of meditation before Cabinet sessions? It might be one way to stop the rot from setting in...