My research in the UK explores the introduction of meditation techniques into mental healthcare. Working with practitioners, therapists, politicians and advocates, I explore how meditation has been incorporated into understandings of the mind, flourishing and preventative healthcare. Taking political and public interest in mindfulness as its ethnographic focus, this work analyses practices of ethics, well-being and self-cultivation that crosscut emerging forms of governance in contemporary British society.
Mindful UK: Well-being, governance and the politicisation of the mind
In the UK, well-being is a political concern. In 2014 an All-Party Parliamentarian Group (APPG) was established, committed to investigating the ways in which public policy on mindfulness-based practices might enhance individual and societal well-being. Mindfulness meditation, an awareness practice originating from Buddhism, is being interpreted as a positive intervention for societal problems as wide ranging as depressive relapse, criminal recidivism, children’s academic performance and worker burn out. Given the breadth of these challenges, it is striking that their solution is presented as unitary.
Taking political interest in mindfulness as my ethnographic focus, I explore the theoretical issues of neoliberalism, responsibility, well-being and self-cultivation that crosscut emerging forms of governance in contemporary British society. The Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentarian Group (MAPPG) was established in 2014 to investigate the policy potential for mindfulness-based interventions to address mental health issues identified in four areas of civil society: the criminal justice system, education, health care, and the workplace. In the arena of healthcare, it is estimated that up to 10% of the UK adult population will experience symptoms of depression in any given week and that depression is two to three times more common in people with long-term physical health problems. In education, emphasis is being placed on the value of ‘character-building’ and resilience in the promotion of non-academic skills and capabilities for students. In the private sector, the leading cause of workplace sickness absence in the UK is mental ill health. Concern also orients around the development of higher cognitive skills such working memory functioning and decision-making. Executive control and emotional stability are also of central concern in the criminal justice system. Violence in prisons and re-offending rates are being linked to problems in psychological processes and states that are amenable to training. Mindfulness, a quality of compassionate awareness originating in Buddhist meditation, is believed to help practitioners cope with life (from stress, anxiety, and depression to impulse control, emotional regulation and intellectual flexibility) and is now taught in major secular institutions in the UK, including hospitals, prisons, schools and private businesses. Mindfulness is interpreted as a pragmatic and targeted intervention to address the high levels of stress and anxiety found in diverse populations. Given the range and character of these societal challenges – criminal recidivism, impulse control, emotional regulation, depressive relapse – it is striking that a form of awareness training is being promoted as an appropriate solution in all quarters.
I am writing an anthropologically monograph based on long-term ethnographic research with the MAPPG and the supporting secretariat group, as well as interviews with advocates, stakeholders and practitioners, and analysis of the report, Mindful Nation UK. This research provides a unique opportunity to understand the logics and effects of a practice-based approach to well-being. It takes mindfulness as a window into contemporary discourses, values and aspirations associated with living well and governance. It examines diverse social challenges, and the logics of self-care and responsibility that frame their intersection and solution.