Sunday 1 June 2014

Q30: Can politicians speak mindfully?

This May, I had the privilege of attending the launch of a new All-Party Parliamentary Group on mindfulness.[1] Here I was, invited into the Houses of Parliament simply because I meditate! For many of us long-term meditators, this was an unexpected turn. When we started out (for me, in 1983) we were 'weird' or 'way out', we then graduated to being 'cool', and what are we now? Trend-setters! Even a force for change in the establishment!

I was surprised to learn that over 80 MPs and peers have learned mindfulness on courses at Westminster.
Having calm and resourceful politicians can only be a good thing, of course. So how soon will we hear the benefits in their communication?

[1] The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness was launched on 7th May 2014 in the Houses of Parliament to enquire into the role of mindfulness in public policy. The group is supported by The Mindfulness Initiative, a collaboration of three UK universities which are centres of research and training on mindfulness, Exeter, Bangor and Oxford. The Mindfulness Initiative, founded by Madeleine Bunting and Chris Cullen in 2013, is supporting the MAPPG. It is dedicated to advocacy of and research into the role of mindfulness in public policy. 
[2] Professor Mark Williams and Chris Cullen from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre have been running mindfulness courses in the Houses of Parliament since January 2013. To date, about 80 parliamentarians from both Houses have attended. 

Mindfulness is ...
Mindfulness is a way of paying attention. It's more than not being on 'autopilot'. It's about being fully, vibrantly present whatever you are doing. If you are practising a mindfulness meditation, you might be paying attention to your breath, or to the feelings in your body as you breathe. So what does speaking mindfully mean?

Presumably, you pay attention to your words. But this might be risky. You don't want to sound over-careful, wooden or pre-planned. People would be less inclined to trust you. They might even accuse you of talking like a politician! So better still, you can pay attention to what lies beyond your words, to your message and meaning.

But this also holds challenges - not to say dangers!

Danger! Saying what you (really) mean
If you pay attention to what you mean, the risk is that you will say it out loud! Even if you try to hold back, there are times what you really think surfaces anyway ....

'Bigotgate' and 'Brown Toast'

Witness the last Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, just before the 2010 general election. After an outwardly friendly meeting with voters in the street, back in the private world of his car, he says what he really thinks:

'That was a disaster! You should never have put me with that woman ... She's just a sort of BIGOTED woman ...!'

But (as the press quickly pointed out) his microphone was still on - and his words were soon broadcast to the nation ....

How can mindfulness help?
The answer is to know the useful meaning behind your 'negative' thoughts and judgements. This generally lands well with other people. For example, how could Mr Brown have said his words honestly in ways that the nation (and the poor pensioner herself) would have been happy to hear?

Like any judgement, the word 'bigoted' is useful as a shorthand, but to unravel its full meaning, Mr Brown would need to tap into his fuller experience, and pay attention to that. This is an inner journey which would take him from No! to Yes!
  • What is NOT wanted - 'NO!'
  • What IS wanted - 'YES!'
What is NOT wanted - 'NO!'
When Mr Brown spluttered, ' That was a disaster! ...', He was giving voice to a 'No' which I assume means:

'I do NOT share those views!' And, 'I do NOT want to spend valuable pre-election time discussing them.'

If this is what he had said, it could have saved him much embarrassment. But his words might still have shocked the innocent pensioner. So Mr Brown must dig deeper. What does this 'No' really mean? At a guess, his word 'bigot' says 'No!' to intolerance, prejudice, unfairness and inequality. But this still holds blame. He needs to dig deeper still.

What IS wanted - 'YES!'
'No' to intolerance, prejudice, unfairness and inequality presumably means 'Yes' to their opposites: to tolerance, understanding, fairness and equality. If this is what Mr Brown meant, it was a shame he didn't say so. His unsuspecting audience of millions would have heard a very different message. With much greater accuracy than his judgement, the Prime Minister could have broadcast his values. It may not have sounded quite as tidy as this, but in his own way, he would be saying the fullest version of the truth we've heard so far:

'I feel UTTERLY frustrated hearing those views on immigration. I URGENTLY want voters to hear all the policies we have in place to address these issues - based on values of TOLERANCE, JUSTICE and EQUALITY!'

Speaking mindfully
So to speak mindfully, you need to think and feel mindfully too - that's when you discover your true meaning. You find words which are more true than any negative judgements you might have used. And tuning in to that truer, deeper meaning, your words flow freshly from there.

... Now it wouldn't matter if your microphone were left on!

EXERCISES: In a normal conversation, we don't have much time to notice the processes at work behind our words. Using mindful attention, these exercises help to create more space as we speak:

Developing your inner reference point:
  • Choose a conversation you find interesting
  • Notice when you want to add something to the conversation
  • Pause for a moment just before you are about to speak
  • Notice what it feels like to have a sense of your meaning, a felt sense (before you know which words you're going to use)
  • Give a moment's mindful space to this clear-but-unclear moment (what is it like? how does it feel in your body?)
Transforming your judgements (the journey from 'No' to 'Yes'): 

TIP: In this exercise, we go into slow motion. We look for underlying needs or qualities (such as intolerance 'NO!' - and 'tolerance' 'YES!'), which we feel on a gut level. This means holding back from immediate strategies or solutions. When you give mindful attention to what you need or value, then you can move into action, and find ways to bring it in.
  • Notice when you are on the brink of making a critical judgement (or you have just made one)
  • Sense the power of the 'No' inside your judgement - does it have a body sense, a gesture, or basic words (e.g. "THAT'S NOT OKAY!" or "STOP" or "OUCH!")
  • Pause to notice what are you saying 'NO' to. What has gone missing for you?
  • Pause again to sense how it would be if everything was fine, a sense of 'YES!'
  • Now, can you find a simple word or two to put your 'YES'-meaning across?

By Elizabeth English

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