Living on purpose – Jamie Bristow and the Mindfulness Initiative

Living on purpose – Jamie Bristow and the Mindfulness Initiative

Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space

Living on purpose – Jamie Bristow and the Mindfulness Initiative

Jamie Bristow is the director of the Mindfulness Initiative, a think tank which has been instrumental in bringing mindfulness into the political mainstream and affecting public policy, both in the UK, and in Europe.

They helped set up an all-party parliamentary group on mindfulness in Britain, and in 2015 produced the world’s first policy report on Mindfulness, Mindful Nation UK.

In 2020 the Mindfulness Initiative took the step of examining the evidence for the positive effects of mindfulness beyond its familiar “wellness” application, by producing a paper called, Mindfulness: Developing Agency in Urgent Times, which looks at qualities that can be cultivated through mindfulness, that might be foundational to creating intentional agency, toward social and societal change.

In this interview with Jamie, we take a closer look at how mindfulness is developing.


Mindfulness joins the political mainstream

3rd Space: Welcome Jamie. You have been doing ground-breaking work for some years to bring mindfulness into the political mainstream. You are also trying to use mindfulness to affect public policy. In Britain you’ve helped set up an all-party parliamentary group on mindfulness. And you have worked on the application of mindfulness to public life. This culminated in the world’s first policy report on mindfulness training – Mindful Nation UK. More recently you have been concerned with how mindfulness can help us with living on purpose.

To begin with, what do you see as the concrete impacts that bringing mindfulness into the political sphere has had? 

Jamie: When we talk about this programme in Parliament, people often look incredulous, and say, “Really? What I see on TV especially since Brexit, doesn’t really match up with what you are describing politicians are becoming interested in.”

But actually there are 300 MP’s and members of the House of Lords who have had some mindfulness training. That sounds like a big number, but there are something like 1400 MPs and members in the House of Lords. So, the impact that the mindfulness training programme has had is still limited.

But there are communities within parliament, on a cross party basis, who have been practising together and developing new types of relationships, and in their words, it has helped them to disagree better. Some of these communities have said the programme has transformed their lives and how they practice politics. 

Meditation in the House of Commons

3rd Space: Politicians in the House of Commons take part in a regular meditation practice. Is that right?

Jamie: Yes, there have been a number of eight-week mindfulness courses since 2013. And there’s a regular meditation group that’s been really helpful to create this kind of alternative culture.

In some of the other countries that I’ve worked in, they haven’t had this regular group. That’s been a real detriment. That regularity in the UK parliament among this drop-in group has been very important.

3rd Space: Mindfulness is generally understood, at least in public life, as a response to mental health issues. A lot of the evidence of its effectiveness, particularly in clinical trials, has been around that area. You’ve been developing a framework for how it can be fundamental to meeting the global challenges of our time.

Can you tell us about this shift in your own understanding of the application of mindfulness training, and its potential?

Building Credibility

Jamie: Yes, absolutely. The biggest shift for me personally came quite a long time ago. I started mindfulness and meditation practice because I wanted to concentrate better and work longer hours.

I moved through the phases of intention for practice—from self-regulation to self-exploration, to what researchers call self-transcendence. In other words, doing it for reasons other than yourself. I worked in the climate change world eleven years ago. It’s been my belief since then that mindfulness has something to contribute. So, for me it has been a driving vision for all that time.

The work of the Mindfulness Initiative is creating public policy reports and making serious recommendations for ministers. It had to start off where the evidence base was strongest. This was to build up our credibility. So, we started in the area of health and wellbeing. By far the strongest case for public spending on mindfulness training is in the domain of preventing recurrent depression. Also in pain management, and promoting wellbeing in schools.

Mindfulness as a Foundation for Living On Purpose

Even back then, there were politicians who were more visionary. They wanted to make a statement about how mindfulness practice and training could help to build important capacities. These capacities would allow citizens to interact better. Better in terms of community building, their relationship to the state, and how society and democracy functions.

That has changed in the last three years. We now feel we have the platform, the credibility, and the nascent frameworks to take mindfulness further. That is, further than it being a nice well-being benefit in the workplace, or an alternative to antidepressants.

Could it be that mindfulness is a foundational capacity that underpins positive or optimum functioning? It really came together when we hit upon this fundamental element that mindfulness underpins intentional action. It helps us to be more conscious and to live on purpose more of the time: the idea of agency that we published a document on, at the end of last year.

Developing Agency in urgent times

3rd Space: What do you mean by agency, and how do you see it as related to the cultivation of mindfulness? 

Jamie:  We define agency as the capacity, both individual and collective, for intentional action. It’s our ability to respond, consciously and on purpose, rather than out of blind habit, or because we’re buffeted by the winds of cultural coercion.

The folk assumption is that we do perceive the world roughly as it is; that we make our own choices, and we do what we decide to do. Whereas psychologists know that we are pretty irrational. We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.

Our sense making is conditioned and riddled with biases. Then there is the world we’ve created for ourselves, particularly the attention economy. That is digital entertainment, advertising, the social media complex – which distracts, captures, and sells our attention to the highest bidder. In this context our attention is the new oil, where empires are built, and fortunes are made.

So, our ability to have some handle on our own minds, particularly our attention, is of political importance. As well as, for our own sense of agency. Also the system with which we try to make sense of the world, with which we test ideas and decide what’s true and right and good, and the right way to act, is continuslundermined by untruths.

So, in the paper we lay out how agency is actually quite a complex thing. It has these dimensions of perceiving the world, understanding the world, and acting. We then position mindfulness, not as a silver bullet or panacea, but as one of those things that should be in the mix to help us to develop these underdeveloped capacities.

Capacities and Definitions

3rd Space: Could you elaborate on some of the qualities that the practice of mindfulness can evoke in us, that enable a real change in the way we relate to the world and how we act? 

Jamie: Mindfulness can be understood in very different ways. It’s a state, it’s a capacity or a trait, a latent ability; a training programme; and an individual practice. Mindfulness is also a movement with a capital M, and a lifestyle, or a way of being. We talk about it primarily as a capacity. It’s our capacity to attend, with particular qualities of awareness to what is happening as it unfolds inside of ourselves, and around us.

Rather than just nailing your mind to a spot, it has particular qualities of openness, curiosity and care. So, it isn’t value neutral. It’s got this caring element within it, which is one of the things that underpins its therapeutic benefit. But I would also say that mindfulness, like compassion, is more of an umbrella term, a compound construct. Equanimity, compassion and reflexivity. Also metacognitive awareness, our ability to step back from thoughts and feelings, to have a bit of distance on them. Mindfulness is this whole constellation of qualities of heart and mind, which can be cultivated intentionally.

Perception and meta-cognitive awareness

In the Agency document, in the first chapter on perception, we particularly look at attention training and the qualities of openness, curiosity and care. We look at how we can broaden the bandwidth of our perception and receptivity to be more open to novel and challenging information. This includes information from within us.

In the second chapter, we look at perspective-taking, and particularly that metacognitive awareness element of perspective on thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness is also associated with the holistic/intuitive mode of mind.

Cognitive scientists think that there are two modes of mind which complement each other, but also compete with each other. One is the verbal, conceptual mode of mind. This means serial processing, chunking things into bits, so that we can be logical and analytical. And then the holistic/intuitive which is much more open: parallel processing, seeing the wood from the trees.

We quote the psychiatrist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist here. He says that our ability to see separateness and to manipulate objects is of vast importance. As is our ability to put them together and see the whole in a holistic sense. This is a part of mindfulness – that being mode, the stepping back, the seeing the whole. It is also the outcome of mindfulness, to some extent.

And then, in the final chapter on actual ‘doing’, we look at relational qualities. For example, mindfulness relates to the more skilful regulation of aggression and anger. It is about the development of pro-social qualities like empathy and compassion, which again could be considered component parts of mindfulness itself.

Can Mindfulness close the ‘meaning’ gap?

3rd Space: One of the real problems of the contemporary world is the experience of a lack of meaning. Do you see mindfulness as being able to provide us with a sense of meaning? And how does that work?

Jamie: Great question. The trait of mindfulness, our ability to pay attention to what’s going on here and now, inside and outside, with openness, curiosity and care, I don’t think necessarily has meaning within it. However, it can be tremendously useful, not necessarily in giving you answers to the big questions, but in helping you ask them.

The training programme of mindfulness, which is a whole raft of different things, is already being used by people to explore what’s meaningful to them. However it becomes tricky in relationship to public funding for mindfulness training if you have a very particular frame for ‘meaning’. But empowering people and saying that it’s important to have meaning is different. Them meaning can be put in a ‘well-being’ frame. Because people who have meaning and purpose have very high level of well-being. So, we can use mindfulness to ask – what is valuable to you? What is important? What’s the point of all this for you? I think it’s absolutely invaluable in those circumstances. 

3rd Space: Yes, it’s one of the big issues of our time. I can definitely see how mindfulness training could help one to connect to a personal sense of meaning. But perhaps there’s another level to this that can be discovered in mindfulness, that gives you a sense of meaning about life itself.

Jamie: Yes, I think that’s right. Anecdotally, when people slow down, stop, tune in, what they find there is meaningful, certainly. Whether that has a significant impact on their life, I think is still up for inquiry. Exactly what container the practice has, will have an impact on what emerges in people’s practices.

Is it Enough?

3rd Space: That makes sense. You’ve explained some of the qualities that can get evoked through mindfulness practice. Significant ones in in relationship to this whole question of agency.

At the same time, is this enough in our troubled times? Our current worldview is so fixated on one particular form of thinking. It is fundamentally mechanistic, utilitarian, and tied to the primacy of economic growth and extraction. This is particularly the case in relationship to the natural world.

It does seem like there needs to be some kind of fundamental shift in our worldview. Otherwise how are even going to survive as a species. Do you think the practice of mindfulness can make a sufficient enough impact on the depth of this embedded worldview?

Jamie: Well firstly, it’s important to say that everything has an impact on the world. It’s not as if this particular thing is going to change the world or is not. We tend to think in Newtonian terms where there are certain levers that create change. We’ve just got to get those levers and yank them, and then something will change. And, if we can’t get those levers then we are powerless.

Changing Mindsets

Some of the really interesting thinking that I’m starting to follow is using the language of quantum social change. This idea that we’re all in a social quantum field, and we’re all impacting each other. And that we shouldn’t underestimate the emergent properties and phenomena that can arise out of that field. It isn’t really the case that mindfulness is going to change the world, or is not going to change the world. It is changing the world, it is being net helpful, I believe. 

Is it sufficient? Is it the only thing? Of course not. If we are actually going to survive, it’s going to be the interaction of a thousand different things. I do believe it’s a big part of the picture. I think you’re right, one of the ways in which mindfulness can help is to create a shift in mindsets.

Mindsets are understood by sustainability scientists as a deep leverage point for change. They are foundational to the structure and emergent practice of society. For example, are we human beings at the top of a pyramid in domination over other human beings and animals? Or are we enmeshed in a harmonic web of life, where every interaction has another interaction across the web?

There is some evidence to believe that mindfulness does help us shift mindsets. This is particularly the case when in combination with things like nature connection. 

Mindfulness and inquiry

3rd Space: Do you think part of this has to do with a further expansion of what mindfulness could incorporate?

So, there is the example of mindfulness based cognitive therapy, which is available on the NHS for depression. There is an inquiry around how we construct the world, project our beliefs, and see things in a certain way. There is enormous scope to innovate the psycho-education component of this. To inquire into how we construct our collective environment, and what’s possible. And there are examples of that happening.

So, you’re absolutely right, I think it could be really important.

Affecting values

3rd Space: An example of such an inquiry might be, what is the connection between the values that seem to be running the world and us, as men?

The domination of male values in the world is a question that probably goes back to the beginning of time. But some of these questions are actually quite profound. They have a very big impact on the way we look at the world.

Jamie: If we inquire without a practice element, without an experiential, or mindful element, then it becomes a philosophical exercise. It’s just in our heads. We have a nice chat about it, and then we go home and forget about it.

Something I’m interested in, is a mindfulness-based philosophical inquiry, which is basically to do exactly what you’re describing. That is to try and use the psycho-education component as a philosophical exercise. It’s not just a talking shop. It’s in the bones, you’re actually going to go in and change how you see something.

Mindfulness and its spiritual dimension

3rd Space: What do you think about the role of the more overtly spiritual dimension of meditation practice?

How do you think it should be seen in relationship to mindfulness?

Obviously through the practice of meditation, it is possible to penetrate into the nature of consciousness. And in that way to realise the deeper spiritual dimension of who we are. It can lead to an understanding of our interrelationship with all of life. This relates to what you were saying about the holistic/intuitive.

I think it takes a depth of experience in meditation to understand that. So, on one hand, there’s the potential for an experience of existential freedom to be found in meditation. But also perhaps a potential pitfall. The experience of feeling “actually I’m fine, everything is fine”, could lead to the opposite of agency. You might not feel there’s any need to do anything to change the world.

What you think about that question?

Jamie: Yes, great. So firstly, mindfulness as a way of tuning into this field of being, can itself be meaningful and spiritual. If by spiritual you mean what is soulful, existential, having something to do with our interdependence, something bigger than self. I think it can certainly be a catalyser and an enabler of that.

I think there’s probably a way in which mindfulness can be taught, which is devoid of all of that also. And there is some evidence to say that the kind of framing that you approach mindfulness practice with, will determine the experience of it. 

An appetite for re-enchantment

I think there is an appetite for re-enchantment. A pull toward discussion of the spiritual that is really breaking through in unlikely places. Even in politics, the allowable language that politicians use within mainstream policy context has shifted significantly. There are some pretty hard-bitten policy people who have been doing this for many years. Even they have noticed that questions of love and beauty, and some of this more ineffable stuff, is trying to break its way into discourse.

One of the reasons that Jordan Peterson has had such an enormous following is that he is a person who’s happy to talk about the necessity to re-enchant the world. This is a world that has been flattened out and disenchanted by three hundred years of the modernist project. The modernist project has brought so many amazing things, but also a sense of alienation and disenchantment.

One thing that’s been fuelling the mindfulness movement is this sense of re-enchantment that people experience through the practice. This is often in contexts that teach it in a very vanilla and quite secular scientific way. Mindfulness has helped to bring the colour back into their life. You could say, the spiritual element.

So yes, I think it’s a lightning rod to that latent desire for spirituality. But again, mindfulness programmes could better help us inquire into meaning, and into what spiritual is. And why we know that human beings are spiritual beings, whatever your belief system. 

A Fuller Spectrum of Inner Capacities

3rd Space: Great, Jamie. I really appreciate having had the time with you to explore some of the frontiers of mindfulness practice and development. It’s fascinating to think about where it’s going to go from here.

Jamie: Yes, I agree.

If I leave with one thought… over the last few years, mindfulness has been on its own, out in the vanguard. Hopefully we’re going to get a more nuanced discussion of all these different inner capacities that have their own evidence base. And mindfulness will be seen as perhaps a primary, the primary foundational enabler for a fuller spectrum of discussion of inner capacities, contemplative practice, or contemplative science. So that’s my tip for the next three or four years. 

The full interview is also available as a podcast here.

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Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space