SOAS University of London

Centre of Buddhist Studies

Mindfulness in Public Discourse

Jamie Bristow, Dan Nixon, Dr Joanna Cook, Rachel Lilley, Vishvapani Blomfield, Dr Alison Armstrong, Byron Lee, Dr Steven Stanley. Curated by Dr Tessa Watt. Hosted by Professor Ulrich Pagel.

Date: 8 December 2018Time: 12:30 PM

Finishes: 8 December 2018Time: 5:30 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: Khalili Lecture Theatre

Type of Event: Round Table


This event will explore the role of mindfulness in politics and public policy, social values and social vision. Speakers include some of the UK’s leading thinkers and practitioners in this field, with three presentations followed by a panel and open discussion.

Mindfulness training has been finding popularity in government and public life, with courses at Westminster and other parliaments around the world, and across public, private and voluntary sectors. Is this just about relieving stress or can mindfulness inform political processes and decision-making? Is mindfulness politically neutral or does it support a particular agenda? Does it promote individualism or help us to link our actions to the 'good of the whole'? Does it help or hinder efforts to bring about a more sustainable and just society?



12:45pm - Welcome and brief mindfulness practice

1:00 - Why should we think of mindfulness as a 'foundational capacity' for a flourishing society? – Dan Nixon and Jamie Bristow, Mindfulness Initiative (Presentation with Q&A)

In discussing the role for mindfulness in society, we think about specific contexts: health, education, and so on. But we can think of mindfulness, more holistically, as a foundational capacity for individuals and for society? How can it underpin wiser choices, reconnect us to our values and help us to see the 'bigger picture' at a time when information overload makes each of these harder than ever?

1:45 - If mindfulness is the answer, what is the question? – Dr Joanna Cook, UCL (Presentation with Q&A)

In the UK, mindfulness is a political concern. An awareness practice originating in Buddhism, mindfulness 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 diversity of these challenges, it is striking that their solution is presented as unitary. In this presentation, I consider changing understandings of mental health and human flourishing. Taking political interest in mindfulness as my ethnographic focus I examine the broader cultural value of ‘metacognition’. I argue that cultivating a relationship with one’s own mind, learning to think about thinking in a peculiarly committed way, is increasingly being incorporated into understandings of the good life, mental health and governance.

2:30 - Tea and coffee break

3:15 - Mindful blinkers and biases: how and why we fail to optimise this transformative practice. – Rachel Lilley, Aberystywth University (Presentation with Q&A)

Many mindfulness advocates believe teaching attention, acceptance and compassion practices will change the world, improve politics, solve climate change and address inequalities and other contemporary challenges. But anyone who works in those areas knows this view is naïve, failing to acknowledge the enormous complexity the issues involve. We need a paradigm shift, to address the biases and blindspots of ourselves as trainers, our participants, and critically of the contexts and research fields we work in. We need to see what we are missing, challenge our ways of working, then we can truly support deep and transformative change at organisational, social, political and global levels.

4pm - Panel and open discussion

Chair: Vishvapani Blomfield

Panellists: Dr Alison Armstrong, Byron Lee, Dr Steven Stanley

5:30 close


Jamie Bristow is Director of the Mindfulness Initiative, the world's first policy institute about mindfulness, which grew out of a programme of mindfulness teaching in the British Parliament. The Mindfulness Initiative provides the secretariat to the UK Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group and helped politicians to publish the seminal Mindful Nation UK policy report. Jamie now works with politicians around the world to help them make capacities of heart and mind serious considerations of public policy.

Dan Nixon is a freelance writer, researcher and consultant, and currently part of the project team at the Mindfulness Initiative. A former senior analyst at the Bank of England, his recent writing includes an essay on the attention economy that was featured on the front page of The Sunday Times, in The Economist, FT, Mail Online, Express and Evening Standard, and was discussed on Talk Radio and BBC Radio 4. Dan has also written about mindfulness and what it means for economics and consumerism, which was picked up by the FT, Times, Guardian, Quartz and CityAM.

Dr Joanna Cook is a Reader in Medical Anthropology at University College London. She is the author of Meditation in Modern Buddhism: Renunciation and change in Thai monastic life (2010) and the co-editor of The State We’re In: Reflecting on Democracy’s Troubles (2016), Detachment: Essays on the limits of relational thinking (2015) and Southeast Asian Perspectives on Power (2012). Dr. Cook’s current research focuses on mindfulness and mental health in the UK. 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.

Rachel Lilley (MPhil, PhD Cand) has worked on social and environmental issues for over 25 years in the public and third sector. She is now a social scientist, practitioner researcher based at Aberystywth University. Her ground-breaking research considers how mindfulness can be designed and delivered to produce social, environmental and cultural change. Most recently she has been running programmes with senior Welsh Government policy makers including directors working in health, treasury and addressing poverty.

Vishvapani Blomfield lives in Cardiff and teaches both mindfulness andBuddhism. As a writer on Buddhism he is the author of Gautama Buddha: The Life and Teachings of the Awakened One and has been the Buddhist contributor to Thought for the Day since 2006. As a mindfulness teacher he works in several sectors and has pioneered mindfulness teaching in prison and probation settings in the UK. Vishvapani was part of the editing team for The Mindful Nation UK report and is currently the Director of The Mindfulness Initiative in Wales.

Dr Alison Armstrong did her first degree in maths and spent 10 years in engineering-related positions. She left in 2006 to do a Master’s in Sustainability (dissertation topic: consumerism and spirituality) and a PhD in Social Psychology, exploring the links between consumer behaviour and mindfulness. During this time, she trained as a mindfulness teacher. Upon completion of the PhD, she set up Present Minds, through which she offers mindfulness and mental health training. Alongside, she works part-time as Director of Research for a charity, looking into well-being in older age, and is writing a book about resilience.

Byron Lee is an educator and mindfulness teacher and has spent the past 25 years specialising in inclusion and leadership. Today he draws on his varied and in-depth training and experience to help people, teams, organizations and communities adapt and thrive in a diverse, complex and changing world. He co-designed and facilitated the King’s Fund Compassionate Leadership though Mindfulness programme, and continues to deliver compassionate inclusive leadership programmes and support sustainable and mindful approaches to equity, inclusion and social justice.

Dr Steven Stanley is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University, Wales. His research concerns the therapeutic cultures of late modernity. He is co-editor of the Handbook of Ethical Foundations of Mindfulness (2018). He is currently leading a landmark social study mapping the mindfulness movement in the United Kingdom, funded by The Leverhulme Trust.


Dr Tessa Watt has worked as a mindfulness trainer and consultant since 2009 and is author of Mindfulness (2015) and Mindful London (2014). She teaches mindfulness to MPs and Peers and their staff in the UK's Parliament and offers public courses and workplace training through Being Mindful. Tessa was co-chair of the Workplace strand of the Mindful Nation UK report and is an Associate of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. She is a Senior Teaching Fellow at SOAS, University of London, where she lectures on the MA in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation, and a senior teacher at the London Shambhala Meditation Centre.

Professor Ulrich Pagel is Head of the School of History, Religions and Philosophies at SOAS. He is Professor of Languages and Religions of Tibet and Central Asia, whose publications and research interests include Mahāyāna literature, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Buddhist monasticism and traditions of meditation. He is Chair of the SOAS Centre of Buddhist Studies.

Organiser: SOAS Centre of Buddhist Studies

Sponsor: Khyentse Foundation