Mindful 45˚ Politics

The article originally appeared in Political Mindfulness: Fresh Perspectives on Multiple Crises’, a Compass publication edited by Phil Cohen.

In his pamphlet 45˚ Change, Neal Lawson warns that ‘in all this demand and pressure for change, it is crucial that we also seek to change ourselves’, quoting John Atkinson who counsels that ‘change will come when we learn to change ourselves’. In identifying the fault line between vertical and horizontal politics at which 45˚ change manifests itself, Neal argues that ‘both sides of the line need to change, to recognise the validity and importance of those on the other side and to engage with each constructively and empathetically’.[1] I want to argue here that ‘political mindfulness’ potentially offers a helpful path towards such change. Indeed, arguably it could represent a parallel 45˚ hinge between individual and political/social change. In many ways Compass embodies an ethic of political mindfulness in its philosophy and the practices to which it aspires, even if it does not frame it in those terms. 


Credit: Dingzeyu Li

I write as a founding member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness (and also the newly formed APPG for Compassionate Politics) and an active participant in an informal mindfulness group in Parliament. I first discovered mindfulness in my 20s (although it wasn’t called that then). In those days I found it difficult to integrate my practice with my political life because they seemed like two totally separate worlds, with no clear channels between them. The very notion of ‘political mindfulness’ would have seemed strange. It probably still does to many political activists on the one hand and mindfulness practitioners on the other, in particular given the popularity of ‘McMindfulness’.[2]  

I share the scepticism expressed by many towards the kind of instrumentalist and commercialised forms that McMindfulness signifies. But I also reject the false binary sometimes erected between the individual practice of mindfulness and collective action for social, economic, democratic and environmental justice. The case against such a binary has been developed well in a series of contributions to Open Democracy/Transformation that have promoted the idea of ‘social mindfulness as a force for change’.[3] In order ‘to avoid individualisation’, Paula Haddock suggests we need to pay attention to ‘three mutually interdependent spheres: the personal and psychological, the interpersonal and organisational, and the wider social movement and socio-political’. She warns that ‘neglecting any one of these spheres, or failing to recognise their interplay, can undermine our struggles’.[4] Similarly, Beth Berila suggests that mindfulness itself can offer a valuable means of integrating intrapersonal, interpersonal and collective levels within a social justice framework.  Quoting Grace Lee Boggs, she claims that it can help us ‘transform ourselves to transform the world’.[5]  

With Luke Wreford, Paula Haddock describes the work of the Mindfulness and Social Change Network, which works across more than 20 countries to explore how mindfulness can support efforts to promote social justice and sustainability ‘at the intersection of mindfulness and social change’.[6] As I suggested above, we might see this as another 45˚ axis. They address the common criticism (voiced at the meeting which led to this pamphlet) that, in its focus on individual well-being and mental health, mindfulness is self-indulgent and can reinforce neoliberalism through an emphasis on individual change. 

They cite a network member who has worked for many years on human rights and conflict resolution and who ‘finds that mindfulness provides the stability to stay present in the midst of strong feelings of despair and doubt which would otherwise derail his efforts and lead to burnout’. This brings to mind the mindfulness practice of ‘equanimity’, which, in the words of Jack Kornfield, helps us develop ‘balance in our hearts’ in the midst of it all.[7] This can be very helpful in times such as the present when there is so much anxiety around the coronavirus: if we are able to develop a degree of equilibrium and balance in the midst of the mounting scares and widening social (or physical) isolation, it is more likely our responses will express solidarity with others, especially those more vulnerable than ourselves, rather than solipsistic panic. As Angela Merkel put it, ‘This is a test for our solidarity, our common sense, and our empathy and consideration for one another’. Social mindfulness could help us meet that test.[8]

Wreford and Haddock’s reference to burnout is important.  Trying to avoid burnout is not self-indulgent. If you are burnt out, you are not much use to others as I know from bitter experience in my 30s (when I had been ‘too busy’ to maintain my meditation practice but found it then helped me on the road to recovery). Haddock quotes the civil rights activist and inspirational writer Audrey Lorde who, from a position of subjection to oppression, explained that ‘caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare’.[9] Haddock draws the lesson that ‘shifting the balance of activist cultures to include personal contemplation and psychological inquiry is essential’. Self-care can be supportive of activism not oppositional to it. Labs of Care, a network that explores ‘new ways of collaborating, taking care of yourself, others and the most vulnerable’ is premised on the belief that ‘Care is one of the profoundly transformative central aspects of our grassroots movements’.[10] Its transformative potential operates in each of Haddock’s spheres – personal, inter-personal and organisational, and socio-political.  

In response to the neoliberalism charge, Wreford and Haddock argue that ‘mindfulness can be practised in ways that reveal how our perceptions, thoughts and reactions are conditioned by the world we live in and enable us to break free from limiting beliefs and narratives we’ve internalised from prevailing ideologies’. A mindfulness for social change course has helped build ‘attentional capacity, empathy and compassion and flexibility of views, alongside vital skills such as working through conflict [and] collaboration’.[11] These are all qualities and skills essential for successful deliberation, which according to Diana Warburton is ‘about opening up and exploring issues through listening to and learning from each other, thinking about personal initial views and working out where it is possible to compromise on values, preferences and aspirations where these clash with others’.[12]  Wreford and Haddock also describe mindfulness work with the Welsh Civil Service, which an evaluation found ‘changed management styles and understandings of decision-making processes and bias, enabling more collaborative working’.[13]  This suggests that mindfulness could be helpful also in the change required on the vertical side of the 45˚ line.

Compass has always emphasised the importance of how we do our politics – of means as well as ends – as we try to be ‘the change we want to see in the world’. This is the main reason it has become my political home and I have come to realise how compatible that is with my mindfulness practice. Instead of factional, tribal[14] politics we have promoted what Sue Goss calls the politics of the ‘Open Tribe’. She recognises that tribal politics have a role to play in promoting belonging, shared identity and the motivation to be out leafleting in all weathers. But they are also narrow and stultifying, as witnessed in Labour’s refusal to collaborate in the kind of Progressive Alliance type politics that Clive Lewis argued for in his short-lived leadership bid. The idea of the open tribe acknowledges the importance of political tribalism but encourages us to be open to and learn from other progressive ‘tribes’ and accept that no political party has a monopoly of wisdom. It is a politics of openness, kindness, compassion and generosity. It involves genuinely listening to others and curiosity about what they have to say and where they are coming from. 

As noted already, successful 45˚ politics depends on such an approach on both sides of the line.  These are all qualities that mindfulness helps to cultivate. In a political context they can thus be justly described as ‘political mindfulness’. They also contribute to the emergent idea of a compassionate politics. In an article on a compassionate transition to sustainability, Tim O’Riordan defines compassion as ‘the kindness of self-aware generosity and the sympathetic joy of acting morally for the benefit of all. Compassion is linked to deep psychological feelings and embraces attributes such as sympathy, care for well-being, empathy, sensitivity for others’ distress and need, and mindful acceptance of the unattainability of the ‘ideal’.[15]

The fate of Jeremy Corbyn’s welcome promise of a kinder politics is a warning of what can happen when such talk is not underpinned by personal and organisational change of the kind mindfulness encourages. Unfortunately, a combination of hostility from the outset from many in the parliamentary Labour Party together with a lack of leadership skills and apparent lack of interest in developing them and the different kind of leadership some of us had hoped for meant that far from the kinder politics we were promised Corbynism became associated with the very opposite. That is one reason Compass published a person specification for 21st century leadership drawn up by Sue Goss and myself.[16] Although we don’t use the term, some of the qualities and skills we outline could be described as mindful political leadership.

Mindful politics and 45˚ politics also bring to mind the kind of politics some feminists developed under the rubric of ‘transversal politics’. It is a process of ‘rooting’ and ‘shifting’ in which participants remain rooted in their own values but at the same time are willing to shift views in dialogue with those with other identities and values.[17] An example is provided by the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition who pursued what I have called ‘a politics of solidarity in difference’ in providing a space in which different identities could be named and different voices heard in an attempt to promote women’s presence in Northern Ireland’s excessively male-dominated politics during the lead-up to the Good Friday Agreement. In a statement that captures something of the essence of transversal politics the Coalition observed that ‘we have found that you learn more if you stand in other people’s shoes. Our principles of inclusion, equality and human rights help us to do that’.[18] Arguably, political mindfulness does so also. 

Neal’s 45˚ change pamphlet speaks to quite fundamental questions of what it is to be human, with its emphasis on the failure of old ways of doing things ‘to meet our needs as human beings’ and on our ‘capacity to care and create, not just consume and compete’. It calls for us to ‘think and act differently, if we are serious about a world of love, compassion, time, beauty, creativity, honesty, respect, empathy, air we can breathe and a planet we can share with other species and organisms’. I am not arguing that Compass supporters need to practice mindfulness to rise to his challenge. But I do believe many might find it helpful. Nor am I arguing that by itself mindfulness can offer ‘the way out of here’. But I do believe that politically and socially aware mindfulness can support and strengthen the Compass approach to politics on both sides of the 45˚ line and that it can nourish us as individuals as we dig in deep for the long-term task of building a good society. 

Ruth Lister is a Labour peer and Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Loughborough University and a former director of the Child Poverty Action Group. She chairs the Compass Board and is a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on mindfulness.

[1] Neal Lawson (2019) 45̊ Change: Transforming society from below and above, Compass

[2] Ronald Purser (2019) McMindfulness, Repeater.

[3] See in particular Luke Wreford and Paula Haddock, ‘Mindfulness and Social Change Network’, 6 August 2019; Rachel Lilley, ‘Does mindfulness in politics make any difference?, 25 August 2019’; Mark Leonard, ‘Social mindfulness as a force for change’, 29 September 2019; Ronald Purser, ‘The future of mindfulness’, 15 December 2019; Paula Haddock, ‘Don’t wait for the future of mindfulness – it’s already here’ 5 January 2020;  Beth Berila ‘Mindful social justice’ 22 March 2020 all in Open Democracy and/or Transformation;.

[4] See footnote 3

[5] See footnote 3.

[6] See footnote 3

[7] Jack Kornfield, Equanimity Meditation, InsightTimer app, 

[8] Source: https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-en/search/merkel-zu-corona-1729906

[9] See footnote 3

[10] Averill Roy, Labs of Care: the first steps in working together, CommonsPolis, December 2019

[11] See footnote 3

[12] Diane Warburton (2020) ‘Deliberative dialogue’ in Colin Miller (ed) Participation at 45̊ Change: Techniques for citizen-led change, Compass.

[13] See footnote 3

[14] Sue Goss (2014) Open Tribe, Lawrence & Wishart.

[15] Tim O’ Riordan (2019) ‘A compassionate transition to sustainability’, British Academy Review, December.

[16] Sue Goss and Ruth Lister (2020) 21st Century Political Leadership: Job Application Pack, Compass.

[17] Nira Yuval-Davis (1999) ‘What is transversal politics?’ Soundings, 12.

[18] Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (undated) Common Cause: the story of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, NIWC quoted in Ruth Lister (2003) Citizenship: Feminist Perspectives, 2nd ed., Palgrave.

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