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Mimi Kuo-Deemer reflects upon her time studying the MA Traditions of Yoga and Meditation at SOAS University.

– Mimi Kuo-Deemer

Dr Tessa Watt

In September 2023, a report on Mindfulness at Westminster was launched, celebrating 10 years of Mindfulness training in the UK Houses of Parliament. Politicians reflected on how mindfulness has been beneficial to them in numerous ways, from increased resilience and focus, to bringing them together across party divides and helping them to ‘disagree better’ with political opponents. 

As a long-time teacher and current project lead on the programme,  I’ve seen for myself how helpful it can be for Members of Parliament and their staff to have an oasis of calm within a challenging environment; developing skills that support them as individuals and also have the potential to make a positive impact on the wider political environment. During the launch event in the impressive wood-panelled Speaker’s State Rooms, I was acutely aware of how far mindfulness and meditation have come from the days in the 1990s when I first discovered these practices for myself, but was often wary of discussing them with colleagues for fear of sounding too ‘hippy’ or left field. 

In my late 20s I left a quiet academic life as a historian and took up a demanding job as a producer with BBC Radio, which was exciting but took its toll on my stress levels. A friend brought me to his Buddhist meditation centre, the place to learn meditation in those days, before it became mainstream. I discovered that meditation went much deeper than just reducing stress, and began a path that took me through many retreats and trainings to becoming a meditation instructor in a Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

In 2008, soon after leaving the BBC, I heard about a new movement called ‘mindfulness’, which presented simple ways to train the human mind and heart without the spiritual bells and whistles. I trained in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, running courses in church halls and other local venues, and later specialised in mindfulness for the workplace. Now I lead the mindfulness programme for clients like the UK Parliament and a large global bank where we have trained hundreds of internal ‘Mindfulness Champions’ to guide practices for their colleagues.

The key to teaching mindfulness in any workplace is to meet people where they are and to address the reality of their working environment. The courses we teach in Parliament include formal mindfulness practices, but also ‘mindfulness in action’: that is, helping them to build habits of awareness and presence in their daily working life. This includes tiny ‘micro practices’ to create pauses, and finding more mindful ways to approach meetings, information overload, conflictual situations and other challenges.

SOAS has played a big part in my journey since 2013. In that year I approached Professor Ulrich Pagel with a proposal for a festival at SOAS to celebrate 50 years since the arrival in the West of the influential Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of the meditation tradition in which I was trained. It seemed like a long-shot that SOAS would be interested, but I had not counted on Ulrich’s strong vision to make the teaching of Buddhist and yogic traditions relevant and alive for people actually practising in those fields. Our ‘Awake in the World’ festival was a huge success, and meanwhile, I personally signed up for the first cohort of SOAS’s brand-new MA in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation.

Studying the historical and philosophical roots of mindfulness has added depth to my understanding and teaching. In 2018 I went on to teach one of the modules on the MA, and also to curate another event bringing together mindfulness practitioners and academics:  a conference on Mindfulness in Public Discourse. More recently I created a pod course on Mindfulness in the Modern World for SOAS YogaStudies Online. This explores the roots of mindfulness, discusses some of the controversies in the field, and looks at movements to create wider societal impact in key areas such as education, healthcare, politics and the environment.

My own latest project falls into this last category: I’ve been co-facilitating a course on Mindfulness Based Sustainable Transformation. We have completed highly successful pilots within EU organisations and for the general public, and now I’ll be helping to lead our first teacher training. The course focusses on cultivating the inner resources necessary to face the realities of climate change and from that place to help drive pro-environmental action. Research shows that cultivating the right inner resources is a key ingredient for effectiveness in creating the outer changes that we want to see in the world.

Dr Tessa Watt is a former Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Religions and Philosophies at SOAS. She has a PhD in History from Cambridge University and an MA in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation from SOAS. She teaches mindfulness in leading global organisations and is lead trainer for the mindfulness programme in the UK Houses of Parliament. Her publications include Introducing Mindfulness, Mindful London, and ‘Spacious Awareness in Mahāyāna Buddhism and Its Role in the Modern Mindfulness Movement’.

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