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How mindfulness can help the shift towards a more sustainable society

Oprea George / shutterstock

How mindfulness can help the shift towards a more sustainable society

We know that mindfulness can transform the life of an individual. But did you know it could also change the world?

We are facing increasingly complex global challenges, of which climate change is perhaps the most important. It is obvious that we must do something about our carbon emissions and the increase in floods, windstorms, and heatwaves that threaten our environment – but we don’t seem to know what.

It is becoming clear, however, that the problem can’t simply be solved by new technology or new governments alone. We also need to develop new social practices and encourage a broader cultural shift towards more sustainable living and climate action. We have to completely rethink how we do things. This is where mindfulness comes in.

Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the present moment. It is more than just moment-to-moment awareness. It is a kind, curious and non-judgemental awareness that helps us relate to ourselves, others, and our environment with compassion. Mindfulness can be developed through meditation and other contemplative practices, such as yoga and deep listening. It is increasingly used in various professional fields and disciplines. In 2016, 14 times more academic articles used the term as did in 2006.

Mindfulness is often summed up with the phrase “be here now”. We can all be mindful; it’s rooted in our consciousness, and it’s associated with greater emotional intelligence. Neuroscientists think that mindfulness can literally rewire our brains.

How mindful thinking can drive global change

As I show in my own research, mindfulness can not only change how we think about the social and environmental crises that affect our world, but can also help us to take the actions needed to build a more sustainable society.

Mindfulness can influence our response to crises, including climate change. It does this for instance by modifying how people process information about risks, changing their environmental behaviour, and by increasing their motivation to reduce suffering and support governments’ climate actions. Reasons include the influence of mindfulness on compassion for both people and nature, and on understanding complexity.

Mindfulness can also increase our ability to cope with the impact of climate change. Studies have shown that mindfulness can be used to help not only the victims, but also everyone else involved in a disaster. Post-traumatic stress affects groups such as emergency workers, firefighters, police, military, volunteers, and communities that host disaster victims; mindfulness can help them reduce that stress. It can make people better able to cope with stress and adapt to new circumstances, by minimising automatic, habitual, or impulsive reactions and increasing cognitive flexibility.

Mindfulness can also encourage us to be more aware of social justice and injustice, and more sensitive to context. It can help cultivate compassion and our intrinsic moral values which, in turn, can be reflected in actions for the common good.

This links to climate change as global warming has environmental and health consequences, which disproportionately affect low-income countries and poor people in high-income countries, who must be protected. Climate adaptation measures must not create new problems or make existing problems worse. Mindful thinking can lead people to consider the consequences of unquestioned structures and power relations, at all scales from petty disputes in the workplace to global issues.

Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh is an advocate of mindfulness – and climate action. Julian Abram Wainwright / EPA

Hence, mindfulness can also change organisations from within. In times of climate change, sustainable organisations need to nurture and develop their social assets in the anticipation of, and to cope with, unexpected risky events. It does this by influencing people’s job satisfaction and organisational learning, and by improving their cognitive flexibility and openness to novelty. This can encourage organisations to constantly probe their environment for ways to stay ahead through innovation.

Yet despite the obvious benefits, researchers have been slow to assess the potential of mindfulness and other contemplative practices for transformation. Bodies such as the United Nations have been more proactive. The United Nations office which co-ordinates global climate action (the UNFCCC), asked the Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh to provide a statement ahead of the Paris climate summit in late 2015, for instance.

My research shows that mindfulness and global sustainability are more connected than we think, but we need to know more about the link between them. It’s high time to explore the practical impact that contemplative practices such as mindfulness can have on sustainability, and how we can tap into this potential to drive global change.