Over 10 years ago, I went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Each day consisted of a very early wake up call, many hours of seated meditation, a couple of simple meals and absolutely no digital or physical distractions. We were also encouraged to mindfully walk around the grounds. I remember the circular path around the perimeter, the carefulness with which I walked and the moments I took to look closely at plants and breathe in the air.
When I got back to the city, I was buzzing. During my first walk in my neighbourhood, I yelled to my companion, “Wow! I can feel the trees vibrate! They’re breathing!”
While I haven’t had a post-meditation high like that since, that retreat set a deeper path in my journey and desire to connect more with loving kindness to people and nature.
What would happen if we could all feel a bit of this connection?
What if I told you this connection could actually be key to getting a company’s leadership and employees on board for corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability initiatives?
We already know the benefits of a great CSR program, which make it an attractive investment: increased company value and performance; improved customer perception and satisfaction; greater employee attraction and retention; risk mitigation; and advanced innovation. But what if we could also feel, deep down, that it’s the “right” thing to do?
Mindfulness, according to the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (on which much research is based) Jon Kabat-Zinn, is “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.” Mindfulness is not meditation: meditation is an activity that can help to strengthen mindfulness. You can be mindful during any daily activities, but the awareness does need to be strengthened through practice.
It’s likely you’ve come across the mountain of evidence that is piling up about how beneficial mindfulness is, including for stress, physical pain, immune system, anxiety and memory. Practice mindfulness often enough and it changes the brain’s connections and alters it physically. Workplace studies have seen improvement of well-being, stress reduction, sleep quality, job performance and focus. Some companies are well-known for their internal promotion of mindfulness, including Aetna and Google, whose popular course for employees morphed into its own institute.
The individual benefits are important, but mindfulness can also bring about outcomes that are beneficial more widely to society. The additional benefits of mindfulness are what are called “pro-social” behaviours and emotions, like compassion and helping others. These pro-social behaviours arise as a result of social consciousness that is built through mindfulness.
A fascinating study, published in 2010, demonstrates that traditional management education for CSR, which focuses on social awareness, has little impact on decisions involving CSR. What does have an impact are approaches aimed at personal development, like relaxation and meditation, even if they don’t actually make any reference to CSR. What these personal development interventions actually do are enhance social consciousness, which develops socially responsible behaviour. The authors conclude that it’s not enough to build social awareness of issues: changes to psychological characteristics, through the development of social consciousness, are required so that responsible behaviour becomes automatic — and the way to do this is through meditation techniques.
Climate denial is easy when it’s distant (temporal, spatial or psychological); so it’s proposed that the best way to persuade someone that climate change is real is to engage with them about their own experiences and how they have been or will be impacted. But what if we were able to get these people to not only think of themselves? Other recent research has also linked social consciousness which arises from mindfulness to sustainability. One study shows that mindfulness could be key to getting people to recognize climate change is a real problem and motivating them to take pro-environmental actions that are community-focused. Mindfulness-based responses to environmental challenges are not new: Buddhists engage in mindfulness-based climate action and social justice and climate activists explore ways to integrate mindfulness. We only need to expand these mindfulness practices beyond these already involved communities.
Mindfulness is great for individuals, but its potential really shines when it’s put to use for systemic change. Mindfulness shouldn’t just allow us to adapt to the world around us, rather it should be a catalyst that helps us address pressing societal issues by making us compassionate and thoughtful towards others so that we want to see a better world for everyone. The evidence shows we have, in a way, a responsibility to build our mindfulness for others, as well as for ourselves. And this can be done in ways that fit us culturally and religiously.
So, if you’re having trouble getting your company staff on board with CSR and sustainability initiatives, why not ask them to join you in a mindfulness practice first? Maybe they’ll also eventually feel the trees breathe.
Note: Mindfulness can directly challenge who we think we are as an individual. Therefore, it can lead people into a space where they don’t want to be, which is where grief, tension, judgement, strong emotions and trauma may sit. Activities to build mindfulness shouldn’t be replacements for other forms of therapy, so proceed with caution.
How mindfulness can help the shift towards a more sustainable society (Christine Wamsler, The Conversation)
Thich Nhat Hanh: is mindfulness being corrupted by business and finance? (Jo Confino, The Guardian)
The road beyond McMindfulness (openDemocracy)
Mindful Climate Action (University of Wisconsin, School of Medicine and Public Health)