“The future depends on what we do in the present” – Mahatma Gandhi.
Have you ever taken a drive and realized you don’t remember navigating to your destination? What about purchasing something on an impulse, realizing you don’t need it when it gets to your doorstep? Or have you ever gone about your day ordering coffee, working, or walking around the city without thinking about the people involved in your interactions?
We likely all have at one time or another. When this happens, it is our brain functioning on autopilot or your default mode network (DMN)
Functioning on autopilot is our brain at rest and isn’t inherently a bad thing. Our brain switches into autopilot when we engage in our learned routines—helping us to perform them automatically, faster, and with more accuracy. However, when we are just going through the same motions we always have, we tend not to recognize or even ignore how our actions affect others and how interconnected we are with the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, many of the unsustainable practices that individuals have are wired into our day without us even knowing what they are. Unsustainable practices such as overconsumption, use and discard of unsustainable materials, waste of food and water, and support of unsustainable practices linked to deforestation and pollution of our air, water, and soil.
We often don’t stop to observe what is happening around us. Being absent from the present world can be detrimental. Our earth is experiencing severe, human-induced climate change. Other humans on this planet, or even your neighbor, are experiencing loss and death due to extreme weather events, air and water pollution, and stressors to food-producing systems. The earth’s biodiversity is declining, which is the thread that holds our world together. And the brunt of this human-induced climate change falls disproportionately on the world’s poor, elderly, and BIPOC individuals.
To save lives in the present and future, we need as many people as possible to start practicing mindfulness and living sustainably. We need to develop new social priorities that place less emphasis on materialism and more on empathy, justice, and connection.
How do we start to make that connection between our actions and the rest of the world? For starters, we can begin to practice mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness (and mindfulness meditation) is not a new practice as it originated in eastern and Buddhist philosophy centuries ago. Mindfulness is being conscious in the present moment. It is observing all of the sights, sounds, feelings, and thoughts swirling around you from moment to moment without judgment and reactivity and accepting them as they are – good and bad.
Practicing mindfulness cultivates a sense of awareness that you can come back to time and time again. When we practice mindfulness, our mind becomes open to seeing the connections between our actions and the world around us. We start to notice how our decisions affect other people.
How does mindfulness draw us towards sustainable behaviors?
When you are mindful, you are more aware of your mind wandering and less likely to fall back into autopilot. Removing ourselves from autopilot and being aware of the present moment allows us to step back and observe life with a new perspective.
Mindfulness has many rewards.
It improves our overall well-being.
It makes us open to behavioral changes such as emotion regulation, attention control, and motivation to learn, leading us to more sustainable behaviors and making those behaviors sustainable in themselves.
It leads to an awareness of self and of others.
Practicing mindfulness means we can reduce our automatic or impulsive actions. Actions that often lead to overconsumption or careless consumption.
Mindfulness cultivates a sense of community, leads us to prosocial behaviors, and helps us acknowledge differences in cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, and values.
It allows us to feel more empathy and compassion. Empathy is what bonds us as humans. Empathy allows us to connect deeper with others and promotes contribution to prosocial behaviors – showing concern about human welfare, rights, and feelings.
Mindfulness helps us realize individual lifestyle changes alone cannot solve the problems that we face. Participating in sustainable behaviors is not accessible or available to everyone. So our efforts need support through changes in governmental policy and corporations to make sustainability accessible to all communities.
Through mindfulness, we can look introspectively at why we do things the way we do, observe the systems around us, and rewire our brain’s autopilot to act in a different, more sustainable manner.
This process isn’t easy, as you’re bringing to light the good and bad within yourself and the world. Seeing new things you may have had the privilege of ignoring before. This hard work can discourage many people from continuing to practice mindfulness.
The best part of mindfulness is that you can do it as you’re going about any task in your day! You can incorporate mindfulness throughout the day by practicing active listening in your conversations, observing your surroundings and behaviors using your five senses (i.e., what do I see or feel in this present moment), and practicing gratitude. It is the opposite of going through the motions but allowing yourself to tune into your thoughts and emotions actively. It is an informal way of engaging with life by giving slow, deliberate attention to your day. Remember, this isn’t a practice to make you self-conscious or to stir up guilt. It is to be a nonjudgemental observer of life, which can lead you to experience it deeper.
Mindfulness on its own does not require meditation. However, you can also take the time out of your day to practice mindfulness meditation, a category of meditation. Mindfulness meditation occurs in a purposeful setting where you are seated with your eyes closed. In this practice, you bring your attention to your breath. Your mind will inevitably wander. Observe these thoughts without reacting, continually bringing your attention back to your breath until the practice is over.
Challenge yourself to practice some form of mindfulness for at least 30 minutes every day for at least six months. As you are doing this, document your journey so you can track how mindfulness is affecting your life, enriching your relationships, improving your wellbeing, and leading you to more sustainable behaviors.
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