Working to create a sustainable world hasn’t been easy. One reason for this is that people are highly capable of knowing something but acting as if they didn’t. It is epitomized by the attitude, “I know I should, but I don’t.” We know we should eat local, bike more, etc. etc., but so few of us actually live up to what we know.
In Buddhism, there is a huge emphasis on the different between knowing something intellectually and having the kind of understanding that leads to insight and transformation. Once we have that insight, we are changed by it and there is no going back.
So if we in the sustainability movement want to create this deeper type of understanding, we can see mere education won’t be enough. Instead, we can combine education about these issues with the practice of mindfulness that helps turn “mere ideas” into deep insight.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts, describes mindfulness as “purposeful awareness.” A more traditional definition would be that practicing mindfulness means that we are strengthening our ability to focus attention while remaining relaxed and letting go of our attachments to ideas. When we develop this capacity, we can more easily let go of strongly held opinion in order to be open to new information.
So how does one develop the kind of mindfulness that helps us let go of entrenched ideas? We start with basic mindfulness building exercises like “full awareness of breathing” and build toward exercises that help us see our deep interconnection with all beings and the planet.
Here are some instruction for “full awareness of breathing.” You can try this yourself:
- Stop whatever you are doing and assume a comfortable position.
- Bring all of your attention to the sensation of your breathing. It can be at your nose, chest, abdomen or your entire body.
- Allow yourself to really enjoy the sensation of breathing. It can be truly pleasant to be able to breathe freely. Give yourself permission to enjoy that pleasant sensation as breath moves in and out.
- When you realize that your mind has wandered, very gently and with no self-criticism, bring your attention back to your breath. It is entirely natural that your mind will wander because it has a lot of momentum from moving so fast. By bringing your attention back to your breath, you are letting it slow down naturally without trying to force it.
Just a few minutes of practicing mindfulness of breathing can help refresh our minds and create a sense of openness. As we develop this ability, we can use the same concentrated yet relaxed attention to contemplate interconnection and the consequences of our actions.