11/08/2013 11:26 am ET

Mindful Sustainability

Most of us would benefit from more mindfulness in our lives. We are overbooked and overwhelmed and looking for relief. Though typically associated with Eastern practices like meditation and yoga, mindfulness is an innate human characteristic that can be intentionally developed through many practices and activities including meditation. Articles and research about its many benefits abound. School children go into classic full lotus postures when they hear the word. Mindfulness is an old idea come of age, turning into a national movement. 

The word sustainability is derived from the Latin sustinere; to support or endure. Over the past 30 years the term has become interchangeable with environmentalism and equitable trade. Our growing concern with all things sustainable stems in part from a basic desire for security, but it is also a recognition that competing information and passions often obstruct our ability to behave in ways that actually support our long-term viability. Everyone wants enough food to eat, adequate shelter, and the possibility for a bright future. Once those basic needs are met we feel some contentment. It's intuitive to think a little more equals a little better. It's complicated enough to sort through our personal desires and whims to find satisfaction, let alone balance our needs with the needs of the group. And, by group I mean everything else on the planet. 

In order to meet present day needs and adapt to unavoidable change in sustainable ways, we must see the world and our place in it clearly. Mindfulness is the operating system that supports that view. The point of being mindful is to make more likely our response to change is appropriate, in harmony with the system that supports us. As Wendell Barry says, "We have to listen to what the world wants us to do."

Policy and planning are filtered through many layers of personal, cultural, and natural realities. Fear, greed, misunderstanding, and dozens of other potential obstacles stand in the way of any long-term decision making. We can't avoid mistakes but we can expand our capacity for mindful, heartfelt connection to the bigger picture. Mindfulness teaches us to look more closely, to be patient, to be humble in the face of an unknowable future, an unknowable present for that matter. It helps us develop the strength to face life honestly and see the consequences of our actions without shame or pride. 

Mindfulness needs sustainability as it's long term goal. Practicing meditation without a visceral, heart-based connection to the needs of the community becomes a narcissistic self-improvement program. Sustainable action is the creative and compassionate response of a mindful community. It's not a matter of philosophy or religious persuasion that we are inextricably linked to all animate and inanimate objects on earth. We are not the author of the creative process, only a player in a vast and inconceivable universe; unique and beautiful expressions of the mystery. Our challenge is to prepare ourselves for hearing the voices of wisdom all around us and crying in our hearts. And to build communities that will support a true and compassionate response that call.