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Sustainable U: On mindfulness and minimalism

By Rachneet Randhawa, February 12 2021—

Apparently less than 10 per cent of adults who make New Year’s Resolutions manage to keep and follow through with them. Let’s face it, as overburdened college students it’s difficult enough to set basic goals, let alone ones as lofty as saving the environment. If resolutions are out, how can we possibly contribute to a greener future this year?

We’re often reminded to think of the motivation behind goal-setting but we overlook the concept of mindfulness. What is mindfulness and what exactly does it have to do with sustainability? Surprisingly the two are intricately connected. Of the many definitions, my favourite claims mindfulness as the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions and experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.

Originating from Buddhist philosophy, the pioneer of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) Jon Kabat Zinn, claimed the purpose of mindfulness as centered around knowing the mind, training the mind and freeing the mind. The key goal of mindfulness is to cultivate an awareness of interdependence with the environment. In its essence, mindfulness is about paying attention, becoming aware of our intentions and responding with integrity.

There are numerous benefits to mindfulness practice which include improved working memory, heightened metacognitive awareness, lowered levels of anxiety, reduced emotional reactivity, enhanced visual attention processing, reduced stress and lastly, managing physical pain. Practiced consistently, neuroscientists suggest mindfulness can potentially rewire our brains. 

How does all that help to bolster our respect for the environment? Firstly, mindfulness influences our ability to respond to crises by reframing emergencies — particularly natural disasters — as a learning opportunity. When we’re practicing mindfulness, we better understand the importance of emergency management and the process behind risks including how they are triggered and how they affect interconnected and complex systems. In this understanding, we not only foster empathy for others but we become intrinsically motivated to reduce the suffering of strangers and support the climate action policies.

Mindfulness can also potentially increase our ability to cope with the malevolent reality of climate change. It helps us connect on a deeper level to the post-traumatic stress and intergenerational trauma of those affected by a disaster including emergency and essential workers, firefighters, police, military and volunteers. Mindfulness cultivates moral values and ethical decision-making by advocating for a cultural shift that changes our attitudes, interests and behaviours. In a time when human-caused and global warming-induced climate change create extreme weather patterns that impact the most vulnerable developing countries, empathy is key. These weather patters result in an increased level of climate refugees who need assistance, and they also impact our delicately-connected food chains, potentially resulting in food insecurity. 

In practicing mindfulness and being aware of situations which require our empathy and assistance, we raise awareness about social justice battles around the world. Mindfulness then, allows us to genuinely and irrevocably question the hierarchical power structures that govern us, including who has access to the most resources.

If moving towards a zero-waste and sustainable society sounds like utopia, something abstract and intangible, think again. You’ve likely heard about the popular eco-movement trend toward minimalism. It’s not just about having a clean kitchen and no clutter. It’s about making conscious lifestyle choices that are beneficial to yourself, the environment and society in both the short and long term. The premise behind minimalism is that everything is interconnected — what you do has an impact on other humans and the earth simultaneously. Living beings and resources are finite and must be respected and managed thoughtfully.

What are some simple practices you can adopt to become both minimalist and mindful of the environment? For starters, find good quality items and choose to reuse, repair or upcycle as well as discovering alternative ways to use items instead of disposing them. Engage in ‘challenge days’ in which you make an intentional effort to challenge yourself to change your habits and make them more sustainable. A meatless Monday, a week without driving or a day without plastic are good examples of personal challenges you can set to keep yourself engaged. Use a bullet journal dedicated to using zero waste for consistent number of days through the month to make your consumption habits greener. The possibilities are endless.

Mindfulness is more vital than ever as it will allow us to move forward together and begin to make decisions out of love for each other and the environment.

Sustainable U is a regular column focused on sustainability. This column is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board. 

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