photo by Laya Greyson

Gretchen Ki Steidle is author of the new book Leading from Within: Conscious Social Change & Mindfulness for Social Innovation and founder and President of Global Grassroots. She is also a grantee, friend, thought partner of the Imago Dei Fund since 2011. Global Grassroots is an international NGO, which operates a mindfulness-based leadership program and social venture incubator for vulnerable women and girls in post-conflict East Africa. Gretchen lectures and speaks on Conscious Social Change at universities, wellness institutes, organizations and convenings worldwide.

Those of us working towards a more just society must embody the same principles we envision for the world. This begins with mindfulness.

Let’s start with a definition. Mindfulness can be defined as paying attention on purpose in the present moment, usually with a quality of curiosity or non-judgment. Essentially, this involves taking the time to notice whatever is happening inside ourselves, which can include our physical sensations, emotional states or thoughts, and/or the external environment around us. Some people do this as a practice of prayer; for others it is done simply for wellbeing. Mindfulness can be practiced in a number of ways, from sitting intentionally and paying attention to your own breath, to bringing awareness to things happening around you, to taking time for spiritual reflection.

Unfortunately, paying attention is not easy or altogether natural for us. A 2010 study documented that on average people spend nearly 47 percent of their waking hours with their minds wandering. Being more mindful does take practice, just as getting in shape or learning a new language takes practice too. But with time, we can see measurable results.

Increasing research is demonstrating that mindfulness practices, especially formal meditation, can change the structure and functioning of our brain over time. Benefits include reduced anxiety and rumination, decreased depression, increased emotion regulation and more positive emotions, improved immune system functioning, and even a slowing of the markers of aging.

When mindfulness is applied to social innovation, it transforms the way we diagnose issues and advance change. It allows us to understand ourselves and change from the inside out. When we are centered, we can listen better, understand people more deeply and build stronger relationships. With deeper self-awareness, we are more likely to respond wisely instead of reacting blindly, and know when to restore ourselves when we need greater balance. Employing the curiosity inherent in reflection, we find more insight in our challenges, which helps us innovate, improve our effectiveness, and find meaning and purpose in our work. The same process of deep inquiry used for self-awareness can then be applied to understand others, diagnose issues, and design solutions that embrace compassion and ultimately lead to longer-term, sustainable transformation.

I call this approach “Conscious Social Change,” a design philosophy and methodology for creative, compassionate solutions-building, grounded in mindfulness and self-awareness.

Let me share one story of deep transformation that came from a moment of mindfulness, through my own work with my organization, Global Grassroots. One of the mindfulness practices I share with the women we train in our Academy for Conscious Change in Rwanda and Uganda is this: When you recognize an emotional “charge” or a rush of emotion, we take three breaths to pause with curiosity. Then it is less likely we will react automatically and create harm and more likely we will respond with wisdom.

One day during our women’s training program in Rwanda, I asked if anyone had anything to share from practicing these techniques throughout the week. A middle-aged woman named Drocella, raised her hand and spoke: “After returning home from class one day this week, I found that my children had completely messed up my house. I was furious because I had worked diligently before leaving for class to clean and straighten everything. Usually I just beat my children. But instead, I closed my eyes and took three breaths. With my eyes still closed, I explained to my children why I wanted the house neat and asked that they return everything to its original condition before I again opened my eyes. And they did. And I didn’t hit my children that day.” This personal realization went on to inspire a transformation in not only her individual choices, but her venture work as well.

Drocella was on a team that was working on the issue of domestic violence within a context where hitting or spanking children is relatively normal. For her, the very simple practice of taking three breaths and making room for a more mindful response, allowed her to understand the triggers that lead towards violence and the challenge of making a different choice. In that single moment, Drocella found compassion for what it takes to really change behavior. And, her personal experience shifted the way her team decided to address violence in the family, not only focusing on spousal abuse, but also incorporating programming for couples around how they were disciplining their children, especially boys.

Contemplative practices, like taking three breaths to reflect within, are applicable across both secular and a wide range of religious contexts. They simply invite us to slow down and bring awareness to our inner landscape so that we can act in greater alignment with our personal values, no matter what spiritual tradition informs those values. There are also several mind-body techniques, including clinically studied breath-based tools that Global Grassroots uses with survivors of violence, that can help alleviate symptoms of trauma, anxiety and chronic stress. When we are able to ensure our own wellbeing, we are more capable of understanding and advocating for the needs of others with compassion.

Conscious Social Change begins within. How do we develop the capacity to serve as a more mindful, inspired change agent? Following are five fundamental capacities of Conscious Social Change that we can develop by applying mindfulness to social change.

1. Cultivate Presence: Start by practicing mindfulness. Studies show that by practicing mindfulness we can more easily control our reactions and operate less often on automatic pilot. Further, the quality of our attention defines the quality of our engagement with the world. Practices such as sitting still and paying conscious, focused attention to something like the way we breathe help foster mindfulness.

2. Become Whole: Next, we use mindfulness to work on the unexamined parts of ourselves. This can include noticing how we react to the things that cause us stress, how we handle fear and discomfort, or our judgments about people who do not share our values. Over time, mindfulness gives us the power to change our behavior and bias more easily. As we go through our own shifts, we start to understand what drives other people’s behavior. With a deeper, more compassionate understanding of change, we can more effectively enable transformation in others.

3. Ensure Balance: With mindfulness, change leaders are more able to remain grounded and discern when to take a step back to restore themselves, so as to avoid burnout and disillusionment. Investing in self and soul-care, we can stay whole, grounded, and completely available to do our work in the world.

4. Engage Mindfully: Change agents too often work from an “us vs. them” paradigm that tries to compel people to change with sticks and carrots, or demonizes the opposition. Further, Western approaches to development often involve incorrect assumptions, imposed solutions, and culturally inappropriate methods. With Conscious Social Change, instead of blaming others for the change we want, we seek to understand the common drivers of human behavior. We work collectively and inclusively with all stakeholders to (a) diagnose issues comprehensively, (b) define our common mission, values, and vision, (c) develop solutions, and (d) leverage the unique offerings of all parties for greater collective ownership. Rather than pursuing growth by simply scaling existing programs, we maintain a focus on alleviating the underlying social issues at the root level without attachment to a particular agenda. This ensures we are responsive as issues and stakeholder needs shift.

5. Lead from Within: As we cultivate the capacities of mindfulness, we become adept at setting aside ego to inquire and listen. Mindful leaders look at everything with curiosity—including conflict, “failure,” and challenges—as a chance to learn. The more we employ mindfulness, the more likely we will find our unique purpose, enabling us to manifest change in a way that creates meaning for ourselves and inspires transformation in others.

As we invest in our own mindfulness, we start to lead from within. We are driven by our passion for the issue not our personal gain, we honor the unique contributions of others, and we can then inspire those around us to pursue a common cause with meaning and impact. Rumi said, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” Conscious Social Change begins within.