“Could you please put the bread in a paper bag and not a plastic bag?”
The local bakery I go to has both paper and plastic available, but their default is to use the plastic bag. If I am caught up in my thoughts rather than present and aware, I end up with another plastic bag (to add to the bag full of plastic bags that I have in the cupboard for re-use). I have a strong intention to minimise the size of my ecological footprint. In turning that intention into action, mindfulness can help. To make environmentally friendly choices we need to be present and aware that there is a choice point and that we don’t have to accept the business as usual model. Commerce has its own values and practices – many of which are inconsistent with caring for the planet. To interrupt these practices (such as the automatic use of plastic bags) we need to be aware in the moment and remember our own values. We need our attention to be in the present moment, not on the ‘to do’ list or checking the news feed.
An important role of mindfulness is to help us respond more skilfully to our desires. Desires can arise from internal needs such as hunger, companionship and acceptance. They can be triggered by an external stimulus, such as a picture of a delicious meal or an anxiety provoking message, “Only 5 left – buy NOW!” Desires can be manipulated by others and can be satisfied in a variety of ways. Mindfulness supports us to pause and take into consideration the environmental impact of acting on our desires, rather than automatically reacting to satisfy it. Restraint is not sexy in the 21st century and yet it is a core capacity for living sustainably. Just because we want something does not mean that it is a good idea to fulfil the desire. Let’s look at something as simple as drinking a can of soft drink to quench one’s thirst rather than a glass of water from the tap. Each can of soft drink has embedded in it carbon emissions from the manufacture, transport and refrigeration of the product. It has environmental impacts from bauxite mining for the aluminium can and environmental impacts of dealing with the packaging, not to mention unhealthy amounts of sugar. And yet it tastes so good. It is no accident that we desire the sweet fizzy option. (For more on the ways food scientists ensure we keep buying junk food – read this.)
Mindfulness is a great ally here. It supports us to feel the impulse to grab a soft drink, sit with it, pause, reflect on the environmental impact of the option, and choose an alternative that is healthier for both the planet and the human body. Many habits that are now unhealthy for us and the planet, are hard-wired into us due to an evolutionary history where survival was enhanced through consumption of fat, salt and sugar, pursing novelty, and the avoidance of discomfort. Mindfulness practice teaches us to move out of automatic pilot, see our habitual patterns and pause before acting on them. It isn’t a quick fix and requires perseverance.
All this assumes that we care about others and the planet, and it seems that we do (check out the research). To be compassionate to the planet, the other beings that inhabit the planet and to future generations of humans, we need to have a wise relationship with our own desires and to clearly see the ways that our desires are manipulated by businesses whose profits are based on us continuing to consume more and more.
Writing this, I am aware that I am guilty of sitting in a glass house throwing stones. Time and again I fail to act in a way that meets the intention I have to live more sustainably. Flying is a current source of this guilt and I applaud Greta Thunburg for eschewing air travel altogether. Rather than travel more when I retire, I am committed to travel less. When I make choices with a negative environmental impact, I get a prick of guilt. Mindfulness helps me to acknowledge the discomfort of the guilt – rather than hide it under a packed of Tim Tams or avoid it by distracting myself with on-line shopping or… Guilt is a useful emotion to explore. It tells me that in some way I am in conflict with the values I hold. Rather than unleashing a reactive self-judgement which can be demotivating, bringing a curious attention to the guilt is healthy. By welcoming the message of the guilt, it supports greater motivation to try and do better next time. Mindfulness helps me manage the challenging emotions of all these choices in a way that keeps me engaged rather than hopeless.
Dr Kathryn Choules is a certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats in Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.