Five reasons why mindfulness is an ideal tool for social entrepreneurs

The self-awareness practices of mindfulness enable social entrepreneurs to lead with inspiration, develop more effective relationships and design more innovative solutions, says Gretchen Ki Steidle.

Mindfulness is no longer only a staple of wisdom teachers and wellness practitioners, but is beginning to reach the mainstream as newspaper headlines tout its health implications and companies create spaces for employees to meditate.

So what exactly does mindfulness have to offer the social entrepreneur or socially-minded business person?

Let’s start with a definition. Mindfulness can be defined as paying attention on purpose in the present moment, 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 in the external environment around us. This is not easy or altogether natural for us. A 2010 study documented that on average people spend nearly 47 per cent 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.

Practices such as sitting still and paying conscious, focused attention to something like the way we breathe help foster mindfulness, which can also be seen as a form of brain training. 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.

mindfulness meditation

While many engage in mindfulness practices to support resilience and better manage stress, the benefits extend into the interpersonal domain too. They are particularly relevant to the ways that change agents approach their work, especially in solving problems in their organisations, industries and broader society.

Following are five primary ways mindfulness can serve the socially-minded entrepreneur.

1. Understand change from the inside out

Mindfulness practice first and foremost builds self-awareness. This process is not always comfortable as we start to recognise our own patterns of behaviour that may have once been unconscious to us. 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.

But as these ways of thinking, feeling, and reacting become more apparent to us, mindfulness gives us the power to change our behaviour and assumptions more easily. Studies show that by practising mindfulness we can more easily control our reactions and operate less often on automatic pilot. As we go through our own shifts, we start to understand what drives other people’s behaviour, especially the ways they cope with change.

With a deeper, more compassionate understanding of change, we can then make more informed decisions that more effectively enable transformation in others, whether that is within our organisations or the broader community.

yoga Rwanda Global Grassroots (which I founded) operates a mindfulness-based leadership programme and social venture incubator for women survivors of war in East Africa. It utilizes the tools of “conscious social change” to help emerging social entrepreneurs design local non-profit solutions to priority social issues using mindfulness as a design tool. One simple self-awareness technique Global Grassroots uses involves taking three breaths whenever one realises they are being emotionally triggered. This helps protect against harmful reactivity and promote wiser responses.

One change agent in Rwanda, who used the practice to catch herself before using corporal punishment to discipline her children, came to see more clearly the challenges to overcoming the automatic and ingrained behavior that promotes violence. This personal experience addressing her own reactivity enabled her to refine the methods her non-profit used in addressing domestic violence, incorporating additional programming for parents on raising their children, especially boys, without violence.

2. Develop more effective relationships

As we change ourselves, the quality of our relationships will also change. Research on mindfulness reveals that with practice, we enjoy an improved ability to express ourselves, increasingly handle conflict with less anger, and pay attention better. In our personal and professional relationships, this allows us to connect more deeply and foster greater trust and respect. As we mitigate our own stress, approach ourselves with less judgment and more curiosity, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we can extend the same acceptance to others.

As we diffuse conflict with patience and empathy, we can forge agreements built on human understanding, making it more likely we can work towards change as allies rather than opponents.

Growing up in crime-infested Los Angeles, Aqeela Sherrills experienced an epiphany one night during a personal crisis. Realising he had never questioned the violence around him because it would have meant questioning the pain of his own childhood, he instead had directed his outrage outward, choosing gangs as a surrogate family. His deep personal inquiry led him to study racial inequity and models for social justice. Working to address his own wounds, he finally felt compelled to return home, and worked tirelessly to forge an historic 12-year peace-treaty between rival gangs, the Bloods and Crips.

Utilising a mindfulness-based process of reverence and intentional dialogue, Sherrills has since been helping transform gang culture from one of retribution to one of forgiveness and reconciliation, contributing to the reduction in LA’s murder rate to its lowest in 40 years. Sherrills’ Reverence Project has since consulted on peacemaking in Belfast, Ireland, the Balkans, Russia and Holland, as well as other US cities. If mindfulness can end gang violence, it can certainly improve our own relationships.

3. Diagnose issues more comprehensively

As we cultivate the capacities of mindfulness, we become adept at setting aside ego, assumptions, and bias to inquire and listen. We are less likely to think our way is the only viewpoint, less likely to create division and blame, and more likely to seek out understanding across difference so as to identify common ground. Drawing from a broader set of perspectives and inviting greater participation across whole eco-systems gives us a more comprehensive understanding of an issue and stakeholder needs, ideas, and priorities, which we can use in collaboratively designing for change.

Lieutenant Richard Goerling founded the Mindful Badge Initiative to bring mindfulness-based resilience training to US police. Investing in mindfulness practice and studying elite performers in a variety of professions, he recognised that the culture of policing combined with stress and trauma put officers at high risk of poor health and performance failure, including lethal violence. This contributes to anger, which works against ethical decision-making, and increases both the interpretation of actions as hostile and the intent to punish harshly.

If mindfulness can end gang violence, it can certainly improve our own relationships

Goerling’s programme reached across communities, police leadership and officers to ensure a comprehensive and mindful understanding of what was needed for a system-wide cultural shift towards wellbeing and resilience. Programmes operate collaboratively within communities to address bias and build bridges between the public and police officers to foster trust and goodwill. Mindful Badge initiatives are now being replicated in other major cities including Dallas in Texas, Cambridge in Massachusetts and Meno Park in California.

4. Invite more innovation and design for impact and sustainability

Mindfulness trains us to look at reality with greater curiosity. Instead of seeing failure, mindfulness encourages us to examine circumstances with an eagerness to learn so that we evolve our solutions for greater efficacy. Rather than getting fixated on pushing forward our own narrow agenda or thinking it is all up to us to fix, mindfulness drives us to lead with more openness, question our thinking, seek out more diverse expertise, and be willing to compromise as a strategy towards progress.

This fuels innovation and drives sustainability, informed by all voices who are more likely to feel a level of ownership in a solution’s outcomes, rather than an unwilling subject of its implementation.

Yvon Chouinard, founder of the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, has built his corporation informed by his own Zen practice. Integrating mindfulness into his business decision-making is evident from minimising the company’s environmental impact to creating an aftermarket for used Patagonia products to promote “mindful consumption”.

When the last financial crisis hit and Patagonia was facing the need to lay off 150 employees, its leadership realised they were making a decision out of fear rather than compassion. Recognising that a more mindful process would lead to “a creative solution to reduce overhead without laying people off”, the company worked collaboratively and transparently to innovate a solution that prevented layoffs, preserved the “family”, and positioned Patagonia for even more significant growth after the financial crisis ended.

5. Lead from within

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 honour the unique contributions of others, and we can then inspire those around us to pursue a common cause with meaning and impact.

Eileen Fisher Inc is a leading example of a conscious company built by a mindful entrepreneur who leads from within. Eileen Fisher has spoken about her own personal journey using somatic and mindfulness practices to find her voice, which has enabled her to build a corporate empire that is transforming the fashion industry into one that embraces sustainability and human rights.

She integrates mindfulness into all aspects of her business operations, including creating opportunities for employees to invest in their own personal growth, utilising listening as a meditation practice in meetings, employing mindful inquiry to ensure business decisions are aligned with internal values, and making a commitment to be 100 per cent sustainable. In 2016, Eileen Fisher Inc became the largest women’s fashion company to be certified a B Corporation by B Lab.

When entrepreneurs invest in self-awareness and integrate the tools of mindfulness into the way they build relationships, diagnose issues and drive innovation, they transform the paradigm of social change from one that relies upon division, punitive measures, and incentives to force compliance to one that is fueled by human understanding and compassion for transformative impact. This is leading from within. This is what I call Conscious Social Change.

Centre image: Mindfulness practice class at the University of Virginia taught by the author.

Bottom image: Women practising yoga in Rwanda with Global Grassroots. Photography by Laya Greyson.

Gretchen Steidle is the author of Leading from Within.