Developing Mindful Cities

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) conducts 2 day mindful leadership courses around the world based on the three pillars of mindfulness, neuroscience and emotional intelligence. Participants in these courses tend to be motivated to practice mindfulness and spread the learning and ideas to various local arenas such as schools, organisations and community settings. There are now movements underway to integrate these initiatives on a local level by developing “mindful cities”.

The Mindful City Project

One of the initiatives designed to aggregate local mindfulness activities is the Mindful City Project established by co-founders Deb Smolensky (CEO), Michelle Spehr and Ellen Rogin. Their approach is based on the three pillars of awareness, compassion (including self-compassion) and generosity. These pillars are underpinned by the knowledge, practices and insights emerging from neuroscience and emotional intelligence research.

In an interview with Jen Arnold, Deb and Michelle discussed their own background and experience with mindfulness and the motivation and purpose for the Mindful City Project. Deb mentioned that she had been introduced to mindfulness at age 10 by her drama teacher who taught his class to use body scan to overcome nervousness. In her twenties, she resorted to meditation to deal with her anxiety attacks.

Deb, Michelle and Ellen each have experience in the wellness arena, with Ellen’s experience focused on financial wellness. They saw the need to help communities to become more connected, collaborative and compassionate – to adopt a holistic approach to enable the whole community to thrive. The Mindful City Project initiative sets out to develop a framework that will enable both a common language and a set of practices (encapsulated in checklists). The aim is to provide education, resources and funding to enable leaders in city communities to progressively develop their own mindful city and to share their relevant knowledge and experience with leaders in other cities.

A beta mindful city project

Deb and Michelle discussed a pilot project in the city of Highland Park Illinois where they are working with three community groups – schools, businesses and public services such as hospitals and the military. A key intervention strategy is the development of a “layered form of education and practices” for each type of participant group.

For example, different seminars are conducted for students, teachers and parents – enabling reinforcement in all directions and exponential growth in the use of mindfulness practices. Schools are provided with a checklist of practice options that they can adopt – the practices covering each of the three pillars. A school, for example, could inculcate the practice of taking a mindful breath when the bell rings and/or instituting mindful pauses in classrooms.

A key pillar of the mindful city project is generosity. Schools can choose the level and breadth of their generosity endeavours, e.g. supporting a charity or adopting a pay it forward program. Deb and Michelle gave the example of a school that raised USD160,000 for childhood cancer.

In developing awareness in businesses, Deb and Michelle stated that they found the foundations for mindfulness already present in organisations in a number of forms:

  • emotional intelligence incorporated in leadership training
  • a focus on “unconscious bias” within diversity and inclusion training

Unfortunately, these mindfulness initiatives are often segregated and lose the opportunity for mutual reinforcement and the synergy that comes from a holistic approach. In the Mindful City Project approach, mindfulness training covers both internal and external elements:

  • internal – emotional intelligence and inner awareness
  • external – compassion and generosity

As people grow in mindfulness through education and mindfulness practices in schools, businesses and homes, the potential exists for leaders to build mindful cities that thrive on connection, collaboration and compassion. The Mindful City Project provides the resources and funding to enable cities to create their desired future.

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Image by Marion Wellmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Compassion Meditation

Sometimes it is difficult to show compassion when we are suffering or in pain ourselves.  When we experience pain, particularly if it is intense and/or constant, we tend to become self-absorbed.  A lot of our attention, energy and focus go into managing the pain whether by distraction or different forms of alleviation such as painkillers, acupuncture or somatic meditation.

What we then tend to overlook is that there is “pain in the room”.  No matter what we are doing with or for others, such as sitting in a hospital waiting room or conducting a workshop, there are always people in the room who are suffering physically or otherwise.  We do not know what pain people are carrying – we can be fairly confident that suffering and pain exist in the room as it is part of the human condition.

Interestingly, neuroscience increasingly confirms that, with both animals and people, compassion for others is a basic, natural inclination.  In contrast, it seems that self-compassion does not come naturally.  This is explained, in part, by the fact that our brains have a negative bias as a self-protection mechanism.  This safety bias plays out through our amygdala, the most primitive part of our brain.  As we experience life, this negative bias gets reflected in our negative thoughts which means that we are often self-critical and “hard on ourselves”.

So self-absorption, because of our own pain and suffering or through dealing with negative thoughts,  means that our natural inclination to demonstrate compassion to others is suppressed or blocked out.

This is why loving kindness and compassion meditation has a role to play in our lives.  In presenting a series of loving kindness and compassion meditations during the Mindfulness and Meditation Summit, Sharon Salzberg offered a series of meditations, each with a different focus.  The  meditations included loving kindness for a struggling friend, a difficult person, a benefactor and for a group.  These are all designed to take us outside of ourselves and sensitize us to the thoughts and feelings of others.

Daniel Goleman, in his recent co-authored book, identifies compassion as an “altered trait” – a sustained trait resulting from loving kindness and compassion meditation.  The authors contend that neuroscience consistently confirms that compassion meditation results in increased kindness and generosity, even with beginner meditators.

As we grow in mindfulness through compassion meditation, we are more able to move beyond self-centred preoccupation in our thoughts and actions, and manifest real kindness and compassion towards others.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of jia3ep on Pixabay