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5 Essential Reasons Why Mindfulness is a Leading Tool for Social Innovation

Written by Gretchen Ki Steidle. Steidle, founder and President of Global Grassroots, teaches an experiential course each J-Term on “Conscious Social Change”. Students learn mindfulness-based leadership practices for self-awareness and design a conscious social enterprise as a team. Steidle is the author of the new book Leading from Within: Conscious Social Change & Mindfulness for Social Innovation which integrates science, change theory and nearly two decades of experience in the social sector to offer a new design methodology for social innovation. |

Mindfulness is no longer 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, 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 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 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.

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.

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 organizations, industries and broader society. Following are five primary ways mindfulness can serve the socially-minded entrepreneur:

Understand Change from the Inside Out
Mindfulness practice first and foremost builds self-awareness. This process is not always comfortable as we start to recognize our own patterns of behavior 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 behavior and assumptions more easily. Studies show that by practicing 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 behavior, 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 organizations or the broader community.

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.

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.

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.

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

Thoughts on “5 Essential Reasons Why Mindfulness is a Leading Tool for Social Innovation

    Thank you for this article!
    Introducing ways we can gain more self awareness and compassion is critical in today’s society. Kudos to Gretchen and her team for introducing mindfulness training to students and leaders.


    The connection Gretchen draws between mindfulness and effectiveness as a leader and agent of positive change is a powerful one. Sharing her work here is a great way to extend it beyond those who are able experience her approach in person through her J-term course or visits to Grounds like the talk she gave for the Women’s Center last academic year. It’s wonderful to see a comprehensive version of her approach made accessible now through her book. Thanks, Gretchen and Lifetime Learning!


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