The Symbiotic Relationship
Between Mindfulness and Environmental Education
On an individual level, there are many potential health benefits from practicing mindfulness in nature. Because movement is usually involved in outdoor contemplative activities, yoga and tai chi for example, practitioners get the physical benefits of exercise in addition to the mental/emotional supports of the mindfulness process. Choosing to practice mindfulness outdoors also gives one the ability to try specific mindfulness practices which are only done in nature, such as forest bathing and walking meditation. The clinical mindfulness benefits of reduced blood pressure, increased immunity, deeper sleep, etc. are improved when combined with gentle exercise. Provided you are in an area with good air quality, the healthy outcomes of breathing exercises and increased oxygen in the body are boosted by practicing outdoors in the fresh air.
Children and adults alike also benefit physically from mindfulness due to neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to continually reorganize itself and grow. Contemplative practices build the neural connections between the amygdala, the primal part of the brain, and the prefrontal cortex, the seat of higher reasoning. Positive neuroplasticity promotes emotional regulation which supports many of the
goals of environmental education. Mindfulness gives people an increased sense of well-being which helps them to feel more optimistic about environmental problems. The awareness of interdependence gained from contemplative practices builds feelings of connection to the natural world, thus increasing individuals’ desire to care for the planet. Likewise, heightened compassion increases concern for equity and justice for others, encouraging a sustainability mind-set. Emotional resilience is one of the most important outcomes from mindfulness practices, and this quality promotes the confidence to act instead of feeling overwhelmed about climate change and other environmental concerns.
Combining mindfulness practices with environmental education builds cognitive as well as emotional skills which contribute to a deeper understanding of sustainability and an improved ability to be a change-maker. Learning how to pause and take a breath and knowing how to respond instead of react to situations enables more skillful and peaceful advocacy. Cultivation of the core values which are part of ethical mindfulness education activates a sense of responsibility for others, communities, and the planet. The increased density of the pre-frontal cortex which comes from sustained mindfulness practice promotes better problem-solving skills and leads to increased innovation in mitigation strategies for environmental threats and disasters.
A more recent sub-discipline of secular mindfulness is engaged mindfulness which is usually begun after an individual has a solidly established personal practice. This practice is more in keeping with the original term of Right Mindfulness from Buddhist philosophy. Engaged mindfulness seeks to integrate social and scientific knowledge with empathy and values to inspire involvement and action. I explain engaged mindfulness to children with the metaphor of helping others as well as oneself being as crucial as breathing out as well as breathing in. Since our first mindfulness lessons are establishing awareness of the breath, focusing on exhaling along with inhaling is an image that they are prepared to understand as their practice matures. Engaged mindfulness promotes environmental activism by imparting a feeling of belonging to one human family sharing one planet. One of the most beautiful ways engaged mindfulness practice prepares children to be citizens of the world, especially when combined with environmental education, is by developing an appreciation of indigenous wisdom and relationship native peoples have with nature.
In my upper level lessons for teens and adults, I make a distinction between engaged mindfulness and applied mindfulness, with the latter having an even broader scope and the goal of addressing systemic changes beyond just the call for individual activism. The new neural connections built over time with even short sessions of meditation repeated often facilitate a growth-mindset and empower practitioners with the ability to devise new structures and frameworks. The group altruism developed by being a part of a mindful community fosters a desire for social, economic, and political equity. Any initiatives to promote true social sustainability also have positive effects on the environment
by reducing consumption and waste. Part of being trained as an engaged mindfulness educator includes learning about trauma and restorative practices, as meditation and other contemplative practices are often used as supports in mental health interventions. This understanding of trauma and healing is also often applied to using mindfulness strategies to victims of natural disasters. Being a part of a mindful community promotes a commitment to contribute towards deep, lasting comprehensive changes.
From individual health, emotional, and cognitive benefits to improvements in the well-being of communities and the planet, practicing mindfulness and environmental education together offers improved outcomes in many areas. The fields support each other, and together support individuals with the worldview and skills to make true change. Mindfulness teaches the resilience to be with personal, environmental, and social problems and the confidence to find and implement solutions. The mindfulness lessons in communication and conflict resolution empower students with the tools to be peaceful, skillful advocates. Mindfulness practices often have enhanced benefits for people when done outside. Environmental advocates who have mindfulness trainings gain coping strategies for being with the anxieties of climate change, and therapeutic tools to help victims of natural disasters. The practices of both engaged and applied mindfulness specifically encourage individuals to feel connected to others and the natural world and thus contribute to caring for the well-being of communities and the planet. Mindfulness and contemplative studies, sustainability and environmental studies are inherently symbiotic and people of all ages benefit greatly from being taught both disciplines together.