|Examine how mindfulness and community building are related, and how mindfulness can be applied to make community work more effective.|
This and other sections in the Tool Box chapter on Spirituality and Community Building (Chapter 28) have been written with the support and contributions of experts connected with the Charter for Compassion International. For more information about the Charter and its work, visit www.charterforcompassion.org.
The Importance of Mindfulness in Community Building
The word “mindful” is frequently used in today’s popular culture. We say that we practice mindful meditation, or that we are mindful in our actions, or mindful of how we are perceived. But what exactly is being mindful, or practicing mindfulness? Why is it important for community builders? If we agree it’s important, how can we help build communities by using it? And how can we develop it for ourselves? These are some of the questions we will take up in this Tool Box section.
Mindfulness in a Nutshell
Basically, mindfulness means living in the moment. Instead of letting our judgments and assumptions clutter our words and actions, we respond in gentle, loving, compassionate ways. By so doing, we create better relationships – the building blocks of community.
In order to impact others and build strong communities, mindfulness must begin with us, as individuals. Mindfulness is expressed through our body, mind, spirit, and emotions. When we are mindful, we are more likely to be objective, nonattached, non-judgmental, non-defensive, and nonviolent in our interactions. Through this stance, we are better able to connect with others. And through those connections, difficulties are weathered and community is formed and strengthened. Trust among community members grows. All of these consequences are natural byproducts of living with mindfulness.
Mindfulness and Communities
Although mindfulness begins as an individual practice, when mindfulness is shared among group members, a community is more likely to thrive. Individuals become aware when their personal agendas and motives might not be in alignment with collective goals. With awareness, individuals are able to challenge their own beliefs to root out attachments, defenses, and judgments. The beliefs and ideas held by individuals then reflect those in the collective consciousness, meaning the shared beliefs and social norms of the group. These shared beliefs become the guiding force in making community decisions.
When groups operate from the collective consciousness, they are better able to identify conflicts more quickly. They can then acknowledge differences more easily, and take actions that are best for themselves.
There are many examples of mindful communities in action. Here are just a few:
- Mindfulness Community of Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington
- Community of Interbeing, an online community in the United Kingdom
- The Charlotte Community of Mindfulness in Charlotte, North Carolina
In these mindful communities, members experience strengthened relationships and a better understanding of the importance of interconnectedness, not only within their groups but in the larger community setting. For instance, the Mindfulness Community of Puget Sound is intentionally inclusive. Offering a variety of ways for the community to get involved, the community focuses on creating mindfulness within the individual, across the group, and on mindfully maintaining physical environments. As a different example, the Community of Interbeing is comprised of smaller independent communities that span the United Kingdom; it serves as a support umbrella for other communities of mindfulness.
In this Community Tool Box section, our aims are to define more closely what we mean by mindfulness and by community building; to identify key individual and group characteristics of mindful community building; to show how mindfulness can be effectively applied in community settings to improve community outcomes; and to suggest how it can be developed by individuals and communities alike.
We’ll be talking quite a bit about mindful community building as our discussion proceeds. So first, let’s identify some key goals of this community-building approach.
Goals of Mindful Community Building
Mindful community building has several implicit and interconnected goals:
- Identifying and setting goals collectively, by the entire group or an agreed-upon subset of the group. Common goals, based upon the mission and values of the organization, strengthen the community’s identity.
- Deepening relationships, which provide members with opportunities to know one another more fully. With these intimate connections, groups are more likely to communicate and work in unity toward their common goals.
- Working toward inclusiveness, which builds upon deepening relationships.
Mindful community building asks what segments of the populations are not represented and invites all community members to join. The mantra of mindful community building is “all are welcome.”
Some Benefits of Mindfulness
Mindfulness can yield a variety of benefits for the individual practitioner. By now, many of these are well known, so we will not review them in full detail here. But to summarize, in the area of physical health, mindfulness can help relieve stress, treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, and alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties. And in mental health, mindfulness can be an important element in treating issues such as depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, couple conflicts, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
But the benefits of mindfulness do not end there, for interpersonal and community benefits occur as well. One such benefit is that mindfulness provides us with a way to connect intimately and compassionately. Focused on the moment, we see and hear the other person. We are aware of their needs, values, and beliefs. And by engaging in mindful dialogue, we better understand the dynamics of the group. In the moment, we think critically in order to distinguish between the group’s agenda, our personal agenda, and the agendas of other group members. We notice those who lead by gentle example. Those leaders serve as models for the rest of community.
More than that: Through mindfulness we recognize the gifts and skills of all members and invite them to express those gifts. We encourage everyone to take leadership roles. In doing so, all become engaged leaders who have a stake in community. As mindful leaders, we are invested in recognizing varying personalities and lessening our defensive and judgmental reactions. As a result of our non-defensive, nonjudgmental stance, we strengthen interpersonal relationships and develop strong ties with others in the community and within the group itself.
The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of mindfulness are related. For when we are aware of any negative impacts our interactions may have on us – either mentally, physically, or emotionally – we can use mindfulness practices to reduce those negative effects. Mindfulness and meditative states in general can help us focus and concentrate by quieting the chattering mind. Our response flexibility increases, and we are better able to recognize our personal triggers and modify any reactions to responses. Less stress, more focus, improved attention, increased concentration, and an amplified ability to respond all strengthen our ability to communicate – and communication is arguably the most important skill when mindfully building community.
Through mindfulness we are able to identify the internal and external factors that prevent community from operating as a cohesive whole. Although addressing these issues may not be easy, mindfulness is a key component of critical thinking which is instrumental in bringing the group through any strife to resolution. Mindfulness is a key component is recognizing personal agendas and resolving not to allow these agendas to intervene with the group’s mission. Through mindfulness, a group can effectively collaborate and bring consensus in innovative, entrepreneurial ways.
Starting Where You Are: Sowing the Seeds of Community – A Story
The founding of Compassionate Louisville illustrates some of the principles of mindfulness applied to community life. In 2012, a year after Louisville, Kentucky, became a Compassionate City, a group of individuals representing many organizations spent several retreat days creating the mission, values, and vision of Compassionate Louisville. Each person was mindful of how they were living the mission and values, and shared these ideas during the session. Twelve values were eventually named. It was through mindful awareness that the group chose the values that best reflected the newly-formed community.
This group saw itself as seeding a community of greater mindfulness. Its vision statement imagined “a community and world becoming more and more compassionate.” As a collective and as individuals, members reaffirmed the mission “to champion and nurture the growth of compassion.” This articulation of Compassionate Louisville’s mission and values was made possible through strong facilitation of the group and committed leaders intent on bringing the vision of a more compassionate city to life. These leaders became the roots of an ever-growing tree of committed volunteers whose goal was for a more compassionate city to actually come about.
But mindfulness was integral to the process. Without mindfulness, the group would not have reached a level of understanding that encouraged both leadership and consensus.
Through the growing public awareness of this initiative, the group then encouraged other citizens to discover how they might answer the question, “How can compassion best operate in Louisville?” Mindfully building a city of compassion means not giving up when compassion appears to fall short. Conflict is not ignored but recognized, for through conflict comes the opportunity to grow compassionately. Within dynamic, flexible structures, resolutions are identified and initiated. These resolutions have the principles of the community at their foundations.
To this day, the Coordinating Circle of Compassionate Louisville continues to be an organic, dynamic, and evolving community whose key objective is to mindfully observe how compassion is manifesting in the City and to search for ways to facilitate compassion’s presence.
Begin at the Beginning: A Few Definitions
Open a dictionary, webpage, or phone app, and you will discover the meaning of a word. But as we all know, there are many nuances to words that cannot be found in a dictionary. Many nuances exist for the words “mindfulness” and “community building.” For our purposes, we will define the terms as below, then examine some of their nuances as well.
Mindfulness can be described as a state of active, open attention to the present. It is living in awareness of each moment. Instead of letting your life pass by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.
Some Nuances Found in the Lived Experience of Mindfulness
How many times have you driven from point A to point B and didn't remember how you got there? You might have been living in the moment, but perhaps you were not aware on a fully conscious level of your journey. Perhaps you were reviewing a list of tasks for the day, or ruminating over an event that occurred the day before. Your mind was filled with clutter. Although you might have been in the moment in one sense, you were not mindful. You were unable to sift through the distractions and be fully present to the world unfolding.
A mindfulness stance allows us to be aware of distractions, but to choose not to react to them. For example, in a community setting we may be aware of our personal agendas, but we do not allow them to interfere with the goals of a larger group. In fact, we actively listen to what others are saying in an effort to better understand the community’s goals and the beliefs and judgments of other community members. We may also ask ourselves how our beliefs and judgments are different from the community’s. Through this stance, we mindfully identify what is stopping us from fully engaging in the collective consciousness. And with this information, we prevent our judgments from negatively impacting the group’s process.
“Few of us ever live in the present. We are forever anticipating what is to come or remembering what has gone.” -- Louis L'Amour
The same is true during mindful conversations with others. For example, if we are food shopping and meet an acquaintance, we may acknowledge that we are distracted from completing our grocery list, but we do not allow ourselves to be drawn away from the conversation. Instead, we attend to the conversation while keeping our grocery shopping in the background. Mindfully, we choose what is the most appropriate way to be in the moment. If we are on a time line, we may choose to compassionately end the conversation and complete our task.
Community building is a field of practice directed toward the creation or enhancement of community relationships or outcomes. A community is defined as a social unit within a region or one created through common interest. The geographic and social boundaries are defined by its members.
An alternative definition adds to the picture: Community building is an ongoing process where the people affected by an issue come together to identify problems and take action to achieve solutions. A community builder challenges those he or she works with to change the way things are through collective action, empowering all.
Some Nuances Found in the Lived Experience of Community Building
At some point in a group’s history, the values, beliefs, and mores of a community are developed either by its members or a subset of the members. For the Compassionate Louisville community, a subset of the members articulated its vision, mission, and values. Due to the intentionality of that small group, even after many years its mission and values continue to represent the vision of the larger community rather than that of specific individuals or subsets of the group.
Mindful community building is flexible and aware of the skills and resources provided by all members; it encourages each person’s involvement in sustaining a community that flourishes through the individual and the collective practice of mindfulness.
Putting the Definitions Together
Characteristics of Mindful Community Building
Mindful community building happens through the committed action of individual “builders” working as a group to create a viable organization. A video by Margaret A. Wheatley identifies ten ways to intentionally maintain a strong, mindful foundation of community and to create healthy community change:
- People support what they create.
- People act responsibly when they care.
- Conversation is the way to bring cohesion.
- To change a stymied conversation, change who is in it.
- Expect leaders to come from anywhere.
- Focus on what is working to generate energy and creativity.
- The source of wisdom is internal.
- Everything is a failure in the middle.
- Humans can handle anything when in a community.
- Generosity, forgiveness, and love are the glue of community.
At the heart of each of these ways is the ability to think critically. The lack of any one of these factors could be a block to maintaining mindful community. Early identification and resolution of potential stumbling blocks minimizes the potential for them to become major obstacles to the health of the community.
Critical Thinking and Compassionate Policies: A Story
Mindful groups and mindful community builders willingly, if not easily, acknowledge where potential conflicts exist. Either the group as a whole or a subset works to identify the conflict and then create potential resolutions. The subset of the group transparently reports its findings and suggestions to the group.
In one case, a group of women who were military veterans created a support group. This group was open to all women who had served in the U.S. military. Over time, they discovered that some of the women carried deep emotional wounds. Their wounds sometimes came to the surface and triggered conflict among group members. The leaders wanted to create a stronger, inclusive community; but they were unsure how to mindfully address the needs of these women in ways that were compassionate and that also empowered them to continue to participate in the group.
With the help of an outside facilitator, guidelines for compassion within the group were defined and put into place. The myth of compassion as being “nice” in ways that potentially created co-dependent behavior was debunked. Two additional items were placed on the application to join, specifying the responsibilities of the member and the community. The group leaders also connected with mental health care providers willing to provide emergency assistance if necessary. In practice, both redefining compassionate actions and the creation of policies helped create a safe environment.
The same group of leaders attended a workshop to improve communication and conflict management skills. As both leaders and members became more adept in listening and responding with compassion, there were fewer escalations of conflict that stemmed from an individual member’s woundedness. Over time, the meetings became known as places of safety.
A valuable lesson from this story is that mindfulness within this group led to the naming of a conflict. The director realized that conflict could not be resolved within the group without external assistance. In addition, what was learned in mindful communication training was shared with the group at large. Modifications in communication styles were an important step in repairing group structure, and stimulated more mindful communication. Instead of focusing on individual conflicts, the group was able to focus on the collective whole. Building upon the values and mission of the organization, the group strengthened the safe and supportive environment for which the organization is now known.
The group incorporated several of Wheatley’s suggestions in resolving conflict. The group of women supported what they created through its evolution. They acted responsibly by hiring a trained facilitator and engaging in open, mindful conversation. The focus was on what was working and on sharing the wisdom of group members. Instead of ostracizing those that were viewed as disruptive, they created a paradigm of forgiveness and love.
Four Core Relationships in Mindful Community Building
Mindful community building is about relationships. To give us a foundation for our understanding and application, it will be helpful to learn more about four core relationships that empower and energize the building of mindful communities. These relationships are with:
- The Self. How we respond and react to the authentic and false parts of our self. This relationship is integral to all other relationships. It is through deep mindfulness practice that we know what is real and what is illusion. In this relationship, we ask our self how our thoughts, words, and actions reflect who we are. This is our authentic self. In contrast, the false parts of our self are based upon fears, and not truly reflective of who we are.
- The Sacred. What we hold in deep reverence.
- Others. Our partners, family members, co-workers, acquaintances, and strangers.
- Creation. All of the natural world and what humans have made.
Engaging mindfully in each of these relationships is necessary to both the holistic health of an individual and any communities the individual belongs to. When we are aware of when we are interacting from our true, best self as contrasted with actions derived from our false, illusory self, we can better address our individual needs and the needs of the group. A community and its members that are grounded in mindful relationships are better able to weather times of transition. Effective change agents are good relationship partners who respect, trust, and share honestly.
As community builders, it is worth our while to elaborate further on each of these four core relationships, and how they relate to community building.
Relationship with the Self
In order to understand personal motives and agendas, a mindfulness practice is important. Through self-awareness that comes from ongoing reflection and introspection, an individual recognizes the potential and real impact of one’s judgments and assumptions. Through deep reflection, both the shadow and authentic self are identified and owned. By living authentically, respect and love of self take hold. This is the foundation from which all relationships grow. Eventually, it enables you to follow the Golden Rule: to love your neighbor as yourself – and to love yourself as your neighbor.
The Self in Community
It has often been said that no man is an island; but knowing who you are is important to mindfully engaging others in community. Awareness of the reasons behind actions and personal triggers creates the power of choice. With awareness, you lessen the potential negative impact of personal biases and agendas on community. Befriending both the true and shadow parts creates an authentic relationship with the self. This is foundational to effective community membership. An authentic relationship with self fosters honesty and integrity-filled interactions with others.
Mindful Moment for Reflection
Remember a time when your beliefs and assumptions were not in alignment with those of a community’s collective consciousness. (If you are having difficulty, think about a time when you were angry about a group decision. Start with that feeling, and ask what judgments, assumptions, or beliefs were behind the anger.)
Did you share your point of view? If so, how? If we are not mindful of how our beliefs and agendas are not in alignment with those of the group, we can disrupt the group’s ability to stay in the moment and complete a project. Knowing our self prevents us from being an agent of disruption.
Relationship with the Sacred
The word “sacred” can mean many things. In this context, the sacred may be a connection to a deity, but it also refers to what one holds with great reverence. This relationship requires ongoing discernment and mindful identification of how the sacred is manifesting in an individual’s life. While certain beliefs, things, and concepts will always be sacred, the sacred in our life is dynamic and evolving. Relationship with the sacred is interwoven with and reflected in our relationships with self, others, and all creation; and it provides the underpinning for how we perceive and relate to the world.
The Sacred in Community
Seeing the sacred in another or having deep respect for them is key to community building. Through this relationship of reverence, members forge an atmosphere of safety and collaboration. Members are less likely to get stuck in judgments or defenses. Movement away from a “they vs. us” paradigm to an “us” reality occurs, and deep respect for individuals as well as the community as whole is fostered.
Mindful Moment for Reflection
Choose a community that you belong to. Identify aspects of the community that represent the sacred or what you deeply respect. How does your value of the sacred, inherent in that community, engage both your mindfulness and ability to help the community flourish?
Relationship with Others
While the easiest core relationship to identify, our relationships with others are undeniably the most difficult to remain mindful and objective about. Through mindful relationships, we manage agreements and resolve conflicts. We are also given opportunities to love unconditionally and be compassionate. Whether mindfully or not, how we view our relationships with others creates our personal view of reality and influences how we respond in the real world.
Others in Community
Individual relationships are the cornerstones of community. When engaged with mindful opportunities to create diverse, rich relationships, it becomes easier to name and bring understanding to differences. Mindful relationships with others create a safe space in which listening skills are developed and conflict is identified and resolved. Through these interactions, exploration and discovery of how beliefs and values are held in the collective consciousness occurs.
Our individual relationships have the power to bring us deeper into the collective consciousness. Unfortunately, they also have the power to segregate us into opposing groups. But through mindful community building, we harness the power of values held by the group while acknowledging and minimizing the power of competing individual agendas.
Mindful Moment for Reflection
If you can, call to mind a relationship or cluster of relationships that drew you into the collective consciousness of the group. How were these relationships beneficial to maintaining a mindful environment? What one thing was accomplished as a result of this relationship?
Next, recall a time when conflict occurred within the group. How did the role of relationship serve in resolving the conflict? Or, how were you able to use the collective values to overcome any personal agendas? Through this exercise, see if you can appreciate how mindful community building brings us deeper into the collective consciousness.
Relationship with Creation
All of our interactions are relational, even those that are not with other humans. These include our connections with all living things, plants and animals, natural objects, and everything created by humans. This combined group of relationships is often described as stewardship, and involves how we care for those things and sentient beings for which we are responsible.
Creation in Community
The use of material resources within the community falls under this category of relationship. Some of those relationships depend upon tangible physical structures and material resources – the bricks and mortar of community. On the other hand, how an individual’s values and vision interface with the mission, vision, and values of the organization reflects an intangible relationship with creation. So do the ways we mindfully share our skills and talents with the community.
Mindful Moment for Reflection
Reflect upon a time that you were part of a group that was creating something tangible (for example, a capital project, materials for a program, gifts for donors, or a large event). Were you in favor of the project or opposed to it? Using the first three core relationships (with self, the sacred, and others) how did they inform your relationship to this part of community building?
In any case, community building creates opportunities for mindful growth. Its success will depend upon how mindfully honest we are with our self and how skilled we are in engaging others and all of creation. We can all agree that being in relationship is not always easy; in fact, maintaining healthy, cohesive relationships is one of the most difficult challenges we face in life. The relational abilities of a mindful community builder not only create the foundation and build the framework, they are necessary in developing and sustaining relationship.
Keeping these four core relationships in mind, we’ll next build on this knowledge by examining some key personal qualities and attributes of the mindful community builder.
Key Qualities of the Mindful Community Builder
I’m Listening: What Did You Say?
First and perhaps foremost among the desired qualities for a mindful community builder is the ability to listen. Listening skills are integral to community building. Instead of assuming we understand what the other is saying, or listening with half an ear or irregularly, we listen with full attention. This way of listening, among other things, requires humility and vulnerability. We recognize that we don’t have all the answers – on the contrary, we are open to hearing the answers put forth by another.
With mindfulness practice, you can learn to listen to your internal monologue and external dialogue at the same time. The internal monologue includes your thoughts and how your body is reacting to both internal and external stimuli. Engaging in this bi-listening requires that all energy be focused on the present moment while tuning out any external or internal distractions. For example, planning the next day’s activities is impossible at the same time that we are intentionally gathering verbal and nonverbal cues from our dialogue partner, and also listening to our internal discourse. But when we listen intentionally using all of our senses, we are better able to respond in compassionate ways that both seek information and also share our own viewpoints. Let’s examine this essential quality of mindful listening in greater detail.
Listening with Our Entire Being
Listening with our entire being, or full-body listening, is a mindful practice in which we use all of our senses to discern what we are hearing. We may come to one conclusion by listening to the words, yet another by paying attention to our somatic reaction to what is being said. By listening with our entire being, we ground ourselves in the moment and are fully present to what is unfolding. By focusing our attention in real time to what is occurring, we can simultaneously hear words with our ears, see the physical reactions of the other, and also attend to our own gut reactions. This is a full-body way of understanding the other person, as well as discovering the energy behind the words that may trigger our own reactions.
Very often, asking the question, “What do you mean?” and mindfully listening with our entire being to the answer leads to greater clarity. We acknowledge that the words themselves may be neutral, but our reactions to them are not. By gaining this greater understanding, our behavior is less reactive and more responsive. It better allows us to prevent or dismantle the construction of barriers within the community. Through such full-body listening, we build bridges of understanding and inclusion, where all are welcome to participate.
Our Internal Monologue
Our listening is also impacted by our internal monologue. That ongoing monologue in our mind provides a running commentary about what happens around us. While it is based on our own reality, it may or may not reflect the communal reality. If we are unaware of the underlying judgments and assumptions within, it may impact what we hear another saying. And it may hinder the creative process.
But when we are aware of our internal monologue, we prevent an unconscious, negative impact. For example, we may have a visceral reaction to a comment, yet understand that our reaction has nothing to do with what the other is saying. Instead of being harsh or critical, we objectively hear the other and respond taking larger collective values into account, rather than responding simply from our judgments and beliefs.
When we are aware of those judgments, we can choose either to discount them or use them to formulate thought-provoking questions. Being mindfully aware of our internal monologue gives us the power to engage objectively. When we listen with all of our senses, we become objective observers. This is the gateway to entering the collective consciousness and to mindful engagement in community building.
Moment for Mindful Reflection
Ask yourself “How do each of the following affect my perceptions and judgments, and prevent me from communicating effectively and mindfully within my community?”
- My expectations and belie
- My perceived cognitive failures
- My past experiences
- My current perspectives
Through mindfulness, we don the cape of the objective observer and become more effective in community building.
The Power of Mindful Listening: A Story
Being an effective community builder depends upon our ability to maintain a mindful connection with our self and others in our community. At times in our life, we hear what we need, not what is actually said. And this hearing provides information we need to come to resolution.
Several years ago I had a conversation with a fellow conference participant. She shared with me a story about a powerful sermon given by a visiting pastor. His message changed her life. Several weeks later, she had the opportunity to thank him for his transformative words. After she finished thanking him, he gently took her hand, looked her in the eye, and replied, “That was not what I said.”
She was in anguish when she found this out, for those words had provided solace to her. In this case, the words healed a part of her. But at other times, when we are not listening mindfully, we may hear words that trigger anger and angst. When we are not aware in the moment, our communication skills are impaired. We fail to hear effectively; our responses become inadequate.
After hearing her story, I wondered how many times I had heard things that had not been said, and how many stories I had related incorrectly. Like my fellow participant, sometimes the words I thought I had heard brought solace and even epiphanies. At other times, they created cracks in the foundation of relationship. Regardless of the intent behind the words uttered in those moments, they were heard in a state of unawareness.
The key lessons for us are again clear: Our ability to communicate effectively hinges on our ability to listen mindfully and to be in the moment. And building community effectively depends upon our ability to create and sustain moments of personal and collective mindfulness.
We’ve been emphasizing what is arguably the most important aspect of mindful communication – listening to one’s external dialogue, while also attending to one’s internal monologue. This is the foundation of communicating mindfully. But what else is necessary for effective, mindful dialogue? Three factors: gaining clarity, formulating a response, and responding compassionately.
After someone finishes speaking, the mindful listener enters into a moment of silence. During this time the listener sifts through the information received and any reactions to it. Clarity is gained during the silence. This calms any angst the interaction may have triggered and allows for formulation of a compassionate response. (Please note that this moment of silence is brief – usually no more than 15-30 seconds.)
Finally, the listener responds to what was heard. Keep in mind that during the response period, the respondent is also attending to how words and actions are being received. The listener speaks objectively and compassionately, being careful not to judge the other’s reactions or to defend their words.
In summary, mindful communication is a sharing between individuals who:
- Intentionally listen when the other person is speaking
- Gain clarity and formulate a response after the other is finished
- Respond compassionately
- Repeat this sequence as necessary
In mindful community building, there is no room for arrogance and discounting the abilities and suggestions of anyone. Instead, we humbly acknowledge our talents and offer them to the community in assertive but nonaggressive ways. Humility strengthens both individual and communal connections, while inviting all to share from their authentic core.
To expand upon this point, engaging in humility is an act of mindfulness. When we act with humility within a community, we are empowered not to place more or less importance on our ideas; rather, all ideas are of equal value. Within the collective consciousness ideas are gestated and birthed.
As you may see, humility is the gateway to the open mind and expanded heart of community. When members of the community are humble, they no longer just listen for what will prove their point, but rather to gain a greater understanding of what is best for the community. In this safe and reverent place:
- Conversation flows with full openness.
- The barriers to sharing are reduced.
- Members honestly want to share and listen to others.
- The focus is on the collective rather than the individual.
All mindful communities have mindful leaders at their core. They lead by serving, but also by encouraging others to be leaders in community building. Building strong sustainable communities seldom occurs in a top-down fashion. Quite the contrary: Leadership is everybody’s business, and with guidance, every person can grow into a mindful leader of community. It is important to note that not all leaders provide a “face” for the community. Leaders include everyone who is actively engaged in living the mission, vision, and values of community.
Leadership’s Relationship to Humility
Mindful leadership is also connected to humility, the topic just mentioned. In particular, humility promotes servant leadership, a phrase coined by Robert G. Greenleaf. The Greenleaf Foundation describes a servant-leader as a “servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”
A servant leader mindfully operates from a “servant heart” to successfully build better organizations collaboratively. Such a leader is able to set aside any personal agendas in order to help create a stable environment. Ongoing growth and evolution of the organization is encouraged. As a great listener, a servant leader listens with intent to understand the concerns of community members. The leader’s responses are then based upon the mission and values of the organization. Both listening and responding are interwoven with compassion.
In mindful servant leadership, differences are not ignored. Instead, through mindful communication, differences are identified, explored, and celebrated. Valuing these differences is, in fact, a hallmark of mindful community building. Divergent ideas and beliefs are necessary to the creative process, and the impetus for exploring innovative possibilities. In acknowledging differences, a servant leader – and the community itself – is humble and vulnerable. When communities open themselves to being vulnerable, they become more diverse and inclusive. Without individual egos taking control, all are welcome and empowered to identify ways to become a stronger, more mindful community.
Servant leadership, then, also brings out diversity, and as we will note later under a separate heading, diversity plays a fundamental role in our community. Inclusion of diversity brings about evolutionary leaps in community consciousness.
The following five-minute video is a mindful reflection on the many aspects of community diversity:
Moment for Mindful Reflection
After watching this video, ask yourself:
- When I am mindful of my community, what do I notice?
- When I am aware of myself, what information do I gather?
- What activities and other factors are preventing me and others from fully and mindfully engaging in community building?
- How do these awarenesses empower my community-building ability?
Discovering the roles of humility, vulnerability, and inclusion in community building requires mindful conversation both externally and internally. It is helpful to set aside five minutes during the day to listen to how your internal thoughts, beliefs, judgments, and assumptions form your reactions and responses to others.
Three Vows for the Mindful Community Builder
To supplement the discussion above, another approach to understanding the individual key qualities of mindfulness necessary to engage the process of building a mindful community has been expressed by the Buddhist scholar and practitioner Pema Chödrön. Writing in Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, she shares an interpretation of three Buddhist vows. To paraphrase the vows: Cause no harm, alleviate suffering, and take life as it is.
These vows are integral to building and maintaining community. Chödrön believes that they can help us in “relating to the impermanent, ever-shifting nature of our life experience [and] as a way of using our everyday experience to wake up, perk up, lighten up, and be more loving and conscious of other beings” (Chödrön, p. ix).
When members of a group live with awareness of these three vows, both within the group and in interactions outside the group, respect for others grows. No longer are others defined as strangers or objects; we see others fully and clearly. We make choices based not upon our wants, but on the needs of the community. Using our experiences in these ways creates a more loving consciousness of other beings. This is the foundation of mindful community building.
Let’s describe each of these vows in more detail, and clarify their relationship to mindful community building.
Cause No Harm
Most community builders say their intent is to strengthen a community so that it thrives. One might wonder how, with this intent, anything that is said or done would cause harm. Yet, without mindful awareness, we may do just that. We may create policies and programs that unintentionally exclude. Programs and events may inadvertently be based upon biases. What is created in good faith may have undesirable ramifications that are far-reaching. Minute cracks in the foundation of community may form as members become alienated and disenfranchised. If unchecked, this situation may magnify. The community-building lesson here is to cause no harm by encouraging inclusion and transparency in all activities.
As an example, I was a part of a planning committee that created an anniversary event. Four weeks prior to the event, some members of the group became upset because certain organizations were included in a panel discussion instead of others. This provided a great opportunity to be mindful, as we committee members delved into our judgments and beliefs and noticed how they shaped our actions. We became aware of how we projected our beliefs and how our projections impacted others. Through mindfulness, we investigated how our judgments differed from those of the collective and worked toward a more effective solution.
Moment for Mindful Reflection
Reflect upon a group situation you were part of where full inclusion and transparency were lacking. How did this impact the functioning of your group? Were any corrective steps taken? How effective were they? What lessons do you draw from your experience?
With mindfulness, your awareness of your judgments and beliefs is used to build up and not break down. Most of all, living with the intent to “cause no harm” increases awareness of our potential to harm and of when we actually do harm. We then act upon the next vow, “to alleviate suffering,” which may have occurred through our unaware action.
Most programs, policies, and other communal activities are based upon the promotion of well-being, and ultimately upon the alleviation of suffering of the community and its members. Mindful community building aims to alleviate suffering; accordingly, it is a true act of compassion. Compassion is a key factor on the alleviation of suffering. A community with a strong foundation of mindfulness can better generate a compassionate response. Then, over time, suffering becomes more easily identified and reduced.
Many of the benefits of community building with compassion are measurable. When community building is accomplished with compassion, and with the intent to relieve suffering, trust increases among members and with external groups. Strengthened relationships open lines of communication. Members become able to acknowledge and address conflict as opportunities for growth. Communication thrives. And with compassion, we become better able to celebrate successes and weather the lean times.
Acting in ways that cause no harm and alleviate suffering leads us to implementation of the third vow, in which life can be taken as it is.
Taking Life As It Is
In the life of any community, threats may occur. To respond to threats, community leaders may make decisions based upon a previous reality, or do the first thing that seems best. Or, instead, they can use critical thinking and mindfulness to “take life as it is.”
When a group “takes life as it is,” mindful decisions are created through gathering all options and then weighing them. From simple brainstorming to project management skills, there exist a variety of ways to gather information, process, and plan. Also, when taking life as it is, the community is not complacent, but rather adopts a mindful, entrepreneurial stance. As entrepreneurs, individuals and the collective group are curious, courageous, and passionate. Using critical thinking, questions are asked and risks taken with optimism.
Jean-Baptiste de la Salle, SJ, coined the phrase “taking a long, loving look at the real.” When looking at the real during decision-making, we must be gentle and loving in our analysis of any situation or event. We need to objectively analyze the situation for potential harm, while also looking for ways to minimize or alleviate suffering.
To be more specific, when building community we often have more projects that need doing than money to support them. Using the standard of “taking a long, loving look at the real,” combined with avoiding harm and minimizing suffering, empowers a community to choose which projects to continue and how to minimize any negative impact caused by the choice.
Information gathered from a long, loving look at the real can be used to effectively communicate reasons behind decisions. Taking such a look includes both transparency and compassion. Mindfulness helps us access necessary skills to balance needs with resources, while articulating the rationale behind the decision. Practicing this philosophy as leaders provides a teaching moment to all members of the group. This stance itself strengthens mindfulness in community. To illustrate this point, see the story just below.
Taking a Long, Loving Look at the Real: A Story of Community Support
Several years ago, community groups in Louisville, Kentucky, began to address the need to provide housing for approximately 360 military veterans who were homeless in the city. Named Rx: Housing Veterans, the resulting project was headed by the local Coalition for the Homeless and by Louisville Metro Government. More than 15 organizations within the community mindfully came together to create housing strategies.
Using combined government and private resources, the group developed plans that included not only providing housing for displaced veterans but also supplying other help, including securing employment, medical care, and help for addictions. The plan was to have the number of veterans experiencing homelessness at functionally zero by the end of the next year.
The mindfulness of this group of community leaders mirrored the mindfulness in the community. Differences were respected; doors were opened; conflicts were addressed. Through transparency, they created forums where groups not only helped design and implement the programs but were invited to question activities.
Instead of blaming or shaming the group that was experiencing homelessness, the group took a long, loving look at the current situation. They identified the factors that contributed to homelessness of veterans. The group clarified what other needs might be addressed. So, instead of creating a one-size-fits-all solution, a community of support was created to compassionately help veterans integrate in the community at large.
This example shows that mindful community building is mirrored in communication with a listening ear and a welcoming heart. Listening to one another and inviting everyone’s participation resulted in a non-hierarchical approach for formal and informal meetings alike. These mindful leaders created a structured and safe environment for interactions to flourish and connections to thrive. Within this environment, both individuals and the community as a whole could more easily work with a spirit of collaboration. Such collaboration brings us to a new place of understanding – the common ground.
To summarize, we have identified some of the most desired qualities for the mindful community builder. Community building requires setting aside individual and communal egos while sharing our wisdom and listening to the wisdom of others. As objective observers, we realize we may misinterpret the words and actions of another. With humility, we are vulnerable as we ask questions of clarification and provide our ideas and suggestions. And through humility and vulnerability, we discover the paths to common ground – the place where community is nurtured, and a topic we explore further under the next main heading.
Our discussion so far has focused on desired qualities that are most closely associated with the community builder as an individual. But there are additional desired qualities that are more naturally connected with the group or community as a whole. We now consider these under the upcoming heading, “Key Group Factors.”
Key Group Factors in Mindful Community Building
COMMUNICATING CLEARLY AND OPENLY
No factor is more important in mindful community building than mindful communication. We have seen before how effective communication skills create and sustain individual relationships, but this is equally true for group and community relationships as well. Mindful communication is both clear and open. In addition, a community builder can utilize specific strategies and techniques for engaging in mindful communication on both individual and group levels. Some of these are:
- Contemplative Dialogue ©, which uses the approaches of mindfulness, non-defended learning, and nonviolence for participants to engage the collective consciousness with respect and with a willingness to work toward the common good.
- Active Listening, which provides 13 tips for listening in ways that lead to understanding.
- Non-violent Communication, which describes and offers resources on the four-part nonviolent communications process created by Marshall Rosenberg – honestly attending to observations, feelings, needs, and requests.
All these ways of communicating are based on being present in the moment and responding with compassion – two fundamental skills necessary for successfully and mindfully building both the microcosm and macrocosm of community. The microcosm includes the individual and relationships between members; the macrocosm reflects the collective consciousness and community as a whole.
HOLDING MINDFUL MEETINGS
Community building does not occur in silos – by individuals or segments of the group acting alone. In order to engage fully in mindful community building, effective meetings are necessary. These are designed to focus on the communal agenda and invite all participants to enter the collective consciousness.
In fostering mindfulness during meetings and planning sessions, it is helpful to begin with a focusing exercise, such as a moment of silence. A leader can also raise expectations of being an active participant through explaining concepts like mindfulness, collective consciousness, and common ground. Some other suggestions:
- Encourage understanding of others’ opinions and views. Ask questions for clarity.
- Agree to respect others for their points of view, while committing to work with one another for the common good.
- Recognize that the community-building goal is to create good outcomes incorporating the diversity of group members, not necessarily for all to be 100% in agreement. The goal is to reach consensus, rather than compromise.
A rich diversity exists in almost all communities. Sometimes diversity appears in the way we look; at other times it is cultural or based upon our personal experience. Through awareness, we recognize the strength in diversity and how it can contribute to mindful community building.
Mindful community building recognizes the many ways diversity is present and acknowledges where it is not. Without awareness, the “elephant in the room” of differences cannot be addressed; the barriers preventing us from working together cannot be removed. Fearing others who are not “like us” and excluding others who are not of the same ethnic or cultural group is becoming a more common occurrence. With mindfulness, however, we can better see where we get stuck, and choose ways to minimize the possible negative impact of difference. Addressing both the differences and the commonalities creates safe space.
A mindful community, then, does not ignore differences related to diversity. At a welcoming table, no views are negated. All views are considered, for members are aware that all viewpoints potentially hold nuggets of truth and may be community building blocks. Diversity is recognized, acknowledged, and respected. Diversity is valued as an actual benefit for building transformational community structures.
While sharing different perspectives may not always strengthen community, it often helps us understand viewpoints we never understood before. More often than not, though, mindfully sharing differences of opinion and listening to them translates to finding common ground and then to innovative, creative community building.
Agreeing to listen and to respond assertively yet compassionately is the foundation of an open, honest, transparent environment. Seeking out and incorporating diversity sets us on the path to reaching consensus and attaining true community growth.
Two Moments for Mindful Reflection
- Watch “Defining Diversity, Creating Community”. Then consider how diversity operates in a community you belong to. What are your answers to these questions?
- How might diversity have contributed to creating a more robust community?
- How might that diversity have impeded the community from working together?
- What is the role of mindfulness in harnessing the positive power of diversity?
- Watch “Together We Rock!: Creating Accessible and Inclusive Communities.”
- How might you translate the ideas about inclusion and accessibility presented in the video to engage in mindful community building in your own setting?
A key take-away from both of these videos is that differences can be used as building blocks to create opportunities for inclusion and accessibility.
The Mindfulness of the Group
Recent studies support the power of the group in increasing our acceptance of diversity, and more specifically by reducing unconscious bias.
According to one leader in the field, David Rock, Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, reducing such bias cannot be accomplished by an individual acting alone: “Any strategy that essentially relies on people to try not to be biased is doomed to fail.” But a group addressing the same task can be successful. “You’ve got to shift the focus from individuals trying not to be biased to teams being able to catch bias. There’s decades of research showing that format of strategy actually is the best format for behavior change and habit formation.” An interesting suggestion from this work is that groups themselves can be mindful, as well as individuals.
This analysis applies not only to community-based groups, but to business settings as well. In this connection, one newsworthy example and application was the employee training undertaken at the national coffee shop chain Starbucks, following a racial profiling incident at one of its stores.
FINDING COMMON GROUND
Another key aspect of mindful community building is our attempt to find common ground among group and community members. A mindful community is one that lives in common ground. This is not a place of homogenous thoughts and beliefs. Rather, in common ground, everyone is welcomed to share their ideas. In common ground, we have a mutuality of purpose and a focus on the power of the collective consciousness to bring about the common good. Common ground is entered and maintained through clear and open communication, mindful interactions, and welcoming diversity.
Sometimes finding common ground can be elusive, for two separate groups within a larger group may want the same outcome, yet may be unable to get past their separate agendas. Each believes it has the “best” way of accomplishing the goal. But entering the collective consciousness and attaining common ground requires being aware of any competing agendas and letting them go, in order to share perceived realities of both groups. This requires losing an “us versus them” mentality.
When we become a collective “we,” reaching consensus – the common ground – becomes more likely. Even if consensus is not reached, this way of working together strengthens the foundation of community.
Objectively Finding Common Ground: A Story
Two groups of individuals, who worked for the same company but in different divisions, had the common goal of ridding an area of invasive plants. They were tasked with working together to discover the best, most appropriate solution. One group wanted to use herbicides, while the other was vehemently against their use. But instead of each group holding firm on its “right” way to accomplish the desired outcome, both groups approached problem resolution mindfully. They agreed to be open to what the other group was saying.
The process used to resolve the problem was Contemplative Dialogue. In using this process, both sides intentionally named and discussed their beliefs and assumptions. Each made a commitment to listen to what the other side said and to ask questions in nonthreatening ways. All present also agreed to maintain an attitude of mindfulness and to return to mindfulness when gently reminded. Both groups, in addition, were mindful that they weren’t enemies; rather, both wanted the same outcome – a decrease in unwanted plant life. The best pathway to that outcome was the only difference.
One person in the group suggested using herbicides to eradicate the invasive plants; but after the initial application, the area would be seeded with hardy native plants, thus limiting the ability of the invasive plants to regrow. Neither group had independently thought of this solution. The consensus of the group was that this was the best plan of action. As a result, trust increased between the two diverse groups and within the community as a whole. Mindfulness here created the opportunity to reach consensus and gain common ground.
The next time a solution needed to be found, the groups came together not as adversaries but as cooperative members of the same organization. Trust and respect for different ideas had grown. Through mindfulness, all recognized they were all part of the same community, and came to act with the community’s general welfare in mind.
This approach to resolving differences can be applied in many other community settings, in particular to those where active conflict is present.
In searching for common ground, and in building strong communities, conflict may occur. This is also a natural part of community life. Our challenge in mindful community building is to resolve conflict amicably in order to strengthen community members, relationships, and the community itself.
Many of us avoid conflict when possible; yet conflict does not disappear when ignored. Often conflict is recognized, but there might not be sufficient energy or expertise to resolve it. What starts as low-level conflict, though, can become full-blown when not addressed mindfully. Conflict may seethe under the surface. Even participants who are only remotely connected to the original conflict may be affected by it. All this impacts the relationships of community members and the ability of the group to work effectively and to build community.
Mindful community building requires that we do not run from conflict. Rather, it encourages us to be aware of conflict, even when its level is low. Generally speaking, when a brewing conflict is acknowledged in its early stages, a quicker resolution can be found. Conflict makes most people uneasy; but when reverence is fostered in community relationships, identifying and discussing conflict, while still not easy, is not so scary. And with mindfulness, we can find common ground and resolve the conflict before it grows deep roots of resentment.
Using Mindfulness to Resolve Conflicts
But how, specifically, does one go about resolving a conflict within or between groups? Identifying the conflict, without assigning blame, is the first step to resolution. By doing so, the conflict is de-escalated and may not get to the point of angry feelings, or a standoff. After the conflict has been identified, and when attempting to find the best way to de-escalate a conflict, all members are asked to be objective and aware of how their judgments and assumptions impact the conflict. The group members seek to find common ground, while being respectful of everyone. Then, after a period of fact-finding and discernment, mindful solutions are proposed, chosen, and enacted.
Throughout this process, the group has at its heart a compassionate presence, and the best interests of all of its members. The group agrees that communication is always respectful – a major asset for any community, both in times of agreement and conflict.
Beyond these steps, we can employ additional conflict resolution skills. In addition to identifying the conflict through mindfulness, many specific techniques have been developed to resolve conflicts. Here are some of the main ones:
- Create a safe space where the conflict can be talked about.
- Recognize that different individuals may respond to the conflict actively engaged, passively, assertively, or aggressively.
- Agree on ground rules. These may include listening to others without interrupting, being mindful in responses, using “I” rather than “you” language, and not placing blame.
- Encourage individuals to acknowledge their fears (privately or publicly).
- Suggest that individuals share their stories regarding the conflict.
- Promote a standard of each party taking ownership in resolving the issue by accepting their role in the conflict, forgiving the others involved, and letting go of any grievances.
Using these techniques calls for open group dialogue. A trained facilitator can capture key understandings of the dialogue during brainstorming. In seeking common ground, the group discovers appropriate ways to let go of grievances and begin the process of reconciliation. The group decides upon the best course of action moving forward, while recognizing that it is easy to fall back into old patterns that recreate conflict. This can be challenging. Learning to respond mindfully and effectively to conflict is a lifelong practice.
One more point about conflict: Interpersonal conflict is a result of one or more people feeling threatened. It does not matter if the threat is real; the reaction is based upon perception. But while feeling threatened and experiencing conflict can trigger strong emotion, it can also provide opportunities for individual and communal growth. Awareness of this potential for growth is a benchmark of mindful community building.
This video on conflict resolution discusses how to identify and resolve conflict before it becomes unsurmountable:
Restorative Justice and Mindful Conflict Resolution
A particular application of mindfulness to resolving conflict involves what is known as restorative justice. In this procedure, which is most commonly used when a law is broken by a juvenile, perpetrator and victim meet together to decide on the most appropriate remedy.
An example: Two community members discovered windows broken in their homes. Rocks were lying on the floors inside their houses. Three boys had thrown the rocks. The two homeowners met with the three boys and their families to discuss what happened and what led to the boys throwing the rocks. This included the boys sharing parts of their lives that brought them to this point. The homeowners also shared how they felt about what the boys did.
What resolutions emerged from the meeting? One homeowner gave the boys the rocks they had thrown, with encouragement to use the rocks to engage in mindfulness – to remember what happens when you act out of anger and to realize that you can make different choices. The boys agreed to pay for the cost of replacing the windows of this person, and also agreed to help with yard work. The second homeowner asked only for an apology. He did give them a piece of advice: “Listen to the voice inside you when it tells you that something isn’t right. Trust in that voice; it will never steer you wrong.”
This type of meeting demonstrates both restorative justice and mindfulness in action. Through dialoguing, both the victims and the perpetrators became “real” to one another, rather than anonymous. Relationships were formed; traditional punishments were avoided; meaningful resolutions were agreed upon; and community ties were strengthened. (The story above is adapted from a Restorative Justice Louisville case.)
AVOIDING COMMUNITY-BUILDING FATIGUE
Although successful community building has great rewards, the very acts of creating and implementing can be exhausting. If a group is constantly resolving conflicts, making difficult decisions, or dealing with challenging group dynamics, over time group members may personally suffer from community-building fatigue.
This fatigue can be minimized through both collaboration and self-care. Maintaining strong communities depends upon the ability to collaborate and work together. Mindful community building also requires that individuals show care for themselves. Both these factors help ensure that individuals present their most authentic selves. When individuals are at their authentic best, communities have a better chance of mindfully building a sustainable infrastructure.
Community-building fatigue is a real thing. Alison Azaria, who writes for 2degrees, cautions that in order to avoid such fatigue, or to avoid reacting from stressors instead of responding with compassion, community builders should ensure:
- Clear understanding of what is required for each initiative. Offer simple requirements and state how they overlap with those of other projects.
- Excellent communication before, during, and after project completion. Inform collaborators about the progress of the initiative, including what is facilitating progress and preventing it.
- Avoidance of complicated requirements for collaboration. Be clear in instructions, with a means of clarifying misunderstandings before they become conflicts.
The key point here is that mindfulness can help prevent community-building fatigue. When community builders are trained in mindfulness, they become aware of the potential personal costs of their community work. They are then more likely to notice personal signs of depletion and take corrective actions before the full giving of their time, talent, and resources becomes impacted.
Now that we have examined some key attributes of the mindful community builder, together with some key group factors in mindful community building, we are ready to turn our attention to how to develop mindfulness. For once we have become more mindful ourselves, our own attitudes and actions will encourage others to act mindfully as well, even if we are not directly teaching them to do so.
To preview our own viewpoint: Developing mindfulness for the community builder, or for anybody, comes with practice. In more general terms, mindfulness is a skill, and as with any skill practice usually leads to better outcomes. As we have pointed out, one of the great attractions of mindfulness is that it can be practiced at any time and in any place – in every waking moment – but often, our mindfulness abilities are enhanced when we undertake a regular contemplative practice. We elaborate on this theme below.
Developing Mindfulness and Mindful Communities
THE ROLE OF MINDFUL LEADERSHIP
How does one develop mindfulness and mindful communities? A good beginning is to return to the key topic of leadership.
Mindful communities need leadership. The leaders of mindful communities provide guidance at all levels of engagement. In a mindful community, everyone has the capacity to lead. But in particular, a mindful leader focuses awareness on the present moment. In order to live in awareness, both leaders and community members may agree to develop a routine of both formal and informal mindfulness practice.
What these practices have in common is that they are contemplative – meaning that they focus our awareness on the present moment. According to a Harvard mindfulness help guide, the core of these practices involves “deliberately paying attention to thoughts and sensations without judgment.” In general, these practices also bring all aspects of our being (body, mind, spirit, and emotions) into greater alignment.
But what does this mean, specifically?
CONTEMPLATIVE PRACTICE: SOME EXAMPLES
Some examples of contemplative practices include:
- Sedentary practices, including sitting meditation, grounding, and centering
- Active practices, including tai chi, yoga, and walking. A contemplative walking practice might involve walking on a fixed path such as a labyrinth, or ordinary walking outdoors.
- Practices connected with activities of daily life, such as mindful eating and exercise
- Creative practices, including painting, drawing, journaling, writing poetry, and creating music
- Combined practices, incorporating several of these elements
Any of these practices can be either formal or informal. Formal practices are typically more structured, and typically occur at designated times of the day or week. A formal practice can anchor us into awareness, creating a framework for us to live in increased mindfulness. Informal contemplative practices, on the other hand, generally take place in brief periods of time, often five minutes or less, and can occur simply by pausing – we stop whatever we are doing and turn our attention within. This may happen whenever we feel unsettled, or at any time we feel the impulse to do so. We may notice our breath, count our footfalls, take a short walk, or explore the roots of a thought to discover what might be triggering internal or external conflict.
All of these practices, and others not listed here, are contemplative, and meditative, in that they focus attention on the present moment. All of them increase mindfulness, in that practitioners develop a heightened awareness of everything they do. All of them yield personal benefits, such as reduced stress, increased mental and physical agility, and increased ability to concentrate on the present. And all of them yield community-building benefits as well – for the mindfulness inherent in contemplative practices allows practitioners to become more aware of their own interactions with community members, to observe when a group is interacting productively, and to notice when conflict might be beginning to bubble up.
Developing mindfulness can also come about through collective mindfulness activities such as retreats. As an example, a recent conference at the Asheville Campus of the University of North Carolina focused on creating a mindful, more resilient campus. The event explored “ways that contemplative practices can be used to cultivate and support resilience – for when resilience is fostered, community fatigue diminishes.”
While the above list of practices is not exhaustive, each is an example of how we can increase our awareness in the moment. We are better able to identify the limits of our endurance and when we need to rest, thus increasing our abilities to mindfully interact. Spending time in silence by engaging in mindfulness practices also increases our mental acuity. Recognizing and attending to our emotions gives us the ability to allow them to dissipate instead of exploding.
What’s the direct connection between contemplative practices and community building? Each of these practices, formal or informal, helps us become more attentive to our thoughts, feelings, and actions in the moment. We can then better see how our motives and agendas are in alignment with the community collective, or how they might differ and have the potential to cause conflict. With this understanding, we can become better able to work with others in community.
In general, then, the intent of all these contemplative practices is to notice how our life is being hindered by distractions. When we are unaware, we may unconsciously sabotage a group project. Mindfulness is a means to realign our actions and our intent with that of the group. This may be a humbling experience, as we notice how often we are pulled away from the moment into our own agendas. Through mindfulness practice, we gain the power to respond based upon who we are, not upon what triggers motivate our reactions.
LEARNING AND APPLYING MINDFULNESS PRACTICE
Mindfulness is a lifelong practice, one that can take place anytime and anywhere. It is a skill that can be developed gradually throughout one’s life. We don’t suddenly wake up one morning being aware in every moment. We may go for days able to be mostly in the present moment and then be totally distracted by some person or event. When this occurs, we do not become discouraged; rather, we use formal and informal practices to discover what is distracting us and preventing us from entering into awareness and into community. We use this understanding to let go of the distraction and return to the moment.
The good news is that mindfulness is a skill anyone can develop. Even though we can take classes to learn certain practices, the key to becoming more mindful is our relationship with self and our ability to understand our self. Mindfulness requires that we know ourselves and our distractions (or what draws us into and away from the moment). Through self-awareness, we discover what secures our attention in the moment and what pushes us into another space. And each of us, regardless of background or experience, is capable of this.
The development of mindfulness, though, has to be tailored to each individual, for there is no one-size-fits-all formula for being mindful. A contemplative practice routine that works for one person may not work as well for another. We must be willing to shift how we access and maintain a state of mindfulness as needed. Our path to mindfulness is as unique as we are.
When we care for ourselves using contemplative practices, we are better able to interact with others in compassionate ways. This naturally strengthens the collective consciousness. The communal practice of mindfulness also strengthens relationships. And from these relationships, more intentional listening and compassionate response may occur.
Through this way of communicating, social activities are also created that encourage members to know one another. There is a development of deeper and closer interactions and an understanding and celebration of diversity. With an increase in trust and understanding, group members move beyond acting as individuals and enter the collective consciousness, the source of intentional community building.
The above activities, and others, empower our spirit and the spirit of community. They are part of our self-care, giving us respite from the constant stimulation of life. These mindfulness activities recharge us. Rested, we are more alert and ready to respond with an open mind and an expanded heart. In developing mindfulness, and in building communities, care for all aspects of our being – body, mind, spirit, and emotion – is fundamental.
Mindfulness Training in Schools
Mindfulness is being recognized as a core life skill in many school districts. Mindfulness training has been incorporated into those school settings across a broad age range, beginning as early as first grade. Such training provides instruction in contemplative practices not only to individuals, but also to larger groups.
A comprehensive resource in this area is Mindful Schools, which contains extensive instructional materials, including teaching modules, exercises, and several videos illustrating mindfulness training with children of different ages. There are fewer examples of mindfulness training for community groups as such, but this should be a fruitful area for further study and application.
Challenges to Mindful Community Building
Most community members truly want a community to thrive and its endeavors to succeed. But during any stage of community building, members may feel a lack of cohesion or unity. A previously-vital group may lose energy and begin to stagnate. Or a group may experience an event that derails the community effort, and struggle to return to its foundation. These are examples of challenges to community building. Although there are many such challenges, we will briefly focus here on five of them, and on how each one can be met.
- Lack of strong and effective leadership. As the needs of the community shift, there may be a misalignment between the skills of the current leadership and the skills necessary to move the community into the next phase. To meet this challenge, community members must be willing to serve as leaders when needed, first by using the skills they do have, and then by finding ways to acquire the needed skills that are currently missing.
- Dominant personalities. A great many groups have individuals who are quick to share ideas and then campaign for them. They tend to be better talkers than listeners, and they may seek to take an undue amount of control. To meet this challenge, it will help to teach mindful communication and objective observer skills to everyone, as well as to review communication expectations prior to any meetings.
- Little or no clarity about the values and goals of the community. Without clearly-established community values and goals, and planned movement toward those goals, a community risks stagnating, drifting, or moving in an unhelpful direction. To meet this challenge, set regular times, at regular intervals, for the community to reaffirm or modify its values, to assess progress toward goals, and to make corrections as may be necessary.
- Lack of clear conflict resolution processes. Very few people feel comfortable addressing conflict. As we have noted, it is often ignored until it explodes, shattering the cohesion of the group. To meet this challenge, learn about processes to resolve conflicts and invest in the conflict resolution education of community members. Encourage members to identify and name conflict in the beginning stages and to use their skills to resolve it at that time.
- Lack of inclusion and diversity. When everyone in the community is the same, the potential for stagnation is high. The community doesn't have the diversity of life experiences to move past other challenges or conflicts. To meet this challenge, actively recruit community members who have different points of view, come from various ethnic groups, are of different generations, or represent diversity in another way. The key is to find individuals who share the group’s core values and goals while also having a different perspective on how to put them into practice.
It may be that these challenges are not those your community is dealing with now, or that it is dealing with challenges not mentioned here. At some point, though, all communities do face community-building challenges of one kind or another. They are not necessarily a reflection of bad leadership, poor communication skills, or any other deficiency. Rather, challenges are inherent in community work, the natural growing pains each community goes through. To meet these challenges, mindfulness and mindful community building both play essential roles.
As our section draws to a close, let’s summarize some of the key points we have made:
As community workers, we want to strengthen community life, in order to produce better outcomes for everyone. Strong community life depends upon relationships, which are the building blocks of any community. So we seek strategies for creating and strengthening relationships. A primary way to do this is through mindfulness.
When relationships are strong, and when community members are engaged in mindful community interaction, members are less likely to blame others; instead, the tendency is to look for solutions and ways to improve individuals, relationships, and the community as a whole. If conflict occurs, the objective becomes one of developing stronger community members within the flexible, dynamic structure of community.
Through mindfulness, we gain a greater awareness of the ways people share their gifts and show gratitude for their resources. Mindfulness creates an environment of gratitude and optimism – one where together, within the collective consciousness, members discover ways to turn possibility into reality. Each member understands the importance of sharing their skills, while at the same time working toward consensus.
It’s important to realize, though, that community building, and mindful community building, is not easy. Conflicts occur, and damage to the group’s operation, even to its mission and values, can be a genuine threat. But conflicts need not be seen as failures of the community; rather, any challenge may be an opportunity for realignment of the community’s purpose and mission. Through effective communication, transparency, and inclusion, conflicts can be acknowledged and addressed. And when any challenge is met, the community grows.
Celebrating what goes well and weathering the tough times is all part of community life. When community members are mindfully invested, the negative impact of the tough times is more likely to be minimal. Living in community is not easy; but, with focused effort, and continued practice, the rewards from developing engaged, mindful communities are immeasurable.
We wish you great success in applying mindfulness to your own community-building work.
Vanessa F. Hurst is a community builder who collaborates with organizations to deepen connections with current constituents and welcome new community members. She consults with organizations to identify and grow their compassion cultures. Vanessa is the author of Engaging Compassion through Intent and Action and A Constellation of Connections: Contemplative Relationships. As a mindful coach and Neural Synchrony™ facilitator, she guides individuals in discovering the most viable path of transformation. For more information, see www.intentandaction.com.
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