You have probably heard the word, “mindfulness.” There are more than 1,000 mindfulness apps, 30,000 books on mindfulness on Amazon, and even products such as “Mindful Mayo” and “Mindful Meats.” Not sure how your Mayo or meat can be mindful, but I do believe in the transformative potential of mindfulness to enhance individual and collective well-being. In our award-winning research, we provide a model for enhancing consumer, societal, and environmental well-being using mindfulness as a foundation.
How would you feel if your town or city decided to become mindful? What does that even mean?
In the next iteration of my work in mindfulness, I am excited to collaborate with the stakeholders at the Mill District, North Amherst to pilot a prototype for mindful towns and cities. But first, why do we need mindful cities?
3 Components of Mindful Cities: Resilience, Creative-Problem Solving, and Compassion
- Resilience: Residents are struggling to keep up with rapid changes in economic, technological, environmental, and political spheres. Mindfulness training can help residents, businesses, and municipal employees and officials become more resilient. Resilience training is one of the most popular programs I teach in organizations and college campuses. I believe this training can also help at the municipal level to develop a growth mindset to thrive in change.
- Creative Problem Solving: As a Town Councilor, I know first-hand that cities have limited resources to balance the needs of different constituents and ensure good quality of life to all its residents. In the absence of training our minds, we tend to think of solutions based on past knowledge and biases. Mindfulness training makes people’s minds flexible so they are open to seeing new perspectives and clearing the space for creative problem solving.
- Compassion: It is easy for residents in cities to get polarized around issues such as economic development, affordable housing, student housing, and so forth. Even if people agree in principle, they are unable to agree about the implementation and logistics of where and how these initiatives are undertaken. It doesn’t take long for neighbors and friends to turn against each other.
When issues are related to our core values, any opposition is seen as a threat to our identities—our sense of belonging and being seen as good people. When our identities are threatened, the amygdala—emotional part of the brain—reacts in the same way as we did when we saw a tiger as hunter gatherers. An amygdala hijack seriously impairs our ability to think clearly and creatively.
Under such circumstances, it is really important to have some compassion training that allows us to see each other as human beings doing the best we can and to be curious about each others perspectives without judging and blaming.
National And International Initiatives for Mindful Cities
I have been fortunate to receive training from exemplary teachers and institutions including the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI), which started at Google and is now leading initiatives to bring mindfulness-based emotional intelligence to government employees. In Bhutan, they are training all school teachers and civil servants. I am also in touch with Jim Gimian, Executive Director of Foundation for Mindful Society (FMS). The FMS created the Mindful Cities Initiative in 2017 to support the work of mindful civic leaders increasing well-being, kindness and compassion in their communities, most visibly through flagship publications Mindful magazine and Mindful.org, as well as through conferences and special projects. I am happy to receive Gimian’s endorsement:
“The Mill District project in North Amherst, Massachusetts is exciting and example-worthy. It combines elements critical for success: a well-trained mindfulness teacher and an elected civic official who understands the needs of the city. In this case both roles are filled by Shalini Bahl, a certified MBSR and SIYLI trained teacher and Amherst Town Councilor. She’s joined in this effort by the visionary investor Cinda Jones, who carries on 9 generations of her family’s land stewardship and community building in Western Mass.”
A Mindfulness Framework at Three Levels
I see the value of mindfulness at three levels. Besides providing training at the individual level, the transformative potential of mindfulness is greater when used by teams in decision making and integrated in the organizational mission. The framework that I have developed gives organizations an opportunity to explore mindfulness at the level that works for them. Each level includes the levels below, which means that level two includes level one and level three includes levels one and two.
I. Individual-Level: At this level, individual employees in organizations receive mindfulness training. This is the most popular level at which mindfulness exists in organizations. Organizations such as Google, LinkedIn, the US Army, schools, and hospitals invite teachers to train interested employees in mindfulness-based programs to develop individual skills in mindfulness including resilience, stress-management, and emotional intelligence.
II. Team-Level: At this level, teams and functional departments—such as marketing, finance, human resources and so forth—use the mindfulness skills learned in level I to create processes that will help them work together and make decisions in a thoughtful manner. For example, a marketing team might bring more intentionality in their product design, pricing, delivery options, and promotions so they are keeping in mind all stakeholders impacted by their decisions. This doesn’t mean they will always do what their stakeholders want, but it does mean that they listen to different perspectives and try to find creative solutions that would benefit all involved rather than going with the existing paradigm of focusing on their profit.
III. Organization-Wide: This is when the mission of the organization is intrinsically tied to intentional leadership and makes all decisions with the different stakeholders in mind—consumers, employees, suppliers, environment, and anyone else affected by their decisions. It is not just individuals and departments but the whole organization embraces values and processes that promote a passionate and compassionate way of doing work that is good for their business and their communities and environment. They are driven by a purpose that is bigger than simply making profits. Patagonia is a good example of an organization integrating mindfulness in its core values and implementation.
You can see my presentation on mindful marketing that gives examples for each of these three levels starting on slide 47.
The same organizing schema can be used to bring mindfulness in cities. At the first level, mindfulness-based programs can be made available to city employees and officials. At the second level, different municipal departments such as schools, public works, finance, human resources and so forth can create their own mindfulness-based processes that support teams in working together and with their constituents in compassionate and thoughtful ways. And the third level would integrate mindfulness in defining the mission, values, and processes for the city or town.
Mindfulness in The Mill District: A Prototype #MindfulMill
I am excited to work with stakeholders in The Mill District, including Community Investor/Developer/Environmentalist Cinda Jones, president of W.D. Cowls, who is transforming the commercial core of North Amherst into a walkable, shoppable community reflecting the adjacent Survival Center’s values of compassion, inclusion, and stewardship.
Jones has appreciated the progress she’s made working with me to learn mindfulness and she has become one of the biggest proponents of my work. When I told her of my interest in introducing mindfulness at the municipal level, she offered the Mill District as an ideal place to create a prototype for mindful cities. Building compassionate and creative communities is a goal we share.
The Mill District, North Amherst is a good fit for creating a prototype. Jones has been intentional about bringing back community connections in the Internet Age. She is building a place where community members will enjoy personal interactions, as well as a balanced mix of shopping, services, and restaurants. Our strategy to make The Mill District mindful is guided by my framework for mindful cities. Many steps toward community mindfulness have been organically initiated even before our formal launch.
Level I: Mindfulness Programs for Employees
After receiving mindful executive coaching and a follow up program with me, Jones has been sponsoring workplace mindfulness trainings through Downtown Mindfulness for her Mill District leadership team. This has the advantage of creating a common vocabulary and emotional intelligence skills within the team to navigate challenges and build community with compassion and non-reactivity.
Level II: Being Intentional about The Marketing Mix for The Mill District
A typical marketing mix includes the 4 P’s — product, pricing, promotion, and placement (delivery channels). Jones has added a 5th P — placemaking. The product in this case is the kind of businesses The Mill District hosts. Jones has been intentional about renting to local businesses that will be relevant to the residents and commuters. She used social media and community gatherings to listen to residents’ needs and is using this to inform her selection process. At one point she chose to risk having empty space before considering Starbucks and other non-locally owned businesses.
As part of this initiative to build a culture of intentional, compassionate, and creative living, we’ve designed hand-made signs on recycled Mill District roofing. These signs with mindful messages will be placed in gathering places, inviting residents, visitors, and businesses to explore living, working, and playing with our innate mindfulness qualities of awareness, compassion, curiosity, appreciative joy, inner calm, and balance. To learn the scientific basis and practical applications of these mindful messages there will be mini blurbs posted on our websites and social media pages with the hashtag #MindfulMill.
A part of the Mill District’s intentional marketing plan is placemaking—a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces to promote the use of community’s assets and potential for creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well-being. The creation of “Wonderland” — a site for children with opportunities to play and learn about building and storytelling — has already been a huge success.
Level III: Purpose beyond Profit
The dominant business paradigm promotes maximizing shareholder value. Yet, there is growing evidence that companies that take care of all stakeholders and have a purpose beyond profit outperform the S&P 500 companies in the long run. Jones is committed to her mission for The Mill District—building community connections and value.
Integrating mindfulness at the organizational level, means committing to being intentional when making decisions related to core mission, values, and strategy. It entails considering all stakeholders and total impact in the long run before making decisions.
The mindful city initiative at The Mill District is just being launched and I will continue to share what we learn and create with mindfulness as a foundation for living, learning, and leading with an intention to build a happy, healthy, and engaged community.
Please contact me if you would like to explore bringing mindfulness to your organization, college campus, or city.