The being of change: Why our minds matter for sustainability
An inspiring conversation between Sister Jayanti, Additional Head of The Brahma Kumaris, and Professor Christine Wamsler, Director of the Contemplative Sustainable Futures Program.
I recently had the honour to talk to Sister Jayanti about her climate advocacy activities, and the role of the mind in supporting a more sustainable and just world. Discussing her work over the past decades, Sister Jayanti recalls an important turning point: the United Nations Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders in August 2000, which brought together two thousand of the world’s preeminent religious and spiritual leaders. I was particularly struck by her experience:
“It was the first time that the United Nations had called together spiritual and religious heads from across the world […] The next day, they called together all the heads of the different Units of the UN, including the World Health Organization, Save the Children, and the UN Environment Programme […]. Each one reported on what their Unit had been doing, and they all sang a similar song.”
The song went a bit like this: We know that we have more resources, more technology, more people, and more information than ever before, but it’s clear that today, conditions are worse than when the UN started its work. We aren’t living in a better world because there is a lack of human and political will. Sister Jayanti explained: “That was why the religious and spiritual heads were invited. The message the UN wanted to convey was that if politicians and people in general have the will, there can be a better world.”
Fast-forward 18 years, and Sister Jayanti participated in another important event. This time, she found herself at a UN roundtable during the Sustainable Development Summit, where she was asked to speak about how spirituality could contribute to helping society find new pathways for systemic change. She notes, “For the UN to call spiritual leaders to the table and say: ‘You tell us what we can do, and how we can do this together’, was clearly an important milestone.”
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are intended to provide a foundation for structural change leading to a better world. They are founded on the idea of human dignity, which is also at the heart of another landmark document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But, Sister Jayanti observed that along with the beautiful words, something is missing: an understanding of where these concepts reside.
“War begins in the minds of men, as does peace. If we look at the founding principles of the United Nations — peace, dignity, equality and wellbeing — they cannot be reduced to logistics. They reflect the spiritual dimension of the human being. Accordingly, the discussion of how to create a more sustainable world is also a spiritual one.”
It seems that this message has finally begun to be heard, even in the corridors of the United Nations. Over the past decade, many have come to the same conclusion: spiritual matters matter.
Finally, Sister Jayanti recalls a third, key experience that happened during an interfaith panel. A prominent environmental activist, who had avoided such forums in the past, said to her: “Now I understand that to address climate change, we need to touch people’s heart — it is about meaning, about inner work.” The notion of inner work is important, as Sister Jayanti underlines:
“Inner work doesn’t mean not acting. On the contrary. Inner and outer work go hand-in-hand.”
Our understanding of sustainability practice and science is changing, and Sister Jayanti’s experiences are testament to that. As our discussion continued, I was curious to explore Sister Jayanti’s views on how we can understand the links between the mind and sustainability, and between inner and outer change. She answered:
“At the present time, the general state of mind for most people is one of acquisition and consumerism. The mind is constantly discontented, and there is always a need for more. We are about to run out of the physical resources to satisfy the needs of the 7 billion+ people on the planet, and have created a state of unsustainability for ourselves.”
We must change our lifestyle, as we look to the future and see what we can do to make life on Earth sustainable. In practical terms, we need an inner, spiritual resolve to bring about these changes, and our choices depend on our depth of understanding of the impact of what we do. We realize that the only sustainable future lies in switching to a plant-based diet and overcoming consumerism. Sister Jayanti explains, “As we continue on our spiritual journey, our lives become more and more simple. We tread lightly on the earth and sustainability becomes a possibility. Resources become available to share with all of those on the planet. As the mind develops simplicity, contentment and happiness, we can begin to create a more sustainable world.”
Her answer raised another question, closely linked to my own interests: how can we work with our minds, so that we can bring about change towards sustainability? Her answer was inspiring:
“The first step is to understand the difference between mind and matter, between the eternal consciousness that is who I am, and the physical body that I temporarily inhabit. Understanding my true identity — separate from my appearance, my family, my job, my history, etc. enables me to have a much wider perspective, to see the bigger picture and not get so caught up in my emotions and everyday problems. I begin to realize that the true peace, happiness, wisdom, purity and love that we all long for are not things ‘out there’ that I have to get. They are within me. They are my inner treasures that I can never lose and nobody can take from me.”
When people lose sight of their spiritual wealth, they are driven by pain, and seek out comfort and gratification. This is the situation we find ourselves in right now. Rather than respecting and protecting matter — nature, the elements and our own bodies — we have plundered it. How can we recover from this situation?
“What we have to do now is spend time with the self in reflective silence in order to reconnect and re-energize the core qualities of peace, love, happiness, wisdom and purity, from which all other virtues stem. Meditation is for instance a way to access and experience those inner qualities. With time and practice, the ability to perceive ourselves in a more subtle way — as energy — grows. This brings with it a new kind of self-value and self-respect that is independent of the views and expectations of others.”
Meditation can re-empower our decision-making capacity and awareness. It becomes easier to concentrate, and we are better-able to observe our thoughts and feelings. We can distinguish between what is in line with our values and priorities, and acquired habits that no longer serve us. As we develop new habits, we gradually replace old, negative patterns of thinking and behaviour with those that lead to respect and harmony within ourselves, with each other, and with nature.
Finally, I was interested to know more about how Sister Jayanti perceives the connection between inner change and systems change. Neither is easy.
On the one hand, as we transform ourselves, our old belief systems, memories and behaviours are still there. On the other hand, the world around us, and the systems that govern our lives, are based on materialistic worldviews. Both are a constant challenge to any new insights and experiences. We need to strengthen our ability to think deeply, and distinguish clearly between the inner self and the acquired self, as this enhances our capacity to recognise external influences that can cloud our awareness. Sister Jayanti puts it more eloquently:
“There is a continuum that works on the spiritual level, and also manifests in the material world. It goes like this: Our awareness defines our attitude. Our attitude colours our vision. Our vision dictates our actions. Our actions shape our culture. Our culture creates our world. So, our awareness — our consciousness — is the seed of absolutely everything we experience. And that is where meditation comes in, because it’s a constant practice of steering the mind along a path that is different to the one it’s been used to, one that leads to constructive and co-operative thoughts, and actions that lead toward deeper contentment and sustainability.”
Supporting a more sustainable and just world through a better understanding of the mind is also at the heart of the Contemplative Sustainable Futures Program. My talk with Sister Jayanti shows the significance of bringing together scientific and contemplative knowledge in this endeavour. And, importantly, it supports our scientific work on understanding wellbeing and sustainability as skills and qualities that we can nurture.