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Developing a Mindful Nation Through Applied Systems Thinking

A Mindful Nation

Tim Ryan, a Congressman from Youngstown, Ohio in our nation’s rust belt, wrote a book several years ago entitled A Mindful Nation (Hay House, 2012). The book explores how mindfulness –the ability to slow down and pay attention to the present moment – can “increase our capacity for perspective taking and decision making, and enhance our emotional intelligence and our ability to act with clarity and wisdom, alone and in concert with others.” In a nation increasingly debilitated by personal pain, disorientation, and polarization, he shows us how mindfulness is being used to increase children’s attention and kindness, improve our health and our health-care system, improve our performance and build resiliency for our military and first responders, help us reshape our economy, and ultimately “reinvigorate our traditional, commonly held American values – such as self-reliance, perseverance, pragmatism, and taking care of others.” The book is a call to sanity in crazy times.

Systems Thinking and Collective Mindfulness

Congressman Ryan emphasizes that mindfulness is not only a personal practice to attain peace of mind – but also a collective approach to improve system-wide performance.  In other words, his observations have important parallels with systems thinking – the ability to understand complex interconnections in such a way as to achieve a desired purpose. The main distinction between the two is that mindfulness strengthens observation for its own sake, while systems thinking increases observation for an intended purpose.

Like mindfulness, systems thinking guides us to slow down our thoughts, distinguish the way things really work from the way we think things should work, and identify new alternatives based on a creative rather than reactive orientation. It encourages us to take responsibility not only for solutions but also for the problems we unwittingly exacerbate through our own intentions, thinking, and behavior. It motivates us to improve performance by optimizing relationships among different parts of the system instead of by trying to optimize each part in isolation. It challenges us to make wiser choices by developing such character traits as clarity, compassion, patience, and perseverance.

Applied systems thinking supports communities and other groups of diverse stakeholders to surface often non-obvious interdependencies among the many factors that impact their individual and collective well-being – and to make wiser choices in support of better outcomes for all.

Systems Thinking and Public Policy

Both mindfulness and systems thinking can produce powerful antidotes to the fear-based, symptom-focused, blaming behaviors that govern an increasing part of our political discourse. Both cultivate tough love: the ability to both see reality clearly – however disturbing it is – and also honor that each of us is doing the best we can with what we know at the time. Both enable us to make better decisions with limited resources.

Legislators or policy makers can use systems thinking to:

  • Think more clearly about why social problems persist despite their best efforts to solve them
  • Reduce addictions to political quick fixes that improve short-term results at the expense of increasing long-term waste and decay
  • Anticipate and avoid long-term negative unintended consequences of proposed solutions
  • Identify high leverage interventions that make the most of public tax dollars
  • Powerfully communicate the benefits of proposed legislation and policy to their constituents based on the above

Congressman Tim Ryan makes a compelling case for cultivating mindfulness as a tool for social change. His observations about mindfulness have important parallels with systems thinking, which has already been applied to achieve sustainable, breakthrough results in such areas as increasing equitable access to resources, early childhood development, K-12 education, public health, homelessness and affordable housing, and criminal justice reform. Now is the time to extend its reach to enable public policy makers to represent their constituents’ highest aspirations instead of fuel their deepest fears, improve public discourse, forge collaboration instead of foment divisiveness, and make better policy decisions.

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