While mindfulness is a practice, attitude, state, trait, and way of living recognized for thousands of years, it’s still a very new concept to many people in America’s heartland, especially perhaps where I live and work in the West North Central region. Back in 2011, when I Googled “mindfulness in the midwest” to find a local secular mindfulness teacher or secular place to practice, very little of relevance came up (according to a poll by the Pew Research Center, 50 percent of us in the Midwest say we have never meditated). My dedication to advancing awareness and accessibility here is related to my instinct that the attitudes and practices of mindfulness may provide an affordable and accessible way to contribute to a fundamental shift in consciousness and priorities needed to address the world’s most urgent challenges and increase well being.
There is growing evidence that a consistent practice of mindfulness helps cultivate many of the fundamental skills and inner determinants of wellbeing. The Mindfulness Initiative team out of the UK writes extensively about how “cultivating the innate capacity of mindfulness and its essential qualities such as attention regulation, receptivity, meta-cognition, cognitive flexibility, embodiment, emotion regulation and kindness could be foundational in responding to the complex challenges of the 21st Century.” According to Will Leggett, sociology professor and rearcher at the University of Birmingham, UK, in his article, Can Mindfulness really change the world?, “mindfulness is a resource for developing critical consciousness and even prefiguring alternative futures.”
…mindfulness training is emerging as one of the most promising approaches for building important psychological capacities and shifting mindsets. In addition to supporting elements associated with climate action, such as increased nature connection and pro-environmental attitudes, mindfulness works more broadly to help us reclaim and reorient attention towards what matters, reflect more wisely, and act from a place of collective purpose. – The Mindfulness Initiative
We are recognizing more and more that the inner, contemplative work of mindfulness practice can motivate and resource us for the arduous outer work of increasing well-being for all. Teaching mindfulness competently, safely and inclusively may prove to be an affordable and accessible upstream approach to addressing some of society’s most pressing concerns. Some of the threads in this interconnected web include increased or enhanced:
- awareness and understanding (including of the embodied self and one’s intentions) that can hold complexity and contradiction
- attention and focus, even under stress or when the object of attention might be distressing
- listening and speaking across difference
- creativity in problem solving
- stress reduction and self-regulation, including decreased reactivity
- empathy, compassion, and prosocial behavior
- sense of interconnection and taking things less personally
- alignment with values
- consideration of the impacts of our actions on the world
Why did advancing awareness of mindfulness in the Midwest in particular feel so important to me? I was born and raised in the Midwest, so my lived experience has informed my reasoning. The midwestern region of the US has some unique characteristics that make us especially vulnerable to and powerful in perpetuating societal challenges that ripple out and impact everyone.
The Midwest is the breadbasket of the US
Kansas is one of the top producers of wheat and ranked 5th of food producing states in the US in 2020 according to the USDA. Missouri was ranked 11th in 2019. Iowa, where I spent most of my childhood, is also in the top ten food producers. But, many small towns have been dying out and disappearing due to a lack of resources. Rural communities, whose economies rely heavily on agriculture, are already being impacted by the effects of climate change. Extreme heat as well as increased humidity, heavy rains, and flooding erode soils, create favorable conditions for crop destroying insects and disease, and make it harder to store grain safely. These factors are projected to reduce Midwest agricultural productivity to levels achieved in the 1980s when there were more than a million people fewer to feed. These changes will not only impact the already strained livelihoods of farmers, but will decrease our ability to feed ourselves and the world.
The Midwest is a top consumer of energy and other non-renewable resources
According to the National Climate Assessment findings for the Midwest, our region has a highly energy-intensive economy, with energy use per dollar of gross domestic product approximately 20 percent above the national average. My community, Kansas City, is already an urban heat island, ranked 7th on a list of the 60 most affected cities in the US – our energy needs will only increase as temperatures continue to rise. Though we use less water than the arid West, we have not been proactive enough about developing more sustainable water use practices to address our stressed groundwater resources. One example of this is the Ogallala Aquifer beneath the Great Plains, which brings drinking water to millions of people. According to Michael Warady, a project manager at aquaTECTURE LLC, the aquifer “has been depleted by approximately 300 ft in some areas, with losses between 2001 and 2011 equaling approximately 1/3 of the total losses from the entire 20th century.”
We are few, but our political voice is relatively mighty
Kansas has among the lowest in population density of all the US states – and Missouri is among the bottom half. Though the midwest contains only about 20% of the US population, rural states have a slight advantage in political power due to the two electoral votes awarded to states for their Senate seats. In 2020, about 20 percent of the nation’s presidential electors came from the 12-state region including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Several of these states (including Kansas) get a slight “bump” in their allocation of Electoral College votes compared to their share of the total U.S. population. This gives some midwestern states greater electoral power per capita to determine US priorities and policies.
Midwestern values help shape the future
Because of our mighty political voice, our beliefs and attitudes will impact generations to come. Around 30% of our population identify as Evangelical Christian, more than any other religious identification, which is the driving force behind a number of debates that impact health, education, and overall well being in the US and globally. Both Missouri and Kansas have been embroiled in battles over whether evolution and accurate US history can be taught in schools, whether mask wearing should be required in public spaces during a pandemic, the extent to which women should enjoy reproductive rights, how accessible voting should be for citizens, and whether people with non-conforming gender identities can participate in sports or use restrooms outside the gender designated at birth. Just a little over half of Kansans and Missourians have been vaccinated – there have been almost 16,000 deaths in MO and 7,000 deaths in KS since Feb 2020 according to the Washington Post Covid Tracker, and both states have carried a higher than average hospitalization and infection rate.
Social justice lags and hatred finds a foothold in the middle of the country
According to the Economic Policy Institute report Race in the Heartland: Equity, Opportunity, and Public Policy in the Midwest all midwestern states suffer from stark residential and educational segregation as well as profound racial disparities. In the SPLC investigative series, Baseless, they mentioned that the majority of white nationalist extremist groups recruits come from the Midwest. This is likely due to a combination of historical and present day factors including long standing economic hardships with a questionable outlook for the future, lower population density, less contact with diversity, and certain political beliefs and related values that hold power in this region.
Understanding the possibility for deep personal and collective transformation through the practice of mindfulness, a group of folks (including myself) in the Kansas City metro with experience and training gathered together to explore how we might increase awareness of and access to the concepts and practices in our region. We formed the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness and though we only started keeping records in 2018, we have led almost 1500 mindfulness-based classes, workshops, retreats, and seminars reaching about 800 people. We have also reached many more people through providing talks and trainings to a wide variety of organizations including social service agencies, universities and school systems, a prison system, libraries, small businesses, government agencies, museums, healthcare organizations, leadership programs, lawyers, first responders, and more. Finally, we have been able to donate a fair amount of money (considering our small budget) to a variety of local philanthropic causes. But, we wondered if we could do even more if we brought in a broader contingency of stakeholders.
Our desire to proliferate accurate awareness of mindfulness even further across our region inspired us to develop The Mindful Kansas City (MKC) Initiative. MKC is a grassroots, collaborative effort whose mission is to make mindfulness accessible to everyone in the Kansas City metro and beyond. We worked hard to cultivate relationships and create connections that contribute to the growth of foundational skills and prosocial attitudes, such as awareness, gratitude, kindness, compassion, creativity, courage and respect, that are necessary for communities to flourish. We believe that these skills and attitudes, established and reinforced through practice, become the scaffolding upholding more sustainable ways of being and relating in the world. We had some momentum building behind the initiative until the pandemic hit. Unfortunately, we haven’t had much luck rekindling interest since then. However, we were able to make some progress through:
- the establishment of an online directory of “MKC Zones” or spaces that offer the possibility of silent reflection in a safe and peaceful environment https://mindfulkansascity.com/mindful-kc-zones/
- the creation of a resource library of pre-recorded classes and webinars https://mindfulkansascity.com/resource-library/
- offering events such as community think tank meetings and free educational and practice opportunities https://mindfulkansascity.com/upcoming-events/
Today if you Google “mindfulness in the midwest” you will find quite a few individual providers, retreats, practice centers, and opportunities for attending secular mindfulness based programs. While the restrictions and hesitation caused by the ongoing pandemic for people gathering on location has been a major obstacle for us locally, it has been a boon for the wider world of mindfulness. Now anyone anywhere with a decent internet connection can sit with highly experienced and well-known teachers from all around the globe for free (or at very low cost). In fact, this shift made it possible for me to attend Upaya’s year long Socially Engaged Buddhist Training and many other enriching experiences over the last couple of years that I may not have considered otherwise. The future of our local efforts are uncertain as it’s unclear what the needs might be ongoing. Only time will tell, but I do hope to continue to play a role one way or another.