About the Post

Author Information

I am a researcher, advisor and trainer on behaviour change and mindfulness, sometimes together, sometimes separately. I draw from a theoretical background in the social sciences ( esp: psychology, sociology, human geography, behavioural economics), and a lifelong practice of mindfulness and personal inquiry. I am now based in Human Geography in Aberystwyth University but previously worked as a project manager, communicator and community engagement expert in social and environmental change for over 20 years. Some of my best training has been from my two children who are now great young adults.

Mindfulness and Behaviour Change


Small steps towards big change. Mindfulness Based Behaviour Change in Policy and Engagement

“But I’m taking small steps
‘Cause I don’t know where I’m going
I’m taking small steps
And I don’t know what to say.
Small steps,
Trying to pull myself together
And maybe I’ll discover
A clue along the way!”
Louis SacharSmall Steps

In the last few weeks we have been co-creating and delivering a  Mindfulness Based Behaviour Change in policy and Engagement course with and for policy makers. This is the result of three years work considering how the two disciplines of behaviour change and mindfulness can complement each other in helping to build the psychological capacity needed to address some of our biggest challenges, such as climate change.

So far it is going very well.

A couple of years ago a conversation between our behaviour change academic (Mark Whitehead) and a sustainability practitioner working with behaviour change and mindfulness (me, Rachel Lilley) led to them both considering ways to introduce a more ‘progressive’ and enabling form of behaviour change. I had used mindfulness to support my work in sustainability for the previous 15 years and saw parallels between the insights I gained through meditation  and the insights I was learning through books like Nudge, Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, and Predictably Irrational. Mark had been critical of the ‘top down’ design approach to behaviour change and had an intuitive sense that mindfulness could contribute in a positive way to supporting a more progressive behaviour change agenda.

Behaviour change is premised on the fact that our every day decisions often appear to be ‘irrational’, contrary to the previous prevailing assumption underpinning policymaking that our decision making is rational and orientated only toward our long term benefit.  This has led to what we term a more ‘neuroliberalistic’ approach to governance, drawing on the behavioural sciences. Applications of this work in sustainability and climate change  can be seen in the “love food hate waste” campaign which most recently attempts to shift norms by highlighting the fact that supermarket managers ignore best before dates on food (The Times 25/5).  What would previously been an ‘inform’ approach now utilises our tendency to decide what we do through influencing subjective norms.

Our course is based on some early research interviews which showed that meditators (who also had an interest in sustainability) were very aware of their own irrationality. This translated into them being more able to see the processes of thoughts and feelings which affect their behaviours. With this understanding of their own cognitive processes they can, on occasion, make different decisions and choices and are also better able to engage with the subject matter from a clearer, less reactive, perspective. Related conversations with practitioners working on behaviour change initiatives revealed that their work learning to nudge others in different directions had also changed the way they look at their own behaviours.

The premise of this course is to build skills in paying attention to mental processes and experiences (mindfulness) whilst also teaching relevant information from social sciences on behaviour change.

The hypothesis is that if people gain insight into their own processes of irrationality they will better understand and work with others, not just from a position of greater knowledge but also, through having their own personal experience, of increased empathy and acceptance.

Mindfulness is one aspect of Buddhist practice. It was ‘packaged’ in a secular form in the 1970s by Jon Kabat Zinn. It has developed over the years, particularly with the influence of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and its success is demonstrated by its popularity. Its starting point is getting people to see the mind and its process much more clearly. A common experience early on is to notice how we get caught in habitual ways of thinking and how ‘full’ the mind can seem of thoughts not relevant, and sometimes with very random associations to the present moment. This can be particularly unhelpful if the thoughts tend towards negativity, which in our highly competitive society where we are constantly set up to ‘fail’, is very common.

Through the practice of mindfulness, developing the capacity for paying attention to our mental processes (meta awareness) people move from experiencing thoughts as ‘everything I am’ to knowing them as transitory, conditioned and often not relevant to present moment experience. Thoughts are impermanent, changing from moment to moment, day to day, they are reflective of the conditions we are experiencing at the time, memories of events past and inherited dispositions. Once experienced we realise we can choose to pay attention differently and not to be taken over by our thinking.

The standard 8 week mindfulness courses (MBSR and MBCT) has the intention of giving the student mechanisms for ‘coping’ with the mind. The mindfulness and behaviour change course aims instead to gain insight into the nature of the mind and its influence on our behaviour. It might be useful to note that this aim aligns well with the Buddhist original teaching of mindfulness as a wisdom practice.  Sati panna (sati meaning mindfulness or skilful attentiveness and panna meaning wisdom). Sati Panna is a practice to develop personal awareness and insight.

This course develops the skill of attentiveness and then utilises the theoretical frames offered in works by Kahnemman (Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow), Damasio (Descartes Error), Sunstein and Thaler (Nudge) and Duigg (The Power of Habit) to pay attention to how the theory plays out in our every day behaviours. This not only proves extremely interesting as individuals explore their internal world, it improves the understanding of the material – as advocated in Blooms Taxonomy, by helping to cover the three domains of learning, cognitive, affective and psychomotor.

The course, like its cousins the MBSR and MBCT, does not overload the student with theory,  but carefully chooses the relevant ideas and information which the students can reflect on as the course progresses. The outcome of the course is that it will contribute to optimising our individual and group psychological capital.  Participants will become better at relationships, better at engagement and create better interventions in our community, much more likely to create change because they are based on a real understanding of what it is to be human.

Perhaps it is most simply articulated by one attendee who said “I work with people and policy all day, often trying to shift behaviours and ways of doing things. If I don’t understand myself and why I do what I do, how on earth can I understand people outside and expect to make change.”

The course forms part of our work on progressive behaviour change and continues for another four weeks. It will be evaluated and more will be written from our results. We aim to run at least one other course building on this one during the period of this research.


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