October 10, 2012
An Interview with Mirabai Bush
Mirabai Bush is the co-founder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, an organization devoted to bringing contemplative practice into mainstream institutional life. Though its current focus is on higher education, Bush herself is known for her work at such corporate behemoths as Google, Monsanto, and Hearst Publications, where she has taught mindfulness training. Her most current work in the corporate landscape has been at Google alongside Chade-Meng Tan, a Google engineer, and Daniel Goleman, author of the book Emotional Intelligence, in developing an emotional intelligence, mindfulness-based course called Search Inside Yourself.
A practitioner for over thirty years, Bush has studied with S.N. Goenka, Kalu Rinpoche, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and Tsoknyi Rinpoche, among others. She is the co-author, with Ram Dass, of Compassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service. (You can read Tricycle’s 2001 interview with her, “Contemplating Corporate Culture,” here.)
Tricycle’s Alex Caring-Lobel and Emma Varvaloucas caught up with Bush by email last month to find out about her new CD, Working with Mindfulness (buy it here), an hour of guided exercises developed and narrated by Bush herself. The CD, which covers everything from “emailing with intention” to “workplace kindness,” can help practitioners transition their practice from the cushion to the workaday world. Below, Bush talks about what an enlightened workforce would look like and discusses how she successfully brings spiritual ethos into a secular context.
If you could distill your new CD, Working with Mindfulness, into a few key points or sentences, what would they be? Working with Mindfulness offers basic Buddhist practices in a simple secular form. These practices help people cultivate focused awareness without judgment in their daily lives and work. The CD also includes practices of kindness and compassion that encourage better appreciation of ourselves, of others, and of our connections to each other. They are based on my experiences in organizations from Seva Foundation to Google, where they have helped people be more in touch with themselves, be more focused and creative, and be better communicators.
What's the potential of bringing mindfulness practice into the workplace, both on a personal and a corporate level? Could an enlightened workforce—or perhaps, a more mindful workforce—change the underlying nature of the corporation, or the way it acts in the world? As my friend and fellow Seva board member Wavy Gravy says to himself in the morning while looking in the mirror, “It’s all done with people.” The corporation is a legal structure, based on return for investors, and that basic nature is unlikely to change until we develop a new economic system. But it is people who make the decisions, create the products, determine the profit margin. People decide whether to, as a Monsanto scientist once said to me, “create products that kill or those that support life.” People at Google decide whether to change their China policy when Tibet activists are harassed; people at the Federal Trade Commission decide whether to search their networks to find more lawyers of color to hire rather than just waiting for resumes. And if alternative economic systems will serve us all more equitably and sustain the planet longer, it will be people who develop them, and often people who have worked in and been unhappy with corporations.
An enlightened workforce doesn’t happen all at once. But as more awakened employees become committed to principles of right livelihood through mindfulness and compassion practice, they will change the company in important ways. They will:
• Apply standards of conduct that are aligned with their personal values
• Recognize that business is not an isolated entity—it is interconnected with all other life and its actions affect all other life
• Encourage generosity
• Use right speech
• Listen carefully to others, both within and outside the company
• Tolerate ambiguity, not knowing, paradox
• Encourage responsibility to those who work for and depend on the company—fare wage, health care, maternity/paternity leave, etc.
• Exercise humility
• Be compassionate and loving
• Create products that support life
All that being said, it is not always clear how to get to that tipping point of awareness among employees. The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society worked with Monsanto in the 90s, starting with an off-site silent Vipassana retreat for the CEO and 18 top executives. They were very moved by the experience and encouraged others. For three or four years, we led retreats and practice sessions in the workplace, created materials in corporate style, and formed many true dharma relationships. It was beginning to change the culture of the place when their CEO Bob Shapiro retired. When the new CEO arrived, he eliminated everything to do with the program, which he associated with Bob. We knew we had made a difference for many people there; we had put huge effort into building a program that was designed to grow, and it was gone in a moment. While honoring the nature of impermanence, I felt discouraged about starting over in another company until Google, where the corporate policy encouraged diverse ways of understanding. Although it took years to establish the program as the “cool” thing to do, Search Inside Yourself stands a good chance of becoming thoroughly integrated into the Google culture.
In Buddhism, great emphasis is placed on the four preliminary contemplations that turn the mind away from worldly concerns and toward dharma, and establish the motivation behind one's practice. When we take mindfulness practices out of a Buddhist context and skip over these preliminaries, does it matter that the motivation behind practice has changed? I don’t think it’s an issue of motivation—we are always motivated by suffering to relieve that suffering. At work, suffering manifests in many ways: stress that makes us feel bad mentally and physically; difficult relationships; or a range of negative emotions like anger, envy, fear, irritation, and self-judgment. Even very basic beginning practice, like mindfulness of the breath or sound, begins to relieve that suffering, reduce our stress levels, and motivate us to practice more.
The CD is only a brief introduction to practice, or a toolbox to take home after a group session, so it doesn’t include the four contemplations, usually understood as a purification of the mind. In the workplace, however, although we don’t do these reflections in a formal way, they can be woven into an introduction to practice. We can talk about one’s fortunate human existence by leading a short reflection on being grateful that we can be here today to take this time to practice together. And the teachings of impermanence and karma naturally arise in discussions of the nature of thought rising and passing away and of the clear glimpses of cause and effect that meditation provides. The defects of samsara also naturally arise in conversation. Most people question why they are working so much for material goods that rarely satisfy their deep yearnings for wholeness.
Do we have to omit the “spiritual element” in offering mindfulness practice in the workplace? Not if spiritual means that aspect of life that relates to spirit—to the values and meaning by which people live, to the interconnection of all life. I recorded this CD to encourage people to experience the beginning benefits of practice. But even with this minimal guidance, people often experience a sense of calm or quiet clarity, which they sense can lead to insight and more kindness toward others. Do I think that sustained guided practice over time with a good teacher would be more likely to lead toward a deeper awakening? Yes, I do. But this is a doorway, an experienced teacher giving simple ways to begin to shift the way we think about work and act toward each other in our organizations. These are entrenched institutions, even those that try to be cutting edge, and our relation to them is often inherited and unconscious. These practices help us see through our automatic behaviors and ask ourselves how we can align our work with our deepest values—our spiritual values.
To listen to a track from Working with Mindfulness, "Coping with Change," visit More Than Sound's podcast here.
To buy the CD, click here.
Photo of Mirabai Bush by Paul Specht.