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An interview with Mirabai Bush on bringing contemplation into the inner sanctum of American power, from Harvard University to Monsanto.
Mirabai Bush is the director of The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Based in Massachusetts, its mission is to bring contemplative practice into mainstream institutional life. Corporations, media organizations, law schools, and universities have sponsored programs directed by the Center.
Prior to co-founding the Center in 1996, Bush was the director of the Guatemala Project and the Compassionate Action Project for Seva Foundation. A Buddhist practitioner for the past thirty years, she is also co-author, with Ram Dass, of Compassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service.
This interview was conducted in New York City by Helen Tworkov in March 2001.
What was the initial motivation behind the Center for Contemplative Mind?
The Center began as a conversation about the relationship between contemplative practices and social change, and the relationship between individual and social transformation. The decision to go forward grew from those discussions. But we had been talking about institutes for health and healing, and for death and dying, organizations that already resonated with contemplative values.
How did you begin?
As it turned out, the very first retreat we did was in ’97 with the chemical company Monsanto. Bob Shapiro had recently become its CEO and was looking at new ways of knowing, new avenues toward creativity. He was interested in meditation. He approached Charlie Halpern, a friend from Harvard and a founding member of Contemplative Mind.
How did you feel about Monsanto?
Monsanto was a big challenge for me personally, because I had spent the previous ten years working in sustainable agriculture with Mayan people in Guatemala. At that point Monsanto wasn’t involved in biotechnology, but their main product was Round-Up, the largest-selling herbicide in the world. It had been used extensively in Guatemala, where the heart of my work was the recovery of land that had been destroyed by chemicals. I believed that Round-Up had contributed to destroying the land, to the hunger and poverty that the Mayan people were living in. So I knew a lot about Monsanto.
Why did you decide to go forward with them?
I was persuaded to work with Monsanto because so many people work inside corporations, and because of the increasing power of corporations, not just economically but culturally, worldwide. I concluded that it could be very beneficial to change consciousness inside a corporation. Once I began to think that way, I saw my own resistances, and saw the challenge of going into this situation without judgment. We certainly needed to maintain discriminating awareness about the products this company was producing, but if we could conduct a practice retreat in a space of nonjudgment and be open with each other, then we could see whether, indeed, this practice could help people open to a wider view, as it did for me.
When I first started practicing I wasn’t making Round-Up, but I was holding all kinds of misunderstandings about the nature of reality. Now it’s clear to me that one of the most challenging tensions is teaching with no judgment—being simply a supportive guide to beings whose intentions are good—while holding my own opinions. And teaching in new contexts makes this even more challenging.
The first retreat was held at the Fetzer Institute for a self-selected group from Monsanto. As we’ve found with many professionals—and these were the top executives, mostly men—their powers of concentration are already very refined. So in one weekend they were able to get pretty concentrated and seemed to learn a lot in a very short time.
“Our vision for the future is that contemplative practice will be a concept that is both widely understood and widely accepted by both practitioners and nonpractitioners. And that both public policy and social practices will support and promote contemplative values as part of a fully democratic society.”
—Charles Halpern Former President, Nathan Cummings Foundation Chair, Contemplative Mind Board of Trustees
What sort of retreat was it, and how it was structured?
Steve Smith [a guiding Vipassana teacher at Insight Meditation Society, who founded Vipassana Hawaii in 1984] agreed to lead the retreat, but only if we retained the format of a standard three-day meditation retreat. Because we were working directly with the CEO, we didn’t have to repackage it in any way. By the last evening, Steve began to teach metta practice, lovingkindness practice. You begin with lovingkindness for yourself. Then you take the energy of lovingkindness out in expanding circles to include many other beings: humans and mammals and birds and fish and insects and all beings everywhere. And after three days of practice by people who had a lot of concentration, bringing awareness to loving-kindness was very profound. We hadn’t talked about sustainable agriculture or product mix; the executives hadn’t explained why they thought Round-Up was good for the planet. I opened my eyes in the middle of the metta meditation as Steve was talking about these different species, and I looked around the room and saw tears rolling down the cheeks of many people there.
That was a real turning point for me. I did not forget what I saw as negative about chemicals and monocropping. There’s no way I was going to forget that. But at the same time I realized that these were basically good people who believed that they were contributing to help feed the world.
A lot of people out there are pretty angry with Monsanto; they might tell you that those tears you saw were crocodile tears.
Almost everyone I knew—Buddhists and others—were very critical of the work with Monsanto. It came from people already critical of the company who felt that we were simply teaching stress reduction, making it easier for them to do what they are already doing, and to feel better about it.
Was it just stress reduction?
No. Bob [Shapiro] is wiser than that. There are thousands of stress reduction methods in business. Bob knew that. He had an intuition that meditation practice leads to a whole different path of awareness, allowing people to think in different ways. I can’t say that stress reduction was not a part of why we were invited or why people came. But when the practice is held in a safe space, and is taught with the best intention, insight, wisdom and compassion can increase. Over and over I’ve seen people have moments of awakening about their lives. It’s not like, “Oh, Monsanto is making chemicals, I don’t think that’s good anymore.” It’s not at that level. It’s people beginning to see that there is a process of awakening and they can begin to cultivate a different kind of awareness.
To work with people who “appear” to be so off the grid in terms of contemplative values must require a lot of faith on your part.
It’s mysterious to me who in these retreats suddenly has an Ah-ha! experience, the kind that changes the way they work and the way they live. I really trust the process of the dharma unfolding, of the truth emerging, and I think that as activists, our work is to create environments in which that’s more likely to happen. If there’s to be a shift in the direction that we are going, we need the power of spirit, of truth, of creativity, of insight. I think it’s the only way that things can change.