An interview with Mirabai Bush on bringing contemplation into the inner sanctum of American power, from Harvard University to Monsanto.
Aside from Monsanto, what is the Center’s relationship to the corporate world, or other mainstream institutions, and why have they become the Center’s focus?
Corporate culture, and its values, has had a big effect on all our other institutions, including higher education, journalism, law. I think it’s the logical place to start. Most of the law students in the Contemplative Mind program are preparing to enter the corporate world. Harlan Dalton, who is a Yale law professor and who just got a degree at Yale Divinity School [and is a board member of Contemplative Mind] is thinking about starting an institute of law and religion. He explained that both institutions try to guide us on how to live the right life. Of course, that’s what the law was originally intended for, but very few lawyers spend time thinking about that now. So much energy goes into litigation and corporate mergers and acquisitions and growth and power.
Charlie [Halpern] went to Yale Law School. Five of the seven people on our board went to law school, including Bob Shapiro, who joined our board. We got a lot of criticism for that also. People accused us of selling out, of sleeping with the enemy. But in addition to being inspired by my own friendship with Bob, I find it’s very helpful to have people on the board who have been part of these mainstream organizations. It helps us understand in what ways the dharma might be able to be there. So with all this collective experience in law, there was great concern about the direction that the profession has taken. They realized that law school—where lawyers, judges and law professors are trained—might be the place to start. The interesting thing about law school is that although the focus is cognitive and analytic, no part of the curriculum strengthens contemplative capacities. Yet many people need a lawyer when they are in trouble and suffering.
Do you have a sense of the outcome of any of the programs?
It’s hard to predict the consequences of this work. Some people—just like those who come to Buddhist teachers anywhere—get it, go home, and practice every day. Others really struggle with it. At Yale Law School students sit once a week with their professor in his office. At Monsanto they created meditation rooms in all the main buildings. I was on retreat in Burma once with a ninety-three-year-old abbot-monk, and sitting on the ground next to me was a scientist from Monsanto.
Part of our strategy is to create legitimacy, so we chose some highly visible institutions. We started the law program at Yale, and now there are a number of law schools—Columbia, New York University—who are interested. Yale legitimized it. But we know that the really deep changes can’t be predicted. What we can do is to create an environment, including the offering of practice, in which people are more likely to wake up, to make wholesome choices and to act compassionately.
How did you go about reaching such a broad spectrum?
One of our strengths is that, as we say in organizing, we start where people are. Take the Greens Retreat, for example. This is a group of CEOs from twenty-eight national environmental organizations—the Sierra Club, NRDC, the Wilderness Society, the Trust for Public Land, and so on. They were originally interested in religious teachings that relate to responsibility for the planet. We introduced the practice as a way of creating and entering a habitat of sacred imagination, like going into the wilderness. When we did the meditation on sound [during a retreat at Sundance], they’d listen to the sounds of the Utah Mountains. And we did silent walking in the hills. That was particularly appropriate for environmentalists, but it wasn’t watering down the practice. It was taking it out of the usual Buddhist context. And it worked. They started building practice into their annual meetings.
Our vision is not based so much upon what we see, as how we see; our strategy is not so much based upon what we do, as who we are; and our evaluation is not so much based upon achievement, as faithfulness.
—Robert Lehman, former Director of the Fetzer Institute; Member, Contemplative Mind Board of Trustees.
Is working with environmental activists different from working with mainstream institutions and corporations?
From activists of all kinds—environmentalists as well as lawyers—and even some of the journalists we’ve worked with, we hear the same questions: If I give up my anger, what will motivate me to work for change? If I practice “acceptance,” how will the good work get done? The answer is that there are deeper sources to draw from. But people don’t really get that until they experience it. They get confused about the idea of acceptance, as if acceptance is giving support to an injustice or being resigned. But acceptance is just being there. So that is always confusing.
Anger burns you out. And among social activists, burnout is rampant. When people learn meditation practices for the first time, this idea of accepting things as they are is very confusing. But it’s simply that: that they are. Not accepting circumstances as they are isn’t going to change them, and in fact, not accepting them keeps you from seeing things as-they-are. And that prevents you from being able to do the most effective action to change them.