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An interview with Mirabai Bush on bringing contemplation into the inner sanctum of American power, from Harvard University to Monsanto.
Many activists seem reluctant to incorporate a spiritual view into their work and, in fact, are often antagonistic to it, in spite of the great examples set by people like Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King, and others.
When I was younger I’d get frustrated on both sides. Many of the activists I worked with did not value the reflective life, and lots of spiritual practitioners seem to have no awareness of things outside their immediate circle. I think they’re completely compatible. It’s the essence of it. In the moment one tries to see everything exactly as it is without judgment. And yet imbedded in that is the possibility for the relief of whatever suffering exists in the moment. So you work toward a society or culture or situation in which there is less suffering, and at the same time accepting things as they are in the moment because they are already here. I know that is always posed as a paradox, but it’s always struck me that it’s very easy to hold both at the same time.
One thing that might ease this apparent contradiction is the emergence that we’re seeing—in the academic program for Fellows initiated by Contemplative Mind, and with our work with Howard Gardner at Harvard—of a national inquiry into contemplative awareness as a way of knowing. Seeing it in an academic setting is different from the way it’s held in a more monastic setting. The intuitive, preverbal direct knowing that one develops through meditation practice is a very important complement to the rational knowing and rational scientific inquiry on which our entire education system is based. What’s happening with these Fellows now is that contemplative awareness is not looked at as something that lives in a monastery or a church or temple. They’re beginning to understand that it’s a way of knowing, that it’s an inquiry into the nature of mind and into the nature of reality.
In the West, meditation was always for a privileged few—priests, monks, secret orders. It is available now to many. Our work is to recognize this moment and give support to it.
—Charles Terry, Member, Contemplative Mind Board of Trustees
Did your own view of things change from working with the Center?
Before I starting working with corporations and institutions, I had always worked from the bottom up, always in grassroots movements, and at times I believed it was the only way. I now think a combination is required. Leaders are important, and you can have visionary leadership, but if there’s nobody to hear the message, it goes nowhere. And, of course, it’s not dualistic. It’s got to be not just the visionaries and grassroots but many other factors in between. We have a vision that contemplative practice and the possibility of a more contemplative life inside this culture could shift its direction toward one of sustainability and awakening.
In Contemplative Mind we have to make decisions about where to put our resources. Is it better to work with environmentalists who are already trying to save the planet than to work with those we think are destroying the planet? One thing I learned from working closely with scientists at Monsanto is that scientists and others who are working at the cutting edge of something as new and complex as, say, biotechnology, are making decisions every day in their labs that activists and other social change workers don’t even hear about until they are on an unstoppable trajectory.
I saw that the discussions about what these things mean for our society and for the planet need to begin in the labs, among scientists. What better place to apply some of the techniques that good scientists already know, of looking carefully at things without judgment, exactly as they are? In business, for a long time the only considerations were science and the bottom line. We now know that that’s just not enough—that there are huge social and moral implications.
The peculiar genius of the American corporation has been to turn anything and everything into a marketing coup. How do you know that you are not simply helping them to package themselves as nice guys?
That’s a complex question. First, the PR issue—in fact, both Time and Business Week wrote about Monsanto meditating, and I don’t think it changed anybody’s perception of the company. The more important question to me is whether the insights that come from practice, insights grounded in wisdom and compassion, can have an effect on the policies and products of a corporation—any corporation. Or are they too limited by size, bottom line, and the stock market to respond to insights that might fundamentally change their way of operating? We don’t know the answer to that, and I don’t think it is simple. For me, it is much too early to tell.
How do you integrate practice into your own life?
It’s difficult to direct the Center for Contemplative Mind without at least building the basics into my own life. We do practice every day in our office together. Everyone on staff gets a week off for retreat every year and it’s paid for. I try to do another retreat or two every year. So do I sit enough? Probably not. Do I move around too much? Yes. And so I’m forced to look at the reasons for that. But is this work a vehicle for waking up? Yes. I find myself continually in brand new situations, and it brings forward any kinds of prejudicial stuff I’m carrying around, about whatever it happens to be, lawyers, corporate people. I’m always carrying something. Then we get together and it all changes, always. I really love being with people who are coming because they want to wake up. It’s fabulous seeing that in all these different kinds of people. ▼
Photos: Mirabai Bush, co-founder and direct of The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, © Bart Everly, 2001