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Mirabai Bush: Reforming Secular Institutions Through Contemplative Practices
Mirabai Bush: Compassion In Action
Most of us lead double lives. Mondays through Fridays we are at work, caught up with our endless goals, tasks, and deadlines. It’s in our quiet times that certain questions are given space to arise. What is our larger purpose? Are we living in alignment with our values?
How do we reconcile these two worlds? How do we bring our internal work into the outside world? How do we create a world that supports our internal quest? How can our work become a clear path to our own awakening and how can we become a more purposeful and effective instrument to change in the external world?
On our Global Awakin Call, Mirabai Bush shared powerful and inspiring insights on these questions based on her lived experience. After studying and practicing meditation and other contemplative practices with S.N. Goenka and Neem Karoli Baba, she later found the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, which now seeks to transform higher education by supporting and encouraging the use of contemplative practices. Mirabai’s life and focus on inner cultivation tells a powerful story of how our external world is merely a manifestation of our inner world, and how lasting social change can only happen through the awakening of individual consciousness.
When she was only a child of seven years, Mirabai’s mornings began in church. These mornings before school were seeded with insights into her inner life and there was this realization that something larger than herself existed out there.
“I felt this deep sense that we are all part of consciousness and that we are interconnected, not just we humans but all lives on Earth. But it didn't seem like a revelation as a little kid, it just seemed like this is the way things are.”
As an adult many years later, pieces of these insights stayed with her, leading her to detach from the turbulent era of civil rights and anti-war activism in American society. Those were the years when Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert F. Kennedy were killed. It was an intense period, a time of challenging institutions and demanding change and justice in our society.
While studying for her Ph.D. and teaching on campus, the younger brother of one of her students was killed in a drive-by shooting in connection to a racist speech delivered by U.S. Presidential candidate George Wallace. Mirabai felt a pull towards a different way of being and living that was more compassionate and just.
Guided by her inner wisdom, Mirabai traveled through Europe, the Middle East, and India and spent time understanding different kinds of spiritual life. She was led into halls and homes of various faiths, traditions, and beliefs - churches, mosques, and temples – and she encountered kindness and peace everywhere she entered. Her journey ended in a country where she intended to spend only two weeks. But in India, those two weeks slowly unfolded into two years. It was there that she met and studied with great spiritual teachers such as S.N. Goenka and Neem Karoli Baba, teachers that probed Mirabai to inquire into what she should be doing with her life and how her way of being was deeply connected with this.
Discovering the Nature of the Mind
Being in India reminded Mirabai of what she had intuitively understood as a child – that the inner life is interconnected with everything that manifests in the outer realm.
“I guess until that time, like many people, I had the spiritual practice in one compartment of my mind and activism in another. By learning Vipassana meditation with S.N. Goenka, I simply watched the nature of my mind and body and began to see the impermanent nature of thoughts and emotions. Through these teachings and practices, I became much more integrated as a person.”
Like the clear water that can only emerge after the mud is given time and space to settle, through the observation of her inner world everything that didn’t matter fell away. Before practicing with Goenka, Mirabai had never meditated or sat down in lotus. Through the course, Mirabai felt transformed. She realized that she could sit quietly and look within and in the process, she learned so much about herself and how she was connected to the world. With a calm and quiet mind, Mirabai realized what she could and couldn’t control. She was able to better discern when she held onto an idea or belief out of egoic attachment and then was able to let it go. Separateness dissolved into oneness and interconnectedness. This realization helped her to give up attachment to the fruits of her work.
“I was just so moved by the potential for the liberation of compassion and loving kindness in myself, and how that changed my relationship to other people. When I came back to this country, I just wanted to do what I could to share with other people.”
Time is Relative
How do we sustain this awareness once we’re off the meditation cushion and living in the “real” world? For most of us the question becomes, “How do we bring this presence into the workplace, especially when it feels like we’re constantly being pushed to meet deadlines with a scarcity of time?”
“So much of life has to do with paradox. Being able to hold conflicting ideas in the mind at the same time is an underdeveloped skill these days. There is a Zen Buddhist story about a doctor who said, “Oh, we don't have much time, I'd better slow down.” Through contemplative practice, I’ve learned that time is relative. When you focus on something and are present with it, time seems to slow down.“
When you are focused, you enter a space in your mind where you can see the right things and make the right choices. There is a study that was done in Madison, Wisconsin with people out of a corporation named Promega. One of the things they found and tested for was increased ability to hold two conflicting ideas in the mind at the same time after a meditation course. Time and timelessness exists all at the same time for us; it's just that sometimes at work, the deadline seems more real.
“You also begin to shift the way you are. You begin to naturally make better choices. For example, if you have a deadline coming up in two weeks, you begin to let go of things that aren't so necessary for you. Or your mind opens up and says, 'Oh, I could bring in two other people who will be really perfect to help me out. I never thought of that.' Then you more easily able to meet the deadline.”
Since we spend so much time at work, shouldn’t this be an important part of our awakening? This realization planted the seeds for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.
“Most people think when I am at work, I do my work and when I come home, I am a full real person. But I never thought that made sense. So the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society is really about bringing these contemplative practices into our work life.”
What are contemplative practices? Mirabai explains that contemplative practices exist in every religious tradition, spiritual tradition, and also secular tradition.
“Contemplative practices are the ones that take you inside, having the effect of calming, quieting, and then leading to a capacity for inquiry, insight, and eventually leading to compassion and wisdom. Through them you awaken and you begin to understand the nature of your own mind and then nature of external realities as well.”
When Mirabai and others started the Center for Contemplative Mind, they set out to explore the value of these practices in secular society and conducted interviews with 80 people who had somehow brought contemplative practices from various traditions into their organizations. They asked them what practices they were using and through their responses built the “tree of contemplative practices”.
This tree mirrors the diversity and wealth of practices that we have in our lives to help us slow down, reflect, and contemplate, and they range from writing to holding peace vigils to walking meditation. In essence, contemplative practices are really human practices.
Is Work Part of Our Spiritual Journey?
Is it possible that regardless of what kind of work that we are doing, through the integration of contemplative practices and becoming present, our work can become a pathway to service?
“In almost all forms of work we have interactions with others many times throughout the day. When we shift from a me-centered approach, we recognize that there is a way in which we can serve the common good and mutually benefit.”
Mirabai shared a book titled, “Mindful Athlete”, by her friend George Mumford. George became the person who taught meditation to the LA Lakers and the Chicago Bulls. He taught some of the biggest stars, like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O'Neal. In the beginning, these athletes felt separate and more important from others on their team and so it was very difficult for them to work as a team. Yet you can't win a basketball game without working as a team. So George taught them meditation, which helped them to cultivate their inner compassion and reveal the ways in which we are connected. In the basketball context, they realized that passing to a team member who is better positioned to get the basket (rather than trying to get one more basket for their own record) benefited the entire team and made them more likely to win the game. That's true in all the work we do.
Mirabai also explains that even in the most commercial business, you are creating a product or service for others. Pay attention to what it is you are creating and putting out into the world. She offered another example of a product scientist that was working for a chemical company. One day, he came to Mirabai and exclaimed, “Mirabai, I was meditating and I just experienced this insight. We make products that kill things, for example herbicides. Instead, we should make products that support life!"
Being the Change: Compassion in Action
The example of the product scientist is inspiring but Mirabai points out that it’s important to understand that these kinds of insights do not happen overnight.
“One thing we see now is that mindfulness has become a catchphrase. It's being introduced in lot of different contexts but it's often introduced just at the very first level of calming and quieting. While it's good to quiet down so that you can see your inner life, in order for the real transformation to take place it takes time. The quieting just opens the door to be able to cultivate insight. Out of that springs creativity.”
In the book, “Compassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service”, a book that Mirabai co-wrote with Ram Dass she writes, “We may need to think about service in a completely new way if we are to find an opportunity to do something we love.” She then share a number of steps to help think about this new way of serving, including the importance of deep listening, starting small, and staring where you are.
Mirabai shared another example of a meeting she attended on mindfulness and business. At the meeting there was doctor who served as the head of integrative medicine at one of the major New York hospitals. He shared how he had grown up with a grandmother that taught him about nutrition and the importance of eating fresh food, but there he was working for the typical western hospital that didn’t appreciate the value of nutrition. This doctor decided that he was going to start a garden on the rooftop of that hospital. Little by little, he grew an extraordinary vegetable garden and thought, "The best way to a doctor's heart is through his stomach.” He started cooking from what he was growing and then hosted a large dinner with the other doctors, serving them the delicious food from the ingredients in his garden. Then while they were enjoying their meal, he shared with them about the importance of nutrition. Slowly things really turned around. The doctors themselves felt better when they ate right and as a result, they began to understand the importance of nutrition for their patients.
Another example Mirabai offered was Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March, which catalyzed India’s independence movement in many ways. The Salt March was a direct action campaign of tax resistance and nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly in colonial India. When Mahatma Gandhi proposed salt as the focus of civil disobedience protests, many other leaders of India’s independence movement were incredulous and disregarded his idea. In response, Mahatma Gandhi decided to give up salt in his own diet. His response was to be the change. Through this small, but very powerful action in his own life, he catalyzed the external change that he sought to co-create with others.
In addition to giving you creative means to address social change, another huge benefit of a sustained, daily practice is personal sustainability, especially in difficult times. When Mirabai was working in Guatemala through the Seva Foundation, she shared how overwhelming it was, particularly after all of the violence that ensued. People had lost everything. She worked in the communities during the day emotionally exhausted. Many times she would just cry. But her practice helped her to endure. She would go back into the communities each day and start over again.
A “Secular Sangha”: Being in a Community of Shared Values
Many examples that Mirabai offered were of people that live in a strong community of shared values. Mirabai herself surrounds herself with individuals that are integrating mindfulness, compassion and ethical values into their daily lives. What is the importance of being in this type of secular sangha?
Community is so important. Mirabai sees it in every area that she works in. She explains that this is true not only in the Buddhist text, but in every spiritual tradition. When they first created the Center, they interviewed 40 teachers of contemplative practices across all traditions. When they asked them what was the danger of taking these practices out of their original contexts, most of the teachers said it's not dangerous to the practice itself. The practice has an internal integrity, but the danger is that you will no longer have a community of support that grounds those practices.
“We need each other. Our minds are basically not to be trusted. We think often in so many different directions and without the help and support of a community it becomes difficult for us to come back to what really matters.”
At the end of a fellowship program for faculty in colleges and universities that was sponsored by the Center for Contemplative Mind, Mirabai and her colleagues asked the Fellows what was the most important aspect of the program for them. They didn't say that it was the funding or the fellowship title, but that the most important aspect was the community. Even if you are not using formal practices, it doesn't matter.
“If you're just trying to wake up to who you are more fully, and do what you are supposed be doing in the world, and you don't have a community then it’s very difficult. Begin to draw friends with shared values to you in whatever way feels right to you, so you have these daily interactions. Through these valued based relationships you will grow and thrive.”
A Poem for Mirabai
One of our callers was so moved by Mirabai, that she dedicated a poem to her:
Deep in the center of my Being, where all things dwell is a place, is a space that is Silent in the noise of my day
Patiently waiting for me to stop and notice the sheer beauty of it's Power
Noble, watching, neutral to the costumes I wear, parading as me
My Being knows my truth
My Being knows my hunger
My Being knows my strength
My Being calls me to be alive in the newness of the struggle to remember my Name and the reason I was chosen to be here at this time and in this place. To look past the theater of my life and align with the sound of my soul
From this place of remembrance It shines a light of wisdom onto the darkness of my path. My Being brings a knowing to my existence and we laugh at the caricature of me I show to the world.
My Being holds my face in its hand and and says, breathe, just breathe. The endless need for control and perfection, fall away and I know that I am already safe in the arms of love.
I begin to delight in the world as it is and not in my striving for a world that can never be. Change, like the breath is only a process of holding on and letting go.
My Being says, it's time - time to let go, just let go
Stop the searching, sit with me and allow your answers to come. Your answers are on the wave of each breath. Waiting to be heard in the silence
Go deep and bring forth the gift of this day.
Not in effort and striving but through the magic and wonder of a child on Christmas morning.
There is nothing that is denied you - simply pick the beautiful box from underneath the tree and unwrap what waits for you there.
When we asked Mirabai how the larger Service Space community could serve her journey, she responded “The most important way in which you affect others around you is through your own being. So the best thing you can do is just to keep doing the work yourself. That person(s) whom you know that is the most resistant to change, you may find that someday that person is coming to you and saying, “You know, you are awfully calm and wise in these moments. What are you doing?”
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