Awakin Calls » Mirabai Bush » Transcript


Mirabai Bush: Reforming Secular Institutions Through Contemplative Practices

Theme: Reforming Secular Institutions Through Contemplative Practices
Guest: Mirabai Bush
Host: Preeta Bansal
Moderator: Bela Shah

Preeta: Today we have a very special guest speaker Mirabai Bush, who has spent her life reforming secular institutions through contemplative practices. Thanks again for joining today's call. Let's start with a minute of silence to anchor ourselves. (silence)

Welcome again to our weekly Awakin call today in conversation with Mirabai Bush. This week's theme is about reforming secular institutions through contemplative practices. All of us obviously work in the world and participate in this material world to support ourselves, to support our family, and to function. At the same time, we are engaged in a quest to better ourselves and to enrich our spiritual life. How do we reconcile these two? 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 more purposeful and effective instrument to change in the external world? To start reflecting on these questions and to kick off the conversation with our guest, we have a pleasure to have our remarkable moderator Bela Shah. Some of you know Bela who has been involved much of this work to her life as well, to her involvement with the Dalai Lama Fellows. Bela, thanks for joining us. Any thoughts on the theme? And I'd ask you to introduce Mirabai and we'll get started.

Bela: Good morning, everyone. This is Bela. Thanks for the introduction, Preeta. Definitely, a lot of thoughts on this theme, especially as it played out on my own life. As I am thinking about it, my first response or memory is the realization that each of us has an inner voice, like inner knowing, that can help us guide the way towards our authentic path. But of course, the hard part is parting all the other noises to be able to hear that inner wisdom.

In my own life, contemplative practices, particularly yoga and meditation, have a played a key role, letting me hear my own inner knowing. Before I go on to introduce Mirabai, the connection is interesting because I, too, speaking of work, we all try to make a living, to pay our bills, to support ourselves and our families, how do you find work, that right livelihood, that you feel is aligned with your values. I've been searching that as well about a year ago. I think it was my contemplative practices and meditation that let me articulate to myself what it is I wanted. By articulating what I wanted and setting that intention, that cleared the pathway to finding my current work. That's how it worked out for me, but of course, I know that sometimes we are working in environments where might not feel aligned. How can contemplative practices help us come in more alignment, regardless the environment? That's what I am looking forward to conversing with Mirabai and hearing her many many years of wisdom on that. With that, I'll introduce our guest this morning.

I feel very honored to be in conversation with Mirabai Bush. She is then an advisor to the organization where I work, Dalai Lama Fellows, since the beginning. I personally began to understand her dedication to service when I came across a book she had written, titled Compassion in Action. I didn't realize at the time as I was reading the book that Mirabai has focused her life on the interdependence of social change and individual consciousness. She responds to the speed and fear that drive much of the American life and thoughts with programs for developing a culture of reflection, insight, compassion and wisdom. Raised Catholic, with Joan of Arc as her hero, Mirabai is one of the people who brought Buddhism to the West from India in the 1970s. Having studied with contemplative teachers from diverse traditions, she has led a diverse network of leaders from most every sector of American life to systematically explore the potential contribution of contemplative practices on American civil life and learning: insight and creativity, compassion and civic engagement, and an awareness of the interconnection of life on earth. Mirabai was a co-founder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society and served as Executive Director there until 2008. Mirabai has organized, facilitated, and taught workshops and courses on spirit and action for more than 20 years. A founding board member of the Seva Foundation, an international public health organization, she directed the Seva Guatemala Project. She is co-author, with Ram Dass, of Compassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service. Her most recent book is Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning, published in 2013.

Thank you so much, Mirabai, for being with us this morning.

Mirabai: Thank you, Bela. Every time I get introduced in a way like that, I feel like I am snuck into my own funeral. (laugh) What an interesting person! Do you have some questions?

Bela: I do. I have many questions. Not only it's an honor to have you this morning, but today is the day right after Mahatma Gandhi's birthday. As we all know, he is an individual who dedicated his life to inner cultivation and social change, so it's quite fitting that you are with us in the Awakin call because I really believe you are someone who deeply appreciate this connection between inner life and social change. I'd like to begin by talking about your early life. Perhaps, the specific people and events that have inspired you to explore the connection more deeply.

Mirabai: Early life you mean childhood?

Bela: Yeah, could be childhood as well as your formative years throughout college, and during the 1960s. I know that's a huge time period. But are there specific people and events that really inspired this connection for you between the inner life and social change?

Mirabai: I think in some way my inner life became important to me when I was a child. My parents were divorced when I was seven. In those days, it was still in the 40s and there wasn't such a thing as daycare. In the community I lived in, there was barely such a thing as a working mother. So I had to go somewhere. We lived across the street from the church and the school. So my mother put me in church for Mass every morning and then she would go off to work. And then I'd go to school. For all of that grammar school period I started every day in church. There weren't that many people in there and I sat there. I think that really introduced me to the possibility of an inner life and also of tuning into something much bigger than myself. After that, I led a fairly conventional existence.

Bela: I'd like to talk about that a little bit more. That's quite remarkable at such a young age spending so much time in church to start having a knowing, a feeling, a realization of the inner world that's inside of you. Feeling connected to it, and wanting to feel more connected to it. Can you talk about that more? What was it like and how did it begin to shape some of your life forward?

Mirabai: I think I am talking about it today because it came back for me with a visit of the Pope. Because in my 20s, I had been in Catholic school all the way through Georgetown graduate school. Then I was married and it was the wrong person, and some years later I got divorced. In those years, when you got divorced, you were basically excommunicated from the church. So I was not feeling connected to the Catholic Church for a long time. But the Pope was so extraordinary with his visit. My feeling was that he was able to stay simultaneously in the place where we are all connected and we are all of equal value on this planet, while at the same time recognizing the uniqueness of all beings. I just felt because of that he was able to find the place where people are in big disagreement at almost every other level both could appreciate what he was saying. So it made me remember that deep sense that we are all part of consciousness, energy, and that we are interconnected, we humans and all lives on earth... It didn't seem like a revelation as a little kid, it just seems like this is the way things are. I realized when I listened to him that not even particularly because he was a Catholic, but because there are so few people who can really do that. I think the Dalai Lama is another. All of us from time to time are able to be in that place, but he seemed to be pretty consistently there. That's why I am thinking about childhood, I guess.

So after I got divorced, I went back to graduate school. I was in graduate school in the late 60s. During that time, I got very involved with civil rights and anti-war activism. It just seemed like the obvious thing to do, the bad situations and changes needed to happen. So that was all going on in those years and it was a time of challenging institutions, all institutions. But I was on a campus (which) was very active in the antiwar work. The police took over the campus... I was a teaching fellow working on my PhD. At the same time, I had a lot of students of color in my class, and was very aware of their situations. George Wallace came to speak (I was in Buffalo). He was running for the President. He was from the south and was very racist. He gave this speech that fired people up in the wrong way. That night, one of my students, the younger brother of one of my students, was killed in a drive-by shooting. Those were the years when Martin Luther King (Jr.) was killed, Robert F. Kennedy. It was really a very intense period, and everybody's heard about, but it's hard to remember now just how intense it was.

Anyhow, I just felt I needed to leave the university for a while. I was studying literature. It was impossible to settle down. It was impossible to teach what we wanted to teach, so I decided to visit some other cultures and see if there was a way of being, of living, that made more sense, and was more compassionate and just. I needed some help in figuring out how to live with all of these. And I traveled through Europe, through the Middle East. In those years, you could peacefully travel through the former Yugoslavia, through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India. I spent time in all those places, particularly in people's spiritual life. People were so welcoming and kind everywhere. They took us in churches, mosques, and temples. So amazing now because it was totally peaceful all the way across. Then I got to India. That was where, I would say, my biggest influences were. I met and studied with great teachers who really helped me. They helped me begin to inquire into basically what I should be doing with my life.

Bela: I want to take a step back. There are a lot of different callers in this conversation. This work of contemplative practices, what does it actually mean? Is it all encompassing? Does it include various forms and meditation as well? How do you describe contemplative practice?

Mirabai: Contemplative practices exist in every religious traditions, spiritual traditions, and some of them come from secular traditions. There are practices as distinctive from some devotional practices. 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 come to know the quality. You begin to understand the nature of your own mind and then nature of external realities as well.

When we first started the center for contemplative mind, I am jumping ahead, which was to explore the value of these practices in secular society, mostly in this country. We did interviews with 80 people. This is in 1995. There weren't so many. But we found 80 people who had somehow brought practices into their organizations.

Bela: These 80 people were from various traditions?

Mirabai: Yeah. Various traditions and various kinds of organizations. We asked them what practices they were using. We built what we call the tree of contemporary practices. It's on We organized these practices into branches. So we had a stillness branch, a ritual branch, a movement (branch). So stillness will be meditation, centering practices (by) just sitting in silence; movement will include yoga, Aikido, walking a labyrinth, doing walking meditation, and some forms of dance. We have a creative (one) that included creative arts, journaling, and music. There is a relational one that included deep listening and dialogue. There is one called generative, in which we put loving kindness meditation. Then lectio divina which is sacred or mindful reading. Anyhow we put them all together in a tree. There is one called activist too, (which) will be like vigils, marches, pilgrimages, and bearing witness to suffering. What we saw was so cool when people came upon the tree was that they realized that "oh, I didn't realize I was doing contemplative practice, but I guess I am because, actually, I do walking meditation on my way to work. But I just don't call it that." It illustrated a backup information that it had come from every tradition. They are really human practices that people are advised in every different culture.

I was recently at this center (where we) had a conference on bringing contemplative practices into teaching and higher education. There was a woman who practiced the Yoruba tradition. She was showing how certain practices there she adapted into her classroom, which is totally secular classroom. So that's contemplative practice as I know it. Other people have other definitions.

Bela: I want to explore a little bit more deeply. You met people from all walks of life, who have some form of contemplative practices as you and the center designed it. I'd like to understand that how the contemplative practices had influenced the way they are, the way they show up, in their lives, in their organizations. Maybe you could start with yourself before you share stories about others. Sorry I am going to backtrack a little bit. In the beginning, you shared about your experiences in the 1960s with so much change happening and demand for change happening, external change. But you had the opportunity to travel across the globe. You explored a lot of different spiritual contemplative practices in Indian and brought that back with you, including studying Vipassana meditation with Goenka and so many other things. How did that influence your understanding of how social change could happen?

Mirabai: I guess until that time, like many people, I had the spiritual (practice) in one compartment in my mind, and certainly activism in another. When I first began to learn Vipassana meditation... I went to India for two weeks and I stayed for two years. I spent a lot of time with my root teacher who is Neem Karoli Baba, whose message was "love everyone, serve everyone and remember what's important." In India, those days were so sweet. You could just wander about. You met extraordinary teachers and then just spent time with them. What happened to me was that I became much more integrated as a person. When I sat for Vipassana for a month, I was just simply watching the nature of my mind and body. And I began to understand more about how it all works. I began to see the impermanent nature of thoughts, emotions. I worked a lot on cultivating loving kindness and compassion to the practices in other traditions.

So when I came back to the United States, I was with my partner, pregnant for my son. I'd been married in India during those two years. I came back with a number of people, close friends, who started centers, started insight meditation center in Massachusetts, and Spirit Rock in California, and centers in a number of other places. We came back, and everyone wanted to be a meditation teacher. Some of us who leaned more towards the Hindu teaching of Neem Karoli Baba (who) wanted us to teach Kirtan or chanting. Everybody wanted to be a spiritual teacher of some kind. Also Ram Dass, whom some of you would know, became famous for publishing a book called Be Here Now. He had been a Harvard psychologist and then went to India. He was one of the first who were able to explain the inter connection of western psychology and eastern spiritual practices and psychedelics. He had a huge (number of) followers. That book sold millions of copies. I was also with him throughout my time in India. He came back. I talked with him some other time. But mostly I had a child and those years none of the retreat centers included children. It was just out of the question. Going on retreat meant sitting silently on a cushion. Period. The idea of integrating life and practice was in its infancy. Shall we say? (laugh)

But I still really wanted to bring these practices back to where I knew was home because they helped me so much to get more clear. I really wanted to share them. But we also needed a livelihood because we had to support a child. My husband and I started a business, called illuminations. We made images from all the different spiritual traditions, and they would've been just like a craft on Etsy now. But that was a time when many people in this country were waking up to spiritual path, so they became very popular, and then we did a rainbow. It's a universal symbol of peace and harmony. We sold, I think, millions, at least hundreds of thousands. We had a hundred people working. We didn't know anything about business, but we wanted to construct it as a right livelihood which was a concept we learned about in India through both Buddhism and Hinduism. The idea of having your work benefit society. But also have it be both of benefit outside your organization, but have the organization be a place where people, while they are doing their work, also grow personally and spiritually.

Bela: I was going to ask you that what inspired The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

Mirabai: They came out of it, with a diversion in between. In the 70s, I started trying to figure out how we could do that. We did offer meditation and yoga, but you can imagine that not everybody came to work to learn meditation and yoga. We just looked at ways in which the organization would reflect dharma values. After that, I helped start the Seva Foundation, which was committed to service as an international public health foundation. We worked mainly on blindness. Then it led me to, with others, to start the center for contemplative mind. By that time, I always had this feeling or understanding that we spent so much of our life working. I started working when I was 13 in a bakery and I've worked ever since. We've spent so much time doing it that it should be an important part of our way of awakening. Most people think when I am at work, I do my work; when I come home, I am a full real person. But I never thought that made sense. So the center was really about bringing these practices (whose) beneficial impact could happen in lots of sectors of American society.

Bela: You shared that what makes you come alive is being with people as they are awaking. You described that as sort of the mission of the center. Can you share one or two stories when you experienced the awakening with someone, especially in their workplace?

Mirabai: I just remembered one time when we were working with law students, and we were teaching deep listening, or mindful listening, where you apply the principles of mindfulness to your listening. Some of you all have done this. It's something like you sometimes use mediation, therapy, and so on. We have people sitting across from another person and then we give a prompt to one of them, and the person would start speaking, and the listener is to listen as thoughts, emotions, memories coming to mind and just let those go, and notice them. We turn our attention back to the person who is speaking. We do that for 3-5 minutes and then the listener would say, what I heard you saying was... And they talk until the first person feels fully heard. It's always a great exercise to do because we are always so distracted that we are rarely fully listening to the other person. I hope everybody is fully listening to me now. (laugh) We were teaching these law students and after it was over, we asked how that was for them. One student said, "Oh my God! I got a breakthrough. In class, we are only taught one way of listening as law students, (which) is to listen for the weakness in the other person's arguments, so as soon as (s)he finishes speaking, you can attack." And he said, "I realized that I've brining that kind of listening to my girlfriend, and to my professors, and to everything in my life. Now I realized that that's appropriate in the courtroom if you are a litigator, but if you are at home with your girlfriend, you need a different kind of listening." Maybe it didn't change his entire life, but it was a great moment for him. It was a very humbling moment too. When we see our ways that we've been thinking, we were so limited, or sometimes. just plain morons. It's spiritually humbling. That's a great thing.

Bela: I want to explore this concept of right livelihood a little bit more. Is it possible that regardless what kind of work that you are doing, through the integration of contemplative practices, being present, deep listening to yourself and to those around you, your work can be a pathway as service?

Mirabai: Sure. (laugh) I mean basically the levels (at) which work is service, even in the most commercial business, you are creating a product or service for others. So first of all, like paying attention to what it is you are creating, putting out into the world, that's an obvious level and what its impact is. There are whole movements now looking at the environmental impact of all the things we do, and social impact. And we need to do a lot more of that. But also in almost all forms of work we have interactions with others, many times during the day. Just shifting from a kind of me-centered way of prioritizing what you do to recognizing that there is a way in which we can serve the common good and at the same time benefit appropriately from it. There is a way in which when we have to work in teams, we can both see ourselves as serving the whole, while at the same time, being creative and taking initiative and so on. It requires a real shift in a way we understand.

I was just teaching the incoming freshmen at Amherst College. 70 out of 400 for their three-day intensive orientation chose meditation and yoga. So I was teaching meditation, Fran taught the yoga, and I invited another friend... There were quite a few team athletes in the room. This friend's name was George Mumford, a meditation teacher. He just wrote a book called the mindful athlete. He has been an athlete himself. Then he became the person who taught meditation to the LA Lakers and the Chicago Bulls, pro basketball teams for those of you who aren't into it. He taught some of the biggest stars, like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Shaq O'Neal. All these guys are twined to be stars. It's competitive sports. They find that, with all that training, they sense themselves as separate from others, as more important than others, or trying to get more important than they are. It's very difficult for them to work as a team, and yet, you can't win a basketball game without working as a team. So he taught them meditation. He taught them ways of compassion, ways of getting a sense of the ways in which we are connected, and how a team like that, passing to somebody else who is in a better situation to get the basket, rather than trying to get one more basket for your own record, might be more likely to win the game. That's true in all the work we do.

Bela: I want to extend on that. What you are talking about is when you really listen and think about it, it's pretty radical. To me, it sounds like that we can get everything or (every) person in this world to introduce a contemplative practice into their daily lives, into their workplace. The result of their work, weather they work in a medical field, or in the political field, whatever it maybe, the result is going to be sustainable and mindful of our finite resources, mindful of our interdependence, because the focus is shifted from me to we.

Mirabai: But I want to be careful to say that just sitting down watching your breath is not going to overnight transform everything. But it's a way of being, a way of thinking, really can lead in that direction. One thing we see now mindfulness has become a catchphrase. It's been introduced to a lot of places. It's often introduced just as the very first level of calming and quieting. Of course it's good to quiet down so that you can see your inner life. But in order for the real transformation of the individual of a group or an organization, it takes time. The quieting just opens the door to be able to cultivate insight. Out of that springs creativity... I was working with a product scientist, one day, who's been working for a chemical company. He said, "Mirabai, I was sitting and I just got this. We make products that kill things, like herbicide. We should make products that support life." So like that kind of.. Wow, I got it. That only comes after doing some practice, usually. And then once you have the insight, then you work to change things. That's a whole other level that requires education, energy, and team building, and resources of different kinds. I just want to say that it's hard, but it can often be a real catalyst to be changes that we know need to happen if we want to keep living on this planet.

Bela: Yeah, what you just described for me brings to mind is the image of this alignment of the head, heart, and hand. You can begin to have a contemplative practice in your life, or mindful practice, that starts to give you clarity. Then how do you bring that clarity over time into action in the work that you are doing? I'd like to learn more about your own experience in this movement from starting to have clarity and an understanding of this interdependence to compassion in action.

Mirabai: I think the first benefits are personal sustainability. They help you through difficult times. When I was working in Guatemala, it was after the terrible violence there, and it was so overwhelming. People lost everything. I worked in the communities during the day, then I went back to my room at night. I didn't know how I could do this. I'd just be crying a lot of the time. But I really found the practice helped me so much. Just endure. Go back the next day, and start over again. I think sustainability is really great. It really helps you through things, then moving into clarity of mind, insights into change. When Gandhi did a retreat in the beginning of the independence, that was when he figured out the Salt March. The salt could be the catalyst. You know that came in a moment in the middle of the night. Who would've thought it?

Bela: What's amazing about that story is that I think a lot of the people, the political leaders, allies of Gandhi at that time, didn't get his idea, didn't buy into it, and didn't want to follow it right away... His response to that was simply being the change. I think he started to not use salt in his diet. It's really like this mini action that he could take in his own life to actualize the external change that he wanted to co-create with others. I think that piece of the story is often forgotten.

Mirabai: Totally agree.

Bela: In your book, Compassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service. One thing you wrote made me think about service a completely new way if we are to find the opportunity to do something we love. And you share a number of different ways to think about service in different ways, including the deep listening that you talked about, but also starting small, and starting where you are. Maybe you could share stories about that starting with what you know, starting small, or in your own life. Can you elaborate on that more?

Mirabai: Yes. Trying to think of the best one to tell you. This just happened last week. Maybe (it) won't be that small, but it's like the right thing for this person. I was in a meeting on mindfulness and business. There was a person there, a doctor from one of the major New York hospitals. He had always cared about food and good nutrition. His parents immigrated from Mexico. Can't remember if he was born there or not. His grandmother lived with them. She always taught him about good nutrition and importance to eat fresh food. Then he grew up and became a doctor. Then he was working in this big New York hospital, and he became the head of integrative medicine. So they were introducing all these different practices and interventions, but he knew, we all know, the medical professions in this country in a hospital system are... they never really understood or appreciated the value and the importance of nutrition. He decided he was going to start a garden. He started a garden on the rooftop, like middle town, of a huge building in New York. He, little by little, grew (an) extraordinary vegetable garden on top of the hospital. He thought "I can give them tools of the vegetable garden, but..." They say the best way to a doctor's heart is through his stomach. He started cooking from what he was growing, and then having this big dinner with doctors of delicious food and then talking to them about nutrition. He showed me some pictures of these long narrow tables with doctors. A lot of them were still in their uniforms. Both side of the table (was) all this beautiful food being served.

Bela: That's amazing.

Mirabai: Yeah. He said things were really turning around. They were beginning to understand themselves. They felt better when they ate right. So they began to (understand) the importance of (nutrition) for their patients. Isn't that great? I loved it.

Bela: That's incredible.

Preeta: This is an incredibly rich conversation. This is Preeta. Mirabai, incredibly inspiring words. Bela, thank you so much for the conversation.

Mirabai, I've been really intrigued by your work and following it for many years. One of the questions I have is kind of what you've talked a little bit about how mindfulness is all the rage these days. I am just curious about, given the deep spiritual root by which you approached it, what you think about the relationship between mindfulness and meditation and maybe between the therapeutic region versus spiritual practices. With the popularization of mindfulness especially by hedge fund managers, etc, and those of you taking roots that mindfulness is making life in sengsara and the non-justice system more tolerable, making sure the shooters aiming better rather than pointing people towards spiritual peace, or paradigmic change. I wonder what your thoughts are about that.

Mirabai: It's a big issue right now. I guess I don't worry so much about the issue of mindfulness making people more placid and content in a negative way in their workplaces, so they don't challenge the nature of the corporation. Probably, they won't challenge it anyhow. If they were, the corporation will find other methods to quiet them down. If a person just learns the capacity to take three deep breaths and chill, I think that's fine. But what concerns me (is that) these practices have deep transformative potential and in the best ways that allows us to be more fully human and more compassionate, loving, and smart. It seems to me a shame that in the places where they are being taught superficially when they could be offered something so much deeper. I worked with the big corporation once where after we did the in-depth 3, 4 days offsite silent retreats with people (it was pretty good introduction), a number of their executives left (the corporation). But as smart CEOs who understood that if they got in touch with themselves and realized that they really shouldn't be here, then it will be much better to have someone else here.

Anyhow, I think that people who are doing that in their corporations are misguided, but it's happening. That's the part I am interested in. I think I've been really trying to focus on the training of people who are teaching in organizations. I work with Google in developing their course which is called Search Inside Yourself since it's a big search engine. It became very popular in Google and thousands of Google engineers are taking that. Then we started a spinoff nonprofit that trains people to teach in other organizations. There are a number other groups that give relatively deep training to the people who are going to take it into organizations of all kinds. If you have a good teacher who is really a person who's working herself at the same time she is teaching it to the others. (She) has had some experience so that she can...which way it takes a program. Then they are much more likely for it to shift.

Preeta: This comes up because there are lots of attempts in the criminal justice system, for example, bringing mindfulness training to prosecutors, to judges. It's generally great, obviously, to spread mindfulness to whomever, but the question has come up: are we just allowing them to be that much more effective at perpetuating a non-just system in some sense?

Mirabai: Yeah. Sometimes. But I think it's part of a much larger mix. For example, make mindfulness illegal. (laugh) It's exaggerating. When you become calm and quiet, you just have a much better opportunity to remember what's important to you. I think you are more likely to remeber that than to remember how to stop challenging the criminal justice system.

Preeta: Interesting. Thank you.

Pallavi: Thank you so much for the deep (conversation). You opened up questions of the way you bring presence into the workplace. The question I'd like to ask you is that, one of the challenges from our modern society in the workplace is that you cannot separate your presence from how you are in the workplace and how you are in your personal life. To me, some issue is not being integrated, feeling of slow and present with the concept of time and scarcity. So what I found is that the way works today is the scarcity paradigm with limited resources. I found many resources are not limited. It's our mental mindset that's limited. And then the concept of time, and especially when you look at the workplace, that is scarcity of time which drives the scarcity paradigm, even something simple as a deadline. You can't be in a state of slow and in a state of I have a deadline. So I am curious about how you explore these areas in your work with organizations or elsewhere.

Mirabai: That's a big question. That's one of the essence questions that philosophers have been asking since the beginning of time. But I can say a few things. One is kind of like the zen story about the doctor who said 'oh, we don't have much time, I'd better slow down.' My experience of doing these practices is that when you begin to glimpse the relativity of time, and sometimes you know your time can really seem to slow down when you really focus on something, really present with it. It turns out you can do it really fully in a very short amount of time because you are in the place where you are seeing the right thing, making the right choices, and so on.

So much of life has to do with paradox. Being able to hold conflict ideas in the mind at the same time, that's an underdeveloped skill, to say the least these days. Actually there is a study 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 meditation course. Holding time and timelessness, or just slow and deadlines, they both exist all the time for us. It's just sometimes at work, the deadline seems more real. Also it's kind of like you begin to shift the way you are. You begin to naturally make better choices, say around how you are going to schedule your work like two weeks ago before you got to the place where you are facing the deadline. You begin to let go things that aren't so necessary for you. Or your mind opens up, '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 meet the deadline. It's not an answer to your question, but things begin to shift in surprising ways and then you are less likely to be in those situations. Then if you are, you don't meet your deadline, it's easier for you to give up the attachment to what happens.

Pallavi: Wonderful. I like that too. Thank you.

Bela: I recognized that we also have several questions coming in from our live stream as well. I wanted to follow up with this question you asked. My question is about the importance of noble friends, community, and why is that important. Earlier we are talking about how having a contemplative practice can really overtime help one to find clarity and serve in a way that benefits the world. But on the other hand, there is a question that ways of mindfulness practices are taught in some industry in these times can also have harmful effect, helping people in industry focus better on doing things that are destructive. When I think about life of Mahatma Gandhi or even your own life, Mirabai, close friends that you had in your life, the influences that you had from Neem Karoli Baba to Goenka, to Ram Dass, is the importance of community and right values, and noble friends important to fill in the blank between the practice of mindfulness, whatever contemplative practices you have in your life, and service in action that's compassionate and good for the world.

Mirabai: First of all, the connection is a little fuzzy, so noble friends I thought you said noble fun. (laugh) Anyhow, I have to think about that. But community is so important. I see it in every area I work. It's true not only in the Buddhist text, but in every spiritual tradition. There is fellowship, or sangha, or community. It's called many different things. But when we first did the center, we also interviewed 40 teachers of contemplative practices across all traditions. When we asked them what was the danger of taking these practices out of their original contexts. Most of the teachers said it's not dangerous the practice itself. The practice has an internal integrity, but the danger is that you will no longer have a community of support which grounds those practices.

We need each other. Our minds are basically not to be trusted. We think often in so many different directions without the help and support of others in different context. At the center, we had a fellowship program for faculty in colleges and universities, and we gave out 150 fellowships. When it was over, we asked them what's the most important for them. They didn't say the money, nor the official branding of it. They said the most important thing was the community. I just see it over and over again. I don't know what to say except 'Yes!' 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. Begin to draw friends to you in whatever way feels right to you, so you have this interaction because you will grow and thrive through that celebrating the interconnection, listening to each other in a way you won't do all by yourself.

Preeta: (questions from live stream): Question from Nortre Dame is: Mirabai, you talked about how you traveled to India and how you learned about some of the contemplative practices we've been talking about. I am curious about what point in your personal journey you came to appreciate these practices and why. What motived you to bring them back to the USA?

Mirabai: I didn't know about them that well until I got to India. I never meditated. I never sat down with my legs crossed. And I came upon almost by chance in India within the first day, I was in Delhi and I met someone from my university who I didn't know was there, who told me about the first course in meditation being offered specially for westerners, that's what we were called. I took it. This was with Goenka and it changed me so much, just saw that I could actually by sitting quietly and looking within, I could learn so much about my own self as well as how I was connected to the world. Then I sat and stayed on for two years. I studied with all different teachers and I was just so moved by the potential for the liberation of compassion and loving kindness in myself, and how that change 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.

Preeta: I am curious about that. You had a lot of teachers, remarkable teachers. One thing that's often encouraged when we begin mindfulness spiritual practice is to go deep with one set of practices, rather than jumping. You certainly have not jumped, but for being newbies, we are jumping from practice to (practice). I am just curious how you... teachers, different practices, how you integrate them into your own, for them to work for you.

Mirabai: That's true. Usually, it's best to choose a practice and do it. And just keep doing it. But first of all, we don't really know any better back in the day. We were traveling as well as being in monasteries. We kept meeting people, kind of sampling practices because we didn't know. So that being said, I think 'yes' it's good to do one practice and to really go deep with it, and sometimes you have to sample a number of practices in order to figure out which is right for you to go deep into. Sometimes you'll find complementary practices like I do a Buddhist Vipassana sitting practice, but I also am Bhakti and like to chant. I like to do other practices for opening the heart. Also in different times in your life sometimes different practices... I was doing this silent sitting and walking practice for years, and then I went through a really hard time and my mind was so active that I could not sit. I was really tried. At that time, I discovered Aikido, which is Zen Martial Art. We just do on the mat with a partner. It was so right for me at that time because I was so scared that something would happen to me on the mat. I was fully attentive at every moment during those practices. Different times sometimes different practices are right.

Preeta: I often find that people are either Rome people or Florence people. Similarly, I find that in the Vipassana world, people are either Goenka people or Spirit Rock people. Because you are so deeply involved with both, what's your sense of the differences?

Mirabai: You need somebody better than me to really describe that. I did Goenka meditation for years. It changed my life. Then I felt in sitting at Sprit Rock I liked the freedom of sitting in spacious awareness and noticing. I felt like my practice was mature enough that I could sit there, not always, notice what arose, without having to bring myself back to a central focus so much. So it helped me more existing in the world just noticing what is without judgement. It's subtle. They are very close, The founders of those institutions all studied with Goenka. Jack didn't, but the others did. They are both incredible.

Preeta: We have a question from someone from UC Irvine saying 'Can you please describe methods or strategies you used to help people who aren't open to hear messages? Those who don't believe that inner work is a worthwhile use of their time.

Mirabai: Mostly, I have found it's better to work with people who are just beginning to glimpse that it could be a useful time. The working with people who are skeptical, really skeptical, or negative about it... Convincing (those) people is not really a good use of your time. But if it has to do with some way in which people are struggling or suffering, and those times I have said, well, when I struggled in that way, it's been really helpful to be able to be calm and quiet my mind, and then to be able to see into the ways which I am seeing the things I can control and the things I can't. By looking at your own mind you can see the way in which you are spinning out on it, making it worse. Maybe see a path through resolving it. This has been very helpful for me. Sometimes it's helpful to people to know a practice within their own religious tradition, like centering prayer in christianity, or walking the labyrinth or something. Sometimes, if they are more secular, just suggesting that they spent some quiet time walking in the woods, and then pick out the conversation after that. The first rule of social organizing is start where people are.

Preeta: We have a big question here from Charles in Louisiana saying, 'Mirabai, it's such an honor to communicate with you, having been through remarkable personal transformation and spiritual growth, and being involved deeply in service for so long, what advice you can give us that we may use in our daily living that would help us disassociate from our ego?

Mirabai: I am currently working with Ram Dass on a book on dying. So it's momentumary, I would say, to remember you are going to die. By the time that happens to you, you want to give up as much attachment as you can. Be as free of your ego as possible. There are lots of practices for us to do. It's about giving up attachments to thinking you are a static being, that you are separate being from others. All the practices that help you look at the ideas about yourself, and who you think you are... Again, being able to hold conflicting ideas--both you are separate entities and ego and you are making your way through the world and doing what you were supposed to doing, and at the same time you are not. Buddhist would say, you are not that. First of all, you are changing all the time, every second. And you are connected to all of life. Other traditions would say you are not just your ego, you are also you soul, your consciousness. Any practices that help you shake you loose from that are good. Most of the contemplative practices do that. The most specific ones are that lead you to giving up attachment, meaning... (a name) talks about giving up attachment to the fruits of your work. You do what you can in the world, and you recognize what you can change, what you can't. You just see things as they are, and then you work on changing what you can. It's such a big question. Giving up the attachment to the ego is the heart of the spiritual work. All these practices are different ways that will help you do that.

Preeta: We actually have somebody who wrote a poem specifically for you. I'm gonna ask Bela to share it.

Bela: Yeah, this poem came in from Robin Gripen.
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.

Mirabai: That was beautiful!

Preeta: Wow. Thank you! That was so beautiful. And it was a perfect dancer to the question that came before.

Bela: I'll share with you as well, Mirabai.

Mirabai: I'd love to have it. It's beautiful. I loved 'the answers are on the way with each breath.' That's a great line.

Preeta: So thank you so much, Mirabai. Such a fascinating and illuminating conversation. You have such a depth, richness, and spirit that help all of us on our path. Thank you for that. Before we close it, I just want to ask you one final question. How can we, as the larger ServiceSpace community, to support your work?

Mirabai: What a great question! I guess the easiest thing to say is come visit or or find me on Facebook. That's where I post all the different things that are going on. On, there is lots of stuff you can read and learn from, and then just like to stay in touch that way. I love the idea of this whole group being connected that way. So thank you for asking that.

Preeta: Thank you. There are so many gems on this call. Just how eloquently you expressed how one of the aspects of social change, just start with people as they are. And how one should not particularly try to influence someone who hasn't had even a slight glimmer of wanting to do some inner work. Maybe that's not the most effective use of people's time. But just finding that right balance of where the external world we choose to engage, how we spend our time, how we do it in a way that furthers our own journey, and thereby, hopefully, affects the world as well.

Mirabai: And the most important way 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, and that person whom you know is the most resistant to this, 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?'

Preeta: That's great.

Mirabai: Also for those of you who are interested in bringing into your work, I just remembered that I have a CD on the website called Working with Mindfulness. I lead a bunch of practices on there and talk about the way they integrate into the workplace. So that might be helpful for you.

Preeta: Fantastic. I am going to invite everyone to hold a collective minute of silence in gratitude... (silence)

About Awakin Calls

Awakin Call is a weekly global series of deep conversations with inspiring changemakers. It is an all-volunteer offering and is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Read more ...


Subscribe To Newsletter

To stay updated about guest announcements, fresh content, and other inspiring tidbits, subscribe below and we'll send you a weekly email.


Archived Conversations

Or search by date or through tags like:

Contact Us

If you have any questions, feel free to drop us a note.


  • img
  • img