Speaker: Mirabai Bush

Reforming Secular Institutions Through Contemplative Practices

Mirabai Bush has focused her life on the interdependence of social change and individual consciousness, and the potential for reforming secular institutions through practices that once existed only behind monastery walls. She responds to the speed and fear that drives much of American life and thought with programs for developing a culture of reflection, insight, compassion and wisdom. She has developed methods to help people grow in awareness and insight in order to be more effective instruments for change, and to take responsibility for the world we live in. Mirabai Bush’s life tells a fascinating narrative of our time: the rediscovery of contemplative practices, in many forms and from many traditions, in the secular thick of modern culture.

"Livelihood can be a path of inquiry and awakening, of coming closer to truth," Mirabai says. "All work that we do–from shipping Buddhas from a monastery store to guarding inmates in prison–has embedded in it questions that help us to transform our work from busyness to awakening. . . . Approaching work as right livelihood encourages us to explore these questions in the context of our full lives. How can we live a meaningful and authentic life and still support our families and ourselves? What is the connection between ethical work and capitalist democracy? How can we contribute to social change that moves us to a more sustainable world?"

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. The practices–meditation, yoga, deep listening, lectio divina, and others–are drawn from diverse wisdom traditions and adapted to programs specifically designed for each sector: higher education, law, business, journalism, environment, biotech sciences, youth leadership, government, and philanthropy. Her teaching and program development focus on the interconnection of the personal, institutional, and political realities of our lives.

Mirabai was a co-founder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society and served as Executive Director there until 2008. She is now Senior Fellow at the Center, teaches contemplative retreats and courses in many settings, and consults with organizations looking to explore the benefits of mindfulness and other contemplative practices. She is a key contributor to Google’s Search Inside Yourself Program.

Mirabai has organized, facilitated, and taught workshops, weekends, and courses on spirit and action for more than 20 years at institutions including Omega Institute, Naropa Institute, Findhorne, Zen Mountain Monastery, University of Massachusetts, San Francisco Zen Center, Buddhist Study Center at Barre (Massachusetts), Insight Meditation Society, and the Lama Foundation. She has a special interest in the uncovering and recovery of women’s spiritual wisdom to inform work for social change. She has taught women’s groups with Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Sharon Salzberg, Joan Halifax, Margo Adler, Starhawk, Jean Shinoda Bolen, Vicky Noble, and other leaders.

Her spiritual studies include meditation study at the Burmese Vihara in Bodh Gaya, India, with Shri S.N. Goenka and Anagarika Munindra; bhakti yoga with Hindu teacher Neemkaroli Baba; and studies with Tibetan lamas Kalu Rinpoche, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Kyabje Gehlek Rinpoche, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and others. She also did five years of intensive practice in Iyengar yoga and five years of Aikido with Kanai Sensei. Her earlier religious study included 20 years of Catholic schooling, ending with Georgetown University graduate study in medieval literature. She holds an ABD in American literature from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

A founding board member of the Seva Foundation, an international public health organization, she directed the Seva Guatemala Project, which supports sustainable agriculture and integrated community development. Also at Seva, she co-developed Sustaining Compassion, Sustaining the Earth, a series of retreats and events for grassroots environmental activists on the interconnection of spirit and action. Before entering the foundation world, Mirabai was the first professional woman to work on the Saturn-Apollo moonflight at Cape Canaveral and later co-founded and directed Illuminations, Inc., from 1973 to 1985 in Cambridge, MA. Her innovative business approaches, based on mindfulness practice, were reported in Newsweek, Inc., Fortune, and the Boston Business Journal. She has also worked on educational programs with inner-city youth of color.

Mirabai has trekked, traveled, and lived in many countries, including Guatemala, Mexico, Costa Rica, India, Nepal, Morocco, Ireland, England, Scotland, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Germany, Austria, Italy, Pakistan, and the Caribbean. She is an organic gardener in Western Massachusetts and the mother of one adult son, Owen.

She is co-author, with Ram Dass, of Compassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service, published by Random House in 1995.  She has published several other books relating to mindfulness in organizations, at work, and in conflict resolution, and relating to the neuroscience of mindfulness. ​Her most recent book is Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning, published in 2013. ​In 2012, she recorded a CD of introductory practices titled Working with Mindfulness.

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