Mirabai Bush
Search Inside Yourself: Contemplation in Life and Work

She works at an emerging 21st century intersection of industry, social healing, and diverse contemplative practices. Raised Catholic with Joan of Arc as her hero, Mirabai Bush is one of the people who brought Buddhism to the West from India in the 1970s. She is called in to work with educators and judges, social activists and soldiers. She helped create Google’s popular employee program, Search Inside Yourself. 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.

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co-founded the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. She is the author of Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning and co-author of Compassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service.


September 1, 2016

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: “In 1972,” Mirabai Bush writes, “I was a 30-year-old American traveling in India, with the smell of incense in my hair and mantras repeating in my ears. Back then, if you had told me that I would someday be training employees of corporate America to apply contemplative practices to help them become more successful, I would have said you’d been standing too long in India’s hot noonday sun.” Yet as soon as Mirabai Bush returned to the U.S. in 1973, she started a company called Illuminations and was featured alongside a young Steve Jobs in Fortune magazine.

More recently, she helped create Google’s wildly popular employee program, Search Inside Yourself. Mirabai Bush is called in to work with educators and judges and social activists and soldiers. Her odyssey from India to now tells a defining narrative of our time — and it’s not just a story of tools that help us be more successful. It’s a rediscovery and reclaiming of contemplation, in many forms and many traditions, in the secular thick of modern life.

MS. MIRABAI BUSH: In the beginning, you couldn’t ever say what the environmental leaders would call “the L-word.”

MS. TIPPETT: What was it?

MS. BUSH: They meant — “the L-word” was “love.” And it’s really when someone’s heart opens that things really change. I have been more and more willing to take the risk to offer those practices even in just very secular working situations recently than I used to be. Because people really want to be loved it turns out. And it always edges on sounding like a Hallmark card, but I have found it to be very powerful if you can find the right way to do it.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

Mirabai Bush is co-founder and former director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. I spoke with her in 2015.

MS. TIPPETT: So, I wonder — how would you start to describe what the spiritual background of your childhood, of your life, your early life?

MS. BUSH: Well, my early life — I was brought up Catholic. And when I was 7, my father left, and my mother had to go to work. And this was right after the war — I have to say the Second World War. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] OK. Right.

MS. BUSH: It used to be “The War.”


MS. BUSH: And there wasn’t daycare, so my mother would drop me off at the church. And I’d go to mass every morning, and then I’d just go right over to the school. They were both across the street from us. So I was in church every morning for my whole childhood. And I think you know that Catholic children are — part of the way morals and ethics are taught is through the models of — the lives of the saints.


MS. BUSH: And so there were a lot of really pretty extraordinary and some preposterous stories of saints. But I really loved Joan of Arc.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I read that. I read that.

MS. BUSH: [laughs] Did you?

MS. TIPPETT: And I think it’s such an interesting idea that Joan of — I mean, how does Joan of Arc inspire the aspirations of a girl in Madison, New Jersey? [laughs]

MS. BUSH: [laughs] Well, for one thing, her life is a lot more interesting than mine. So I liked that. But she did start out as a kind of ordinary little girl. And then the basics are that she started hearing God talking to her and telling her what to do. And as a little girl, I’m recognizing how confusing life is. I thought, “Wow, that would be so cool if you could hear what it was you were supposed to do.”


MS. BUSH: And the other thing is that she did it. She did everything she heard no matter how out there it was. She cross-dressed, and she saved France.


MS. BUSH: But I loved that. And so, somehow, that stayed with me, that sense of wanting to be able to hear clearly what it was I should be doing with my life. And later, when I began to learn various contemplative spiritual practices, meditation, yoga, and so on, I realized that what I loved about it was that they help you get calm, clear, open — better able to hear. It no longer seems to me like Joan experienced it as a great God in heaven speaking to her. But I feel like I’ve been able to hear better what it is I’m supposed to be doing with my life and then doing it.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, that’s really great, lovely language. You have a pretty amazing story of your own at this point, I have to say. I mean, digging into all the things you did along the way. And you ended up kind of rediscovering contemplative tradition, I think, in India. You got there, though it seems to me, as a child of the ‘60s and kind of driven to be moving and driven to search by your anguish at what was happening in the world. And you ended up kind of on this pilgrimage in 1969.

MS. BUSH: Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: And I think maybe later on you called it a pilgrimage, maybe at the time it didn’t feel quite as defined.

MS. BUSH: Yeah. At the time — I was in graduate school from ‘67 to ‘70. And those were the years that there’s so much upheaval on campus, and I got really involved in civil rights and then in antiwar work. I would drive war resisters across the Canadian border. I was in the English department, and there were extraordinary people. And it was a time when people were beginning to experiment with psychedelics, and some spiritual practice, but not so much.

But the whole campus was just kind of turned upside down and then the politics of it meant that the police came on to campus. And it was getting impossible. So I left just before — I had done all the work for my PhD except my dissertation, and I decided to take some time off. And I travelled overland from London to Delhi. That is like going backward in time. It was then before everything was so kind of globalized.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah.

MS. BUSH: And it was amazing because, at that time, going through the former Yugoslavia, and Iran, and Afghanistan, and Pakistan into India, everyplace was completely peaceful. And people everywhere took us into their homes. And we took a bus from London to Delhi. [laughs] It’s the longest bus ride in the world. It was two months.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Wow.

MS. BUSH: [laughs] And, yeah, and it cost like $400.


MS. BUSH: But we stopped in lots of places, and got to know people all along the way, and also got to have some experience of their spiritual and religious practices along the way. And that was really opening for me. And I expected to stay for two weeks, maybe, in India. We were kind searching for meaning. The first week I was there, I heard about a course that a Burmese Buddhist teacher was offering for Westerners for the first time. It was…

MS. TIPPETT: For the very first time, right?

MS. BUSH: Yeah, very first time.

MS. TIPPETT: A meditation course for Westerners, yeah.

MS. BUSH: And I did that course with many other people who are still my close friends. And there were very few Westerners then. I mean, there’d been the British Raj, and then there was a big gap, and then there was us.

MS. TIPPETT: I think you did say this a minute ago — but what you discovered, how would you talk about what you discovered in that experience of a serious introduction to contemplation, to meditation?

MS. BUSH: First, you know it’s hard to talk about it, so…

MS. TIPPETT: I know, yeah.

MS. BUSH: But the most basic thing, that I could look inside myself and learn about the nature of the mind and the nature of the world. And that — I was a literature student. I had read a thousand books probably. And I was always looking outside for more ideas, and more critical understanding, and more content. Ee didn’t call it content then. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right, yeah.

MS. BUSH: We called it literature.


MS. BUSH: And so just looking within was really stunning. And then that first course was from 5:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night. And little by little, I started getting really quiet and still. Of course, all kinds of things came up. But I really began to see that I was not my mind. I was not my body. I was those things, but I was also awareness. I began to see the basic nature of the impermanence of thoughts as they rise and fall away, and I just started taking them less seriously.

It was really wonderful. I felt much less dependent on finding things outside, and it gave me a kind of radical self-confidence like I belonged here on the planet and that I would be able to understand the basics of how it’s all unfolding. I would say that it also gave me a kind of faith in the unfolding. I like to use the word “sane faith.” That’s what it felt like. It felt like I had a faith in actually the way things are, and that that was OK.

[music: “Aprés la fugue (Extrait de “La faute å Fidel!”) by Armand Amar]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with Mirabai Bush. Her life is a lens on a fascinating story of our time: how Buddhist meditation made its way to the West and has moved into many realms of human endeavor — also reviving contemplative practices in other traditions. Mirabai Bush actually took a corporate path out of India from 1972-1985 with her company called Illuminations. It made its name with silk-screened mandalas and other iconic spiritual symbols, and made its fortune on the rainbow decals that became synonymous with the VW beetle in its countercultural American heyday.

[music: “Aprés la fugue (Extrait de “La faute å Fidel!”) by Armand Amar]

MS. TIPPETT: I hear you saying — a minute ago you said you had a new insight into your mind and into the world. And those two things belong together, but I feel like in your thinking, and in the work you’ve done bringing contemplative practice back out to others, you’ve had a very focused way of attending to the intersection between those two things.

And it seems to me that the world that has — let’s use your word — unfolded in these 40, 50 years, a big dynamic in it is this these two strains of inner life and outer action kind of finding each other fitfully. [laughs]

MS. BUSH: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And you didn’t realize that you were going to be part of this — you and a lot of other mostly Jewish and some Christian kids then kind of really importing Buddhism back into the West. It must be pretty amazing to think back on it now.

MS. BUSH: It is. I mean, when we first came back, the idea — we were so marginalized, to put it mildly.


MS. BUSH: [laughs] And we didn’t quite know what to do with it, but many of us were really profoundly affected by it and felt that, in some way or other, we wanted to, well, first integrate it into our own lives fully and then share it with others. And so most of them were single and came back and wanted to teach. Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg and a number of other Buddhist teachers were there also, who became Buddhist teachers.

But when I came back two years later, I was pregnant and married and had a child then. So I couldn’t — when we first came back, meditation — we still had the model of it being monastic. And so having a child and being a meditation teacher was just — no one could imagine that. So… [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

MS. BUSH: But I was just as committed as everybody else to finding a way to bring this into our lives in the West, so I decided to find ways to bring it. First, I started a business with my then husband, Jon Bush and…

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Was this the Illuminations?

MS. BUSH: Yeah, yeah. But what I was most interested in at Illuminations was integrating this sense — not just practice because not everybody who worked there wanted to learn to meditate. But we integrated it in ways into the business that I thought would — so the business would embody the perspective and the spirit and the values of contemplative practices. So that was the beginning of the time when we were discovering it’s all one.


MS. BUSH: I mean, now we recognize that it’s more complicated, and subtle, and so on, and it is all one, and yet it’s more than that. But at the time, that was radical, so we really wanted to express it. And we knew that doing it visually would be easier for people than trying to do it in words, as you can appreciate.


MS. BUSH: So we at Illuminations, we were trying to create an organization based on principles of what they call in the East, “right livelihood,” where what you’re making is wholesome and contributes to — now we would say sustainability of the planet and the species. And at the same time, the way in which you’re doing it is helping everyone who is involved to wake up.

Interestingly, we did so many things that when I, many years later, arrived at Google — because they wanted to have a program there where their engineers could learn meditation — so many of the same things that they’ve recognized about what makes a person more creative, more able to bring their whole self into work and to be able to grow from their work as well. And not think of it as, “Now I’ll do my work, and then I’ll go home and be a real person.”

MS. TIPPETT: Right, right. But that has — that is a shift that still has a long way to go…

MS. BUSH: Oh, for sure.

MS. TIPPETT: …in terms of American corporate culture and ideals and and practicalities.

MS. BUSH: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: The story of Search Inside Yourself. First of all, I love the story of how you — that you had to find that language. I mean, isn’t it right that, when you first just were offering a meditation course or mindfulness course, it didn’t take?

MS. BUSH: Yeah. Actually, my friend Meng, who’s now written the book on Search Inside Yourself, he called me up one day. I was still running the Center for a Contemplative Mind. And he called up. First of all, he said, “When I was younger,” he had been through some difficult times and meditation had really helped him. So he’d been thinking for some time, at Google, that it would be really great to bring into the workplace. He’d been there since almost the beginning. He was engineer number 107. And when Google went public, they told their engineers, who no longer needed to work if they didn’t want to, that they could stay, but they had to do something that would in some way advance Google’s mission. But they could decide what it was. So Meng decided it was going to be bringing meditation. And he said, “I posted it, and nobody signed up. I don’t know what to do, and I heard you could help.”

So I went out there and we talked and we looked around. And what we identified was that people, employees there are all quite young, very smart, graduated at the top of their class from MIT or Stanford, had been in front of their screens most of their lives. So, after talking for a whole day and figuring out what was going on there, I suggested that we could offer the same practices, but emphasize the practices that more directly cultivate emotional intelligence and that we could frame it in a different way. And so we called it — of course, they came up with this great name since they were the big search engine — Search Inside Yourself. And then the subtitle was, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.

And we asked Danny Goleman, who also was in Bodh Gaya with us back all those years ago — asked him to give a talk at Google about the relation between — about why emotional intelligence is so important in the workplace and the relationship between meditation and emotional intelligence. He did that, and then we posted the course, and in four hours, 140 people signed up. And since then, over 2,000 Googlers around the world have taken the course.

And there’s a lot of talk now about bringing mindfulness into the workplace, and how superficial it is, and how it helps bad people do bad things better, and it doesn’t help people question anything, it just makes them more satisfied with what they’re doing. But this is a serious course. And when you sit down and quiet down, become calm, quiet, stable, you have to do that in order for any kind of insight to arise. And it does. You do feel better, usually. Although, sometimes, really disturbing emotions arise. But it needs to be taken to the next kind of level of depth in order for people to begin to question, inquire.


MS. BUSH: But this course actually offers enough time, practice, and teaching to help people do that.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, yeah. I think that’s an important and refreshing thing to name that you can be a great meditator and also remain narcissistic. I mean, this can be superficial and it can be abused like any spiritual practice, like any political practice. But, Mirabai, something that really so intrigues me in your work and in some of your writing is how you — like the language of emotional intelligence that you’ve just been using and that’s now so widely familiar, including in workplaces — that what this tradition is bringing forward and bringing to the surface for modern people has this very noble lineage.

It’s Buddhism that is the tradition that has focused on this for thousands of years. But you wrote about how, in 1890, William James in The Principles of Psychology said that, “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will.” And, I mean — I don’t know. I don’t think he was Buddhist, but that is the intention, right?

MS. BUSH: Yeah, that is the intention.

MS. TIPPETT: And that’s just quite amazing. And then, in the ‘70s, you had somebody who actually I had never heard of — David McClelland in William James Hall — who became a teacher to all these figures who’ve gone on, especially in neuroscience, to open up this field — Richard Davidson, Daniel Goleman, Cliff Saran, Mark Epstein. And also, to me, what’s fascinating is that he was Quaker. And there’s something in your work, there’s this thread you’ve pulled through in seeing that this contemplative impulse is a kind of human tradition as much as it’s in the religious traditions. In Mies van der Rohe and C.S. Lewis and the idea of beholding that goes back to Plato and Heidegger, somehow that — just looking at your work has brought all that forward for me, and it’s really, really fascinating.

MS. BUSH: Krista, you read so much. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]

MS. BUSH: I’m honored. Yeah, but it’s true. When we started the Center for Contemplative Mind, we were looking for ways in which these practices might be helpful in sectors of American society other than health and healing, which is where it had started.


MS. BUSH: And we interviewed 80 people we identified. This is in ‘96 and ‘7, so it was early. But we kind of — word of mouth — heard and knew a number of people in different fields who were beginning to integrate it into their work or their organizations. And we interviewed 80 people, and we asked them for what practices were theirs and that they were teaching. And we gathered these — I don’t know — 100 practices from all the different traditions. All the religious and spiritual and of course psychological traditions too — they are human practices. They’re really about waking up to who we are, appreciating who we are, opening our hearts, recognizing compassion, recognizing that there’s a way in which — there’s much that we all share even with all of our differences, and that waking up to that can happen through these practices. So we created what we called the Tree of Contemplative practice, it’s on the website.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, no. I actually I have that in front of me.

MS. BUSH: Yeah, and just put all the — sort of sorted out the practices and put them on there. And I would say, more than anything else we’ve done over all these years, that has made such an impact. It’s kind of like going back to the mandalas we did at Illuminations. People love to know that this basic human — that there is at the core of our being something that we all share and that we are all — the Buddhists say, “Every being wants to be happy.” Everybody wants to wake up and become more fully who they are. And these practices have been developed over thousands of years.


MS. BUSH: And really, mindfulness exists in almost every tradition, but it’s not called mindfulness. But there is a calming, quieting, centering practice that leads into insight in every tradition.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. We’ll put this Tree of Contemplative Practices online, but I just want to read some of them. First of all, there are the different branches. There’s stillness, there’s generative, there’s creative, activist, relational, movement, ritual, cyclical. And it’s everything from centering to meditation to visualization, Lectio divina, music, contemplative arts, journaling, social justice, work and volunteering, vigils, bearing witness, deep listening, storytelling, labyrinth, yoga, T’ai chi, retreats, ceremonies, and rituals. It opens up this — it takes the idea of contemplative practice and awakening out of a box, out of any kind of narrow box.

MS. BUSH: Yeah. When we would share the tree or start talking about the practices with all kinds of different people, almost always, someone would say, “Oh I have a contemplative practice in my life. I walk silently in the woods on Saturday mornings,” or whatever it was. The Tree helped people discover that and feel that it wasn’t an esoteric or foreign thing and so then would be more open to exploring some of the other practices.

[music: “Luna Park” by Signal Hill]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Mirabai Bush through our website, onbeing.org. There, you can find that Tree of Contemplative Practices she just discussed. Again, that’s at onbeing.org.

I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Luna Park” by Signal Hill]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with Mirabai Bush. She works at an emerging 21st century intersection of industry, social healing, and diverse contemplative practices. Raised Catholic, with Joan of Arc as her hero, she’s one of the people who brought Buddhism to the West from India in the 1970s. She is called in to work with educators and judges, social activists, and soldiers. She helped create Google’s wildly popular employee program, Search Inside Yourself. 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.

MS. TIPPETT: So let’s talk about where the rubber meets the road then. Let’s get back down to the granular, gritty level.

MS. BUSH: [laughs] Where is that?

MS. TIPPETT: Well, I want to talk about the work you’re doing, the stuff you do in workplaces. And this is Google, but it’s other places as well. And you’ve also worked, I think, with social activists.

MS. BUSH: Yeah, a lot. I just remembered, this year, the freshmen at Amherst College had to choose a three-day orientation in their first week at school. And out of 400 entering students, 70 chose meditation and yoga. So there’s a big change. So the first day, I was teaching them mindfulness and having them watch their breath. They had just arrived on campus, they were — and they had worked like fiends to be able to get into Amherst.

MS. TIPPETT: To get in, to arrive on campus, yeah. Right.

MS. BUSH: Yeah. So I left a lot of space where — I’d teach the practice, and then I’d say, “So any reflections on that? Any questions?” And there’d be dead silence. [laughs] “OK. We’ll practice a little more.” And then I’d ask again. And nobody would make themselves vulnerable enough to ask a question.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.

MS. BUSH: So I decided, “Oh, better change this around.” So I decided to give them a practice mindfulness of an object. And I gave them each a leaf, and they were to bring their awareness to the leaf, and then as distractions arose, let them go, and bring your mind back to your leaf. So we did that for 5 or 10 minutes, which is a long time to look — usually, you look at a leaf, and you say, “Oh, OK, I saw it.” And then you put it down. And I didn’t really expect that anybody was going to say anything. So I left a couple of moments at the end, and nobody did.

And then this one football player in the back row raised his hand. And he had become, in my mind, the person who most was, kind of, resisting making himself vulnerable in any way. He said, “Can I say something?” I said, “Definitely.” He said, “I love my leaf.”

MS. TIPPETT: Wow. [laughs]

MS. BUSH: Wow. It was so beautiful. And then they all started talking about what it was like to really look, and look, and look. And it just made me realize that it’s so much easier to do the things that we’ve done — what I know that some Christian groups call “crimes against creation” — when we’re so out of touch with nature. So that one moment is kind of this window into what we need to remember in order to make the right decisions for the future.

MS. TIPPETT: It also — sometimes, I feel like we’ve hit the 21st century — and I think of this as kind of spiritual technology, right? Meditation, mindfulness, and contemplation.

MS. BUSH: Yeah, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s almost like we’re discovering all these other technologies, and then we’re kind of waking up to this spiritual technology that we kind of just need to bring us back to our senses almost. I mean, I wonder a lot about — whenever you stand in line these days or do anything that involves waiting, we’re all on our phones immediately. We’re never alone, and we’re never — we’re always engaged with our phones.

And I’m kind of starting to wonder, what did we used to do, right? Did we — I mean, I don’t know. You’re sitting here talking about looking at a leaf, but did we look around? And I know there was boredom. There’s no romance attached to this. But somehow we survived and flourished. And it just makes me wonder what was happening in our minds, or inwardly then, or even in terms of our relationship to the world we were standing in that is completely gone now.

MS. BUSH: Daydreaming. Which — researchers found that daydreaming is good for your brain. I don’t think we do as much of that. When teaching these students also — at the end of the day, we did the yoga and a deep relaxation. And of course, they weren’t allowed to use their phones during the day, so we did savasana, a deep relaxation, and everyone who has ever done a yoga class knows it’s like, “OK, this is the time.” You completely let go, and you drop into the floor. And as soon as — breathing in and breathing out — about three breaths in — and I saw all these arms reach out. They went for their phones, and lying down on the floor, they brought their phones in front of their faces. [laughs] I couldn’t believe it. It was like the little Catholic girl in me thought it was so sacrilegious.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, right, right. Well, OK, so you did all that beautiful work with Google, and Google is part of the problem here, and to the point that nothing is pure. But you’ve also written about very practical mindfulness practices like social media practice — mindful emailing. Would you talk about that? That’s really interesting.

MS. BUSH: Yeah. We devised that at Google. Oprah loved that. She put it in her magazine. I mean, it’s so simple, but like most mindfulness practices, it’s so simple, and we don’t do it. You just type out your email, either a response or an initiating email, and then you stop, take three deep breaths, follow your breath in and out, and in and out, and in and out, and then you read the email. And you read it from the perspective of the person who is going to receive it. And there, we were focused on emotional impact. So, is the person likely to be agitated or angry or frustrated or whatever the emotion would be — negative emotion? Or maybe, even, is this person likely to think you mean — you’re offering more than you actually are? Whatever.


MS. BUSH: We ask them to think about it from that person’s perspective and then either change it or not and then send. And the first time we did it, there was a week in between the classes. And so a week later, they came back, and we said, “How did it go?” And they all said, “That was radical. It was, like, amazing.” And then one guy said, “I did something — I did something really radical.” I said, “What?” He said, “I picked up the phone.” [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

MS. BUSH: So, I mean, there. We all are emailing to the people in the next cubicle, and so that’s really helpful, really helpful. I wanted to go back for a minute because I didn’t answer your question about social justice activism, really. I got off on the leaf. But one theme that comes up so often with activists is that, “If I give up my anger, will I lose my motivation?” And, “It’s my anger that keeps me working for this change.” But what mindfulness, compassion practices, and others help with is the understanding that it’s not either acting out on your anger and being driven by it, on the one hand, or repressing it, on the other hand, but there is a way to notice your anger. Begin by noticing the sensations in your body, and then notice what your anger is. See it, and recognize it as energy, energy in your body.


MS. BUSH: But at the same time, hold compassion and equanimity for the situation because you’re more likely to be able to see what can be done to make that change if you’re not driven by anger because it clouds the mind. And it also makes communication with people on the other side of an issue really difficult. Whereas, if you can cultivate equanimity and compassion for the situation, you’re much more likely to both see interesting ways to resolve it and to be able to act on it and communicate it. We did a lot of work with lawyers and judges and law students.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I was reading about that. I wanted to ask you about that. And it’s so interesting — I mean, a special retreat for judges where they wanted to learn how to be non-judgmental.

MS. BUSH: Yeah. [laughs] It’s — I mean, we laugh, but lawyers worry that can they be a zealous advocate for their client and at the same time have compassion for the person on the other side of the case? And, of course, the answer is yes. And what that means, and what those judges meant, is it’s not eliminating wise discernment. It’s eliminating prejudgment, so that they — judges are unbelievably overworked. They have so many people coming in front of them all day long one after another. And they said, “You know, some young guy comes up in front of me and before I even know his name I’m already thinking that this is probably who he is and what he’s done.”


MS. BUSH: And they can’t not have that arise because there they are all day long hearing all this stuff, but they don’t want to prejudge. They want to be really there, in the moment, clear and open-minded with whomever comes before them, but it’s really hard. So just being there and really listening to what’s actually being said, that can be cultivated through mindfulness practice and they loved it.


MS. BUSH: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: I just read in a science magazine that the present moment as we experience it is about two to three seconds long, kind of interesting, right? Like physically, like what we experience as the present moment is two. And also that you can — that it can feel longer, right? Which is also something meditators have said…

MS. BUSH: Yeah, absolutely

MS. TIPPETT: …and that you can also completely not be there. You can just miss it.

MS. BUSH: Yes, all of the above. [laughs]

[music: “Morning Sun” by Miaou]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with Buddhist teacher, Mirabai Bush, who works at the intersection of industry, social healing, and diverse contemplative practices.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, you said a minute ago, like with everything with mindfulness and contemplative practice, it’s so obvious and in some ways easy. But we don’t do it and I have to say, like for myself, I’ve had many experiences across the years in different settings, retreat settings or something less intense, where the irony is that even a kind of one-off contemplative experience can be instantaneously gratifying, right? It can be just transformative and yet — and now there’s even all this science about how good it is for us on these very basic biological levels and stress and all of that, but it’s very hard to create this habit and it has been hard for me.

I have recently — I wanted to ask you about this since I have you — I recently decided that I could do six minutes in the morning while my tea steeps, which just seems so pathetic but it’s been…

MS. BUSH: Yeah, as you said it’s outside time.

MS. TIPPETT: …it’s perfect. Yeah, and I wonder — I want to ask you because you work with so many different practices. I mean, is this something where you really do have to find the way that works for you?

MS. BUSH: Yeah, well at the center we’ve done all kinds of things. I mean, we’ve had retreats where we’ve offered — we’ve had a Buddhist teacher and a Jewish teacher teaching traditional Jewish practices, Brother David teaching Christian practices, someone doing Sufi chanting. We’ve done it that way and then invite people to find something from all of that that works for them. Sometimes we’ve offered really simple practices like mindfulness of the breath and walking meditation and mindful listening and so on as an opening for people, and then knowing that if they begin to appreciate, they begin to appreciate the inner life and the benefit that comes from, as you said, I mean, it’s amazing that they found the reduction in stress and cortisol levels after 10, 15 minutes of meditation. Once people begin to experience that, that they will find what works for them.

The other thing I wanted to say is that there’s so much work being done with mindfulness and that is a great introductory practice but what I have found, in the beginning, you couldn’t ever say what the environmental leaders would call “the L-word “and they didn’t mean “lesbian,” they meant “the L-word” was “love” and there are practices — the most used is the Lovingkindness practice that Sharon Salzberg has really written a lot about.


MS. BUSH: And the compassion practices are related to that in which you are more about appreciation for others and a desire to relieve the suffering of others. But that whole group of practices, the truth is when I think back over all the moments of introducing these practices to all these different kinds of folks, that it’s really when someone’s heart opens that things really change. And you can’t ever predict how that’s going to happen and doesn’t always happen through doing Lovingkindness practice, but I have been more and more willing to take the risk to offer those practices, even in just very secular working situations recently than I used to be.

MS. TIPPETT: Like loving-kindness meditation?

MS. BUSH: Yeah, because people really want to be loved it turns out, and it’s hard to talk about it. It always edges on sounding like a Hallmark card but I have found it to be very powerful. If you can find the right way to do it.

MS. TIPPETT: You’ve also been working with people in the army.

MS. BUSH: [laughs] Yeah, they want to be loved, too.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah.

MS. BUSH: Yeah. I mean, for me, going through all this, the big thing has been just when I thought,”Oh, I’m beyond thinking in terms of self and other, it’s all us.” And then I’m confronted with another invitation, like to the Army, and I discovered that within me, it turned out I didn’t think it was all us, I thought that they were really different.

MS. TIPPETT: This is you who drove draft dodgers across the Canadian border 50 years ago, right?

MS. BUSH: Right, I was so antiwar. But as they said to me, some of them at one point, “Mirabai, the army doesn’t take us to war, civilians take us to war. We just follow orders.” Anyhow it’s a long story to talk about the Army, but what I did discover is that the military has been really good at teaching people to go into a situation, to see what’s going on in that situation, and then to use basically as much force as possible to eliminate any threat.


MS. BUSH: And that, now, is counterproductive in almost every setting that they find themselves in, and I worked with them when they were mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan. And they had to learn to go into a situation and be aware of what was going on and then use force only as a last choice. And it took deconditioning and time and it took some real mindfulness and in the process it was really helping to support life — save life — their own and the people in the communities. And so I felt like it was a good thing to do.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, it sounds to me like as you’ve written about that — I mean dealing with people who have been at war and are sending other people into war is kind of the extreme case of being present to suffering and not overwhelmed by it or bearing witness to suffering and not taking it on.

MS. BUSH: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And I want to read back something you wrote about from your earliest days as you said. “As unlikely as contemplative practice as a strategy for social change seemed to me when I arrived in India, it slowly began to look like a critical component in the creation of a more just and compassionate global society.”

So I wonder if you just reflect here, as we finish, for a few minutes on, in both lofty and practical ways, about what you’ve learned. Like, how can this kind of practice speak to that kind of anguish?

MS. BUSH: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Contemplative practice as a strategy for social change. Gosh, it sounds like if nothing else, it might take forever.

MS. BUSH: Yeah, but these things, it doesn’t happen in a linear way. And there, as we’ve seen, I don’t want to make a definitive statement about this, but we have seen leaps in terms of social change happen at different times when a tipping point is reached. But, as you ask, I realize I’ve been working more with the strategy of working with people who are already committed to change and helping them do it in a better way. That’s one strategy of working with people who are already doing the good work. And other people will come up with other strategies. I trust the power of these practices. I don’t know about the timing, but I do know that it’s one small part of helping us try to figure out how to live together.

[music: “The Forest in Bloom” by Drew Barefoot]

MS. TIPPETT: Mirabai Bush co-founded the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. She is the author, with Ram Dass, of Compassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service.

[music: “The Forest in Bloom” by Drew Barefoot]

MS. TIPPETT: In case you missed it, we launched a shorter form podcast this year — Becoming Wise — vignettes in the mystery and art of living. These are sharable, 7-12 minute dips into wise and luminous lives and nourishing ideas urgent for our time – people like Brene Brown, Elie Wiesel, Seth Godin, and Maria Popova. And you can download all 20 episodes from the inaugural season right now, wherever podcasts are found.

[music: “Be There in Bells” by The Pines]

STAFF: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Annie Parsons, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Kloecker, Selena Carlson, Dupe Oyebolu and Ariana Nedelman.

On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners are:

The Ford Foundation, working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide, at Fordfoundation.org.

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build a spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.

The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined

And, the Osprey Foundation – a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

Books + Music

Recommended Reading

Author: Ram Dass, Mirabai Bush
Publisher: Harmony
Binding: Paperback, (320)Pages

Music Played

Artist: Zoe Keating
Label: Zoe Keating
Label: Long Distance
Artist: Signal Hill
Label: CD Baby
Artist: Miaou
Label: Thomason Sounds
Artist: Drew Barefoot
Label: CD Baby
Artist: The Pines
Label: Red House Records

About the Image

A man meditates on the bottom of a beach in Kauai, Hawaii.

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