Mirabai Bush is the director of The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Based in Massachusetts, its mission is to bring contemplative practice into mainstream institutional life. Corporations, media organizations, law schools, and universities have sponsored programs directed by the Center.
Prior to co-founding the Center in 1996, Bush was the director of the Guatemala Project and the Compassionate Action Project for Seva Foundation. A Buddhist practitioner for the past thirty years, she is also co-author, with Ram Dass, of Compassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service.
This interview was conducted in New York City by Helen Tworkov in March 2001.
What was the initial motivation behind the Center for Contemplative Mind?
The Center began as a conversation about the relationship between contemplative practices and social change, and the relationship between individual and social transformation. The decision to go forward grew from those discussions. But we had been talking about institutes for health and healing, and for death and dying, organizations that already resonated with contemplative values.
How did you begin?
As it turned out, the very first retreat we did was in ’97 with the chemical company Monsanto. Bob Shapiro had recently become its CEO and was looking at new ways of knowing, new avenues toward creativity. He was interested in meditation. He approached Charlie Halpern, a friend from Harvard and a founding member of Contemplative Mind.
How did you feel about Monsanto?
Monsanto was a big challenge for me personally, because I had spent the previous ten years working in sustainable agriculture with Mayan people in Guatemala. At that point Monsanto wasn’t involved in biotechnology, but their main product was Round-Up, the largest-selling herbicide in the world. It had been used extensively in Guatemala, where the heart of my work was the recovery of land that had been destroyed by chemicals. I believed that Round-Up had contributed to destroying the land, to the hunger and poverty that the Mayan people were living in. So I knew a lot about Monsanto.
Why did you decide to go forward with them?
I was persuaded to work with Monsanto because so many people work inside corporations, and because of the increasing power of corporations, not just economically but culturally, worldwide. I concluded that it could be very beneficial to change consciousness inside a corporation. Once I began to think that way, I saw my own resistances, and saw the challenge of going into this situation without judgment. We certainly needed to maintain discriminating awareness about the products this company was producing, but if we could conduct a practice retreat in a space of nonjudgment and be open with each other, then we could see whether, indeed, this practice could help people open to a wider view, as it did for me.
When I first started practicing I wasn’t making Round-Up, but I was holding all kinds of misunderstandings about the nature of reality. Now it’s clear to me that one of the most challenging tensions is teaching with no judgment—being simply a supportive guide to beings whose intentions are good—while holding my own opinions. And teaching in new contexts makes this even more challenging.
The first retreat was held at the Fetzer Institute for a self-selected group from Monsanto. As we’ve found with many professionals—and these were the top executives, mostly men—their powers of concentration are already very refined. So in one weekend they were able to get pretty concentrated and seemed to learn a lot in a very short time.
“Our vision for the future is that contemplative practice will be a concept that is both widely understood and widely accepted by both practitioners and nonpractitioners. And that both public policy and social practices will support and promote contemplative values as part of a fully democratic society.”
—Charles Halpern Former President, Nathan Cummings Foundation Chair, Contemplative Mind Board of Trustees
What sort of retreat was it, and how it was structured?
Steve Smith [a guiding Vipassana teacher at Insight Meditation Society, who founded Vipassana Hawaii in 1984] agreed to lead the retreat, but only if we retained the format of a standard three-day meditation retreat. Because we were working directly with the CEO, we didn’t have to repackage it in any way. By the last evening, Steve began to teach metta practice, lovingkindness practice. You begin with lovingkindness for yourself. Then you take the energy of lovingkindness out in expanding circles to include many other beings: humans and mammals and birds and fish and insects and all beings everywhere. And after three days of practice by people who had a lot of concentration, bringing awareness to lovingkindness was very profound. We hadn’t talked about sustainable agriculture or product mix; the executives hadn’t explained why they thought Round-Up was good for the planet. I opened my eyes in the middle of the metta meditation as Steve was talking about these different species, and I looked around the room and saw tears rolling down the cheeks of many people there.
That was a real turning point for me. I did not forget what I saw as negative about chemicals and monocropping. There’s no way I was going to forget that. But at the same time I realized that these were basically good people who believed that they were contributing to help feed the world.
A lot of people out there are pretty angry with Monsanto; they might tell you that those tears you saw were crocodile tears.
Almost everyone I knew—Buddhists and others—were very critical of the work with Monsanto. It came from people already critical of the company who felt that we were simply teaching stress reduction, making it easier for them to do what they are already doing, and to feel better about it.
Was it just stress reduction?
No. Bob [Shapiro] is wiser than that. There are thousands of stress reduction methods in business. Bob knew that. He had an intuition that meditation practice leads to a whole different path of awareness, allowing people to think in different ways. I can’t say that stress reduction was not a part of why we were invited or why people came. But when the practice is held in a safe space, and is taught with the best intention, insight, wisdom and compassion can increase. Over and over I’ve seen people have moments of awakening about their lives. It’s not like, “Oh, Monsanto is making chemicals, I don’t think that’s good anymore.” It’s not at that level. It’s people beginning to see that there is a process of awakening and they can begin to cultivate a different kind of awareness.
To work with people who “appear” to be so off the grid in terms of contemplative values must require a lot of faith on your part.
It’s mysterious to me who in these retreats suddenly has an Ah-ha! experience, the kind that changes the way they work and the way they live. I really trust the process of the dharma unfolding, of the truth emerging, and I think that as activists, our work is to create environments in which that’s more likely to happen. If there’s to be a shift in the direction that we are going, we need the power of spirit, of truth, of creativity, of insight. I think it’s the only way that things can change.
Aside from Monsanto, what is the Center’s relationship to the corporate world, or other mainstream institutions, and why have they become the Center’s focus?
Corporate culture, and its values, has had a big effect on all our other institutions, including higher education, journalism, law. I think it’s the logical place to start. Most of the law students in the Contemplative Mind program are preparing to enter the corporate world. Harlan Dalton, who is a Yale law professor and who just got a degree at Yale Divinity School [and is a board member of Contemplative Mind] is thinking about starting an institute of law and religion. He explained that both institutions try to guide us on how to live the right life. Of course, that’s what the law was originally intended for, but very few lawyers spend time thinking about that now. So much energy goes into litigation and corporate mergers and acquisitions and growth and power.
Charlie [Halpern] went to Yale Law School. Five of the seven people on our board went to law school, including Bob Shapiro, who joined our board. We got a lot of criticism for that also. People accused us of selling out, of sleeping with the enemy. But in addition to being inspired by my own friendship with Bob, I find it’s very helpful to have people on the board who have been part of these mainstream organizations. It helps us understand in what ways the dharma might be able to be there. So with all this collective experience in law, there was great concern about the direction that the profession has taken. They realized that law school—where lawyers, judges and law professors are trained—might be the place to start. The interesting thing about law school is that although the focus is cognitive and analytic, no part of the curriculum strengthens contemplative capacities. Yet many people need a lawyer when they are in trouble and suffering.
Do you have a sense of the outcome of any of the programs?
It’s hard to predict the consequences of this work. Some people—just like those who come to Buddhist teachers anywhere—get it, go home, and practice every day. Others really struggle with it. At Yale Law School students sit once a week with their professor in his office. At Monsanto they created meditation rooms in all the main buildings. I was on retreat in Burma once with a ninety-three-year-old abbot-monk, and sitting on the ground next to me was a scientist from Monsanto.
Part of our strategy is to create legitimacy, so we chose some highly visible institutions. We started the law program at Yale, and now there are a number of law schools—Columbia, New York University—who are interested. Yale legitimized it. But we know that the really deep changes can’t be predicted. What we can do is to create an environment, including the offering of practice, in which people are more likely to wake up, to make wholesome choices and to act compassionately.
How did you go about reaching such a broad spectrum?
One of our strengths is that, as we say in organizing, we start where people are. Take the Greens Retreat, for example. This is a group of CEOs from twenty-eight national environmental organizations—the Sierra Club, NRDC, the Wilderness Society, the Trust for Public Land, and so on. They were originally interested in religious teachings that relate to responsibility for the planet. We introduced the practice as a way of creating and entering a habitat of sacred imagination, like going into the wilderness. When we did the meditation on sound [during a retreat at Sundance], they’d listen to the sounds of the Utah Mountains. And we did silent walking in the hills. That was particularly appropriate for environmentalists, but it wasn’t watering down the practice. It was taking it out of the usual Buddhist context. And it worked. They started building practice into their annual meetings.
Our vision is not based so much upon what we see, as how we see; our strategy is not so much based upon what we do, as who we are; and our evaluation is not so much based upon achievement, as faithfulness.
—Robert Lehman, former Director of the Fetzer Institute; Member, Contemplative Mind Board of Trustees.
Is working with environmental activists different from working with mainstream institutions and corporations?
From activists of all kinds—environmentalists as well as lawyers—and even some of the journalists we’ve worked with, we hear the same questions: If I give up my anger, what will motivate me to work for change? If I practice “acceptance,” how will the good work get done? The answer is that there are deeper sources to draw from. But people don’t really get that until they experience it. They get confused about the idea of acceptance, as if acceptance is giving support to an injustice or being resigned. But acceptance is just being there. So that is always confusing.
Anger burns you out. And among social activists, burnout is rampant. When people learn meditation practices for the first time, this idea of accepting things as they are is very confusing. But it’s simply that: that they are. Not accepting circumstances as they are isn’t going to change them, and in fact, not accepting them keeps you from seeing things as-they-are. And that prevents you from being able to do the most effective action to change them.
Many activists seem reluctant to incorporate a spiritual view into their work and, in fact, are often antagonistic to it, in spite of the great examples set by people like Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King, and others.
When I was younger I’d get frustrated on both sides. Many of the activists I worked with did not value the reflective life, and lots of spiritual practitioners seem to have no awareness of things outside their immediate circle. I think they’re completely compatible. It’s the essence of it. In the moment one tries to see everything exactly as it is without judgment. And yet imbedded in that is the possibility for the relief of whatever suffering exists in the moment. So you work toward a society or culture or situation in which there is less suffering, and at the same time accepting things as they are in the moment because they are already here. I know that is always posed as a paradox, but it’s always struck me that it’s very easy to hold both at the same time.
One thing that might ease this apparent contradiction is the emergence that we’re seeing—in the academic program for Fellows initiated by Contemplative Mind, and with our work with Howard Gardner at Harvard—of a national inquiry into contemplative awareness as a way of knowing. Seeing it in an academic setting is different from the way it’s held in a more monastic setting. The intuitive, preverbal direct knowing that one develops through meditation practice is a very important complement to the rational knowing and rational scientific inquiry on which our entire education system is based. What’s happening with these Fellows now is that contemplative awareness is not looked at as something that lives in a monastery or a church or temple. They’re beginning to understand that it’s a way of knowing, that it’s an inquiry into the nature of mind and into the nature of reality.
In the West, meditation was always for a privileged few—priests, monks, secret orders. It is available now to many. Our work is to recognize this moment and give support to it.
—Charles Terry, Member, Contemplative Mind Board of Trustees
Did your own view of things change from working with the Center?
Before I starting working with corporations and institutions, I had always worked from the bottom up, always in grassroots movements, and at times I believed it was the only way. I now think a combination is required. Leaders are important, and you can have visionary leadership, but if there’s nobody to hear the message, it goes nowhere. And, of course, it’s not dualistic. It’s got to be not just the visionaries and grassroots but many other factors in between. We have a vision that contemplative practice and the possibility of a more contemplative life inside this culture could shift its direction toward one of sustainability and awakening.
In Contemplative Mind we have to make decisions about where to put our resources. Is it better to work with environmentalists who are already trying to save the planet than to work with those we think are destroying the planet? One thing I learned from working closely with scientists at Monsanto is that scientists and others who are working at the cutting edge of something as new and complex as, say, biotechnology, are making decisions every day in their labs that activists and other social change workers don’t even hear about until they are on an unstoppable trajectory.
I saw that the discussions about what these things mean for our society and for the planet need to begin in the labs, among scientists. What better place to apply some of the techniques that good scientists already know, of looking carefully at things without judgment, exactly as they are? In business, for a long time the only considerations were science and the bottom line. We now know that that’s just not enough—that there are huge social and moral implications.
The peculiar genius of the American corporation has been to turn anything and everything into a marketing coup. How do you know that you are not simply helping them to package themselves as nice guys?
That’s a complex question. First, the PR issue—in fact, both Time and Business Week wrote about Monsanto meditating, and I don’t think it changed anybody’s perception of the company. The more important question to me is whether the insights that come from practice, insights grounded in wisdom and compassion, can have an effect on the policies and products of a corporation—any corporation. Or are they too limited by size, bottom line, and the stock market to respond to insights that might fundamentally change their way of operating? We don’t know the answer to that, and I don’t think it is simple. For me, it is much too early to tell.
How do you integrate practice into your own life?
It’s difficult to direct the Center for Contemplative Mind without at least building the basics into my own life. We do practice every day in our office together. Everyone on staff gets a week off for retreat every year and it’s paid for. I try to do another retreat or two every year. So do I sit enough? Probably not. Do I move around too much? Yes. And so I’m forced to look at the reasons for that. But is this work a vehicle for waking up? Yes. I find myself continually in brand new situations, and it brings forward any kinds of prejudicial stuff I’m carrying around, about whatever it happens to be, lawyers, corporate people. I’m always carrying something. Then we get together and it all changes, always. I really love being with people who are coming because they want to wake up. It’s fabulous seeing that in all these different kinds of people.
Contemplative Mind: A Brief History
The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society is founded as a not-for-profit educational organization. Mirabai Bush is named Executive Director.
Academic Program: Contemplative Practice Fellowships are funded through the Nathan Cummings Foundation (NCF) and the Fetzer Institute, and administered by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and The Center.
Business Program: Second Monsanto Retreat, “Deep Thinking Skills,” led by Steven Smith (Vipassana Hawaii) for thirty-five executives and managers.
Environment Program: Steven Smith leads a retreat for sixteen members of the Green Group, CEOs of the major national environmental organizations.
Philanthropy: Co-sponsored by the Center, sixty philanthropists gather in Santa Fe for a contemplative meeting to explore the connection between philanthropy and spirituality.
Youth Program: Mirabai Bush and youth members of the Learning Tree in Springfield, Massachusetts, as well as George Mumford, participate in a Tibet House conference, “Peacemaking: The Power of Nonviolence,” led by Nobel Peace Prize laureates His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Rigoberta Menchu, and José Ramos-Horta.
Multifaith Panel: The Center coordinates and facilitates a daylong discussion and practice in Washington D.C. on contemplative practice with Sharon Salzberg, Rabbi Jonathan Oberman, and Father Thomas Keating.
Academic Program: The Fellows and the Academic Committee hold a contemplative retreat at Fetzer to discuss contemplation as pedagogy.
Business Program: Retreats for Monsanto as well as in-house meditation sessions.
Environment Program: The Center holds an environmental retreat at Sundance, Utah, held jointly with NRPE and NCF Environment Program.
Contemplative Law: Joseph Goldstein of IMS leads a retreat for Yale Law School students and faculty on the interface of contemplation and law.
Philanthropy: The Center co-hosts a gathering on Philanthropy and Spirituality in Sedona, Arizona, on the nature of generosity and giving, philanthropy as a spiritual path, and programs that incorporate spiritual awareness.
The Center participates in both “Giver and the Gift,” a gathering of foundation executives at Fetzer, and a panel on visionary leadership at The Independent Sector meeting in Denver.
Media: The Center collaborates with Fetzer to bring together leading figures in print and broadcast media to experience contemplative practice.
Academic Program: The Center publishes “The Contemplative Practice Fellowship Program.”
Mirabai Bush and Joseph Goldstein speak on “Mindfulness and Education” at the University of Massachusetts.
Business Program: A group of Monsanto staff write a mission statement and organize weekly sittings, one and three-day residential retreats.
Mirabai and Steve Smith give a talk on “Mindfulness and Business” and lead meditation at Monsanto and at Searle Pharmaceuticals.
Law: A law retreat is held for Yale students and professors, senior partners from Hale and Dorr, and other lawyers and judges.
The Center participates in a panel discussion on “Spirituality and the Law” at the meeting of the American Bar Association.
Prison Program: The Center participates in “Contemplative Practice in Prison and Beyond,” a meeting initiated by the Prisons Working Group Project at Upaya in Santa Fe, NM. The National Network of Contemplative Prison Programs forms.
Youth Program: The Center supports the work of youth leaders at the following programs: Critical Times/Creative Choices at the Whidbey Island Institute, the Theosophical Conference on Youth and Environment, and Vallecitos GenNext Environmental Retreat
Academic Program: The Center leads discussion on contemplative topics at “Going Public with Spirituality in Work and Higher Education” at the University of Massachusetts.
The Center serves as advisor to UMass Chancellor David Scott’s initiative on contemplative studies in the university, including a lecture series with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Daniel Goleman, and others.
Environment Program: The Center leads a Virginia retreat for staff members of the Green Group with poet-activist Terry Tempest Williams.
Law Program: Law retreats are held for students and faculty from both Yale and Columbia Law School, as well as public interest and private practice lawyers, professors, judges, and students.
The Center begins the Contemplative Law Partnerships with a meeting at the Boston Bar Association.
Philanthropy: The Center co-sponsors The Philanthropy and the Inner Life Retreat in Hawaii, integrating meditation, yoga, and silence with Native Hawaiian spiritual practices.
Youth Program: The Center provides guidance and funds to three youth activists to lead workshops at Project Avery, a summer camp for children of incarcerated parents in California.
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