In 2001, Tricycle’s founder, Helen Tworkov, spoke with the meditation teacher Mirabai Bush about teaching mindfulness to employees at Monsanto, an agriculture company making genetically modified seeds and powerful herbicides. Environmentalists and many others have been concerned with GMO “frankenfood,” possible carcinogens in the ubiquitous weed-killer Roundup, and the company’s aggressive lobbying against food labeling in Washington. Back then, Bush said:
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 helped me.
Bush, who cofounded the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, recently revisited the topic with Tricycle.
How has corporate mindfulness changed and evolved since you spoke with us nearly 20 years ago?
So much has changed, because so many corporations now have programs. I still feel that teaching these practices to human beings is a good thing. We did not go into Monsanto expecting or trying to change the corporation. Instead, we were offering mindfulness to individual people as an experiment, an exploration to see what could happen when people were learning and practicing in the workplace.
Monsanto’s CEO has since retired, and the next CEO canceled everything to do with that program, as often happens. We had done so much work, established this program, and zap—it disappeared.
I didn’t accept another invitation into corporate life until Google called me in 2007. A number of people wanted to establish the program at the grassroots level, and I thought it would influence a lot of other organizations, which it did. The training program we developed, “Search Inside Yourselves: Mindfulness-Based Emotional Intelligence,” has really helped young engineers who’ve been in front of their screens develop awareness. Is it true to the dharma? I think so.
What other new challenges exist today?
A lot of people are teaching mindfulness— basically sitting and watching your breath, listening to sounds, and walking meditation. But it is also important to awaken compassion and kindness in people through practices based on tonglen [the Tibetan practice of “sending” happiness to others and “receiving” their suffering] or lovingkindness. In this country today, we need to listen to and appreciate each other and abstain from judgment. Mindful listening practices are really helpful.
But these programs will work only if they are well developed and are led by teachers who embody the dharma. Today, many people are being trained in short courses, and some people are not even trained. And there’s that old problem of people saying, “Oh, close your eyes and watch your breath—that’s easy, I could teach that.”
What criticisms of teaching mindfulness in corporate settings remain?
That you’re allowing bad people to do bad things better. I would not enter a corporation that is doing things that are not within right livelihood, such as making weapons or mining coal. But after that, it’s a difficult ethical matter. Ethics in technology is a big issue right now—everything from fake news on Facebook to whether Google is adjusting their algorithm for China. These are big questions, and these practices can only help people approach them with a clearer, calmer, and more open mind.
Can you tell me about an instance where you felt this training really paid off?
There is this unconsciousness that people bring into corporate life; they don’t question. One time at Monsanto, a scientist who worked on the weed killer Roundup came to me during a silent retreat and said, “Mirabai, I was just sitting and I realized that we make products that kill life.” It was this surprising moment in his meditation: that thought had never occurred to him before. Once a person is given an opportunity to explore the inner life, there is no predicting what he or she will find.
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