Contemplation, Life, and Work
Mirabai Bush co-founded the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. She is the author of Contemplative Practices in Higher Education and has written two books with Ram Dass: Compassion in Action and Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying.
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.
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: “The L-word” was “love.” 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 very secular working situations recently than I used to be, because people really want to be loved, it turns out. 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 Zoë 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. She’s just written a new book together with Ram Dass, Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying. We spoke in 2015.
Ms. Tippett: How would you start to describe the spiritual background of your childhood, of your early life?
Ms. Bush: Well, my early life — I was brought up Catholic. When I was 7, my father left, and my mother had to go to work. This was right after the war. I have to say the Second World War. [laughs] It used to be “The War.”
There wasn’t daycare, so my mother would drop me off at the church. 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. 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. There were a lot of really pretty extraordinary and some preposterous stories of saints, but I really loved Joan of Arc.
Ms. Tippett: I read that. I think it’s such an interesting idea that — how does Joan of Arc inspire the aspirations of a girl in Madison, New Jersey? [laughs]
Ms. Bush: [laughs] For one thing, her life is a lot more interesting than mine, so I liked that. 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. As a little girl 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.”
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. I loved that. 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.
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: 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. 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. You ended up on this pilgrimage in 1969. I think maybe later on you called it a pilgrimage. Maybe at the time it didn’t feel quite as defined.
Ms. Bush: I was in graduate school from ’67 to ’70. 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. It was a time when people were beginning to experiment with psychedelics and some spiritual practice, but not so much. The whole campus was just kind of turned upside down and then the politics of it meant that the police came on to campus. It was getting impossible. I left just before — I had done all the work for my PhD except my dissertation, and I decided to take some time off. I traveled overland from London to Delhi. That is like going backward in time. It was then, before everything was so globalized. It was amazing because, at that time, going through the former Yugoslavia and Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan into India, every place was completely peaceful. People everywhere took us into their homes. 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] It cost $400. 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. That was really opening for me. 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.
Ms. Tippett: For the very first time, right?
Ms. Bush: Yeah, very first time. I did that course with many other people who are still my close friends. There were very few Westerners then. There had been the British Raj, and then there was a big gap, and then there was us.
Ms. Tippett: 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. 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. 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. We didn’t call it content then. [laughs] We called it literature.
Just looking within was really stunning. Then that first course was from 5:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night. 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 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 á 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 to 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.
Ms. Tippett: A minute ago, you said you had a new insight into your mind and into the world. 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.
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 finding each other fitfully. [laughs] 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. When we first came back — we were so marginalized, to put it mildly. [laughs] 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 first integrate it into our own lives fully and then share it with others. 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. When we first came back, meditation — we still had the model of it being monastic. Having a child and being a meditation teacher — no one could imagine that. [laughs] But I was just as committed as everybody else to finding a way to bring this into our lives in the West, so first I started a business with my then husband, John Bush.
Ms. Tippett: Was this the Illuminations?
Ms. Bush: 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. We integrated it in ways into the business that would embody the perspective and the spirit and the values of contemplative practices.
That was the beginning of the time when we were discovering it’s all one. Now we recognize that it’s more complicated and subtle and so on. 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. We knew that doing it visually would be easier for people than trying to do it in words, as you can appreciate.
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. 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, but that is a shift that still has a long way to go in terms of American corporate culture and ideals and practicalities. The story of Search Inside Yourself — first of all, I love the story of how you had to find that language. 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. He called up, and first of all, he said when he was younger he had been through some difficult times, and meditation had really helped him. 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. They could decide what it was, so Meng decided it was going to be bringing in meditation. 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. 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. 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. 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.”
We asked Danny Goleman, who also was in Bodh Gaya with us back all those years ago, to give a talk at Google 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. Since then, over 2,000 Googlers around the world have taken the course.
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. 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 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. This course actually offers enough time, practice, and teaching to help people do that.
Ms. Tippett: I think that’s an important and refreshing thing to name, that you can be a great meditator and also remain narcissistic. 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 the language of emotional intelligence that you’ve just been using. It’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.” 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: 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, Clifford Saron, Mark Epstein.
To me, what’s fascinating is that he was Quaker. 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, just looking at your work has brought all that forward for me. It’s really fascinating.
Ms. Bush: Krista, you read so much. [laughs] I’m honored. 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. We interviewed 80 people we identified. This is in ’96 and ’97, 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. We interviewed 80 people, and we asked them for what practices were theirs and that they were teaching. 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 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 — and sorted out the practices and put them on there.
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 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. These practices have been developed over thousands of years. Really, mindfulness exists in almost every tradition. It’s not called mindfulness, but there is a calming, quieting, centering practice that leads into insight in every tradition.
Ms. Tippett: 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. 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, tai chi, retreats, ceremonies, and rituals. It opens up this — it takes the idea of contemplative practice and awakening out of any kind of narrow box.
Ms. Bush: 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: After a short break, more with Mirabai Bush. We’re putting all kinds of great extras into our podcast feed: poetry, music, and a new feature “Living the Questions.” You can get it all as soon as it’s released when you subscribe to On Being on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen.
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: 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: I want to talk about the work you’re doing in workplaces. This is Google, but it’s other places as well. 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.
The first day, I was teaching them mindfulness and having them watch their breath. They had just arrived on campus, and they had worked like fiends to be able to get into Amherst. I left a lot of space; 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.” Then I’d ask again, and nobody would make themselves vulnerable enough to ask a question.
So I decided, “Oh, better change this around.” I decided to give them a practice of mindfulness of an object. 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. 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.” Then you put it down.
I didn’t really expect that anybody was going to say anything. I left a couple of moments at the end, and nobody did. Then this one football player in the back row raised his hand. He had become, in my mind, the person who most was resisting making himself vulnerable in any way. He said, “Can I say something?” I said, “Definitely.” He said, “I love my leaf.”
It was so beautiful. Then they all started talking about what it was like to really look and look and look. 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. That one moment is this window into what we need to remember in order to make the right decisions for the future.
Ms. Tippett: We’ve hit the 21st century, and I think of this as spiritual technology, right? Meditation, mindfulness, and contemplation. It’s almost like we’re discovering all these other technologies, and then we’re waking up to this spiritual technology that we need to bring us back to our senses.
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 always engaged with our phones. I’m starting to wonder, what did we used to do? I don’t know. You’re talking about looking at a leaf, but did we look around? I know there was boredom. There’s no romance attached to this. But somehow we survived and flourished. 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. Researchers found that daydreaming is good for your brain. I don’t think we do as much of that. When teaching these students, at the end of the day, we did the yoga and a deep relaxation. Of course, they weren’t allowed to use their phones during the day, so we did shavasana, 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, 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. You did all that beautiful work with Google, and Google is part of the problem here, 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: We devised that at Google. Oprah loved that. She put it in her magazine. 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. Then you stop, take three deep breaths, follow your breath in and out, and in and out, and in and out. Then you read the email. You read it from the perspective of the person who is going to receive it. There, we were focused on emotional impact. Is this 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’re offering more than you actually are? Whatever. We ask them to think about it from that person’s perspective and then either change it or not and then send.
The first time we did it, there was a week in between the classes. A week later, they came back, and we said, “How did it go?” They all said, “That was radical. It was amazing.” Then one guy said, “I did something really radical.” I said, “What?” He said, “I picked up the phone.” [laughs] We all are emailing to the people in the next cubicle, and so that’s really helpful.
I wanted to go back for a minute because I didn’t answer your question about social justice activism. 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.” 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 in your body. 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. 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: I was reading about that. I wanted to ask you about that — it’s so interesting, a special retreat for judges where they wanted to learn how to be non-judgmental.
Ms. Bush: [laughs] 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? Of course, the answer is yes. What that means and what those judges meant is not eliminating wise discernment. It’s eliminating prejudgment so that — judges are unbelievably overworked. They have so many people coming in front of them all day long, one after another. 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.”
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. They loved it.
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 that physically, what we experience as the present moment is two — and also, that it can feel longer, which is also something meditators have said, 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: 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. I have to say 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. It can be just transformative. 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 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. I want to ask you because you work with so many different practices, is this something where you really do have to find the way that works for you?
Ms. Bush: At the center, we’ve done all kinds of things. We’ve had retreats where we’ve had a Buddhist teacher and a Jewish teacher teaching traditional Jewish practices, Br. 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 the inner life and the benefit that comes from — as you said, 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, 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. What I have found — in the beginning, you couldn’t ever say what the environmental leaders would call “the L-word.” They didn’t mean “lesbian.” They meant, “the L-word” was “love.”
There are practices, the most used is the lovingkindness practice that Sharon Salzberg has really written a lot about 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. The truth is, when I think back over all the moments of introducing these practices to all these different kinds of folks, it’s really when someone’s heart opens that things really change. You can’t ever predict how that’s going to happen. It 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: Lovingkindness meditation?
Ms. Bush: Yeah, because people really want to be loved, it turns out. 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.
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.” 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.” 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. That now is counterproductive in almost every setting that they find themselves in. 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. It took deconditioning, and it took some real mindfulness. In the process, it was really helping to support life, save life, their own and the people in the communities. So I felt like it was a good thing to do.
Ms. Tippett: It sounds to me, as you’ve written about, that dealing with people who have been at war and are sending other people into war is the extreme case of being present to suffering and not overwhelmed by it or bearing witness to suffering and not taking it on.
I want to read back something you wrote about from your earliest days. 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.”
I wonder if you just reflect here, as we finish, for a few minutes on, in both lofty and practical ways, what you’ve learned. How can this kind of practice speak to that kind of anguish? Contemplative practice as a strategy for social change. Gosh, it sounds like, if nothing else, it might take forever. [laughs]
Ms. Bush: It doesn’t happen in a linear way. 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. 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 of Contemplative Practices in Higher Education, and she’s written two books with Ram Dass: Compassion in Action and more recently Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying.
[music: “Be There in Bells” by The Pines]
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, Sue Phillips, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, and Damon Lee.
Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
The John Templeton Foundation. Supporting academic research and civil dialogue on the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind: Who are we? Why are we here? And where are we going? To learn more, visit templeton.org.
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the 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.
Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.
The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.
The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.
Books & Music
Funding provided in part by the John Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation supports research and civil dialogue on the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? To learn more, please visit templeton.org.