Emotional Intelligence – Mindfulness in the Workplace


This week we have the interview we did with Mirabai Bush. She was the co-founder of the Center of Contemplative Mind in Society and served as the Executive Director there until 2008. Under her direction, the center developed this program in education, law, business and activism and its network of thousands of people integrated contemplative practice and perspective into their lives. She holds a unique background in organizational, teaching and spiritual practice. She is a founding board member of the Seva Foundation, an international public health organization. She has also directed the Seva Guatemala project which supports sustainable agriculture and integrated community development.

At Seva she also co-developed Sustaining Compassion: Sustaining the Earth, a series of retreats and events for grassroots environmental activists on the interconnection of spirit and action. She is a co-author with Ram Dass of the book Compassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service. She has also organized, facilitated and taught workshops, weekends and courses on the spirit and action for more than 20 years at institutions including Omega Institute, Naropa Institute, Findhorne, Zen Mountain Monastery, San Francisco Zen Center, Buddhist Study Center in Massachusetts, Insight Meditation Society, and the Lama Foundation.

She has CD program that both Cathy and I have listened to, put out by www.morethansound.net called Working with Mindfulness, office exercises from the workplace that she taught at Google, Hearst, and the Fetzer Institute.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Why don’t you give us a brief overview or definition of mindfulness; what that means and how you define it?

Mirabai Bush: Sure. Well you just said that Mindfulness was a new science. There is new science of mindfulness in that many people, including Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, are studying mindfulness and it’s affect on the brain. That is one of the reasons why it has really entered the mainstream and the corporate mainstream for sure.

It’s really an ancient practice. There are mindfulness kinds of practices in all religious, spiritual, and psychological traditions throughout the world. We have distilled the essence of it now, at this time, because it’s so useful in the cultures that we are living in now. It’s a process; there is a practice of mindfulness that you do. It’s also an outcome which is mindful awareness; a way of being in the world. It begins with just simply paying attention with care and respect. We all pay attention, of course, but this is a more refined and more focused way of paying attention and that includes care and respect for who you are attending to.

Dr. Relly Nadler: We talk about mindfulness; I mentioned that I’ve been doing it since ’74. It’s been going on forever. Why do you think it’s such a fundamental skill for today’s leaders? Then we will talk about some of the things that you have done with key organizations like Google. Why do you think it’s catching on? I just read something by Jon Kabat-Zinn: in 2005 there were 150 articles on mindfulness; in 2013 there are 1,500 articles on mindfulness. What is your take on it?

Mirabai Bush: Well, first of all I want to say out loud Jon’s definition of mindfulness, which is very helpful: the awareness that arises by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. Obviously, anybody can do it, it’s very simple, but it’s not easy. That’s the thing about mindfulness.

Why do I think its important now? Because we know that we are all on overload. We are all pressured to perform. There is so much information; we are distracted. It is that onslaught of information and calls for attention that keeps us from having good face-to-face relationships, good emotional intelligence, or being able to act on emotional intelligence. All of that creates anxiety and that translates into a decrease of efficiency, problems with attention at work, impulsive behaviors, sleep difficulties and social struggles.

You could say that at any time in history that some version of these things was present. But we all know, it so accelerated now. Mindfulness just gets us to slow down, be in the moment where in the moment everything is fine. If we can just be there, even for a few moments sometimes, it really shifts things for us and allows us to set priorities. It doesn’t slow you down always; it doesn’t always itself make you happy. But, it helps you get clearer so that you can figure out which of the many demands on you it’s important to pay attention to now.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: It is not as complex as people necessarily make it out to be. But what you want from somebody who you are going to learn from is a mindful presence without judgment, and enough experience and chemistry to fit with that persons needs.

Mirabai Bush: Yes, and enough experience to be able to answer questions like, oh, I fell asleep, I’m not good. To know that yes, a lot of us fall asleep because we are all so tired, which is part of the point. All of our minds are racing all of the time.

Our very first program in business was in ’96. We did a retreat for the top 17 executives of Monsanto. Monsanto was a very different company then than it is now. They were just starting out and they thought that they were going to save the world by increasing yields because they had studied population statistics. They were really into feeding the world. They wanted to have a retreat so that they could increase their creativity because they were really shifting from being a chemical company.

The CEO came to us and we did a 3-day retreat of all practice, most of it in silence. It was intensive. I remember that in the middle of it somewhere, Bob Shapiro, he was the CEO, he said, Mirabai, this is the hardest thing I have ever done. I said, Bob, you have 30,000 employees. He said, no, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. What I discovered with these top executives; teaching them the practice and then saying yes, our minds are like this. This is the hardest thing, to quite your mind because they are so over-stimulated. What we found with people who were like middle managers or employees, that they were inspired by hearing mindfulness is easy, anybody can do it.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: And we know that is not the case.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Mirabai one of the things I was curious about, I mentioned I have tried to introduce this to executives that I work with, at Google how long are the mindfulness pieces? What have you found in the curriculum to be a good time frame to practice it?

Mirabai Bush: We usually do five minutes the first time it’s taught. Wherever it’s introduced, I think this is important to create context. At Google they are so data driven, they are so interested in the science. We have a whole big piece on the science of meditation. Then of course, we talk to them about the work benefits. Maybe five minutes the first time then we extend it. We do a full day as part of it. Its one full day and six 2-hour sessions a week apart. We do pretty much practice the sitting practice, and walking, listening and others so that they get an opportunity to see what happens when you sit with it longer than that really short time.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So, the other things that you had on your CD, maybe you could just give us some of it; I was really fascinated about being distracted – some of the listening facts that you came up with.

Mirabai Bush: Listening, like attention, is one of those things that we all think, well, right, I know how to listen. But, in fact, I found these statistics from the International Listening Association. They say:

  • We spend about 45% of our time listening, but we are distracted, preoccupied or forgetful about 75% of that time. That sounds right to me too.
  • The average attention span for adults is about 22 seconds. Immediately after listening to someone talk we usually recall only about half of what we have heard.
  • Within a few hours only about 20% of what we have heard.

So, since listening is so important, we teach a practice in mindful listening which is really great. I will tell you really quickly; it’s done in pairs. You use the same practice as mindfulness, but instead of resting your attention on your breath, you rest your attention on what the other person is saying. The listener is silent, the other person is speaking and you are listening to exactly what they are saying and when thoughts come into your mind — thoughts, memories, emotions – you just let them go, you bring your attention back to what the person is saying. Then after that you say, “what I heard you saying was” and you talk back and forth until the person feels heard.

It’s so simple, but it’s been a breakthrough for so many people who realize first, that they don’t usually listen and also that almost no one listens to them, and how much they felt like they were connected with the person they were listening to than they usually were.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Absolutely. That was one of the exercises I used with my daughter when we were driving to the airport. It was amazing. There is something that I would love for you to just give us some insight on. As you know, I have been working in the military for the past three years. They use a lot of mindfulness techniques especially in our Special Forces groups. Could you talk a little bit about this hostage negotiator that you spoke with about mindfulness?

Mirabai Bush: Yes. First, I love the work in the military. We have worked with military, and because they are in the presence–so are hostages, hostage takers and negotiators–of life and death, mindfulness isn’t just, oh, I want to feel a little bit better, and oh I want to feel a little less stressed. It’s really important. One of the marines said, that I really liked, you know some of the other guys think that it’s soft and that they will lose their edge. This is true for litigators and for all kinds of people in business as well, they feel that this might take their edge away. I like what this marine said, “you don’t lose your edge, you sharpen your edge, but you just know when to use it and when not to use it.” I think that was great.

The hostage negotiators were so interesting, and I think that is what fascinates us about those situations, is that what has to happen is the negotiator has to find a place of connection and overlap with the hostage taker. He has to find a place where they both want the same thing. In order to do that, he has to open up to the hostage taker and encourage that guy to open to him. It’s not like in that moment he’s teaching the hostage taker how to do mindfulness. He talked about how being just present and mindfully listening to what the guy is saying really helps him know how he can find a place where, however small it might be, they both want the same thing and work outward from there.

Listen to the complete interview with Mirabai Bush about Mindfulness, above, without commercials.


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