Mirabai Bush was a co-founder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society and served as Executive Director there until 2008. Under her direction, The Center developed its programs in education, law, business, and activism and its network of thousands of people integrating contemplative practice and perspective into their lives and work. Mirabai holds a unique background of organizational management, teaching, and spiritual practice.
A founding board member of the Seva Foundation, an international public health organization, she directed the Seva Guatemala Project, which supports sustainable agriculture and integrated community development. Also at Seva, she co-developed Sustaining Compassion, Sustaining the Earth, a series of retreats and events on the interconnection of spirit and action. She is co-author, with Ram Dass, of Compassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service, published by Random House.
Mirabai has organized, facilitated, and taught workshops, weekends, and courses on spirit and action for more than 20 years at institutions including Omega Institute, Naropa Institute, Findhorne, Zen Mountain Monastery, University of Massachusetts, San Francisco Zen Center, Buddhist Study Center at Barre, MA, Insight Meditation Society, and the Lama Foundation. She has a special interest in the uncovering and recovery of women’s spiritual wisdom to inform work for social change.
Dr. Relly Nadler: Why don’t you give us a brief overview and definition of Mindfulness, what that means and how you define that?
Mirabai Bush: Well it’s said that mindfulness is a new science, and there is new science of mindfulness in that many people, including Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin are studying mindfulness and it’s affect on the brain. That is one of the reasons why it’s really entered the mainstream and the corporate mainstream for sure.
But, 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 at this time because it is so useful in the culture that we are living in now. Its both a process; there is a practice of mindfulness that you do and it is also an outcome which is mindful awareness–a way of being in the world.
It begins with simply paying attention with care and respect. We all pay attention, of course; this is a more refined, more focused way of paying attention and that includes care and respect for what you are attending to.
Dr. Relly Nadler: Why do you think it’s such a fundamental skill for today’s leaders? Why do you think it’s catching on? I just read something by Jon Kabat Zinn; in 2005 there are 150 articles on mindfulness, in 2013 there are 1500 articles on mindfulness. What is your take on it?
Mirabai Bush: First of all I want to say Jon’s definition of mindfulness, which is very helpful: It is the awareness that arises by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. Obviously, anyone can do it; it is very simple, but it’s not easy.
Mindfulness is important now because we know that we are all on overload, pressured to perform; there is so much information and we are distracted. It’s that onslaught of information and calls for our attention that keeps us from having good face-to-face relationships, good emotional intelligence and being able to act on emotional intelligence which creates anxiety, decreased efficiency, problems with attention at work, impulsive behaviors, depression and sleep difficulties; social struggles.
Mindfulness 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 and doesn’t in itself make you happy, but it helps you get clear so that you can figure out which of the many demands on you that is important to pay attention to now.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Mirabai can you tell us more about your secrets and stories on mindfulness and how it is changing the world.
Dr. Relly Nadler: Yes, Mirabai, bringing this into the workplace; some of the work that you mentioned earlier with Richard Davidson and some of the brain studies, and I’ve seen your interview with him; when you see that it is actually changing the brain, and we have conclusive evidence, I think all of the sudden for some of the skeptics, that really makes a difference. Can you talk a little bit about some of the people who are still suspect and the anecdotes that you were about ready to share about mindfulness in the workplace.
Mirabai Bush: One thing that gets it going once people start practicing, is that people do recognize a change in themselves and people often recognize a change in their colleagues. That then propels it forward. I was just remembering that a couple of weeks ago I was in New York with my colleague, Ming who is a partner at Google, he wrote a book, Search Inside Yourself, based on our course and it’s been a real best seller in a lot of places.
CNBC asked him to come in and be interviewed. It turns out that CNBC’s desk is right on the floor of the Stock Exchange, right in the middle of the floor. We went there and we surrounded by 2000 screens all with different information, light flashing; just real — I actually found it kind of horrifying that decisions about the global economy were being made in that environment — it was so frantic.
They were interviewing him and they didn’t really know what questions to ask, so they were asking about Search Inside Yourself. So Ming said, why don’t we just try it. I’m going to lead you in a mindfulness practice for 10 seconds.
So he said, just close your eyes and just imagine, just bring your awareness to your breath as it comes in and leaves your body. Imagine that your breath is a flower — this is on the floor of the stock exchange — imagine that your attention is a butterfly and you are just resting your attention on your breath as it goes in an out of your body. They were going to do this for 10 seconds. The 10 seconds were like an eternity on the floor of the Exchange. Finally these two guys opened their eyes and they were amazed. They had been talking like mad before but neither of them could find their words again, they had just kind of softened. Each one said, instead of saying oh, I would really love to do more of this — each one said, you should teach that guy, he really needs it. That was 10 seconds of mindfulness. It happens pretty quickly that people recognize, we need it so much.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I want to ask you something. This is an issue for many of us, I think Mirabai. You are a professional coach and expert, Relly and I are professional coaches and experts; so many people who I’m training right now on the Fearless Leaders methodologies for mindfulness, they want to be working and functioning as coaches. How do you advise people who are looking for good coaches to be mindful of who they need to help them. What would you tell somebody who is looking for a good coach and what would you tell them the coach should be helping them work on?
Mirabai Bush: That is a really great question. It is the central question right now in the community of people who have been doing mindfulness for a really long time and seeing that the demand has increased. I think if I were choosing someone to work with me — first of all that person should have a mindful presence. You should be able to feel that person is in the moment without judgement and is really present for you. The person should embody what you are looking for, for you group or for yourself. I would ask that person what their background is and make sure they have done some significant practice and training in mindfulness.
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