The Usefulness of Quieting the Mind
In large corporate environments and intimate retreat settings, meditation mentor Mirabai Bush shares the usefulness of quieting the mind and the benefits it brings to daily life.
Photo Credit: Paul Specht
Fresh off teaching at a meditation retreat, Mirabai Bush has just spent time with her friend and co-teacher, Sharon Salzberg. “You know when you see something in a longtime friend that you’ve maybe taken for granted? Sharon was just spectacular,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.
Bush has been practicing meditation for 40 years, sitting cross-legged with the likes of Ram Dass and Jack Kornfield, and she has taught meditation for almost as long. Cofounder and now senior fellow of The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, Mirabai is a natural champion of meditation. She clearly delights in the challenge of bringing meditation—spirit and action—to unlikely places: places as improbable as Google, Hearst Corporation, and even Monsanto.
You have been instrumental in working with Google to teach emotional intelligence through meditation.
At Google, bright young engineers have been sitting in front of screens for most of their lives. They are outer focused. Data driven. They all had the education and intelligence to get to Google. But they didn’t have very well developed self-awareness or awareness of others. I developed a course for them, a practical, real-world meditation the employees can take with them wherever they go.
My energy has gone into teaching the practices I learned in Asia in the ’70s from great teachers, which were first seen as marginal or “New Age” or “hippie.” With The Center, we have introduced these practices into mainstream settings, partnering with people who are successful leaders, helping them rediscover how their deepest values can be aligned with what they are doing in the world.
How do you define meditation? Sitting for a certain amount of time, or can it be moving, sound—what?
Meditation is first about developing calm, clear, one-pointed, nonjudgmental attention. Bringing yourself into the here and now. Discovering interconnection and impermanence, loving kindness, the wisdom holding everything.
Over the years, I’ve tried to adapt meditation teachings to people’s needs. I don’t think it has to do with sitting on a pillow only, especially since so many of us are sitting much of the day in front of screens.
People need different practices during different times of life. I had been doing insight meditation for 15 years when I discovered aikido, by chance, when I was going through a divorce. I did that for five years—and it was so exactly what I needed. It was so hard and such an unlikely practice for me.
Women surrounded me at a recent retreat. One had a three-month-old. [This mother] said, “There’s no way I can do this sitting meditation all the time.” I told her that what I learned from mothering is the deepest teaching of all.
What have you noticed in the Western meditation movement? Trends?
I think that most people turn to it because of pain and suffering of all kinds—in the body, their hearts. They are drawn to it because they feel so stressed in their work life, so busy, so unintegrated, with no time for anything. Electronic and social media have made it even more so. We feel we don’t have a minute. Meditation doesn’t always slow people down. But it does help people set priorities. Once life gets really busy, they miss qualities of kindness and compassion and care in their daily lives. They yearn for that to return.
But in the West, meditation sometimes gets reduced to what can be measured. For example, a study just came out that confirmed that meditation was effective in reducing pain. With all of the neuroscience measures . . . the danger is that people think that is all there is. And there’s much more to it than that. What it’s also about is the existential spiritual inquiry into life, and those are not results that we can measure.
What about multi-faith practices around meditation?
Father Thomas Keating teaches a form of meditation he calls “centering prayer.” Thomas Merton practiced meditation. I’ve worked with Christian army chaplains. Rabbi Rachel Cowan founded the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, a contemplative organization. But some evangelical Christians ask, “Why would I want to create space in my mind or heart? I want to be filled with Jesus.” And there is a fundamentalist belief that fears silence; it can mean you are making space for the devil to enter. The Buddhist path, on the other hand, is to see everything as it is and then deal with it.
I’m intrigued by your interest in “the recovery of women’s spiritual wisdom.” What does this mean to you?
I was really focused on that some years ago, and it has stayed with me. I began to appreciate what we as women hold and carry and have to contribute. Like so many indigenous wisdoms, women’s wisdom was repressed . . . and over these many years, we have been listening again to the voices of women. It is a wisdom that is more earth based, body centered, and community based. It manifests in collaboration rather than competition; it comes out of an understanding of the interconnection of all life and leads to how we are caring for the planet—now a critical understanding for how much longer we’re going to be able to live here.