Mirabai Bush | The Work of Compassionate Action

image credit: Paul Specht

Mirabai Bush is Senior Fellow and the founding Director of the Center on Contemplative Mind in Society. She has led contemplative trainings for social justice activists, teaches compassion practices at the Smith College School of Social Work, helped to create Search Inside Yourself at Google, and directed the Contemplative Practice Fellowships to explore such practices in academic courses. Mirabai formerly directed the Seva Foundation Guatemala Project, which supported sustainable agriculture and integrated community development. She is co-author, with Ram Dass, of Compassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service, and editor of Contemplation Nation:  How Ancient Practices Are Changing the Way We Live. Her spiritual studies include vipassana and Zen meditation; bhakti yoga with Neemkaroli Baba; and studies with Tibetan lamas Kalu Rinpoche, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Kyabje Gehlek Rinpoche, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and others. She was a student of aikido master Kanai Sensei for five years.

Mirabai Bush has led an incredible life–an incredible life doing incredible work, and there is much to be said about the people she has met, the journeys she has made (both literal and figurative), and the work she has done. Simply listing some of the people who’ve influenced her and with whom she’s worked (including, S.N. Goenka, Ram Dass, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Sharon Salzberg) and the ways in which she’s influenced the lives of others (her business innovations, based on mindfulness practice, have been written about in Newsweek, Inc., and Fortune; she’s a founding board member of the SEVA Foundation; she has taught numerous workshops rooted in spiritual practice, etc.), would take up a long page. Discussing those aspects of her life, and how each of those things and people has made her who she is today, would be enough for a good-sized book.

For several years Mirabai has taught courses on the very thing transform. itself is about, spirit and action–bringing the work of social justice into the world from a place rooted in spirituality. This is similar to what the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society (the organization Mirabai Co-founded and where she is now the Director) espouses: in a nutshell, that inner work changes outer work.

Mirabai is one of the first Western women to have made the journey to India in the 1970s, where she found herself, quite by accident, taking up meditation. A practice from which she found increased self-confidence.

During her time in India, Mirabai spent 10 days studying under S.N. Goenka, who taught her, and several other Westerners, from the place where the Buddha became enlightened. She said, “The course was 10 days long, and at the end of it my life was changed. I realized that I could find a path by listening within, to myself, and without, to the accumulated wisdom of many teachers.”

She told this story about being in Bodh Gaya, India where the retreat took place: “I was there because I had met Sharon Salzberg on the street in Delhi, my second day in India, after a long journey overland from London. She and I had been at the same university at home, and she told me that a Burmese teacher named S.N. Goenka was going to teach the first-ever meditation retreat for Westerners in the very place where the Buddha had been enlightened. It sounded like simply the best thing to do in India, although I had not before that ever thought about learning to meditate. A few days later, with my then-partner John, I took the train and a rickshaw and landed in Bodh Gaya. Back then, Bodh Gaya was a tiny, dusty Indian village, home of the Mahabodhi Stupa—a stupendous monument erected by Emperor Asoka some 250 years before the time of Christ, situated beside a living offshoot of the actual tree under which the Buddha sat in meditation more than two thousand years ago….”

From some of her first meditation experiences, Mirabai realized “I was beginning to see how my mind worked, and even if I didn’t like what it was doing, I felt more whole, more integrated, more confident. Not knowing my breath or my mind seemed like not knowing what my face looked like. How could I have missed it?  This may all sound pretty obvious—of course we all know we are breathing and thinking. But for me it was radically different to experience it directly instead of intellectually. It wasn’t an idea that I breathe—it was me breathing.  Maybe you had to be there.  In any case, as my practice continued, slowly I became more self-confident, and happier.”

When I asked her what led her to the work she now does, she spoke of Joan of Arc:

“I grew up as an outsider. I was the child of a “broken family,” brought up by a single mom in a community where no one got divorced. Some kids were not allowed to play with me. I was ten years old when I first heard about Joan of Arc. I was in St Vincent Martyr Catholic School, and we studied the lives of the saints, who the nuns saw as ready-made role models for children. I liked most of the saints, but Joan was my favorite. She was brave and smart and beautiful. She had received specific instructions directly from God, which made her passionate life seem very simple. No choices, just follow the divine agenda. I loved that. Stay focused. Give it everything you’ve got. Be compassionate. Lead the Army.  Save France. Conquer injustice. And it’s OK to wear men’s clothes. I was a chubby 10-year-old in a brown gabardine school uniform with a sense of mission, to save others from feeling as miserable as I did. My eyes were shut tight and my hands folded in prayer, listening for divine guidance, and Joan was my role model.”

As an interviewer, my own response to that was one of delight and respect for the little girl Mirabai once was, a child who believed, in spite of being different, that she could hear the Divine. From the perspective of a meditator, it reads as though she were laying the groundwork for her own spiritual future.

Mirabai went on to tell about how the work she’s done in the world grew from a place within her that was determined to battle injustice–and to win. Not unlike Joan of Arc. “I experienced Madison, New Jersey, where I grew up, as a dull little village on the frontiers of civilization, which is how Joan grew up. Before God spoke to her, she hadn’t been anywhere, and she didn’t know anybody famous. She had never ridden a horse. Her education, just like mine, was based on her catechism, her prayers, and the fabulous histories of earlier saints. And, like me, she had been taught by nuns how to follow instructions. Hers, at age 17, just happened to be from God, who told her when and how to lead the French Army to victory. I didn’t really want to be burned at the stake, but I liked that she refused to say anything but the truth, which had often gotten me in trouble too.”

“Guidance wasn’t whispered in my ear by angels. It came through trial and error, as it does for most of us non-saints. It came from my heart during the civil right movement and during the Vietnam war. I worked in a program to diversify the SUNY Buffalo campus and I drove war resisters across the bridge to Canada. I worked in the Black Panthers Breakfast for Children program, and I was tear-gassed in DC protesting in front of the Justice Department. Before long, the FBI was requisitioning my files from the university.”

I said, “You were among the first wave of Westerners to go to India and study meditation. Did you think then that spirituality was going to blossom in the West the way it has? In what ways do you think people in the West have changed because of the way spirituality has blossomed here?”

“In 1969,” Mirabai said “I left the university—it no longer seemed like a place to learn. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been killed, police were occupying the campus, and friends were either becoming militant or dropping out. With 25 others from the English Department, I moved to land in British Columbia where we lived in teepees, built domes, cooked over open fires, and went salmon fishing with the Kwakiutl. I learned basic lessons about living with little, sustaining ourselves and the earth, building community. From there, curious about how the rest of the world was living, I traveled overland from London to Delhi.”

“When I returned after 2 years in Asia, meditation seemed very exotic. Ram Dass was traveling the country talking about it, and friends were beginning to establish retreat centers. But most people thought it was weird, or for hippies, or happened only in mountain caves. We never dreamed that it would be as accepted as it is now. But just as they had helped us, they helped others—they are not really Buddhist or spiritual they are human practices that help us all wake up, pay attention, and care about each other.”

“These practices, which offer calm and balance and relieve stress, help people navigate demanding lives, made more complex by the increase in technology. That frees them to be kinder, braver, stronger, and make better choices. But more important, I think these practices have helped people question the values of our capitalist, individualistic society and ask what a society based on compassion and respect and honesty would look like.  How would we live if we really understood our fundamental interconnection? Attachment to superficial identities leads us to act as if we are not responsible for each other. And demonizing each other has led to violence, war, and the impossible and unjust distribution of wealth.”

In an article for NGWS (News Group of World Servers), which talks about the work of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, Mirabai explained that the results of living from a centered, contemplative place are not immediate, “This is a bold venture…It isn’t an intervention that goes in and “fixes” something and then has immediate results,” she cautions. “What we are trying to do is create the conditions that will encourage the increase of compassion and wisdom, and increase the likelihood of solutions to problems. Our work is based on the belief that the potential for positive change comes from within us. If we give people tools to heighten awareness of their inner states, then they are more apt to come up with new ways of creating a better world.” (article, Contemplation Goes Mainstream)

I asked her, “Can you talk a bit about what effect contemplative spirituality could have on what shapes activism and protesting in the future? Or, if you prefer, what effect you see it having now?”

Mirabai said, “I think these practices and discussions are developing wise leadership among activists.”

“At a meeting on social justice and liberation spirituality that included representatives from such diverse groups as Barrios Unidos, Black Planet, stone circles, and the Zen Peacemaker Order, a situation occurred that would be familiar to most activists—a facilitator led an “icebreaker” that had to do with place of origin, and the only places we could choose were in the US. There was nowhere to stand if your place of origin was St. Croix or Africa or even Canada! Whoa! Lots of anger. It looked like a meltdown. But, Raúl Quiñones Rosado, a formerly angry leader who had done years of meditation spoke.”

“In his work, he said, they talk about the process of transformation—to name it, to bring some understanding, then critical analysis, then respond to it. “Let’s simply bear witness to what is happening. Not prejudge it. Not judge it at all. Let’s just look at it and find clarity and name it. The facilitator made an unconscious choice. He didn’t intend to marginalize people. But people get tripped up, and instead of responding, we react, as people, as oppressed or as privileged people. We are in a unique position. Like the Buddha’s teachings—we need to get past the reaction to a response, which is what all spiritual practice is geared toward. Liberation spirituality is decidedly not U.S.-centric, it draws inspiration from the movement, method, and vision of liberation theology that transformed innumerable communities in Central and South America.”

“The energy in the room shifted, quieted. We could discuss these issues another time and return to that day’s agenda.”

“Part of me had not believed it would happen. But here it was. Like anything that encourages self-awareness, this work must reflect a depth of analysis, reflection, and honesty to be effective; it must build on work done before, even 2,500 years before, by the Buddha as well as by Martin Luther King and Gandhi and César Chavez. And it must include naming the mistakes and forgiving them, and allowing the process to move forward. We need to be heard, not silenced, but we can also learn wisdom through practices of silence.”

I said, “I know a lot of what Contemplative Mind focuses on is higher education and spirituality. Can you say something about how that benefits society in general? How do those benefits relate to social change?”

Mirabai responded, “The most obvious answer is that thousands of young people, at a time when they are forming their values and their understanding of the world, are being taught contemplative practices, perspectives, and values and learning to transform their relationships with themselves, with others, and with the world around them. They use mindfulness and other practices to question identity, to deconstruct the foundations of law, to look for responses to the environmental crisis, to understand perspectives contrary to their own.”

“As Fellows of the Center, professors have developed courses like Contemplating Race, Knowledge and Power: Towards Healing Forms of Critical Inquiry; Food and Hunger: Contemplation and Action; Urban Climate Vulnerability, Adaptation, and Justice; Contemplation and Political Change; Cultivating Mindfulness and Human Rights; Mindfulness, Decision Making, and the Problem of Mass Destruction. Students are learning to bring mindful awareness to these issues, to integrate their own understanding with the process of critical thinking to learn in a new way.”

“The professors themselves are also changed by the process, and many are beginning to see their disciplines in a new way. What would architecture look like if it reflected our interconnection and fostered community?  What about economics—couldn’t we understand economic decisions better if we understood the nature of desire?  And how does the law support our distrust of each other?  I think these changes in the academy, which are growing very quickly,  will actually help us create the vision we are seeking so that we can transform society.”

And the way we’ll transform it can only be from the inside out.


Mirabai’s Resources for Working with Mindfulness 

Mirabai Bush’s mindfulness trainings for the workplace are based on traditional Buddhist practices to help reduce stress, increase productivity, and encourage creative problem solving. Working With Mindfulness is her latest work and includes guided exercises, which Mirabai has developed and which she narrates. A long-time mindfulness meditation practitioner, teacher and organizational management expert, Mirabai taught these mindfulness trainings at many fast-paced organizations including Google, Monsanto and Hearst Publications. Participants reported reduced stress, increased productivity, and more creative problem solving. They also felt greater awareness of emotional states in themselves and others. 

Podcast | Coping with Change at Work

CD | Working With Mindfulness

Book | Working With Mindfulness

Links to Social Media for Working With Mindfulness:

Facebook & Pinterest

Other Publications:

Book | Contemplation Nation

Book | Compassion in Action


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