Mirabai Bush – Mindfulness from India to Google
Mirabai found herself moving from working on her Ph.D. in a very tumultuous university environment in the midst of the political unrest in the late 19060s. In a search to find another way of being Mirabai began her journey around the world. She began in Europe and started working her way East across the country traveling by land across the Middle East, through the mountains of a very peaceful Afghanistan and Pakistan and eventually found her way to India. She didn’t have a desire to learn meditation, but when she got to India there was a ten-day meditation instruction being offered to westerners for the first time by a Burmese teacher. Having never crossed her legs and meditated this was a very new experience for her. The first three days was just focused on cultivating a one pointed attention, and from there they were then able to begin learning how to direct her attention towards a specified path.
Mirabai ended up taking 3-4 more courses in a row. She thought she would stay for two weeks in India but stayed for two years.
Mirabai started a small company with her husband at the time in the 1970s. Having a small business that lasted about 13 years. It employed around one-hundred people, she was able to experiment with meditation and mindfulness practices as part of her company’s culture. Beginning in 1995, she started bringing mindfulness into corporate America.
Her early perspectives on mindfulness came from a literature background. She was constantly looking to the outside for a deeper understanding. It wasn’t until she began her mindfulness practice in India that she began to build her understanding of herself. Mirabai explained that, “It had never occurred to me to look inside my own mind to understand more deeply the nature of reality.”
“I also saw that by looking at my own mind, first through these practices I could get calm, quiet, and stable enough to be able to look at my own mind. Before that there was so much busyness in there from always trying to take information from the outside and stirring it up… I began to see that we can understand a lot about reality, about inner and outer reality, by simply looking at our own minds.”
Mirabai described her early understandings from her mindfulness practice as an awakening. “I began to see how I was creating a lot of the problems in my life, emotions would arise and I would act on them without recognizing that I had a choice. I was so identified with my thoughts and my emotions… I better get really angry about that, without even thinking ‘I better get angry’, but just immediately having that response of being really angry.” “When your awareness gets refined enough you can begin to sense an emotion like that as a sensation in the body, anger, jealousy, envy, the whole range. You begin to sense it in your body, and then you begin to recognize that.” She then continued to explain that you begin to recognize ti earlier and stopping and returning to a practice of breathing. From that you begin to realize that you are not your anger. “In the moment that you have the choice to act on it or not to act, that gives you a lot of freedom.”
“We are really our awareness, and as we begin to become more familiar with the part of us that is not the thought”. “You are not your thoughts, you have the choice to act on it or not.”
“Mindfulness is very simple, but is not easy to do, because the mind is so busy.” Mirabai continued to explain that we usually use the breath, and even then the mind runs away so quickly. By maintaining a level of patience, and cultivating a sense of non-judging, you may begin to gain much more freedom in your life.
In the workplace Mirabai gave a number of reasons how mindfulness can support and help you through your workday.
- We are always moving so quickly at work, mindfulness enables you to pay attention to priorities.It helps you see each thing for what it is, and remember what it is that you intended to do with this day, helping you stay focused on what you hoped to accomplish.
- Mindfulness allows you to form new categories, allowing you to expand your understanding by noticing and identify new things that you might have overlooked. This allows you to be more innovative and to broaden your perspective on your work.
- Truly essential to any workplace is effective communication. It is mindful listening that allows you to truly be able to gain a deep understanding of what others are trying to tell you. “You are able to let go in your own mind of all the thoughts that are arising, all the ways in which you are going to fix that problem, all the ways in which that very thing has happened to you and you can’t wait to say it. Maybe it is a difficult situation, you have already established in your mind what you are going to say when that person finishes talking and you are paying more attention to that rather than what they are saying.” In mindful listening you are able to let your thoughts go and you maintain an awareness of the individual speaking. It begins to cultivate a form of trust that is essential and difficult to build.
- The trust and positive relationship built from mindful listening changes the game on how you may follow-up, how you communicate with those people, creating a much more positive and supportive atmosphere.
“The benefits of mindfulness don’t stop at the end of the workday, they are the same qualities and capacities that make a successful home life as well.”
Mirabai Bush made it a point to explain that integrating mindfulness into organizations requires a level of support and a climate where it is encouraged. She explained that mindfulness has two main entry points into the workplace. One is by the senior leaders make the decision to embrace mindfulness in the workplace and begin to build opportunities to allow the people in the organization to participate. The second was where a member of the organization decides to find a way to bring it into the organization. Google’s Search Inside Yourself Program began with a single engineer, Chade-Meng Tan, establishing a mindfulness program with a few dozen people. Mirabai was a key supporter to help Chade-Meng develop the Search Inside Yourself program. The program was successful, and kept growing in size. It is the most popular program among Google employees.
What is necessary for it to begin to change the organization is for there to be internal support for it by people in power of the organizations. Mirabai described a recent mindfulness program she led at an insurance company. She explained that it was just a half-day and provided a nice introduction, but for mindfulness in an organization to really promote a change it is something that needs to be ongoing. She explained that with a few individuals in the organization who receive a little more training in how to lead sessions, it can truly take off.
Mirabai answered the question, how do I know mindfulness can help my organization?
- A high level of competitiveness coupled with a lot of intense distractions. Mindfulness practice can support a reorientation back towards an increased focus, improved homelife, and reduced stress.
- Decision making in the organization could improve. What might look like stress, tunnel vision, or a lack of high quality decision making can be improved with mindfulness.
- Increase a stableness and a calmness that allows an individual to overcome a high demand work environment.
“Mindfulness doesn’t stop all these things from arising, it teaches you how to respond instead of react.” Mirabai went on to explain that “if you just sit for twenty minutes a day things begin to change. It takes time. It takes time to develop a depth of insight, but it only takes ten minutes to drop your cortisol levels.” Cortisol levels are are associated with increased levels of stress. Mirabai explained in our conversation that meditation and mindfulness practices have been linked directly to decreasing this hormone also tied to qualitative responses in studies to the feeling of increased calmness and lower stress.
In this episode, Mirabai brought to us a story of the mindful sniper. In this story a US sniper was on a rooftop in Afghanistan and was faced with the difficult task of saving school children from a suicide bomber. The American sniper credits his experience in mindfulness practice to his ability to see an opportunity that was outside of the typical training and allowed him to save the lives of school children.
Our conversation moved to Mirabai’s experience teaching Stanford graduates who didn’t have a lot of experience in social awareness, compassion, well-wishing, love, and the desires of others. Mirabai supported the development of the capacity of these leaders to be able to reach their fulfillment in their work and in the interactions with those around them. Compassion building mindfulness practices can be a tremendous benefit to those who are from cultures where kindness, compassion, and connection are not the norm or expectation.
You can learn more about Mirabai Bush and the wonderful work she is doing at: