You don’t need a personal guru or a trip to India to bring you inner peace. Perhaps you simply need to learn from Mirabai Bush, co-founder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Bush has worked with several businesses to teach people about the benefits of meditation and contemplative thinking. She has helped individuals improve their listening skills, their teamwork abilities and their anger management at corporations such as Google, Monsanto and Hearst. In addition, Bush has worked with non-profits, lawyers and educators, among others.
In this interview with Knowledge at Wharton, Bush spoke with Katherine Klein, vice-dean of Wharton’s Social Impact Initiative, to discuss how individuals can bring meditation and “mindfulness” into their everyday lives. (It’s not as difficult as you may think.)
An edited version of the conversation appears below.
Katherine Klein: The broad topic we want to explore is how businesses, organizations, nonprofits and for-profits turn to contemplative practices, such as meditation. But first, let’s start with the challenge many people face with fitting meditation into their lives.
Mirabai Bush: Pretty much everybody thinks it’s difficult to fit meditation into their lives. But we say, “You’re not too busy to brush your teeth or to eat breakfast.” Once you experience “mindfulness,” which is an umbrella term for meditation and some other practices, you begin to realize its benefits, and then you can incorporate it into your life. Don’t think of it as a big deal, but rather as a short practice each day that really makes a big difference.
We’ve seen all the research on the various benefits — from stress reduction to health and cognitive benefits, including an increase in attention and creativity and so on. So once you begin to practice mindfulness, you begin to think of it as just part of your life. And there are some ways to make it easier to incorporate into your life. First of all, keep it really simple; brief practice is fine. Just focus on your breathing for a few minutes, and each time you’ll be reminded of how calming and quieting it is.
Klein: In addition to meditation, are there other beneficial practices that you think people might want to consider squeezing into their days?
Bush: On The Contemplative Mind website there is The Tree of Contemplative Practices. We designed that tree after talking to people from 80 different organizations that have incorporated some contemplative practices into their work. We simply asked them if they were doing any contemplative practices to calm and quiet the mind and increase awareness. People in businesses, nonprofits, law firms and educational organizations gave us a long list of different practices. I think in the workplace, the practice of “mindful walking” is a good thing [to do] when you’re walking from place to place. Instead of sitting at your desk and focusing on breathing, when walking from place to place — which you’re naturally doing — you can bring your awareness to the sensation of walking.
We once taught mindful walking to a group of environmental canvassers. They were walking from house to house, and in between their appeals to people, they were paying attention to their walking and letting go of all other thoughts. They reported back that they were much more effective because when they got to where they were going, they were fully present in that moment with whoever opened the door. So walking’s a great practice for mindfulness.
Recently we’ve been looking at the practice of looking. In museums or with books of artwork, people do … what is sometimes called “beholding” whatever is in front of them. Just looking at what’s there and letting go of all other thoughts, opinions and pre-judgments can be useful.
Klein: As you speak, I’m struck by the challenge to these practices presented by our cell phones and iPhones. Whenever there’s a moment of pause, we automatically pull out our cell phones.
Bush: Years ago, I lived in a monastery in India. I remember there were always lots of lines for everything. As young Westerners, we were always impatient. I remember one day we were complaining, and a teacher said to us, “Waiting is being.” I still think of that in those situations. We all check our email or Facebook or whatever while we’re waiting. But it’s possible, while waiting, to use that as a way to just calm, quiet and stabilize the mind. That calms and quiets all of our physical systems, as well. Even a few moments of that really helps us to feel better and be more present in the moment.
Klein: Can you tell us about the benefits you’re seeing in the workplace when people engage in mindfulness or contemplative practices? One clear benefit for individuals is that they feel less stressed and sleep better.
Bush: I’ll tell you about some experiences of mine. Let’s start with Google: Chade Meng-Tan wanted to host a mindfulness-based stress reduction class and expected Googlers to sign up. He posted information about the class and nobody signed up. He was very disappointed and wasn’t sure what to do next. Someone encouraged Meng to call me, so we came together and started by looking at who worked at Google. We recognized that Googlers are very young, very smart and very competitive. They come from the top of their class at the best universities and mostly sit in front of their screens. They’re generally really good at algorithms, but needed better self-awareness and better awareness of others. Although they may be great in front of their screens, most of their work involves teamwork. They needed help relating to one another.
Furthermore, Google’s employees are about one-third Chinese, one-third Indian and one-third everybody else, so there were cultural misunderstandings. We recognized that they needed better ways to relate to others and build awareness of others. We could see that the employees would recognize this as well. So we engaged Daniel Goleman, who wrote Emotional Intelligence, and we used the same practices that were being offered in mindfulness-based stress reduction classes, but we emphasized interactive practices. We re-framed the classes to focus on mindfulness and emotional intelligence. Within the first four hours of posting, 140 people signed up. We taught them how to improve their communications with others, we taught them mindful e-mailing and we taught them about dealing with negative emotions. In general, we helped them with communicating and working together in teams. [For more details about the Google program, Search Inside Yourself, see Knowledge at Wharton’s interview with Chade Meng-Tan.]
Klein: I’m intrigued by the idea of dealing with negative emotions. This is obviously a challenge for people. Give me an example of how to cope with this.
Bush: At Google, we started by asking people to remember a time when they were angry and allowed that anger to arise in them. We taught them to be mindful of the sensations in the body as negative emotions arose, and then pause and recognize that they can have various responses to that anger. They can choose to not let the anger drive them, but rather, have awareness of the anger and assess what the options are for response.
Then we asked them, in the beginning, to pause and take a few deep breaths before noticing the sensations in their body. Just that little exercise really helps people to not react immediately to anger and unpleasant emotions. They report that it’s really helpful for their relationships with others.
Klein: So interesting. We’ve heard about Google but I wonder if you have examples from other companies or organizations that you have worked with.
Bush: We did a short, one-day program with the electric company National Grid. They were bringing together all of their diversity officers in the Northeastern [U.S.], and they wanted to do something that would help them appreciate diversity even more among themselves. The program involved people bringing food from their family traditions. We did some mindfulness practices to help people become calmer, quieter and more stable when they arrived.
We did a practice called “just like me.” This was one of the first times that I did this practice with a business group, and these were very mainstream, corporate people. We had them stand in two lines facing a partner across from them. The person who was guiding the practice started by saying various phrases and then [asked participants] to repeat them silently [to themselves while] looking into the eyes of the other person. You can see that the person across from you is a human being with thoughts and emotions, just like you. The guide goes on to say, “This person has been sad in his life, just like me. This person has done things he regrets, just like me.” And then it goes through a range of things. “This person wants to be loved, just like me.”
I took part as well. The person across from me was a regional manager from Buffalo, N.Y. He was wearing a suit and tie. He was a white, working class, Buffalo guy. When the practice was over, it was so touching. I just thought, “Oh my God, I’m going to have to stay with this person forever. I’m in love with him. I’m never going to be able to leave him.” It was really powerful.
Now we do this practice with lots of different kinds of groups. I did it last week with a group of university professors. It’s very powerful. It’s all about compassion, which is so helpful when you’re working with difficult people. Once you do this practice, then you can do it silently to yourself before you go into a meeting, or as you’re listening to someone whom you’re having a hard time with. You can think, “This person wants to be happy just like me.”
We also worked with Monsanto in the late 1990s, when they had a new CEO and they were making their shift toward agriculture. Bob Shapiro was their new director. He was a really creative thinker, and he had just inherited this 100-year-old chemical company. He wanted to see what they ought to be doing for the future. (I’m reserving judgment on their decision.) He was interested in the creativity of his top executives. He invited us for a retreat with the top 18 executives, and we did a four-day, three-night silent retreat off-site.
Bush: Yes. It was really intense. I can only imagine a few corporate groups committing to that. But Bob was a real risk-taker, and it was very powerful. After that, for several years, we did off-site retreats and on-site day-long programs. They put meditation rooms in many of their buildings.
In terms of feedback, the vice president of organizational management development said this: “The most noticeable change in the largest group, which included scientists and some of the foundation team, was a shift from cynicism to hope. When people talk about what happened to them or how it’s changed them, they talk about how they went from being negative, pessimistic and cynical to being hopeful, being more centered.”
There’s another quote from a project coordinator. He said, “Mindfulness helps clear all the chatter that goes on constantly in your head, and you begin to find out what’s real for you in your life. What makes this program so great is that it can effect long-term evolution in individuals, and therefore, in the organization. It’s provided more purpose and meaning to what I’m doing at work.”
Klein: That’s great. But when I think about meditation, most of it focuses on the individual. When you encounter organizational issues, should you focus on helping the individuals or should you focus on teamwork techniques?
Bush: Well, yes — either or both. For example, when we worked with employees at Marie Claire, they were stressed. These are young women in New York in a very competitive world, working against deadlines all the time. They were all stressed. Our program focused on individual mindfulness meditation to achieve a calmer state. While this was very individually focused, they did it as a group. They came together once a week for two hours and were led in practice by someone. Even though we didn’t emphasize the group dynamic, people appreciated each other more. They felt a deeper bond because they were going through something together. Being there and going through this process with other people and knowing that they’re doing the same thing and they’re feeling vulnerable helped build an appreciation of other people.
But then there are also ways to work with teams. At Google, we paired people off for listening exercises, and they would mindfully speak and listen to each other. People were instructed to let go of other thoughts and emotions as they would listen to the speaker. Then we’d sit in a circle and discuss the experience of listening and speaking in pairs. People revealed that they usually didn’t listen in that way, and they hadn’t realized how much judgment was going on when they were listening. This can give you an appreciation for how these practices can affect a group process.
Klein: I want to go back to your discussion of Monsanto. You mentioned the positive benefits of mindfulness and contemplative practice. But I wonder if this leads people to make different decisions as a company.
Bush: Yes. That’s the big question, of course. Monsanto is a great case study for that. We worked with Monsanto for four years and during that time they became really involved in genetically modified foods. The environmental movement was revving up in response to this, and we were, at the same time, working with the Green Group, which was a group of CEOs of national environmental organizations. We were working with two groups that were radically opposed to one another. Our job was simply to teach these groups practices related to questioning, mindfulness and inquiry. This helped people look at the connection or lack of connection between personal and corporate values.
Inside Monsanto they were studying population predictions for the next century, and they really felt that they were going to contribute to increasing yields and feeding the world for the 21st century. It was hard for them to entertain that what they were doing wasn’t a good thing. But after a while, they were getting so much resistance that Bob Shapiro decided to invite the president of the Rockefeller Foundation to their board meeting. At this point, the Rockefeller Foundation was leading some of the research and the resistance to the development of genetically modified foods.
They had a long discussion at their board meeting, which led to some changes within Monsanto. It obviously didn’t lead to the end of their commitment to genetically modified foods. But at the time, it led them to let go of some of what Rockefeller considered their worst practices. [The president of the Rockefeller Foundation] convinced them that if they didn’t let go of this one terrible product, which I think was labeled “terminator technology,” everything else that they were doing would be “tarred with the same brush.” He convinced them that it was to their own advantage to let go of what he considered the worst product. Ultimately, Monsanto became more open to listening to opposing arguments and different perspectives. I saw a movement toward that while I was working with them. So yes, I saw changes.
Unfortunately for us, Bob stepped down as CEO, and somebody else came in. The new CEO did away with anything that had to do personally with the former CEO. He got rid of our program. But all these years later, I still see people who say that the program really changed them and that they took those benefits with them wherever they went in the corporate world.
After that, we did a rethink about our work in the corporate world, and we focused on a number of smaller programs. It wasn’t until Google came along that I really felt like there was an opportunity to do a company-wide program that really could have a big effect, which I think it is doing.
Klein: I have one final question. Early in the interview, I jotted down some words that you mentioned. You said something about “non-judgmental presence.” On the one hand, I think the notion of non-judgmental presence is important, and it’s linked to listening and compassion. But at the same time, you’re working with people who need to make judgments and decisions. I was struck by that duality of non-judgment and judgment. Can you expand on this?
Bush: I think it is the hardest thing to grasp. This is very philosophical. The present moment is here. It’s here in front of us. It is what it is. The important thing in mindfulness is to see the present moment as it is and not to bring pre-judgment to it.
To explain my point, let me give an example relating to some work we’ve done with lawyers. A group of judges asked us to do a special workshop on mindfulness and emphasizing non-judgmental awareness. They wanted to do this because they said that when people arrived in front of the bench, they would find that their minds leapt to judgment based on people’s appearance, and they knew they shouldn’t be doing that.
This example relates to business because it’s about seeing the situation as it is. It’s about making decisions without … pre-conceived notions. It doesn’t mean that we don’t make judgments, choices and decisions. It’s about making better choices by seeing what’s actually there in front of us.
Another important issue relates to distraction, which is increasing all the time with our advances in electronic information. Mindfulness really increases our attention and takes us beyond distraction. Distraction keeps us from being productive, and I think it leads us to not look deeply at situations, to stay at the superficial level. Mindfulness will help us stay focused on what really matters and help us make better decisions for the future.