On February 20th, the Barger Leadership Institute had the pleasure of welcoming Mirabai Bush back to the University of Michigan. The co-author of “Contemplative Practices in Higher Education” shared her experiences in mindfulness, compassionate leadership and equanimity. 

Bush started with a short meditative exercise. The audience was asked to keep their feet flat on the floor and close their eyes. The Pendleton room at the newly renovated Michigan Union was pin-drop silent except for Bush’s voice directing the audience to “be present, feel yourself being fully human” and “feel where your body aches; where it feels good”, cultivating a mindful, and fully-aware environment. 

We often hear mindfulness pitched as a self-help tool but how do we use mindfulness to transform the community we are a part of? Bush began by explaining the meaning of compassion - a mental state that is focused on others’ pain and suffering and an aspiration to relieve it. Unlike empathy, compassion alleviates pain and suffering as if it were one’s own. Compassionate leadership is now more important than ever in order to create a safe space for others. She explained that compassion and mindfulness have a symbiotic relationship for neither of them can be accomplished without being present and aware of the situation. Today, we have a lot more to worry about than our parents did, and their parents did. This means that a part of the practice includes letting go without judgment and without harm.

In the 1970s, India had created a space for westerners like Bush to learn meditation and mindfulness. Before she reached India, she had not only never meditated, but had never crossed her legs. This is where she met Ram Dass, co-author of “Walking Each Other Home” and former Harvard professor who was dismissed for his controversial research of psychedelic chemicals. Under S. N. Goenka, they earned the motto “Love Everyone, Serve Everyone and Tell the Truth”. She thought she was going to India for 2 weeks, but stayed for 2 years. Bush spoke highly of Neem Karoli Baba, her mentor. While she had great teachers in graduate school, they were nothing like Karoli Baba. She said she felt her body rearranged around him and learned more from his presence than anybody else. 

While mindfulness and business might be seemingly conflicting ideas, Bush emphasized on contemplative practices in a corporate setting. When she started her company in 1982, she realized that while there might be a hierarchy in business, there is another relative hierarchy in which we are all the same. After closing her business, she did not feel fulfilled. Bush wanted more and wanted to give back to India what it had given to her. This is when she started “Seva” in Nepal, India. She learned that the life expectancy after blindness irrespective of demographics was 2 years in Nepal, and she wanted to help eliminate that. Her work strongly mirrored the BLI habits Collect, Combine, Create, Expect Challenges and Work to Learn. Today, “Seva” has saved more than 5M people in Nepal, India. This proves that contemplative practices don’t just make you calm but can contribute to positive social change. 

Bush went ahead to address the fact that people can become compassionate and mindful through practice, especially in groups. Due to the neuroplasticity of our brains, our emotional and empathetic processes are flexible skills that can be trained. This statement was followed by a question from the audience - “What is a deeply meditative practice that I can do on a daily basis?” While some individuals find that meditating 20 minutes a day is good, some individuals find sitting in silence for days at a stretch is useful. Bush emphasizes the importance of making a commitment and forming an intention. Mindfulness can be achieved by first and foremost, being present. She says, “Tell yourself you are going to do it and then reinforce that behavior.”

This truly enchanting talk by the charismatic Mirabai Bush left the audience motivated and more aware. Her experiences demonstrated courage, compassion, and positive organizational leadership like no other making us feel hopeful and empowered.