The heart is where we experience connection
MIRABAI BUSH is the author of Working with Mindfulness, co-creator of Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” program, co-founder of the Centre for Contemplative Mind in Society and a founding board member of the Seva Foundation. Some of her other literary works include Contemplation Nation, Contemplative Practices in Higher Education and Walking Each Other Home, co-authored with Ram Dass.
Here she speaks with PURNIMA RAMAKRISHNAN as part of the GLOW Webinar series, on her journey and evolution during the last 50 years, and on the role of her teacher in that transformation.
Q: Thank you so much for joining us today, Mirabai. It’s an honor and privilege to host you on the GLOW webinar.
MB: Hello, and thank you so much Purnima for inviting me. And I’m happy to be talking about Heartfulness, especially because I see so many people learning Mindfulness and maybe overlooking the heart a little bit.
Q: These days there are more and more people who are not affiliated with a religion and are seeking something spiritual. According to you, what is spirituality? And how do you think it is different from religion?
MB: As I understand it, spirituality is the search and discovery of truth, the nature of reality. It is the relation of you as an individual to the greater whole, the understanding of what exists in you, what its nature is, what its implications are for your life, and how you are a part of the whole. I think that you can make that journey, that discovery, within an organized religion or you can do it on your own.
It’s interesting that when we started The Centre for Contemplative Mind in Society, we were going to take practices like Mindfulness, compassion and Yoga, into secular settings in the United States in 1995, when no one was doing it yet. We interviewed 40 teachers of contemplative practice within institutions and religions, and asked them what’s the danger of taking spiritual practices out of organized religion. Almost everyone, from a whole range of religious backgrounds, said in different ways that the practices themselves have their own integrity. So if you’re on your own path outside religion, or if you’re discovering new practices at work, or with a group of other people, they have integrity and they will help you on the path of transformation, but the danger is that you lose community.
Spirituality is the search and discovery
of truth, the nature of reality.
It is the relation of you as an individual
to the greater whole, the understanding
of what exists in you, what its nature is,
what its implications are for your life,
and how you are a part of the whole.
In every religious tradition there is a strength, you know, sangha or satsangh or fellowship. And when you explore spirituality by yourself, unless you have a group of others you’re exploring it with, the danger is that you can learn less, you can learn less truthfully, and you can go off in a way that will lead you astray. And then you won’t feel supported and cared for by the others around you.
I started off in religion. I was in the Catholic religion and after that I explored many others and have felt at home in others, but my essential path is spiritual while appreciating the value of religion.
Q: Spiritual practices and techniques serve as a tool for our personal transformation. But how exactly does a spiritual practice transform us?
MB: Well, different practices do different things. I’m familiar with meditation of various kinds, the movement practices of Yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong, and the practices of study. Generally most of these practices begin by quieting us down and helping us tune in and listen to our own bodies.
A lot of the time we’re going through life not paying much attention to our own bodies, and within the body are many messages to us. We can learn a lot by what we’re feeling within our body. For example, emotions begin at physical experience. If we pay attention to that, then we learn not to act without thought on the negative emotions. We learn that when positive, caring, loving emotions are arising, to pay attention and give them space and cultivate them. So these practices begin by helping us tune into our bodies. They reduce stress.
I’ve always cautioned that a spiritual path doesn’t reduce your stress and make you happier on day one necessarily, because as you begin to look at what’s in there, you may see things that you don’t like so much. You may see things you want to change; you may see things that you’ve been repressing as a coping strategy.
In order to really wake up, you need to see everything that’s there. In general when you sit and do these practices, stress reduces. Scientists have done a lot of research and can measure cortisol in the body. The cortisol drops, while doing even 15 minutes of basic practices like the Heartfulness practices, the Mindfulness practices and Yoga. Any of us who have done those practices know that experience – you start feeling better.
Then you begin to trust yourself more as you come to know what’s there in your mind and in your body. It’s not that you’ll always like what you discover, but as long as you can see it and know it, you can make better decisions. That develops trust in yourself. I think of it as a radical self-confidence. It doesn’t mean you think you’re always right, but you are in touch with what it is you feel you know, and you can then express what you don’t know.
I saw the possibility of what it can be to be human;
he expanded it so much for me.
I had a small idea of who I was, and what I could be,
and I thought I’d gotten through life
and I can get a little bit better than what I am.
But he so expanded the possibility of
this wide open, loving heart, and wise mind,
that it just made me much more excited
about life and much happier to be here.
I think it also develops a welcoming of experience of the life of others, because there’s less fear that you must protect yourself. You know that as experiences come, and you see them for what they are, you can respond through knowing yourself. And having developed this caring, loving, compassionate way of being in the world, you can be much more welcoming to every moment as it comes. Finally, these practices help us just to become fuller human beings, discover what it means to be human.
When I met my teacher, my Guru, in India, it wasn’t anything he said that specifically taught me. I saw the possibility of what it can be to be human; he expanded it so much for me. I had a small idea of who I was, and what I could be, and I thought I’d gotten through life and I can get a little bit better than what I am. But he so expanded the possibility of this wide open, loving heart, and wise mind, that it just made me much more excited about life and much happier to be here.
So those are the reasons I practice, from what I’ve glimpsed and not yet totally realized from doing practice.
Q: Do you see any intersect between the sacred and the secular, or do you see it as a conflict? Do you see the practice helping you to move towards the sacred? How do you envision these two aspects of our manifestation – sacredness and secularism?
MB: It’s a great question, thank you. Well, I’ve actually spent a lot of time thinking about this, because I did this work in the Center for Contemplative Mind. We brought these practices, which are about cultivating and recognizing the sacred, into secular settings of our workplaces, with lawyers and judges, business executives, journalists, the army, social justice activists, philanthropists, and many other kinds of people, all of whom think of their work lives and their professional lives as separate from their religious, spiritual or sacred lives.
By introducing practices into these settings, we helped people integrate their lives better, to recognize that these false separations do not exist. We brought recognized meaning in the work that they were doing, and helped them remember why they originally chose to be a public interest lawyer or a CEO of a corporation. There are good reasons, deep reasons, to do these things, which often people forget while they’re in their busy-ness. We also hoped that these practices would help people slow down enough, and take care of themselves enough, and cultivate enough loving kindness and compassion, so that their lives were happier and that they could relate to people better.
The practices helped people to be more present in the moment – to let go of everything that’s not about this moment. It doesn’t mean not making plans. You might be making plans for the future, but you’re doing it in this moment. It doesn’t mean never benefiting from our experience of the past, but being with it in this moment, not getting lost in regretting the past or feeling anxious about the future.
Bringing these spiritual practices into everyday work really helped melt the barriers between the secular and the sacred. In very secular settings we were helping people remember what’s meaningful about their lives and in that way helping them recognize that everything they do is sacred.
You are here, you have this precious human life, and everything you do in it is sacred, but we just forget that. It is sacred in the sense that you are connected to everything that exists, and what you do is important. It’s important to honor that, and to honor our connections, especially with each other and with your understanding of the divine.
So sometimes we transformed secular spaces into sacred spaces. We acted it out. We’d move into a kind of a retreat, and we would add a candle and flowers, and maybe pictures of something that would evoke connections for people. We’d ask people to take off their shoes when they entered the room, which people in this country don’t usually do. We would ask them to be in silence for parts of the time so that they could more easily remember the sacred. And of course it would change things. They could see what that silent space usually evoked. So that was educational for a lot of people.
Q: It’s interesting that you said spiritual practice helps a person to be more in the moment, in the current situation, and that it doesn’t mean that they don’t make plans for the future. It just means to be more aware of the now. Being connected with everything else in the universe – that too makes sense. Thank you so much for that beautiful explanation about the sacred and secular not just meeting, but being one and the same.
MB: As I listen to you speak, I feel that I have to say that so much of this was awakened in me when I went to India. I went for two weeks and I ended up staying for two years! I studied with many great teachers and offered myself many contemplative spaces. And it was such a gift. Anyhow, listening to your voice is making me happy.
Q: So you were speaking about your guide in India, with whom you spent some time. What is the role of a spiritual guide in human transformation, and how does a guide help us grow spiritually?
MB: Well, I had the privilege of being with a great teacher, Neem Karoli Baba, in northern India. When I went, I wasn’t looking for a teacher; I didn’t know enough to look for a teacher. I went to India on a kind of a vague search in 1970, at a time when the United States was in a lot of turmoil. I traveled around the world trying to find a way of being that seemed saner to me. I met him, I won’t say by chance, because we don’t believe these things are really by chance. I first learnt meditation in a Burmese Buddhist monastery, and then I met my teacher.
It is sacred in the sense that
you are connected to everything that exists,
and what you do is important.
It’s important to honor that,
and to honor our connections,
especially with each other and with
your understanding of the divine.
It is so helpful when you’re practicing to at least have a guide. In a certain Buddhist tradition they say you don’t need a guru, what you need is a spiritual friend, someone who is ahead of you on the path, who can help you go through whatever you’re waking up to and can guide you with that.
Once, when I came back to this country, I studied with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche who was a Tibetan lama.
And people would ask him, “Rinpoche, what do you need a guru for? You just told us that it’s all within you. If it’s all within you, what do you need a guru for?”
He said, “Well, you need a guru to tell you that it’s all within you.”
A good teacher will help you to see it, not once, but over and over again: If you look within you’ll find it. They are the person ahead of you, who can not only tell you to do it but inspire you to do it. You may say, “This is a good thing to do, because look at this person, whom I love to be around. How loving he or she is, and how wise! I want to be like that, because I want to lead a life that relieves suffering in myself and others, a life that increases happiness in all of us, a life of kindness.”
A good teacher will help you to see it,
not once, but over and over again:
if you look within you’ll find it.
They are the person ahead of you,
who can not only tell you to do it
but inspire you to do it.
So that is my feeling about teachers.
When I went to India, I was in the 4th year of my PhD, and I was with really great teachers at my school in the US. But it was a different relationship, as you know, from the relationship you have with your spiritual teacher. While my teachers at school were experts in their subjects, and could teach me a lot, sometimes they weren’t particularly really ethical, moral, kind, or loving people. They just happened to know a lot about something. But in India, I discovered from Neem Karoli Baba, and from other teachers too, what it meant to be human, to be part of this great mysterious whole. It was really quite a new experience for me.
When I first met Neem Karoli Baba, I was actually traveling with my friend Ram Dass. He died recently, and he’s very much in my heart and mind today. He had been with Neem Karoli Baba before, and wrote a book called Be Here Now that arrived at absolutely the right time in this country. He sold 200 million copies of the book, because people were so hungry to hear just what we are talking about today: How these practices and teachers can change our lives.
So Baba was by the side of the road when we saw him. The bus came to a stop and I kind of stumbled off. I was an intellectual graduate. I had grown up in New York. I was a Westerner. I was also in the middle of the Women’s Liberation Movement. I had never bowed to anyone ever. Yet I saw him and there was not even a thought – I was down. Why? Because in that moment I understood how present he was, and how he didn’t want anything. He was just living and demonstrating for the rest of us what we might be able to grow into.
As you can tell, I could go on for a long time, but let’s go to the next question.
Q: What is the ultimate transforming potential in a human being?
MB: Do you mean what can we become?
Q: Yes, and what is the seed of that which we can become?
MB: What we can become is, in some way, not so different from what we are right at this moment. And in another way, it is really different. It’s just becoming fully who we are. We have everything that we need to become fully who we are.
Sometimes you sit down and you have all kinds of things on, and the world seems troubled and difficult, maybe over something small or something really big. And then you just sit for a while. The world hasn’t changed, and it’s not that there isn’t a lot you may want to do to make a change in the world, to make it a better place to be – both in yourself and outside. But the way in which you perceive it and the way in which you perceive yourself within it has changed.
And then you experience your loving heart awakening, you experience your mind quieting, so that it has more insight into the nature of the situation. And you’re there and you know what to do. You know how to be, because we already do know it. It’s really just remembering and waking up to it.
In Zen they say we’re already enlightened, we just need to remember that. And you experience that in a small way when you do these practices, when you do Heartfulness, Mindfulness, all of it. You experience that unconditional space of love within yourself. And that’s it. That space of love is the same as awareness, consciousness. We are all connected through love.
Maharaj ji [Neem Karoli Baba] said very little to us. He wasn’t a philosopher, and he didn’t even teach us practice. He just said a few things, like, “Love everyone, serve everyone.” How do you do that? I mean I’ve been trying to figure out what that means for about 50 years. By loving everyone, by opening your heart to everyone, then you know the truth. And you’re there in that space of unconditional love, unconditional awareness, truth, beauty and so on. It’s both really simple and we’ve been given a life to figure it out, to practice it out, you know, experience it.
MB: Thank you so much, Mirabai. It has been a very wonderful session and my utmost gratitude to you. If you have any closing thoughts, closing comments, please share them now.
I just want to thank you, and thanks to everyone. We just did Heartfulness Meditation together. I think it’s so amazing that we can sit together around the world, at the same time, remembering how we’re connected to each other. It’s very wonderful.
The very word “Heartfulness” is so important. It’s not just in our minds, it’s not just in our bodies, but the heart is really where we experience that connection with each other. That is what’s going to help us survive as a species and evolve. So thanks to the whole organization for doing the good work that you do.
Watch the full interview.
Interviewed by PURNIMA RAMAKRISHNAN
Illustrations by UMA MAHESWARI and DANIJELA
July 30, 2020
July 30, 2020
July 30, 2020