Women & spirituality
MIRABAI BUSH is the author of Working With Mindfulness, co-creator of Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” program, co-founder of the Center for Contemplative Mind and Society and a founding board member of the Seva Foundation. She teaches contemplative practices, and has facilitated retreats, workshops and courses on spirit and action for over 20 years. To commemorate International Women’s Day, Mirabai spoke with PURNIMA RAMAKRISHNAN on March 6, 2021.
Q: Thank you for joining us today, Mirabai. It is an honor, a privilege, and a great blessing to have you with us.
MB: Thank you, Purnima. I love talking with you, so this is a joy for me, too. And you chose a really wonderful subject that makes us all think and rethink about our assumptions.
Q: So what are the unique challenges and opportunities for a woman on a spiritual path?
MB: I will probably speak as if I am speaking to all women. I realize that’s how I was thinking about these questions, and so for those men who are listening in, just imagine that you are privileged to be in this room with an extraordinary group of women. I am imagining the big circle of us who can’t see each other, but we know we are here.
Unique challenges and opportunities for a woman on the spiritual path? There’s so much, and there are layers of challenges. Of course, it’s different in different cultures, but it is probably global that women experience a certain amount of negative bias in different ways.
There are differences between men and women physically, mentally and psychologically, but the spirit within us is one. How we wake up o that is, however, conditioned by our cultures. The first time I was in India, from 1970 to 1972, I remember a pretty strong belief that women couldn’t be enlightened. I was actually not looking for enlightenment in the sense of trying to be a saint, but I was looking toward waking up to the potential of who I could be as a human being.
I think part of my experience was because I learnt these practices inside monastic settings, and they were all men. All the teachers were men, and they didn’t have a lot of experience with women waking up spiritually. We didn’t challenge it in an activist way, but it’s obvious to us that of course we can wake up, of course we can know more deeply who we fully are.
It’s there in many ways in different cultures, and I do believe that globally we are working out of it. There is still a lot to be done, and we have to do it with love and kindness and compassion for the whole so that it happens.
Even in situations where men and women are sharing more of the family responsibilities, women often have more time-consuming responsibilities, and that can keep us from creating a dedicated space for ourselves to do whatever practices we follow. That really can be a challenge. My experience is that women often have a stronger, bigger capacity for integrating body, mind and spirit, including the emotions, thoughts and responsibilities. Women tend to have more integrated intelligence. It’s not to say that it doesn’t exist in men, or they can’t cultivate it, but I do think it comes more easily to us. I feel that we have been given that so that we can integrate all our roles.
We also often have multiple identities – as wife, mother, another person at work, something different with friends, grandmother or granddaughter. There are so many identities we have, including whatever arts we are involved in. The advantage is that we are much less likely to get fixed on a single identity.
We all work on our identity; recognizing, earning, celebrating a particular identity, how we can trace it genetically. It’s been really important in this country, where we struggle a lot with racism. The most popular book on racism here right now is Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. Work on identity has been important for women.
We need to cultivate the ability to hold essentially two conflicting ideas in the mind at the same time: We are a certain age, gender, race, and all of that; and while we are all of those, yet we are not. We are more than that. They are not limiting. They are identifying, but they are not all we are. Because we are often moving in and out of our identities, it’s easier for us to recognize that there is a constant that is not any of them, our life’s spirit that is the loving awareness of who we are. The important thing is to find our way to return home to the center of our being, to define our practice.
Heartfulness is such a great practice, but remember to return to the love at the center of it all so that you are not getting caught in all the different ways, because as women we have lots of challenges.
Spend time with other women with whom you have a resonance, who might not be doing the same practice or whose understanding may be somewhat different. It’s so important because in these conversations you allow whatever is there just beneath awareness to surface. That kind of support allows you to open up to things you may not be able to see otherwise. It’s been one of the most important spiritual practices in my life.
Spend time with other women
with whom you have a resonance,
who might not be doing the same practice
or whose understanding may be somewhat different.
It’s so important because in these conversations
you allow whatever is there
just beneath awareness to surface.
That kind of support allows you to open up
to things you may not be able to see otherwise.
It’s been one of the most important
spiritual practices in my life.
I have had a group of women (and men) who started the Seva Foundation, which is an International Public Health Organization. We started it after discovering our spirituality in India and Nepal, because we wanted to give back to those cultures, the countries and the people, not just to the teachers we honored, because we were allowed to live there for a couple of years and integrate what we were learning. When we returned to the West, we integrated it into a larger lifestyle. There were about ten of us women who were on the Board together for 20 years, and then we went off the Board to make space for younger people. We missed each other, so we started having a retreat once a year where we shared what was going on in our lives, what was important to us, how we were growing, what we were struggling with, and what our teachers also go through.
That’s been going on for probably 20 years now, and it’s so important. We don’t do anything special, we just share with each other. I have other women friends, too, but that group has really helped me grow over time. So I encourage you. A number of these women were in India and Bangladesh, they worked and campaigned to end smallpox. The Seva Foundation came out of it. They were either epidemiologists or married to them. It was the first infectious disease to be eliminated from the planet. We have had really good conversations about public health, and also about spiritual aspects, how we grow when we are confronted with something so frightening.
Q: You spoke about how women have different identities, and they find wonderful, intelligent ways to integrate them and balance their roles. So how do we prioritize and balance the various roles we have through life? For example, today I told you that I was delayed for this recording because I was stuck in the kitchen, and you were so accommodating of that. It is a woman who understands me and who is supporting me in my domestic role. How do we do it?
MB: That’s a great question. First of all, you didn’t say that you were stuck in the kitchen, you said, “I am preparing a meal for my family.” But now you say that you were stuck in the kitchen, and I love that. We all have that, and it changes through life. We are always balancing.
My first Buddhist teacher had the same answer for everything. He was Goenka, this Burmese teacher. He had a practice of taking your awareness through different parts of your body – not trying to relax as we do in savasana, but just noticing what is happening, and he called it “sweeping.” For everything we’d ask him, and we asked really complicated questions, he would say “Keep on sweeping.”
So, really it comes back to deep listening and staying in your heart in the center, because there are not only changes at different stages of life, but also moment to moment. I ran a business when I first came back from India called Illuminations, and we built it on the principles of right livelihood. I wanted to see how being in the workplace every day could really be Karma Yoga, how it could bring the Gita to life in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I learnt so much from that, because I believed before I started, and certainly through the years of working, that everything we do can be practiced if we have the right intention.
I remember one time I was asked to write about what I had learnt from running a business of “right livelihood,” and one of the things was, “Get confused about whether to attend a meeting at the bank or your child’s birthday party.” The editors kept trying to change it to, “Don’t get confused.” “No,” I said. “Get confused!” Ask yourself this: In this moment, what is more important? Sometimes you have conflicting sets of values, but you have to go as deep as you can and ask yourself, “Is it more important to do my podcast or cook a good dinner?” Usually we don’t have to do one or the other. It usually happens like it did to us now, it moves around. But it does require really listening.
Really it comes back to deep listening
and staying in your heart in the center,
because there are not only changes
at different stages of life,
but also moment to moment.
I have one child, and when he was growing up there was always this juggling with work, parenting, being a wife, and other things. Later, when he went off to college, I remember this incredible sense of spaciousness. It was like, “Oh my God! Wow! What do I do with this?” Then it was sorting out what matters, how much time to spend on my practice, and how much time to spend on my livelihood, friendships, and other things.
You know the answers at the spiritual level. You know what matters to you. You may not know the implications of what’s going to happen in the future, depending on those decisions, but you want to make those decisions from the deepest place that you can. You keep asking. You are not a single being. There is a core. I mean you are changing every moment. When I retired from being the Director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, I was 70. I asked myself, “What am I being asked to do at this time in my life?”
I didn’t want to do the day-to-day managing, running, any longer. I loved doing it, but it felt like time for something different. In India I learnt about ashrams. I think it is the sanest description of how you should spend your last stage of life, really attending to your spiritual self. Of course, you do it throughout life, but at that time you do it in a slightly different way because you are preparing for the transition.
Q: I am really blown away by how simple you make it seem. So, how do we find the balance between exuding confidence and reaching contentment? Confidence speaks about so many things: If a person sees you as a very confident person your clout increases. As a woman, there is all the more need to have clout quotient to get your work done, to move forward in life. So how does it work? Do we go back to being our original self or do we have to acquire this through a performance?
MB: It’s a really good question for women. Have you experienced that in your life? Have you been in situations where you needed to project confidence in order to be effective, to get things done?
Q: A lot of women have this question.
MB: It goes to the core of the whole theme. Real confidence, the way you trust yourself to be in any situation, knowing that you might make mistakes, doesn’t mean that you always perform perfectly. It is a kind of radical self-confidence in which you trust yourself to do the best you can. And part of that might be acting in a way that people recognize you, respect you for the role you are playing at that time.
I first learnt to meditate after graduate school, working for my Ph.D., which is always a struggle. I never felt like I read enough books, or was smart enough, or thought enough. When I first began to practice deeply, I felt a kind of joy because I really knew something, and I was not faking it in any way. I wasn’t inadequate. I had found the place in myself that is always adequate. It’s who I am. I also realized that I could know it fully. After that, I felt more at home on the planet. I felt like I belonged, I felt like I knew who I was, even though we keep changing. I had this capacity for being present with whatever was happening, and that gave me a confidence that allowed me to take a lot of risks. I could enter into situations for which I wasn’t really prepared, and I learnt a lot. So, in as much as you can get in touch with that, you don’t have to project anything. You can be honest and humble and powerful at the same time, because other people will trust you.
When I first began to practice deeply,
I felt a kind of joy because I really knew something,
and I was not faking it in any way.
I wasn’t inadequate.
I had found the place in myself that is always adequate.
It’s who I am.
I also realized that I could know it fully.
After that, I felt more at home on the planet.
I remember when we first started the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, our goal was to introduce spiritual practices into mainstream secular organizations. Nobody was doing that in this country then. It started in 1995 and we would work with groups of lawyers, scientists and educators. In the beginning we said, “We don’t really have any idea how to do this. No one has done it, so we don’t know what’s going to happen and we may have to change things as we go along.” We were a little too open. There were people who were so used to learning things from the authorities, and they were like “I don’t know if I want to be a part of this!” Then we had to start telling them, “We really do know about this, even though there may be some adjustments we have to make as we go along.” So, you may find yourself in certain circumstances where you need to learn to be an authority, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have the confidence to learn what needs to be learnt.
Contentment comes from knowing that we are doing
what we are supposed to be doing in any moment of our life.
It’s accepting what’s here in the moment.
It’s the basic principle of practice.
Contentment comes from knowing that we are doing what we are supposed to be doing in any moment of our life. It’s accepting what’s here in the moment. It’s the basic principle of practice. You see honestly what’s there, who you are, what the environment and circumstances are, and then you give up any attachment to the fruits. For example, you may be working toward a goal, but if it comes out differently you can be there with that and move from there. So, don’t be attached to outcomes, see what’s there, and do it wholeheartedly as best you can in the moment. This is what you have been given, and you are here for it. I think it’s where contentment really comes from. You are not wanting anything, even if you are working toward the goal. You are not wanting, you are not rejecting, you are just here in this moment doing what needs to be done. Then you feel really good.
Q: There were two beautiful things you said: Not being attached to the fruits or the results of the process, and that it’s possible to be humble and powerful and joyful at the same time. I am going to keep those with me all the time.
MB: Good! I think you do keep them with you all the time.
Q: Do you think women are more emotional and sensitive? If so, how does this effect their spiritual progress? On one side, it can aid the spiritual journey and on the other side it can also create stumbling blocks.
MB: Well, it seems to be true that women are more intuitive, sensitive and emotional. Of course, some men are very aware and some women are not. The important thing is to be aware of emotions as they arise. They arise as sensations in our body and thoughts in our minds. I would say that whatever is arising in the moment comes from past karma. How we react in the moment is our decision, so the most important thing about emotions is to be able to see them as they arise and act in a non-harming way. This is especially true of the destructive emotions like anger, hatred and rage.
I have thought a lot about compassion, self-compassion and empathy – the ability to feel the emotional state of another person, whether it’s their joy, delight, happiness, or suffering. With compassion, unlike empathy alone, comes the desire to relieve the suffering that you see in another person. It’s essential to the future of humanity. So honor that capacity for feeling the suffering of others and then cultivate it, which you can do through the practices of Heartfulness. Cultivating the capacity to respond by relieving suffering is some of our most important work to do. If we find that we are sensitive and emotional, we are cultivating the awareness to see it, hold it, and then use it in a way that is helpful for ourselves and others. Finally, love is at the heart of it. When we let go of destructive emotions, there is space for love to flourish. That will take care of life’s problems.
Love is at the heart of it.
When we let go of destructive emotions,
there is space for love to flourish.
That will take care of life’s problems.
Q: That is so beautiful. So, how can women be more responsible for shaping a more spiritual humanity?
MB: When I asked my teacher that question, he asked a rhetorical question: “What should I do with my life and what should we do with our lives, in order to make the world a better place?” His answer was, “Love everyone, serve everyone, and always tell the truth.” At first I thought that was a simple direction – love everyone, serve everyone – but of course I have spent the last fifty years trying it out, seeing what he meant.
At different stages in my life it has meant different things. The world can be very complex, and our responses to all these issues and questions can also be complex. But I do believe, when it comes down to it, it is about loving everyone. All it means is to wake up so that we can love, recognizing how we are all interconnected.
Once we realize that, we know that just as we don’t want to suffer, others also don’t want to suffer. No one wants to suffer. What can we do to help each other wake up and be happier? Serve without attachment, because we know that we are all part of a huge consciousness, a loving awareness. That will keep us busy, and will always keep us open to learning more.
There are different things
to learn at different stages.
If we just think of staying open to
what we can learn in this moment,
keeping our hearts open,
so that we learn it in a loving compassionate way,
then we are good. It’s a life’s work.
Throughout this life, I have been amazed that we go through a model of education where we learn certain things, then we know, and then we act. That is true about certain technical skills, but our learning goes on and on and on. And there are different things to learn at different stages. If we just think of staying open to what we can learn in this moment, keeping our hearts open, so that we learn it in a loving compassionate way, then we are good. It’s a life’s work.
Q: Yes! It’s a lifetime of doing, and I will try to do it. Finally, can we speak a little about transcending the idea of spiritual well-being toward spiritual flourishing?
MB: My answers are the same. Find a way to take joy in this journey. It seems it’s really difficult, and we are working toward practicing, but actually that is all in the relative plane. We can also remember that we are part of a great loving heart and take joy from that. We can feel grateful for simply being here in this precious human birth. I am now looking out the window, here in the winter, and all the leaves are falling from the trees. I can see really fine tiny branches falling off a great giant tree. I sit here at this desk hours at a time, and often don’t look up and say, “Wow, that is really beautiful” and feel that kind of joy, appreciation and gratitude.
Do you know who Anand Mai Ma was? She was a saint in northern India who was alive when I was there, and she was an extraordinarily loving person. I just want to show you these two pictures of her on my desk. Looking at her face is such a joy. And here’s one from when she was younger. When I ask myself questions about being a woman and flourishing, I sometimes look at these pictures of her. This happened to me with my Guru also. It wasn’t that the questions were answered. It was that the questions fell away. They weren’t relevant anymore in the presence of the big answer – presence and love.
Q: Throughout this conversation you have spoken about love, joy and gratitude. I am just so happy to be in your presence, and I am sure all the participants are too. Thank you so much.
MB: I have loved being with you. It’s wonderful. Thank you.
Q: Do you have any closing thoughts?
MB: Well, I know it is night for you now, so go to sleep with joy in your heart. May you and everyone there flourish in your love and care for others.
To watch the webinar: https://youtu.be/aC_OvQtzSl4
Interviewed by PURNIMA RAMAKRISHNAN
Illustrations by ANANYA PATEL
May 01, 2021
May 01, 2021
May 01, 2021