Mindfulness at Work: An Interview with Mirabai Bush

Elisha talks to Mirabai Bush about how mindfulness can make our work life more meaningful. 

Photo: osippova/Flickr.com

Most of us spend the majority of our day at work. It follows that an essential place to bring mindfulness to is at work. Mirabai Bush is the author of Working with Mindfulness (MP3)a key contributor to Google’s Search Inside Yourself Program, Cofounder of The Center for Contemplative Mind and Society and so much more. Today is a joy to bring her to you to explore how bringing mindfulness to work can help us reduce stress, increase productivity, use more creative problem solving techniques, and improve relationships.

Today, Mirabai talks to us about what it means to bring mindfulness into the workplace, how it can bring deeper meaning, the benefits of mindful listening, the why and how of  informal walking practice, and a simple practice to enhance relationships at work.

Elisha: When it comes to the workplace, you have found a fundamental flaw in our minds when we think of work like “Love is for home and discipline is for work.” One of the foundations to bringing mindfulness into the workplace is through an approach called Right Livelihood, can you tell us more about that and the benefits?

Mirabai: I first heard the words “right livelihood” while learning to meditate in a Buddhist monastery. Meditation teacher S.N. Goenka said, “If the intention is to play a useful role in society in order to support oneself and to help others, then the work one does is right livelihood.” Other teachers expanded on that: Do work that is ethical and helpful to your personal development. Do no harm though your work. Cause no suffering to yourself or others. Use work to nourish understanding and compassion. Remember that all life is interconnected. Be honest, be mindful of what you are doing.

When I asked my root teacher, Neemkaroli Baba, what work I should do, he said, “Love everyone and serve everyone.” That has kept me busy. Livelihood can be a path of inquiry and awakening, of coming closer to truth. All work that we do–from shipping Buddhas from a monastery store to guarding inmates in prison–has embedded in it questions that help us to transform our work from busyness to awakening. In retreats I led for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, a biotech scientist asked, “How can I develop products that sustain life, not destroy it?” An architect asked, “How can I create a contemplative building—a space in which the inside is larger than the outside?” A lawyer asked, “Can I be a zealous advocate and still have compassion for my adversary?” An anti-globalization activist asked, “If I give up my anger, where will my motivation come from?”

Approaching work as right livelihood encourages us to explore these questions in the context of our full lives. How can we live a meaningful and authentic life and still support our families and ourselves? What is the connection between ethical work and capitalist democracy? How can we contribute to social change that moves us to a more sustainable world?

These retreats were open forums to delve into practical challenges and barriers we encounter at work, and to investigate how our work can and does impact the whole world. Organizations don’t change suddenly, but as employees become committed to principles of right livelihood through mindfulness and compassion practice, they will change a company in important ways. They will—

  • Apply standards of conduct that are aligned with their personal values
  • Recognize that business is not an isolated entity—it is interconnected with all other life and its actions affect all other life
  • Encourage generosity
  • Use right speech
  • Listen carefully to others, both within and outside the company
  • Work better in teams and communicate more effectively
  • Tolerate ambiguity, not knowing, paradox
  • Recover more quickly from negative information and difficult situations
  • Encourage responsibility to those who work for and depend on the company—fare wage, health care, maternity/paternity leave, etc.
  • Exercise humility
  • Be compassionate and loving
  • Create products that support life.

Committing to right livelihood leads some of us to look for new work that we identify as meaningful and others of us to look for more meaning in the work we are already doing. A mindful workplace supports and nourishes the workers who are already sane and mature and encourages kindness, sincerity, and basic decency for all employees.

Elisha: You mention some important facts that come out of the International Listening Association that 45% of our time is spent listening and 75% of the time we’re apparently listening we’re actually distracted. That the average attention span is 20 seconds and from what we hear we only recall about half of it and a few hours later maybe we have 20% retention. How do you explain Mindful Listening and what are its benefits? One of the most important activities in workplace is listening.

Mirabai: Deep or mindful listening is a way of hearing in which we are fully present with what is happening in the moment without trying to control it or judge it. We let go of our inner clamoring and our usual assumptions and listen with respect for precisely what is being said. Very few of us have fully developed this capacity for listening. The practice of listening has many dimensions. We listen to our own minds and hearts and, as the Quakers say, to the “still, small voice within.” We listen to sounds, to music, to lectures, to conversations, and, in a sense, we listen to the written word, the text. There is a well-known image of the Tibetan poet and mystic Milarepa, sitting in his familiar listening posture, with his right hand cupped over his right ear. He is listening for the Dharma, or the truth.

Deep or mindful listening requires that we witness our thoughts and emotions while maintaining focused attention on what we are hearing. It trains us to pay full attention to the sound of the words, while abandoning such habits as planning our next statement or interrupting the speaker. It is attentive rather than reactive listening. Such listening not only increases retention of information, but encourages insight and the making of meaning. It can reveal the role of not knowing and not judging and help us to maintain an open receptivity to new ideas, important for growth in any workplace.

Elisha: I consider Thich Nhat Hanh to be a great teacher, someone who has influenced my life. You note a wonderful walking practice of his in your program where you instruct us to combine phrases with steps. “Stepping with your right foot, I have arrived, Stepping with your left foot, I am home.” Can you tell us how this applies to the workplace?

Mirabai: Walking meditation is the practice of paying close attention to the ordinary action of walking, a helpful practice for people at work, who usually walk at least sometimes during the day. It is a way of using a natural part of life to increase mindfulness as we become aware of the movement of each step; the exercise engages the person in life directly. It is not thinking or contemplating life while walking (which is also delightful), but being mindful of the verse (as in Thich Nhat Hanh’s verse) or of the muscles of the body, the movement and placement of the feet, balance, and motion. Once you learn the practice, you can do it almost anywhere. It frees the mind and helps you feel fully present on the ground. So when a person walks in the workplace to another office or a meeting or a lunch date, he or she is more open and mindful when arriving at the destination, ready to be present for the next agenda.

Elisha: Relationships are fundamental to our lives and can be trying in the workplace. Can you give us a practice that we can use immediately to enhance relationships in the workplace and act more positively to others? 

Mirabai: One powerful practice that we call “Just Like Me” is usually learned in pairs, so that each person is looking in the eyes of their partner and silently repeating phrases spoken by a meditation leader about the person across from them: “Just like me, this person has known physical pain. Just like me, this person has done things she regrets. Just like me, this person wants to be happy….” and so on. This compassion practice is designed to shift perspectives and deepen the understanding that we human beings are similar in important ways, no matter how vast our differences. We all need food, and shelter, and love.

We crave attention, recognition, affection, and, above all, happiness. Resentments, disagreements, and estrangements hurt all parties because they reinforce feelings of separation. And that separation is true only at one level–this activity helps us remember how we are connected by our humanity. And one person can do it alone by bringing to mind a difficult person and repeating the same phrases silently. It softens the negative feelings we have for another, and working together often becomes much easier.

Elisha: Do you have any final thoughts about what really matters in bringing mindfulness into the workplace?

Mirabai: What matters in the workplace is what matters in our lives—using every moment to learn from experience so that we grow in insight, wisdom, and compassion.

To hear a clip of a practice that Mirabai to help people with change at work you can find it here.

This article was originally posted on Mindfulness & Psychotherapy with Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.