Mirabai Bush Mirabai Bush is the Executive Director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.


return to the Winter 2003 Newsletter


In order to give, one has to know one's gifts. That is the connection between generosity (the spirit of this season) and the contemplative mind. Contemplative awareness helps us know ourselves and our gifts. And it also helps us know the people and the world around us better, revealing opportunities for creative responses and relationships. And perhaps most liberating, it reveals the nature of reality, of the truth, so we can live more in harmony with the world, listening more fully to its call.

The work of contemplative practice is cultivating awareness, which means opening the doors of perception wider so that we take in more than usual. We look, we listen, and we avoid judgment. We see more. Contemplative practice doesn't ensure that we will have personal awakenings, but its systematic nature (every day, sit down, close your eyes, watch your breath) makes it more likely that we will see more clearly who we are. And who we are is our set of gifts, if you will.

In order to “work,” contemplative practice must be done with gentleness, patience, and kindness. Tibetan teacher Khamtul Rinpoche calls it “kind mind.” We practice first on and with ourselves, and then learn how to bring that kind mind into our relations with others.

As we widen our gentle inquiry into inner space, we encounter the “existential” questions: What really matters to me? If I could act from my deepest beliefs, what would I do? Who am I, anyhow? How can I act unless I know these things? None of the answers is fixed, everything is in flux, but listening to ourselves gets us closer to the inner river of truth. And it links us with work in the world.

Getting more familiar with the inner life doesn't answer the hard questions of the outer world about generosity. It doesn't resolve the difficulties of conflicting ideals between social change projects and investment portfolios, or reveal how to redistribute resources in a way that honors the deepest meaning of democratic values. It doesn't tell us what forms would let us run our organizations in ways that allow us to be more creative and loving (although I did once think up a one-day-a-month retreat for the Center while sitting, and it has brought a healthy balance to our group). But it can give the mind flexibility grounded in compassion. That mind can sometimes see things in a creative new way because it is not obstructed by former opinions.

During retreats sponsored by the Center, we have witnessed many such moments. A Monsanto scientist said, “Wait—we have been creating products (like herbicides) that kill living things (“weeds”)—we need to shift our understanding so that we create products that support life.” A Yale law student: “Oh my god! I just realized that I have been listening to my girlfriend as if she were an opposing lawyer in the courtroom…I need to develop a few different kinds of listening.” A journalist, “I never thought about what a compassionate media would look like….” A foundation executive, “I'm beginning to think that the most important outcomes can't be measured.”

Are these insights alone “enough”? Of course not, they need cultivation and development, often education and support. Contemplative practices alone, contemplative “aha” moments alone, will not bring the change we need to save the world. But they are seeds. They can open a closed mind to new options.

Contemplative practice, with its open eyes to the rising and falling of inner life, can also reveal the relativity of roles and power, a source of suffering often embedded in generous actions. Enough inner reflection, and it becomes pretty clear that one's essence is not “the giver,” or “the receiver,” even if that is what we do. The process becomes more about giving up than giving…giving up identification with roles and with ideas of separation and instead noticing that we are all here, interconnected, doing the best we can, and giving gifts to celebrate that! We move closer to what Michael Edwards at Ford Foundation calls the rare “critical friendship,” “a loyal but challenging relationship” in which both sides do what they do well, and “each trusts the other to find ways forward which fit their reality best.” Research has shown that contemplative practice develops capacities useful for such relationships: compassion, empathy, trust, honesty, self-confidence, willingness to be accountable, and appreciation for the interconnected nature of all life. These are gifts we can cultivate and then give with abandon. They are ever-renewing.

In the spirit of true abundance,

Mirabai Bush

return to the Winter 2003 Newsletter