Mindful Action: Turning Inward

We’re moved this month to discuss mindfulness in action.

Mindfulness is an effective approach to looking within and seeing what work we need to do on ourselves. When talking about our thought processes, I have heard a few mindfulness teachers quoting Krishnamurti who stated, “You think you are thinking your thoughts, you are not; you are thinking the culture’s thoughts.” In other words, we humans find it extremely difficult to truly know the influences of society on our own minds. It is kind of like a fish trying to understand what the concept of wet feels like if it has never left the water.

You may have heard about implicit bias, the unconscious attitudes that the majority of people have. We might have implicit bias against people who do not look like us, speak like us, believe like us, or vote like us. However, we would not know about such unconscious attitudes directly without close examination. Most people will readily state that they are not racist, and it would likely be true that they are not consciously racist. However, there have been several studies by psychologists and anthropologists showing that our behavior does not often match our conscious proclamations.

Ongoing psychological studies by Harvard researchers using the Implicit Association Test have shown that about 75% of Americans have an easier time making rapid associations between positive attributes and the faces of White people and negative attributes and the faces of Black people. Though it was a lower rate, this finding was even true for the majority of Black Americans. This goes to show that these are learned habits of thought that distort how we perceive situations and influence our behaviors. These learned thought habits likely stem from several factors in our society, many of which we may have little conscious awareness. These learned unconscious biases are deeply rooted and have implications for disparities in our society, such as healthcare, education, and of course the criminal justice system.

How can mindfulness help? For one, it can help us to gain conscious awareness of our unconscious biases. For example, through repeated mindfulness practices, one can learn to sense subtle changes in body sensations when in interacting with someone the brain registers as different from them. We might notice a slight contraction in the body letting us know that an implicit attitude has been activated. We also might become aware of any immediate self-judgment or shame reactions and remind ourselves that society has conditioned us to have biases. With awareness of our biases, we have more of a choice in how we respond to social situations with people different from ourselves.

Furthermore, scientists have shown evidence that some forms of mindfulness meditation training, such as loving kindness and compassion meditations, can significantly reduce implicit biases. For instance, a study out of Yale and Michigan State Universities in 2014 showed a significant reduction in implicit bias toward African American and homeless people after a 6-week course in Loving Kindness Meditation (Kang, Y. et al., 2014). The researchers did not find the same effect with a group of participants who only discussed loving kindness, but did not practice it in formal meditation.

So, let’s sit quietly, acknowledge our reactions to others without shaming ourselves, and work to be the change we want to see in the world.

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