How We Learn To Observe Our Own Biases

Mindfulness is often taught to and by middle-aged white women, but some of the most intense and interesting work is being offered to diverse and disenfranchised communities—bringing our cultural and class biases out into the open.

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We are in front of a diverse group of frontline social service workers teaching them to deliver mindfulness training to youth. Many of the people they serve are homeless or unstably housed sex-trade workers trying to leave this work, or substance-dependent and have been subjected to trauma. With a few exceptions, we teacher-trainers are predominately middle-aged white women trying to pass on our “wisdom” to a diverse group of future teachers whose audience will be an even more diverse, and disenfranchised, group.

This is a huge elephant in the room, and so we say, “Clearly we are white older women of privilege and don’t know your culture or the issues you face. But you are the people to take mindfulness beyond the white world and it’s time for us to get out of the way.” There was an audible letting go in the room. People were happy to have the situation named and for us to show respect for their efforts to bring diversity to this work. 

This situation continues to be a learning experience for all of us in the project, where age, power, inequity, color, and issues of gender are concerns we all have to contend with. Most mindfulness teachers are middle-class women; in addition, women, and the middle class are represented far more than men as participants in mindfulness-based programs. Yet this skew is only beginning to be discussed in mindfulness along with issues of racism, inclusion, power, and oppression (see archives on racism). So, this raises the question of how can the world of mindfulness continue to grow attuned to these issues, and build a better world as well as building a better individual? We don’t need to look very far to find other teachers and initiatives taking this work beyond the white middle class and middle-aged female.

Transforming “Us” and “Them” Thinking

As Mark Nepo so wisely put it we can think of mindfulness training as, “’transformational education,’  …understood as educating the whole person by integrating the inner and the outer life, by actualizing individual and global awakening, and by participating in compassionate communities.”

While he was referring to educational institutions, we can take this idea of transformational education and apply it directly to a discussion of mindfulness whether one is working in health, social service, psychotherapy, the work environment, or education. Mindfulness enhances one’s reflective capacity and trains us to loosen our attachment to our self-importance and our identities. As Beth Berlia states, “contemplative practices….can help students develop this ability to critically self-reflect. It can also offer them tools to remain present—and embodied.” These are important skills because they can help us to be more open, to become aware of our own biases—our tendency to engage in “us versus them” thinking or the contemplation of who is in and who is out.

How can the world of mindfulness continue to grow attuned to these issues, and build a better world as well as building a better individual?

Identity—and who we see ourselves to be—is so subjective and influenced by who we socialize with, our cultures, values, and experiences.  Identity in itself is not necessarily bad but rather gripping it too tightly and using it to think “different” means better or worse is one of the antecedents to oppression (internalized or externalized), defined as the subjecting of others to unjust treatment or control. And we have more than enough of that to go around everywhere. Mindfulness, as we hope, can help us to be more compassionate to ourselves and others. This may be particularly useful when we begin to engage in discussions around diversity, racism or inequality, regardless of whichever side of the oppressive fence we are on as we come face to face with our ignorance, suffering, or our roles in reinforcing prejudice or inequity. Mindfulness and compassion may allow us to be aware of our anger or shame and hold it with some space as we figure out what to do next rather than immediately lashing out or going to hide under a rock.

Seeing Our Reactions as Byproducts of Identity in an Unjust World

Many who are engaged in practicing or teaching mindfulness know that as we move into investigating experience a variety of thoughts, emotions and bodily reactions may arise. Berlia, who teaches Women’s Studies at St. Cloud University says, “teachers can help students make sense of them [their embodied experiences] in the context of oppressive systems that have helped produce them. We can begin to see the reactions as more than just the typical ‘monkey mind,’ but instead as inevitable byproducts of living a particular identity in an inequitable society.” 

This is a worthy perspective, particularly if we want to make mindfulness relevant to many, and not just the few; and to society and not just the individual. And even if we don’t, mindfulness helps us all better understand what may be showing up for people who are faced with difficulty, in the practice, and in life. In short, mindfulness training is not simply training people to see thoughts as passing sensations and to let them go. That would be both ignorant and cruel. We are rather asking people to turn toward challenging mind and mood states and then decide whether or not they need addressing through investigation, self-care, or skillful action. This is important for all of us, and even more so for those who are subject to various forms of oppression, prejudice, or trauma—the effects of which can arise potently during meditation practice.

While we are all interdependent and part of humanity, we also have very different histories, and degrees of power and privilege.

We need to also be aware when we are engaged in meditation with others from diverse backgrounds that while we are all interdependent and part of humanity, we also have very different histories and degrees of power and privilege. Mindfulness is not always benign and it is important that as we begin to practice that we pace ourselves, turning toward difficulty with gentleness, gradually building distress tolerance and increasing our ability to look at how we might change our relationship to our suffering, so that we can bring more ease or take skillful action as needed. 

We also really need to remember that we are located within a political and social system that has and continues to cause great harm to many. Mindfulness and compassion may help us slowly bring more equity, transformation, and healing to a disparate world but only if we are brave enough to turn toward ourselves and others, warts and all and ask, as Molly Swan, a mindfulness teacher and friend once said, “What are you willing to give up to bring the practice into your life?” Little did we know she was not just speaking from a self-centered view.