Why Bias & Stereotyping Are Inconsistent with the Attitudes of Mindfulness

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When we practice mindfulness, much of what we are practicing is being accurately self- and other-aware. Bias and stereotyping are distortions of reality. We call these distortions “implicit” when they are largely unconscious. Our blindness to them makes it so we have no control over their impact on our behavior. When they are “explicit”, it means we recognize them. Only when we acknowledge our stereotypes and biases will we have some choice in how we respond to them. Mindfulness helps us make the implicit more explicit. We can learn to see through some of the illusions and distortions our human minds are vulnerable to and make wise decisions about them.

Though stereotypes and biases are formed in the mind of an individual, they are often shared and reinforced within social groups and cultures. They are compelling because they can give us a false sense of knowing and belonging. They can serve to explain complex and baffling events and to justify questionable and uncertain actions. They act as shortcuts, making things seem more black and white and predictable than they truly are. They can also act as a social lubricant, providing a shared belief we might be tempted to unite around.

Socially, stereotyping involves generalizing certain behaviors or attributes to an entire group of people. We make an erroneous inference about the relationship between events and/or characteristics and then replicate this with every seemingly similar experience. Stereotypes substitute for actual observation because they make us think we already know.

Socially, bias is the systematic, disproportionate favoring of one individual or group over another. It requires a lack of objectivity. We are vulnerable to giving more weight to our initial impressions, to find patterns in random events, and to make false attributions that favor our existing beliefs or serve our own needs and desires. We also tend to inappropriately ascribe other people’s bad behavior to their disposition or personality and their good behavior to luck or circumstance.

The tendency to stereotype and harbor biases is part of the human condition. We don’t have to beat ourselves up for having them. The danger occurs when we are unaware of them, either through ignorance or denial. What we think we believe isn’t always what we unconsciously believe. You can test this by taking one of Harvard’s implicit bias tests at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.

The ultimate goal of mindfulness practice, lofty as it may seem, is the elimination of suffering in ourselves and others. Stereotyping and bias increase and maintain suffering. Because they serve to oversimplify reality and justify behavior, they have a powerful effect on how we treat one another. Research has shown that performance decreases when people are aware of a negative stereotype about them. Stereotypes lead people to expect certain actions from members of social groups and result in self-fulfilling prophecies.

The attitudes of mindfulness include taking a beginner’s mind, which means being open to the uniqueness of every experience. This is unlikely to happen when we think we already know. They also include non-judging, which involves setting aside our initial categorizations of experience as good, bad, or neutral and opening to it with a sense of objectivity and curiosity. Its impossible to be open and curious when we’ve already cast judgment.

Most mindfulness teachers have led something called the raisin exercise at least once, if not many times with their participants. In case you haven’t experienced it yet, I won’t entirely spoil it for you. But, suffice it to say that once you’ve observed the richness and variety in something as mundane as a raisin, it becomes difficult to understand how we can pigeonhole something as complicated and mind boggling as a human being.

Mindfulness also helps us recognize the truth of our interconnection. We begin to understand, on a fundamental level, that we are all equal and that our own happiness is ultimately inseparable from the happiness of others. Social bias and stereotyping proliferate suffering in ourselves and others because they serve to separate us and distort reality, making it difficult for us to respond skillfully.

One of the best ways to confront our stereotypes and biases is through exposure – through direct experience. When we really get to know people in an intimate way, it becomes very difficult for us to see them as two-dimensional. The wisdom tradition behind the practice of mindfulness offers a wonderful quote, “Find out for yourself what is truth, what is real.” Rather than going on hearsay or speculation, instead of relying on faith or convention, go and directly experience “the other” for yourself – not just once, but again and again. In this way, we might begin to clear away all the conditioning, stories, and interpretations and see things as they really are – in all their confusion, ambiguity and breathtaking complexity.

Let us vow to bear witness to the wholeness of life,
realizing the completeness of each and every thing.
Embracing our differences,
I shall know myself as you,
and you as myself.
May we serve each other
for all our days,
here, there, and everywhere.

 Let us vow to open ourselves to the abundance of life.
Freely giving and receiving, I shall care for you,
for the trees and stars,
as treasures of my very own.
May we be grateful
for all our days,
here, there, and everywhere.

Let us vow to forgive all hurt,
caused by ourselves and others,
and to never condone hurtful ways.
Being responsible for my actions,
I shall free myself and you.
Will you free me, too?
May we be kind
for all our days,
here, there, and everywhere. 

Let us vow to remember that all that appears will disappear.
In the midst of uncertainty,
I shall sow love.
Here! Now! I call to you:
Let us together live
The Great Peace that we are.
May we give no fear
for all our days,
here, there, and everywhere.

— Sensei Wendy Egyoku Nakao

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