Transforming Bias

Transforming Bias

Mindfulness practice is a radical investigation of being human. With clear and caring vision, we look deeply into our own minds and bodies. We examine the nature of our actions, relationships, and the systems within which we live in order to learn how to make best use of the time we are given on this planet.

Today, the gross and painful inequalities of our world are readily apparent—from the violence of poverty and the devastation of war to the ongoing effects of racism and mass incarceration. As citizens, we can seek to transform external systems that perpetuate suffering. As mindfulness practitioners, we can also seek to transform the internal systems that fuel this suffering.

Read on for more about how mindfulness reveals and transforms bias, or listen to a talk on this topic.

Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, arrested in Starbucks in Philadelphia on April 12 while waiting for a friend

Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, arrested in Starbucks in Philadelphia on April 12 while waiting for a friend


What is Bias?

Bias simply means “an inclination of temperament or outlook.” We lean in a certain direction. For example, we are all naturally biased to prefer pleasure over pain. A core part of contemplative practice is studying the friction that results from preferring pleasure and stability in a world that is inherently unstable, in which pleasure and pain constantly fluctuate.

Bias also means prejudice—a disposition to pre-judge. It can be positive or negative, conscious (explicit) or unconscious (implicit). Implicit bias is an attitude, judgment, or stereotype that we possess without even knowing it.

When combined with power, bias becomes dangerous.

When an employer is biased against women, female employees earn less and are passed up for promotions. When elected representatives are biased, they enact or implement legislation that harms entire segments of the population (e.g., redlining, crack cocaine laws). Racial bias in law enforcement leads to excessive use of force, as we’ve seen so tragically throughout our nation’s history. Recently, the arrest of two black men at Starbucks followed by the arrest of a black college student sleeping in a common area illuminated (yet again) the continued, daily, negative effects of implicit bias on the lives of people of color in the United States.

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
— James Baldwin
Photo: Ted Thai / Getty Images

Photo: Ted Thai / Getty Images

Uncovering Bias

To practice mindfulness is to uncover bias.

Mindfulness is paying attention in a balanced and nonjudgmental way. To develop this particular quality of awareness requires noticing when we the mind is unbalanced or judgmental—when it is biased for or against something.

In this practice, we quickly realize that we are not neutral observers. We are far less objective than we like to think. Acknowledging this, we can begin to tease apart the ways in which our mind leans towards or away from certain experiences, situations, or people. We see this when resisting an unpleasant sensation, avoiding someone, or discounting their ideas because of their political views, race, gender, or any other attribute.

It takes great humility to look honestly at our own biases.

Whatever our field of work may be, how are we biased for or against our fellow beings? Whom are we predisposed to like? On whom do we come down harder? In the education field, recent studies have shown how implicit racial bias effects disciplinary actions, and how even preschools teachers can be predisposed to perceive challenging behavior in students of color. 

The Humility of Not Knowing

As we practice mindfulness, we discover successively deeper layers of bias. Encountering these patterns, we can begin to study their origins and observe their operation in real time. We learn how such attitudes arise from automatic associations in our memory based on past experience and social conditioning.

Becoming aware of a particular bias, it holds less sway over our actions. Noticing a tendency to lean in one direction or another, we can consciously choose a new response. Each time we become cognizant of a previously unconscious bias, our world expands.

At first, this process can be difficult or surprising. As a man, I clearly recall the first time I noticed my conditioned tendency to give less credence to a woman’s voice. It was simultaneously a humbling and empowering revelation.

By definition, we can’t see our own blind spots. Over time, we get used to realizing how little we actually know. With each new awareness or shift in perspective, our humility deepens. Instead of needing to have things figured out or believing we must achieve some ideal state of perfection, we learn to rest in the deep humility of not knowing. This kind of openness is the most fertile ground for learning and human development.

A Heart of Kindness

Mindfulness practice sharpens our moment-to-moment awareness and reveals our mind’s conditioning. Initial studies have shown that even ten minutes of mindfulness practice can reduce implicit racial and age bias.[1]

Loving-kindness (or heartfulness) practice transforms bias in different way. The cultivation of positive mind states like kindness and compassion alters the internal atmosphere of the heart/mind towards an innate disposition of goodwill. This may have the effect of overriding or replacing implicit bias. Initial studies have shown that six weeks of loving-kindness, even seven minutes of this intentional practice, can reduce implicit bias.[2,3]

Mindfulness and loving-kindness practice are not just about reducing stress. Ultimately, they're about helping one another and working for a better world. Service is the natural expression of any sincere contemplative practice, for the more deeply we understand ourselves the more compassion we have for others.

Let us each then seek to understand our own hearts and minds, to speak and act from our deepest truth, and to serve the healing and freedom of our shared planet.

If you'd like to deepen your understanding of the history of race and racism, check out this excellent podcast series called Seeing White. I found it incredibly eye-opening, and can't recommend it highly enough.

If you’d like to explore your own implicit bias, you can read more about the Implicit Association Test here. You can take any number of Harvard IAT tests here.

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[1] Lueke, A., & Gibson, B. (2015). Mindfulness meditation reduces implicit age and race bias: The role of reduced automaticity of responding. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6, 284-291.

[2] Stell, A. J., & Farsides, T. (2016). Brief loving-kindness meditation reduces racial bias, mediated by positive other-regarding emotions. Motivation and Emotion, 40, 140-147.

[3] Kang, Y., Gray, J. R., & Dovidio, J. F. (2014). The nondiscriminating heart: Lovingkindness meditation training decreases implicit intergroup bias. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 1306.