Mindfulness and Racial Bias

I’m heading off to a silent retreat next week with the discord of our peace-in-the-worldcontentious times ringing in my ears. I question whether my mindfulness practice is simply my own personal journey or can mindfulness really make a difference in the larger world?

Many people, myself included, come to a mindfulness practice thinking about personal issues. Indeed there is ample research showing that cultivating mindfulness can have a major effect on decreasing stress and in learning to work with physical pain or mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Still, in these times of discord, beset by racism, classism and myriad other isms, I ponder the place of a mindfulness practice in the wider world.

I feel inspired  by the words of Thich Naht Hahn, a Buddhist monk who took his practice off the cushion by engaging with the immense hopelessness and pain of the world in the 60s during the Vietnam war. He writes:

Across the globe, people suffer from very much the same things: social injustice, discrimination, fear, and fanaticism… to think that everything the other group does is evil and everything we do is good, prevents us from understanding the values of others, and from recognizing their suffering and fear. Instead of making us stronger, our unwillingness to listen keeps us vulnerable and afraid.

Listening? What does it take to really listen across boundaries of race, class or political views? What does it take to truly put aside thoughts of evil intent from those with whom we disagree and move away from an “us” versus “them” approach?

In my own life, mindfulness, (paying attention to what is happening, here, now, with curiosity and openness towards thoughts and feelings), brought me face to face with my own unconscious racial bias. For instance, I noticed a barely perceptible tightening when I saw a black person in a mostly white neighborhood; Similarly, when I hired a black contractor to do work for me and he didn’t follow through, my immediate thoughts made it about race.

In these situations mindfulness helped me be aware of how my mind and emotions were functioning. Being more aware didn’t stop my thoughts from happening, but awareness did give me more freedom to choose how I wished to react.

Research has shown that many of us have these types of unconscious bias. Scientists have studied this using a test called the Implicit Assumptions Test or IAT. They flash photos of people representing different social groups on a screen. They have shown that white participants and even many blacks, show bias by having quicker response times when pairing words representing “good” characteristics with white faces and words representing “bad” characteristics with black faces than vice versa.


Can mindfulness help to decrease this type of bias? In a recent study of 72 white college students, one group of participants was instructed to “become aware of bodily sensations (heartbeat and breath) and fully accept these sensations and any thoughts without restriction, resistance, or judgment”. It was shown that this group had less bias than participants in a control group.  The researchers concluded that even short mindfulness instruction weakened automatically activated associations.

These results are in a laboratory setting. Could mindfulness make a difference in the real world, for example with police officers who need to make split second decisions in often ambiguous situations? I was pleasantly surprised to find the degree to which police officers, corrections officers, lawyers, judges and others on the front lines in many locations are having positive results from mindfulness training.


The following is from an article titled:  How Mindfulness is Changing Law Enforcement by Jill Suttie:

Chief of police, Sylvia Moir, says, “The science is validating that mindfulness has the potential to increase fair and impartial policing, because we are open to recognizing our responses to a stimulus, to an event, to a person. I really think this is going to change the way we show up for our communities. “

Obviously it will be a long, slow process for mindfulness to have a major impact on the criminal justice system.  However, I find hope and inspiration from seeing the ways in which many, many people are using a mindfulness practice not just for personal growth or for adapting to an existing system, but for actually changing how we respond to others in significant ways. It is in that process that I find hope for real change in our larger society.

Further information on mindfulness in the criminal justice system:

A conference on Mindful Justice took place in September 2015 that “brought together the pioneers of mindfulness-based programming in the criminal justice system, as well as teachers, researchers, and policy-makers with an interest in this work, to explore how we can establish a shared vision for system-wide transformation drawing on the principles and practices of mindfulness…This moment is a particularly ripe one for catalyzing fundamental change in the American criminal justice system.”

The following is a link to a paper from the conference that provides details about the breadth of mindfulness programs within  the criminal justice system.

Mindfulness and Criminal Justice: The State of the Field by Dan Carlin

Information, videos and papers from that conference can also be found at www.mindfuljustice.org

More information about mindfulness and the justice system in papers from the conference:

Santa Clara County Justice System

Lawyer Trainings 


 Police Reform 

Louisville Kentucky  Symposium

Community Engagement

Corrections Staff & Probation & Parole Officers 

Programming for Prisoners

Programs for Adolescents 

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