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Mindful : August 2015
PART OF OUR MAKEUP Though bias seems like bad news all around, it’s a basic human trait. It’s part of our wiring for survival, explains psychiatrist and pro- fessor Daniel Siegel, codirector of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Bias helped early humans evaluate strangers quickly and determine who belonged in the cave and who didn’t . Those who made the right call went on to survive and reproduce, and so the trait was passed along. A cave dweller who guessed wrong might be killed. “The human brain has been called an ‘antici- pation machine,’” says Siegel. “It learns from the past to anticipate the future. Past experiences become perceptual filters that shape how you actually see or hear or understand what’s going on in the present moment.” Often this goes on beneath awareness. “Some would say you are on automatic, you don’t do this on purpose,” says Siegel. “But at its farthest reach, bias may lead humans to systematically destroy people in the outgroup.” The Holocaust and other genocides reveal this extreme, says Siegel, when the compassion circuitry turns off. Bias can be reinforced by what Siegel calls “priming.” If the fear of death is present, we are primed to treat people in the outgroup with more hostility, people in our ingroup with more kindness. The point is not to get rid of bias altogether—an impossible mis- sion—but to get to know what biases we hold, acknowledge the damaging aspects, and learn to see, and do, things differently. Sometimes there is a practical fix. Once a bias in favor of male musicians was identified, for instance, some orchestras solved the problem by having musicians audition behind a screen, so all that was known of them was the sound coming from their instruments. In other cases, getting beyond bias—as much as we can—involves getting acquainted with what’s inside our brains. “Mindfulness in general allows a person to become more aware of what is arising, and to embrace it for what it is,” says Siegel. “It’s an excellent strategy for recognizing and softening the harmful effects of unconscious bias—that and learning to be at ease with uncertainty. “For the human brain, being uncertain can often be interpreted as danger,” says Siegel. “ With mindfulness training, the brain can learn to rest in uncertainty without freaking out.” john a. powell is a law professor at UC Berkeley and head of the university’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. He attributes much of the damage bias has inflicted on society to our tendency to deny our interconnected- ness as human beings. At a recent conference on bringing mindful- ness into schools at the University of California, San Diego, a systems change consultant who focuses on equity issues, Sheryl Petty, formerly of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, talked about how ing rained habits of bias can be in societies. She went on to say how as a meditation practitioner she appre- ciates how mindfulness can help us get past minimizing differences to accepting, adapting to, and integ rating differences into our life and worldview (referring to stages on intercultural development models developed by Milton Ben- nett and Mitchell Hammer). But, she pointed out, there’s lots of work to be done. The people who have specialized in equity issues and diversity training over many decades have deepened our understanding of the historical, systemic factors that cause us to treat people unequally. But they “often may not know or say much about inner work and awareness practices, like mindfulness, and their role in systemic change.” Conversely, mindfulness teachers focusing on bias are not as steeped as they could be in an understanding of the systemic factors and might gloss them over. It would be great, she suggests, if these two groups started talking to each other. → PHOTOGRAPHCOURTESYOFJOHNA.POWELL August 2015 mindful 47