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E:10 Can Mindfulness Stop Hate and End Racism in America?

Jacob Derossett

Today we're here with Sarah Vallely, mindfulness teacher, coach, and author. Sarah has been teaching meditation and mindfulness for the past two decades, training and certifying others to teach mindfulness as well. Sarah is the author of four books. Her latest book is titled “Tame Soothe Dwell: The 55 Teachings of TSD Mindfulness”.


Sarah Vallely

The topic of this episode is “Can mindfulness stop hate and racism in America?” I'm going to begin by stating some facts. The School of Medicine at the University of Washington published a study in 2019. They investigated mis-qualified deaths by police officers in the US. They discovered that 55% of the deaths by police officers in the US are mis-qualified. Corners were omitting from the death records that the death was by a police officer. So the average mis-qualified deaths in the US was 55%. In some states was much higher than that. And this is over 40 years, Oklahoma has 84%, Wyoming, 79%, Alabama, 77%, and Louisiana, 77%. If you look at the statistics on the number of disproportionately black people police officers have killed, it's usually about 2.5 times more. However, this research, published by the School of Medicine at the University of Washington in 2019--they calculated that it's 3.5 times more. Police have disproportionately killed black people over white people three and a half times more.


Fatal police violence by race and state in the USA, 1980–2019: a network meta-regression School of Medicine, University of Washington, 2019



The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality is a federal government agency. They published a report in 2018 that involved black and indigenous American medical patients. And through their research, they found black and indigenous American medical patients received 40% poorer care than white patients. I read some other research along these lines. They use a third party to evaluate the care. They either have a camera that videos the interaction between the patient and the medical professional, or they have a person sitting in on the appointment.


The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Report, 2018


Other research shows this poorer care is given to people of color despite their age, their sex, their birthplace, or their education. This is an example of structural racism, when public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations perpetuate racism and inequality. In another study published by the New England Journal of Medicine in 2020, they found 293 Studies show that racism causes poor mental and physical health in people of color.


Structural Racism, Social Risk Factors, and Covid-19 — A Dangerous Convergence for Black Americans, The New England Journal of Medicine, 2020


The question is, “Can mindfulness and hate can mindfulness stop racism in America?” There are a lot of different approaches that we can take to address these issues. And these approaches we are doing on some level, and some of these include structured interracial conversations. These are highly effective. I read one research article that paired someone of color with a white medical practitioner. They had structured conversations during which one person would share their story and struggles, and the other person would validate how they were feeling and support them. And then they would switch, and the other person would share their story, the listener would give them validation and support. After these structured conversations, the quality of patient care was significantly increased with patients of color. So these interracial dialogues are significant.


Other approaches include, protest, changing policies and laws, boycotting companies that are associated with being racist, getting educated, reading books, participating in training, listening to podcasts. On an individual level, we can become more aware and informed about racial issues. Standing up to racism at the moment, another practical approach. And then there's mindfulness. I'm not going to sit here and say mindfulness is the best approach. I don't know. But I will tell I think a valuable conversation addressing racism in America needs to include mindfulness discussions. Because as you'll see, mindfulness can be very effective. There are many different reasons why mindfulness helps address racism and implicit bias. One being, mindfulness is a practice in non-attachment and non-judgment that leads to being more open-minded and helps avoid these automatic racial associations.


Jacob Derossett

Can you define implicit bias?


Sarah Vallely

Implicit bias is our automatic and unconscious bias thoughts. The research shows we all have implicit bias. So if you're thinking, “Oh, actually, I don't do that.” Not true. We all do. Implicit bias plays out as these automatic racial associations. We also have implicit biases about age, gender and body types. Neuroscientists believe that bias results from amygdala activity in the brain. And mindfulness is shown by science to reduce amygdala activity.


One level, we can use mindfulness to have less implicit bias. It's something that automatically happens when we practice--the research shows we have less implicit bias afterwards. But we can go even deeper and use mindfulness to become aware of our implicit bias. We all have a running story in our minds. We have some correct stories. But we're also running these stories in our minds that are incorrect. And what mindfulness does is helps us become aware of that, and it allows us to disengage from those stories.


Mindfulness supports us to be less emotionally reactive. The experts say that we act less on our biases when we are in a more neutral emotional state because we get out of our limbic brain and into our prefrontal cortex. Mindfulness does bring us out of that limbic brain, out of our emotional state, and more into our prefrontal cortex, the center of our executive functioning and rational thinking.


And lastly, mindfulness supports better collaboration, which we need to change structural racism. We need to work together. We need to create a sense of interconnectedness. Mindfulness and Buddhist teaching are based in becoming aware and feeling and embodying that interconnectedness--moving away from “us versus them” mentality and moving into more of an “Us” consciousness. The Buddhist teachings support moving out of a dualistic mindset to avoid polarization.


Jacob Derossett

So you were talking about an implicit bias, which cultivates some response. Let's say somebody has an implicit bias towards another person. And then this causes a response. And mindfulness can help you identify the implicit bias and be identified the response that you may have following that bias, and then step out and recognize both of those things. And using mindfulness creates a sense of oneness, interconnectedness, and dissolution of “me” versus “another”, opening up to a more caring, compassionate heart. That sounds like a solid process.


Sarah Vallely

We become aware of our mental response--actual thoughts that come up that are usually unconscious. You become aware of the unconscious associations you have with people of certain races.


Jacob Derossett

So let's say you have a white doctor treating black patients, and somebody is sitting in the corner of the room, and the doctor’s performance is poor. And you were to give this doctor a test asking questions about his beliefs and conscious biases about people. And he would pass this test, and you would say this person doesn't seem to have a conscious bias towards these people. But the care is still poor because it could be a subconscious level of discrimination. Is that what you're saying?


Sarah Vallely

Yeah, that's exactly what I'm saying. That's what a lot of this work is--is educating people, helping them understand that they are unconsciously micro-aggressive. Microaggressions are when we are derogatory, when we say a racist joke, for example. So these are the consequences of our implicit biases. And this whole process often happens unconsciously. However, people can learn specific mindfulness techniques that help them become aware of this process and then become concerned that they might be hurting others because of their own implicit biases.


Jacob Derossett

Adding compassion practice to my life has changed me. I've noticed a big difference for me in that way.


Sarah Vallely

The first time I was aware of my implicit bias was during professional development. We were shown photographs of different people and asked to become conscious of the first thought in our minds. When I looked at this photo, it was really disturbing and eye-opening for me who wasn’t aware that this process is going on. I was really surprised and appalled by some of the automatic thinking that came up when I looked at these different photos. Our other response we're noticing is emotional. These implicit biases cause us to experience certain emotions. And so that's another way that we can use our mindfulness in the moment mindfulness mindset is to notice what feelings are coming up when we're in these situations.



One avenue is to become aware of our implicit biases, which I think is an effective approach. There is also another avenue, practicing traditional mindfulness. The practice has shown to minimize your implicit bias.



Jacob Derossett

I've started meditating in the morning, non-guided, and that's relatively new. I've only done that in the past few months. Before that, I rarely did a session without guidance, I'm starting to learn more about myself, I'm saying that to hopefully motivate people to know that in a very short window of time, you can have a big difference.


Sarah Vallely

Here's some more research that might give us some specific insight into how exactly mindfulness is helping address implicit bias. A study published in 2015 involved loving-kindness meditation. And in this study, they took two groups. One group practiced typical loving kindness, which is you say to yourself, “I wish for myself to be healthy, I wish for myself to have joy,” for example. And then you say the same for somebody in your life. And then you say the same for all beings, “I wish all beings to be healthy, I wish all beings to have joy.” They had one group that practiced this type of loving kindness. And then they had another group that addressed themselves, “I wish to be happy and wish for myself to have peace.” And then they had the people consider a racial group. And what they found was that the group that considered the different racial groups, reduced their implicit bias reduced by quite a bit. I questioned this a little bit because I feel like just regular loving kindness practice would also decrease your implicit bias. But I thought this was interesting how they divided this group.


Brief loving-kindness meditation reduces racial bias, mediated by positive other-regarding Emotions Motivation and Emotion 2015


Jacob Derossett

Mindfulness practice helps you dissolve your sense of self. I understand this in theory, not in practice, necessarily. During this practice you dissolve your sense of seeing yourself separate from any other person. When you're being compassionate, and you're doing a practice like loving kindness, it's getting you closer to that place where you are on the other side of these biases. I would say that nirvana is when you dissolve this separateness. It's all one. With that being said, you can still understand how racism and hunger are horrendous. And we have to work to make sure that these things end as quickly as possible. It seems like to me, that this dissolving is key.


Sarah Vallely

Mindfulness practice is based on Buddhism, based on the idea that we're all interconnected. And we are all one on a certain level. The famous story that the Buddhist teachers teach is the sun is in the paper. It's all interconnected. The sun shines on the tree. The tree grows, the tree is chopped down and made into pulp. And then, the pulp is made into paper. And so, can you separate the sun from the paper? It's all interconnected. And the more we practice, the more we embody that hopefully, the more we experience this on a concrete level, it becomes less abstract. When we talk about this idea of oneness is feels abstract. But what the practice does is it makes it concrete. You start to feel it. It starts to change the way you think. And I think that's such an essential piece that mindfulness can bring to the problems of racism in this country--to the pain that Americans are experiencing due to division and racism. It's very vital.


Jacob Derossett

After reading that book for book club, I'm convinced that every problem comes from a lack of compassion. The problem starts when you think somebody is different, that they're in a different group, any separateness.


Sarah Vallely

That book that we read, “The Book of Joy” by Desmond Tutu and His Holiness that Dalai Lama, talks about research that shows that people who use the pronouns “I” are generally less happy than people who use “us”.


Jacob Derossett

Think of all the warmest people that you know. When you're with people that have radiant love energy. It feels like they're “in it with you,” that you're sharing something with them. They are connected beings that have love at the center of everything. All this stuff is not easy. And being aware of these things and doing it's a practice is probably difficult. I'm far from anywhere near the end of it.


Sarah Vallely

Mindfulness is difficult, and I hear you with that. But this next study, will show everyone that it can be easy. There was a study published in the American Psychological Association Journal in 2016. They had a group of people who listened to a 10-minute recorded mindfulness meditation, during which they noticed physical sensations and thoughts in a non-judgmental way. Then they had another group who, for 10 minutes, listened to a recording describing the countryside, and they were asked to pay attention to when the word “parish” was used in this description. So they were focused. They were observed and tested for implicit bias afterwards. And the group that listened to the recorded mindfulness meditation, using non-judgmental attention, scored a raw score of six on the implicit bias scale. The group that listened to the recording of the description of the countryside scored, on average, 32 on the same scale. This, to me, is mind-blowing. This is an 81% difference. You sit down for 10 minutes and use some non-judgmental attention on the sensations in your body and thoughts and if you are compared to somebody else who's focused on something but not using non-judgmental awareness, you're 81% better at not having implicit bias. Ten minutes, they did it for ten minutes! I don't know how long it lasts. I don't know how long until it wears off. But, why are people of color going into a hospital and receiving 40% poorer care when 10 minutes of non-judgmental awareness meditation decrease that by 81%! Why is this happening?


Brief Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Discrimination American Psychological Association 2016



Jacob Derossett

It sounds like one of the reasons is people don't meditate. If more people meditated, I believe it would get better. I just don't know how it wouldn't. I don't want to be one of those people that's like mindfulness fixes everything, but… It's like exercising. If you don't exercise and start exercising. “Oh my god, what was I doing before not doing this?” I can only not exercise for a few days. And then I just feel so bad, and mindfulness is identical.


Sarah Vallely

And same with eating better. We do these things, and we feel better, we are better, we are more compassionate. I'll finish up here with some suggestions.


· Practice single pointed focus, which is focusing on the sounds and the environment or physical sensations in your body or with your eyes open looking at something or focusing on your breath with non-judgmental awareness.

· Another is loving kindness meditation, especially practicing loving kindness meditation with considering a racial group.

· And if you want to go deeper, become aware of your bias associations. Good way to experience this is to participate in a training an example of these exercises, someone will say a word and then you notice what comes up for you. What do you associate with that word? The word might be “professional”, what automatically pops up in your mind--maybe a visual image or a thought. Another word “criminal.” What automatically pops up in your mind, what is the association there? After you become aware of those automatic associations become concerned--become concerned that you might be hurtful--you might be hurting others because of your automatic associations.


If there's anyone out there who works for a company who wants to bring someone in for a staff training on the subject of implicit bias and racism, I would be interested in coming in and talking to your staff.

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