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Engaging the Self Observer to Unwind Implicit Bias

Recently, I was helping to facilitate a workshop on Culturally Responsive Leadership. One of our first activities with the group was an interactive process to develop a common understanding of the words we use to describe inequity such as prejudice, discrimination, privilege, and racism. We posted definitions of these and other terms on the wall and invited people to add sticky notes with their questions and comments.

One of the terms that attracted the most “traffic” was implicit bias. The strongest theme in the comments was the question: if implicit bias is unconscious, how do we undo it? How can we change what we are not aware of?

It may seem like an unsolvable conundrum, but there is a way out. In the Five Dimensions of Engaged Teaching we call this strategy engaging the self-observer. What we mean by this term is tapping into the part of ourselves that has the capacity to notice our own thoughts, behaviors and triggers; reflect on what we notice; make conscious choices going forward; and shift our course of action when necessary.

As educators we know a related term – meta-cognition – but we tend to think of it as a strategy to reflect on the process of learning new information or skills. Are you stuck on a math problem? Use meta-cognition to remember the other strategies you have learned and used elsewhere or to remember the strengths you can bring to the current challenge.

But there is another dimension to this meta-cognitive ability – the ability to observe our own thoughts, to notice what is flitting through our minds, to see our thoughts as something we have, not as something we are. When we have cultivated this additional dimension of meta-cognition we will find that our biases are not truly unconscious, they are merely very fast, so fast that we usually act on them before we know what is causing the action.

But if we develop the habit of introspection, of watching our minds at work, of simply paying attention to what is arising in our mental landscape, we can begin to “catch” our biases before we act on them. We can begin to notice when we are judging others and question why. We can move our prejudices and stereotypes from the automaticity of habitual thinking to the slower and more intentional processing of fresh experience.

At PassageWorks we practice and teach mindfulness as a powerful tool to build our capacity to stop and slow down our minds.. The first step in developing the mindful capacity to “catch” our biases is stopping. Literally. We have to put away our to do lists and the addiction to being busy all the time in order to just be with an attitude of curiosity towards our own experience in the present moment.

It is only when we are quiet and either still or moving very slowly that we can access our innate capacity to know our own minds and hearts.

What follows is a basic mindfulness practice we call the Pause. The written guidelines are below to listen to the Pause Practice (in English or in Spanish) and explore what it is like to slow down and notice our sensations, emotions and thoughts.

  • Find a quiet place. Sit on a chair so that both feet are flat on the ground. If possible, sit in a relaxed but upright posture in which you are supporting yourself rather than leaning on the back of the chair. Allow the weight of your body to be supported by the chair.
  • You can do this practice with open or closed eyes. If your eyes are open, gaze downward toward the floor in front of you. Soften your gaze so that you are not focused on anything in particular.
  • Take three deep breaths at your own pace, filling the abdomen first and then the chest; on the exhale, letting the air out of the chest and then the belly. You might envision filling and emptying a vessel of water.
  • Notice any physical sensations that are present in your body. These may include sensations of feet against the floor, hands in your lap, or body against the chair. They may also include any areas of tightness or relaxation, particularly in the middle part of the body. There’s no need to try to change anything you’re feeling; this is just about noticing.
  • Notice where your mind is. Are your thoughts racing, or is your mind calm? Are there thoughts from your day, or some anticipation about what will comes next. Just notice their presence without trying to get rid of them or change them, and without getting caught up in them.
  • Notice if there are any emotions present with you in this moment.
  • Spend a few more moments sitting with an awareness of sensations, thoughts, and emotions, without needing to change anything. Can you be curious about what you notice without making judgments?

With regular practice, the habit of noticing your own experience in real time is likely to transfer into greater mindfulness and awareness of your thoughts and emotions throughout the day. This will provide opportunities to respond rather than react to them. Don’t take our word for it. Try this practice 2 times a day for a few weeks and notice if it makes any difference. Let us know.

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