Paying Mind to Diversity

Lawyer Rhonda V. Magee argues for meditation. 

When we’re confronted with experiences different from those we ourselves have known, meditation may assist us to respond with an open heart.

Succeeding at minimizing bias in the workplace depends on our capacities to communicate across differences of experience and to find our ways, again and again, back to places of common ground. Whatever else may be said about how we do this, dealing with bias in my profession, the legal profession, requires that we become as aware as we can be of the ways we are invisible to barriers to genuine communication between ourselves and other human beings—barriers such as invisible privileges, subtle prejudices in our reactions and receptivity to one another, and blindness to the consequences of differences between people. We could all benefit from the development of practices which enable us to develop these capacities. This is especially important to us as members of a profession dedicated to justice, and in service of that goal, to eliminating bias or minimizing its effects on ourselves, our colleagues, and our clients.

Sometimes we must focus precisely on that which makes us uncomfortable if we want to see the whole truth and develop appropriate strategies for the ongoing work of repair.

Such work is challenging. Mindfulness can help. Mindfulness practices can help make us more capable of handling the uncomfortable feelings and reactions that arise, and the uncertainty that is an inevitable consequence of venturing out of our comfort zones and dealing with things that are hard to “sit with.” Mindfulness refers to a quality of awareness that is focused on the present moment and is without judgment or evaluation of one’s experience. It is the goal or objective of meditation or contemplative practice—the intentional practice of activities aimed at quieting the mind and cultivating the capacity for insight. Often associated with the practices of Buddhism, Taoism and yoga, a respect for the cultivation of mindfulness may be seen in mystical interpretations of Christianity as well. Further, the quintessentially American philosophy of transcendentalism associated with Emerson and Thoreau reflect the principles of mindfulness in a secular vein. More and more, research confirms it is an essentially human quality deriving from an essentially human set of practices.

Thus, meditative practices may not only be effective in minimizing distress and dissatisfaction among law students and practitioners; indeed, they may also be counted among important latent personal technologies for increasing our capacity to communicate with an open heart and to experience ourselves as interconnected across communities “different” from our own (when our normal reactivity might otherwise tempt us to close our hearts and minds). Meditative practices may be instrumental because they help us to accomplish the following objectives, each of which appears important in maximizing the effectiveness of working with diversity:

  • setting a tone of inclusion and respect;
  • counteracting cognitive bias and the dissonance that comes when we find ourselves in settings which make us uncomfortable;
  • enhancing transcultural communications;
  • facilitating emotionally-laden discussions;
  • enabling “holistic” learning;
  • increasing the capacity for reflection for its own sake;
  • enhancing the capacity for handling conflict with compassion for all parties involved; and,
  • improving professional performance.

In short, meditation may assist us in developing our capacit to be mindfully vulnerable—to choose to  respond with an open heart, even in the face of the fear that usually keeps us clinging to the safety of denial and distance when confronting experiences different from those we ourselves have known.

Contemplative practice has helped me to deal with the day to day challenges of working as a Black woman in a world not always prepared to treat me, my reality or my experiences as worthy of full recognition and respect. The practices have assisted me in maintaining consciousness of our interconnectedness as human beings, and in developing the three key capacities that characterize the sort of relational resilience I seek:

(1) to recognize that empathy with self is the only basis for empathy across levels of stratified powerand to respond to myself with kindness in moments when I feel wounded;

(2) to be mindful that speaking and listening are themselves political acts, and that try as I might my own contributions may replicate patterns of oppression and operate to wound others; and,

(3) to meet with as much compassion as I can, lapses in awareness in myself and in others, so that I may return, again and again, to a felt understanding of the commonality of our experience as human beings.

My own research is beginning to provide independent confirmation that these practices may improve the well-being of each of us as lawyers—and as human beings. These latent technologies can help us deal with the identity-based anxieties that so often arise in mixed company, and the difficulties related to one another as human beings beset with conditioning across racial, gender, and sexual orientation lines.

Perhaps more importantly, mindfulness training and modeling have the potential to increase our capacity for dealing with difficult truths about ourselves, for meeting our truths with compassion, and for responding more compassionately to that which we would sometimes prefer to reject in the experiences and truth-tellings of others in our daily lives. But please don’t take my word for it: try it for yourself, and share what you find here.

For more about this from Rhonda Magee, register (for free) to hear the livestream of her talk at the Creating a Mindful Society conference in New York. The livestream is available until January 31.

Copyright by Rhonda V. Magee, 2008. Adapted from The Mindful Law Professor and the Challenges of Diversity, an article-in-progress.

Rhonda V. Magee is Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco, where she teaches, among other things, a course called Contemplative Lawyering. A former practicing lawyer, she is vice-chair and chair-elect of the board of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.