Full text of psychiatrist Dr. Narveen Dosanjh’s talk: Using Mindfulness to Choose Love over Fear at TEDxBushwick conference.
Dr. Narveen Dosanjh- Medical Doctor and Integrative Psychiatrist
The inspiration for my talk today is my dear friend Jamie Zimmerman. She was a TEDxBushwick 2015 speaker. She spoke last year about ‘The Power of the Gap’.
She is no longer with us and in her loving memory, I wanted to continue the conversation about mindfulness and how we can utilize mindfulness to better our communities and choose love over fear.
As a psychiatrist for years, all people, regardless of who they are or where they come from, I’ve realized typically want three things. That is to be seen for who they are, to be valued for who they are, and to be accepted for who they are.
And I always tell people, if that’s something you want for yourself, then you have to be willing to give that to others.
As a psychiatrist, people also come to me looking for greater peace. And through mindfulness I’ve been helped… I’ve been able to help them achieve more peace in their lives.
But there is a direct interconnection between what’s going on inside of us and the world around us. And that’s where mindfulness comes in.
So what’s mindfulness?
Mindfulness is defined as bringing your attention to the present moment and recognizing your thoughts, emotions, and reactions that are going on in that very moment in a non-judgmental way.
And when we’re talking about our community, when we become mindful, we give ourselves an opportunity to choose love over fear.
So let’s talk about the collective consciousness of our community and our city.
What happens when we look deeper into the collective consciousness of what is going on in our city and in our community today? What is the pulse?
When we look at police shootings, community, law enforcement, talk of gentrification, what is underlying all of these things?
And essentially it’s fear. And Gandhi has this wonderful quote that I love. He says, ‘We think the enemy is hate, but the enemy is not hate. The enemy is fear.’
And that’s what we really have to talk about. So let’s talk about fear.
Where does fear come from and how does it develop in the human brain and in ourselves?
Well, we’re born into this world and when we come into this world, we have all of our senses: touch, sight, smell, words that we hear, things that we see. And as we grow into the life, into our life, we’re basically taking in all of the information from around of us, from around us and absorbing it into ourselves.
So that comes from all types of things. Social media, it can come from movies, the books that we read, the words that we hear, the communities we’re a part of, the things people say.
And what’s happening over a lifetime is that the brain is absorbing all of this information. And when the brain absorbs all of this information, what ends up developing unknowingly is a concept called implicit bias.
So what’s implicit bias?
Implicit bias is a sub-conscious bias. It is a bias in our judgment, our behavior, or our actions that is unknown to us. And it’s typically unintentional. It’s coded very, very deep inside. And it’s really in a part of ourselves that we don’t and can’t acknowledge.
Implicit bias from an evolutionary standpoint was very advantageous to the human brain. We humans had to figure out who was friend and who was foe. We had to decipher. So we developed this very protective mechanism to be able to develop implicit biases because we had to survive.
But when we’re talking about our modern world today and we’re talking about building a better community, implicit bias can get in the way.
So we talk about implicit bias. We have to talk about the concept of fear. And fear begins and ends in the brain. And implicit bias and fear are connected because when implicit bias and fear are interconnected, that can affect the way we think, what we believe, our actions and all that we do.
All right, so let’s talk about the fear of response. Something everybody knows about. What happens is, fear is an emotion that begins and ends in the mind. It is subconscious and it just happens. We don’t think about it.
And depending on what your mind perceives to be a stimuli of fear, that’s how this entire fear of circuit actually occurs and happens.
So depending on the world that you live in, the community you grew up in, what’s very interesting is that your mind is going to have a very different perception of your perceived stimuli of fear.
What we perceive to be fearful is different depending on how we were coded in our subconscious mind. But one thing we can all agree on is a spider. So let’s use that as an example and what happens in the brain.
So here’s a spider. You see a spider and what’s the first thing that happens?
Your brain is taking in all of that information. I see a spider, I feel a spider. And what happens? You either jump or you freeze. It’s immediate. It’s not something you think about. It just happens. And what that is an example of is what we call the low road fear response.
All of that sensory information is going into a part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is where we store our fear memories. This is where the neuro-circuits of bias live. This little part of the brain called the amygdala.
All this information goes into the amygdala. The amygdala says, “Okay, I’m scared.” It’s going to generate what we call the fight or flight response, which a lot of people are familiar with, right?
So that’s when your palms get really sweaty and you get scared and you either have to, your body is being prepared to do something and run for your life and sometimes in fear you freeze. That’s the low road response.
At the same time simultaneously what’s very interesting is we have something called the high road response. And the high road response is happening the same time that the load response is happening. But it involves a lot of deeper cortical processing; deeper information processing.
It asks deeper questions: Should I be scared? Should I not be scared? Do I need to run for my life or do I need to calm down and shut down my fight and flight fair response?
What’s going on typically is that the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that stores our fear memories and encodes our implicit biases, really is over-activated in a lot of us.
Brain scans show that depending on the visual stimuli we’re looking at, depending on the face of a person, each brain can have a different level of activation in the amygdala. That’s very interesting because your level of fear response can be different depending on what you’re looking at.
So what’s going on here and what’s going on in our community is we’re getting this low road response. And we’re seeing it played out in our community over and over and over again.
Research shows that implicit biases can penetrate the relationship between doctor and patient. We have evidence that it plays a role in courtrooms and judges. It also plays a role even in our classrooms.
That’s how important implicit bias and how powerful it can be.
Another area where implicit bias plays a very strong role is with law enforcement. And if we look at some of the cases happening in the country today, it’s not that we’re talking about them reacting, that was the issue. It was that they were overreacting or hyper reacting.
And what was going on in those very minutes and seconds was an overstimulation of the low road, subconscious implicit bias deeply rooted into the system.
And so this amygdala is something that is going to be activated differently in a different level in each of us.
So what we’re going to do is practice something, a mindful exercise, and what you’re going to do, because here we have an opportunity in this neurocircuit.
When we feel fearful, we have an opportunity to override the fear because we can’t change the coding. That is not something we can change readily, but we can change what we do after the process has started in the brain. And that’s where you can choose love over fear.
So we’re going to practice a mindfulness exercise. And what I’m going to do is I’m going to show everybody a bunch of pictures – members of our community, either just faces of people in our community, our diverse city of New York.
And as you’re looking at these images, I want you to check in with yourself. That’s what mindfulness is.
So you’re going to check in with your thoughts. What am I thinking? What am I feeling? Sometimes it’s not a thought. Sometimes it’s something in the body, it’s an emotion, it’s a tightness, it’s a feeling of fear or a feeling of openness.
And as you’re going through the images and you’re checking in with yourself and being mindful, I want you to pay attention and just observe. Because what we’re looking at as we check in with members of our community is that you are going to have a response.
So your brain knows nothing about these people. All you have is an image.
But I guarantee that depending on the image that you’re seeing and your own internal coding in your subconscious mind, your reactions are going to be different. So that’s something we call top-down processing, which is really fascinating because what the brain does when it doesn’t have all of the pieces of information it needs, it guesses at the rest.
So your mind and your brain will fill in the gaps. You knew nothing of those people. You know nothing about who each person was, whether they were a terrorist, whether they were a respected member of society, whether they’re a good father.
All you had was a visual image and yet your mind and your body were reacting and your mind is filling in the gaps and it’s filling in the gaps and it’s guessing at the rest of the information.
And what does it guessing on? How is it guessing? What data is the brain or the mind using?
Well, the data that it’s using is what we talked about before, right? So the observations, the judgments, the social media things you read, the news that you’re exposed to, that’s part of your internal coding in your subconscious mind.
And it’s filling in the gaps with information that is biased and incorrect. And we all have implicit biases. It’s part of being human. It doesn’t matter who we are and until we recognize that this is something that we all have, we can’t address and fix any of the issues that are going on in our world today.
So implicit bias is also really important in a concept that we call perceived relatedness. And perceived relatedness is the mind’s ability to look at another person and quickly decide- ‘Hey, how much does this person like me?’
So it could be gender, it could be socioeconomic status, it could be profession, it could be race, religion, it could be anything. Your mind instantly in those moments and seconds decides. It has to decide, is this person like me or not like me?
What’s fascinating is that the higher level of perceived relatedness that a person has, the more compassion and empathy and kindness they’re shown to have. Which is fascinating because that means that your brain can interfere with your heartstrings.
So you can be more compassionate and kind and empathic depending on how your brain and mind perceive your relatedness to let other individual.
And that’s important because compassion and kindness and empathy are building blocks to harmony and peace and trust. And that’s how you begin. And that’s how you start.
So when we talked about the neurocircuit before, when we’re talking about the neurocircuit of fear, all that higher level processing, the high road where you get to ask deeper questions. Most of us don’t. We don’t ask ourselves deeper questions because either we’re just not paying attention, we haven’t chosen to be mindful to do so. We just don’t think about it.
So what can we do? What can we do to disempower these neuro circuits of bias? How can we be a catalyst for change in our communities?
Well, it is by being mindful. You’re going to start by being mindful. And the way you can be mindful is by consciously choosing to expose yourself to people who are not like you. And that means in any way, age, gender, socioeconomic status, culture, religion, it’s really about deep exposure.
It’s also about being mindful to create deeper connections, not just superficial connections. But in times when you’re actually able to bring someone into your in-group and make them part of your in-group, so that your perceived level of relatedness in the mind goes up.
And that means making someone a part of your life in a real way. It also means that you look at somebody and look at them for who they are, right? So not just the surface, but who are they.
Value them and respect them and care to look deeper. Because by you caring to look deeper, you get to create a little ripple in this world. And do something differently that you wouldn’t do otherwise.
The other thing we can do is we can, you know, we always talk about travel, which I think is fascinating because we live in New York city, but everybody wants to travel to all these wonderful exotic places.
And yet nobody talks about how we live in a city with so many worlds right here, worlds that we don’t ever entertain or visit. And yes, it’s so easy to do so.
And if we do that, if we go and try to make a conscious mindful choice to visit the many inner worlds within our world of New York, we can help this issue. So that means volunteering, that means events, groups, organizations, communities. But outside of what you consider to be your in-group.
Implicit bias is now finally being recognized by police programs throughout the country as being extremely powerful. Implicit bias is now being used to change the way we’re training police officers. We’re now looking at from a neuroscience perspective, the root of the problem because the root of the problem was never addressed. Because that’s really in the mind.
And if we’re changing the way we are training police officers, I think it’s just as important to try to gain some more awareness about bringing implicit bias awareness into our own offices and into our own workforce, because it is so powerful.
And the only way we can do it is just by simply being aware.
But ultimately the only way that you are going to make a change is by practicing to be mindful in the small moments of life.
Those are the most powerful points of opportunity for you. And what you’re going to do in those moments is that you’re going to choose to be mindful and you’re going to check in. You’re going to check in with your thoughts and think to yourself if the judgments you’re having in your mind about somebody that you know nothing about.
Maybe it’s an action, maybe it’s something you just did, maybe it’s something you just said or you didn’t say enough.
And in that very moment, you’re going to stop and you are going to engage yourself in a higher level of processing. This is an acronym we use in mindfulness all the time, stands for STOP:
T: Take a breath,
O: Observe and
So those very moments where you have an opportunity and you can recognize something within yourself that’s going on. You’re going to stop and you’re going to take the high road. You’re going to observe.
So that means checking in with your thoughts, your emotions, your reactions, really looking at what’s going on inside. And you’re going to observe in a non-judgmental way. And you’re going to proceed to do something different.
So even if our hearts are not biased, we have to realize that our minds are.
So those very moments you will have a choice to proceed. And you can either choose fear or you can choose love. And I hope in those moments you will choose love.
Resources for Further Reading:
- Why Politicians Shouldn’t Appoint Judges: Aziz Huq (Transcript)
- Human Complexity Simplified: Jennifer Sorensen (Transcript)
- How Sci-Fi Informs Our Climate Future — and What to Do Next: Zainab Usman (Transcript)
- Phobia Relief: From Fear to Freedom – Kalliope Barlis (Transcript)
- A Reframing of Masculinity, Rooted in Empathy: Gary Barker (Transcript)