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The (Right) View from the Balcony

In this week's installment of the online-only class on Buddhist basics, Ethan Nichtern and Sharon Salzberg talk about the importance of the view. The Buddha included Right View as the first factor on the Eight-fold Path to liberation from suffering.

View, the teachers say, is subtle and often unconscious -- or pre-conscious. It's the rose- or gray-colored glasses that filter everything we see. If our view is that the world and it's inhabitants are basically good, we approach things with a certain lightness of heart, not bracing for something bad. If we think that it is essentially meaningless or evil (or a war between good and evil), we enter the day ready to do battle.

NPR on Friday reported that views have a lot to do with how we act, according to science.

In the popular imagination and in conventional discourse — especially in the context of highly charged news events such as the shooting of Trayvon Martin — prejudice is all about hatred and animosity.

Scientists agree there's little doubt that hate-filled racism is real, but a growing body of social science research suggests that racial disparities and other biased outcomes in the criminal justice system, in medicine and in professional settings can be explained by unconscious attitudes and stereotypes.

Subtle biases are to police cadets being more likely to shoot unarmed black men than they are unarmed white men. (Some academics have also linked the research into unconscious bias to the Trayvon Martin case.)

The trick is to become aware of our views. As they are unconscious, that takes some work.

One way to work with this is to listen to the phrases you tell yourself in the internal narration of your life, the voices from your past that whisper in your ear to interpret your world. My friend Mary, a Buddhist teacher, talks about our internal critics as the committee; Ethan has referred to the Muppets who sit in the balcony and comment on the action.

Because it's hot and I'm tired, my mind connected Right View with "The View," the TV show with a panel of women who give their perspective on things. I see it occasionally at the doctor's office.

So here's my cheesy pop-culture suggestion: take the voices that feed your view and put them on The View. Invite them out into the open and let them comment.

Take a few moments first, and let your mind settle. Then think of a situation: A friend you had plans with leaves a message canceling them with no further explanation.

What thoughts come up? Observe without getting attached to them. You might:

a) Assume they got a better offer from someone else. Why would someone want to spend time with you?

b) Get angry. How dare they? Don't they realize that you could have made other plans?

c) Decide they must have had a crisis -- I hope it's not something awful. Maybe it's their Mom. Oh, no ...

d) Think about your other options for the evening. A night at home might be delicious.

It works best if you use an actual situation from your life. Try a few (over time). Try it in the moment. See if there's a pattern.

And know that you can change it.

A Harvard psychologist told NPR about an experiment in which researchers competed to come up with the most effective ways to quickly change people's views or underlying biases. The results surprised them.

Teaching people about the injustice of discrimination or asking them to be empathetic toward others was ineffective. What worked, at least temporarily, Banaji said, was providing volunteers with "counterstereotypical" messages. "People were shown images or words or phrases that in some way bucked the trend of what we end up seeing in our culture," she said. "So if black and bad have been repeatedly associated in our society, then in this intervention, the opposite association was made."

So that ancient Buddhist practice of sending the phrases of lovingkindness to your enemies really does work. Instead of wishing them pain and misery, you wish them good things. And they begin to seem less like enemies and more like friends behaving badly.

May all beings be happy.

May all beings be healthy.

May all beings be safe.

May all beings live with ease.

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