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PRAGNYA was honored to have Dr. Shani Robins, founder and president of the Wisdom Therapy Institute, present a two-part workshop entitled “The Psychological Science of Implicit Bias” on August 24 and September 7, with a follow-up question and answer session on September 21. Dr. Robins’ teachings, about the wisdom skills to be able to identify and manage implicit bias to better connect with individuals from different cultures and backgrounds, have been fundamental to PRAGNYA’S “Ally”-ship training program. Neurotypical children and adults alike receive training to become the much-needed “circles of support” for neurodiverse individuals, to help them feel accepted, maintain stability, and balance in their lives as part of the community.

Dr. Robins began his presentation by discussing the neuroscience of bias, prejudice, and conflict. We ALL have the genetic predisposition to think in terms of “Us and Them,” but we also ALL have the genetic predisposition for cooperation and empathy. Which of these is activated depends on how we think; we can include others in the ‘WE’, since we are much more the same than are different.

The Wisdom Skills that Dr. Robins developed integrate the best practices from Western and Eastern traditions. In Western psychological science, the emphasis is on the self, facilitating a healthy ego and goals such as less anger, anxiety, stress, depression, and more independence. In the Eastern traditions, the focus is on the group and transcending our ego through increased trust, teamwork, kindness, and interdependence.

Dr. Robins went on to discuss stress, both in terms of perceived demands, things that we think require our time and energy, and perceived resources to help us cope. Two ways to decrease stress are to decrease demands (or your perception of demands) and to increase resources (the number of tools in your toolkit). He then went on to discuss the physiology of conflict, the “fight or flight” reaction in which different parts of our brain react to a perceived threat, and how emotions such as anger, anxiety, stress are comprised of three components – cognitions, behaviors, and physiology. In order to effectively work with our emotional experiences, we need to engage all three areas.

The remainder of the workshop was dedicated to Dr. Robins’ overview of the skills and practices of Wisdom Therapy. Decades of empirical evidence on reducing conflict and increasing wellness and productivity have proven that how we think influences how we feel and behave. We need to practice catching the Cognitive Distortions that cause most of the conflict and change our thinking to more realistic thoughts, beliefs, and assumptions. The cognitive reframing process involves taking a problem which becomes a challenge and instead consider it an opportunity for practice of the wisdom skills:

  • Emotional Intelligence: Awareness of how we interpret events, and the skills needed to change those interpretations; catching frustration and irritation early before it escalates to anger and aggression.

  • Cognitive Distortions:

    • All or Nothing Thinking: Thinking of things in absolute terms, like "always", "every" or "nev er"; few aspects of human behavior are so absolute.

    • Overgeneralization: Taking one or few cases and using them to make wide generalizations.

    • Negative Mental Filter: Focusing exclusively on certain, usually negative or upsetting, aspects of something while ignoring the positive aspects. We dwell on what’s not working well and ignore all the things that are.

    • Mind Reading: Assuming we know what someone is thinking or feeling without asking, or assuming something negative where there is no evidence to support it.

    • Fortune telling: Predicting how things will turn out before they happen.

    • Catastrophizing: Focusing on the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or thinking that a situation is unbearable, impossible, or horrible when it is just uncomfortable.

    • Emotional reasoning: Making decisions and arguments based on how we feel rather than objective reality

    • Shoulds and Musts: Assuming we know what we or others should or ‘should not’ do or what the world ‘should’ be like rather than the actual situation we are faced with.

    • Personalization: Taking things personally, assuming you or others is the cause of something when that may not have been the case.

    • Labeling: Rather than describing the specific behavior, we assign a label to someone or ourselves that puts them in absolute and unalterable terms. Instead of describing our error, we attach a negative label to ourselves

  • Self-Regulation (Recognizing Emotions): Dr. Robins used several illustrations to show the range of emotions and how we think about ourselves, others, and the world around us dramatically influences the emotions we feel about them.

  • Breathing/Being Present (Mindfulness): Mindfulness enables us to brings our attention to the present and keep it there. Mindfulness observes rather than reacts and increases our awareness of our thoughts. Deep belly breathing is an excellent way to help us center ourselves.

  • Active Listening: Truly listening to the other person, without interjecting or relating the other person’s story to something in your own life

  • Empathy/Compassion: Empathy is the most important in highly emotional situations when it is not easy to put yourself in another’s shoes. When you catch yourself reacting, challenge yourself to first imagine someone else’s perspective

  • Communication: Combining skills of assertiveness – communicating our needs calmly with empathy – with awareness and acknowledgement of the other person’s needs.

  • Gratitude: Appreciation of things we tend to take for granted…. seeing, walking, health, breathing

  • Humility: Our interpretations of insults, conflicts, motivations, etc. are subjective (others see it differently) and tentative (we will see it differently in a few years).

  • Perspective (The Story You Tell Yourself): Dr. Robins showed a series of visual images that could be interpreted in different ways to illustrate the idea that our perspectives influences our world view.

  • Forgiveness: Letting go of unresolved grievances and grudges.

Dr. Robins concluded his presentation on the neuroscience of conflict versus peace asking the question: How do we decrease bias and increase wellbeing for all?

● Living a developmentally oriented life – viewing everything as opportunities to practice!

● Reduce fear, stress, anxiety

● See the world as more plentiful, optimistic

● Decrease the cognitive distortions that give rise to fear, stress, anxiety

● Increases of empathy, compassion, mindfulness, humility, gratitude

● Practice identifying ways in which we are much more similar than different

● Increase one’s happiness and well-being in general

In the September 7 presentation, Dr. Robins reviewed the key concepts of Wisdom Therapy and then participants were able to ask questions regarding how they can apply wisdom skills to their own situations. In between the sessions, participants were sent a Wisdom Therapy Workbook to help them practice their newfound skills, and in the September 21 follow-up session they were able to process some of their insights with Dr. Robins.

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