Am I a racist, bigot, misogynist or religiously intolerant because I have those thoughts?
When we purposely work with a mindfulness practice we focus on including the gamut of our human experience--thoughts, sensations, emotions--whether positive, negative, or neutral. We do this, in essence, by creating a "container" made up of our curious attention, non-judgmental acceptance and allowance, and an intention to compassionately and kindly meet whatever arises.
Over time, our formal practice spills into the rest of our lives and we gain a more attentive, richer and pleasant life. We also receive the all important gift of a spacious pause between our experience and reactions, enabling us a chance to consciously decide our next course of action.
In this way, mindfulness supports us actively aspiring towards higher ideals than our biological and instinctual reactions would otherwise allow. We can consciously evolve ourselves into a wiser, kinder and more generous being. While these characteristics are already innate in us, and we can consciously grow and strengthen them, our perceptions of threat, which activate our biological survival systems, can get in our way.
I've practiced mindfulness for 25+ years and have come to accept the fact that I may never be able to live wholly from my chosen values, as much as I try. Our bodies and minds are not only a product of evolutionary forces that respond to threats with fight, flight or freeze, they are also molded during early formative years to reflect the values and beliefs of those around us--our parents, extended family, friends, local community, and the larger culture.
Personally, I can still hear the harsh judgments and commands from growing up in rural 1960's America in a large and dysfunctional Italian Catholic family. Today, though, I'm still surprised and ashamed when the racist, misogynist, and religiously intolerant ideas and beliefs of that era pop into my mind seemingly of their own accord. Back then, they were just invisibly weaved into my life's narrative.
But, am I religiously intolerant, a racist, bigot, or misogynist because these thoughts still arise? Or do the labels only apply if I believe or take action upon them?