Alison Cohen Speaks on Mindfulness and Implicit Bias

Alison Cohen, an instructor of mindfulness at City College in New York, has built her career around educating both teachers and students in the subject of mindfulness. This week, Cohen paid Andover a two-day visit to lead workshops and give her presentation “Reducing the Effects of Implicit Bias: Can Mindfulness Practice Help?”

“Mindfulness is the basis of mindful communication… You’re tuning into what’s happening internally while you communicate… and what’s happening interpersonally. And you’re doing so by not only paying attention to the other person and listening to them, but also really listening to yourself,” said Cohen.

Anna Liu ’21, who attended one of the workshops, said that Cohen’s message on implicit bias resonated with her. According to Liu, Cohen distributed a handout on how mindfulness can lower levels of implicit bias.

Liu said, in an interview with The Phillipian, “I thought it was really cool how people could listen to a [mindfulness] tape for ten minutes, and then right after that, you could already see the effects. And I thought, ‘If people did [mindfulness] just once every day, ten minutes out of your 24-hour day, how much awareness could that bring to how many people?’ ”

Cohen said that she had been unable to understand mindfulness until her early twenties, during which she sought forms of emotional help.

“I went through a really difficult period emotionally, and there was a sense of needing a toolkit for navigating my internal, emotional, and psychological landscape. I was encouraged [by a mentor] to jump in the deep end and go from essentially no meditation practice to a week-long silent retreat. When I was on that retreat, I realized this [mindfulness] is a toolkit to navigate the mind and heart with compassion, with wisdom, with skill, and I’m already feeling better,” said Cohen in an interview with The Phillipian.

According to Cohen, a mentor helped her discover mindfulness after witnessing her struggle. Cohen’s mentor urged her to participate in a silent retreat geared towards young adults.

Andrew Housiaux, Chair and Instructor in Philosophy and Religious Studies, invited Cohen to campus. In an interview with The Phillipian, Housiaux detailed the importance of mindfulness to the Andover community.

“We’ve tried to provide opportunities for students and staff and faculty to practice mindfulness on a regular basis, so that they can deepen the practice in their own lives,” said Housiaux.

Housiaux has known Cohen since her first year of college, and he recently reconnected with her through a program called Mindful Schools, an organization that advocates for the integration of mindfulness in classrooms.

“Alison is a great example of someone who integrates mindfulness work with the kind of anti-racism and anti-bias work that is so important to the [Andover] community. So, I thought she’d be the perfect person to come and speak to the community,” said Housiaux.

Prior to attending one of Cohen’s talks, Chase O’Halloran ’18 was already familiar with the concept of mindfulness.

“It’s helpful to understand the different components of mindfulness, so it’s not just the attempt to ‘get in the zone’ or something… It’s actually to observe one’s thoughts, and that can be to examine one’s subconscious. There’s compassionate mindfulness, and there’s observational mindfulness, so it was helpful to see the way that can be applied in general, but also to implicit bias,” said O’Halloran in an interview with The Phillipian.

While sharing her expertise on mindfulness with countless people everyday, Cohen makes sure to practice mindfulness in her own life.

“I meditate every morning. I try to do 45 minutes. And every morning — no matter how long I’ve sat for — at the end of the sit, I set an intention for how I want to show up that day… In a way it’s like planting a seed, and I can attend to it throughout the day,” said Cohen.