Is Mindfulness Ethical?
The power of mindfulness is limited if disconnected from ethical teachings
Posted April 4, 2016
Is mindfulness ethical?
Given the burgeoning interest in mindfulness across the world, an unsettling question asserts itself: is mindfulness ethical? The answer, it seems to me, is not necessarily. At least not in the way that mindfulness is frequently taught and practiced in the West. Which is unfortunate...
How was mindfulness ‘originally’ taught?
The concept of ‘mindfulness’ derives from the Pāli term sati, which essentially describes a form of present-moment awareness, as I explored in my previous post. However, in its original Buddhist context, sati was nestled within a broader nexus of ideas and practices designed to help people become free of suffering. This included vital teachings around the importance of ethical behaviour. Consider that three aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path – the Buddha’s central teaching about how to ameliorate suffering – are specifically concerned with ethics/morality: right speech, right action, and right livelihood. These are then elaborated upon in various sets of precepts, which explain what right speech, action and livelihood consist of. For instance, the most widely known ethical framework in the Pāli Canon is the ‘Five precepts’ (pañca-sīla), which encourage abstinence from: harming living beings; taking the not given; misconduct concerning sense pleasures (e.g., sexual misconduct); false speech; and unmindful states related to consumption of alcohol or drugs.
Why do ethics matter?
Of course, the question arises as to why ethics are so important in Buddhism. For a start, they are the cornerstone of a civilised society. However, Buddhism also makes the more profound (and perhaps persuasive) argument that ethical action also serves the wellbeing of the actor themselves. This insight rests on the notion of karma. This is often misinterpreted as implying that everything that happens to a person is a result of their past actions. However, this is a misreading of the concept, at least from the perspective of teachers like Buddhaghosa, who argue that events happen for all manner of reasons, some being caused by people’s past actions, and some caused by other factors. At the same time though, Buddhaghosa argued that every present action will nevertheless contribute to an outcome in the future. In essence then, the teaching of karma holds that skilful (i.e., ethical) actions generate future positive mental states, while unskilful (i.e., unethical) actions lead to future negative mental states. As such, as useful as mindfulness is for helping people cope with negative thoughts and emotions, Buddhism suggests that we are less likely to experience these in the first place if our actions are ethical.
Losing sight of the ethical dimension
Unfortunately, many people in the West engage in secular ‘de-contextualised’ forms of mindfulness, as found in many contemporary mindfulness-based interventions. That doesn’t mean that such interventions are not valuable of course, or indeed that people who take these are not ethical. However, by taking mindfulness out of its original Buddhist context – which aimed towards powerful personal transformation and liberation – the power of these programmes is arguably diminished. This issue has been recognised by Jon Kabat-Zinn himself, despite – or perhaps because of – his key role in bringing mindfulness to the West by developing secularised modes of delivery, such as his seminal Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme. While of course still upholding the value of such programmes, he commented that ‘the rush to deﬁne mindfulness within Western psychology may wind up denaturing it in fundamental ways,’ and as such there is ‘the potential for something priceless to be lost’ (Williams & Kabat-Zinn, 2011, p.4).
Bringing the ethical dimension back
As such, as valuable as sati-type mindfulness is, people might arguably benefit further from developing an appreciation of ethics. Indeed, in the Pāli canon, sati is not the only ‘type’ of mindfulness, as explored in my recent paper. (Indeed, my project on ‘untranslatable words’ has shown the wealth of Pali/Sanskrit concepts that could be of value to people in the West.) For instance, there is a conceptually similar term that also pertains to awareness, but which specifically includes consideration of ethics, namely, appamada. Actually, this shouldn’t be seen as a separate type of mindfulness, distinct from sati. Rather, it is a quality with which one might try to augment sati – a kind of sati-appamada compound. So, what does appamada bring to mindfulness? Consider the range of English translations for it, including earnestness (Müller, 1881), vigilant care (Soeng, 2006), unremitting alertness (Thera, 1941), diligence (Peacock, 2014), carefulness (Nikaya, 2008), and ‘moral watchfulness’ (Rao, 2007). Essentially then, we might define appamada as awareness suffused with an ethos of ethical care.
With the cultivation of appamada, the practitioner advances beyond simply being non-judgmentally aware of their experience (as per sati), but reflects and indeed judges (compassionately) whether their actions are skilful (e.g., in accordance with the precepts). In doing so, the person is regarded as 'accelerating' their psychospiritual development, attaining ever more elevated states of wellbeing. And of course, their actions will also be beneficial to people around them. So, as useful as mindfulness can be, think how much more powerful it could be if we added an ethical dimension to it…
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