Mindfulness. Ethics. Buddhism. Therapy. It’s an ongoing and oft-times baffling debate. Over the last few years (since 2011 if I track the academic publications correctly), Buddhists have stepped up to express concerns about the frighteningly rapid secular applications of mindfulness that seem to dilute and disregard its core teachings and intention. Secular practitioners which include a very large clinical population of mental health professionals have either dismissed the call for a deeper understanding or been baffled by it.
[Edited to clear confusion in sentence reference] Related to this latter group, a quick scan of LinkedIn special groups on mindfulness is quite off-putting though the comments are instructive. They are mainly tinged with a deep fear of the religious – not the ethical – nature of being required regularly to attend silent retreats, imposing (insert “religious”) ethics in the curriculum, and otherwise bring an unfamiliar and foreign languaging into what is now taken as a neutral, clinical program.
The bafflement also arises from the unquestioned acceptance of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s repeated pronouncement that ethics in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (the original program) is implicit; nothing needs adding because it’s already there. In fact, my own notes from my MBSR training state, “ethics not necessary to mention…arises from insight to suffering.”
Now that’s more or less true when we have years to practice and watch the mind twist and turn trying to justify all matter of unskillfulness. Ethical speech and action can and does arise as we clarify, clarify, clarify our propensity to ignorance, greed, and attachments. Ethical livelihood can arise (economics and mastering our own greed notwithstanding). But not, in my experience, reliably so in 8-weeks sitting together trying to get past the delusional nature of our suffering, layered over by our “terrible personality” that is borne forth from a multitude of biopsychosocial causes and conditions.
Recently, my colleagues Jane Compson, Frank Musten, and I published an article in Mindfulness on the difficulties of trying to reconcile, assess, and dig deeper into the issues of secular/clinical concepts of mindfulness. You can read it here and I’d encourage reading the commentaries to our article (in the previous link) because scholarly practitioners such as Ajahn Amaro and Mark Greenberg/Joy Mitra have made excellent offerings on the topic.
Along with many others, I too have a deep concern about the way mindfulness is taught and proliferating in secular and clinical domains, how it is reduced to a pabulum of trite sayings and a mash-up of mindfulness memes. But waging war against this level of misunderstanding is exhausting and actually fruitless. The fear clinicians have of incorporating ethics/values into their work stems from an over-applied historic meme itself – that our presence is but a mirror, reflecting nothing of ourselves and everything of the other. It is based in a psychological Cartesian principle of separateness, not just of mind and body but also of you and me. In fact, to bring anything of myself into the room is often harshly dealt with in internships and trainings.
Now here’s the irony, mindfulness was a hope of many of us that this delusion of separateness would finally dissolve and we would be able to enter into an authentic – a more fully authentic – relationship with each other whether it is in the marketplace or the therapy room. Doubly ironic, the fields of moral psychology and counselling and spirituality have explored issues of the fallacy of values-neutral interactions in therapy. The findings are fascinating; in brief, clients over time take on the values of their therapists. But these examinations haven’t attained much traction in the huge momentum of cognitive-based treatments.
The underlying and frequently by-passed point is that there is no time when ethics is absent from our relationships. Be it in the therapy room, at the dining table, and even most especially in the all-purpose family room with the TV flashing its programs, it can no more be excised from the practice than heat from a chilli pepper. And it is never absent in the gathering place of mindfulness programs. So, if our fear is that ethics of the Dharma as it moves into secular domains are an imposition on our program participants, then that fear is misplaced. The fear should be more that we have been lulled into believing that we can be value-neutral participants at this intimate level as we connect with those who suffer deeply from this self-same disconnect from their lives. This is where the danger lies: that we are taking this arrogant stance and blindly leading others into the very vortex of ignorance that is the source of their suffering. And more, there is the equally arrogant and disrespectful assumption that the participants are tabula rasa to their own ethics and morality.
These assumptions are also embedded in Buddhist debates about sila and mindfulness where the fear is that the Dharma is being stripped of its moral foundations. Here too the confusion is based in assumptions of pre-existing personal ethics, religious influences and the nature of ethical living. Justin Whitaker on his blog American Buddhist Perspective published two posts that reflect the difficulties of finding some middle ground in the concerns and confusion. The first post addresses Tricycle’s recent blogpost by Richard Payne on the cultural assumptions that morality/ethics are connected to religious frameworks. The second post summarizes a discussion between Bhikkhu Bodhi and angel Kyodo williams on the issues of ethics and Buddhism. Again and with all due respect to Bhikkhu Bodhi and williams, we encounter the meme of secular mindfulness creating automatons in the workplace and military. (To be fair, Bhikkhu Bodhi has written in various publications that he sees the secularization of mindfulness a positive thing if it alleviates suffering AND if it honours its origins as a sacred practice.)
The ongoing debate among Buddhist, between Buddhists and secular/clinical practitioners, and all other permutations and combinations involved in the issue of placing ethics in mindfulness programs/teachings needs to turn back onto itself and examine its own assumptions about the nature of ethics and morality as well as how we acquire and embody them. As Ajahn Amaro points out in his commentary to our article, we need to examine the “subtle influences” of our own religious (even if disavowed) and cultural baggage that lead us to believe having ethics in a curriculum will create better people or that not having it will create monsters.
It’s time that we see the fear-inducing memes about religious infringement and mindful evil-doers as click bait, distracting both Buddhists and secular individuals committed to the teachings of mindfulness from the real issue of how to cultivate an embodied ethic.