You can’t be mindful without ethics

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Mindfulness is becoming a hot topic in our culture. Time Magazine, 60 Minutes and many other media outlets have run in-depth stories on mindfulness, focusing largely on the health benefits such as reduced stress, anxiety and depression, and on the cognitive benefits like increased concentration. On Amazon, the self-help section abounds with book titles like Mindful Parenting, Mindful Therapy and Mindful Work. And large corporations from Google to General Mills have adopted mindfulness meditation programs for their employees. But one of the criticisms levied against the current mindfulness meme is that it has flown the coop from its original philosophy of Buddhism. When practiced without the Buddhist context, critics worry, mindfulness leaves out the most important element of spiritual practice: ethics. 

In an article in the Huffington Post, San Francisco State Professor Ron Purser and Zen teacher David Loy blast the mindfulness trend, saying that it is being co-opted as a way to destress and stay focused at work. They call it “McMindfulness”: a simplistic, corporatized version of the sacred Buddhist practice dumbed-down for the masses, and completely missing the Buddha’s denouncement of greed and ill-will toward others. 

Purser and Loy are right: the Buddha had much to say about how best to act in the world in order to get on the path toward enlightenment. Mindfulness is simply one element of the broader religion, and most practicing Buddhists, East and West, are aware of this. But if you are not a Buddhist, this line of thinking probably won’t convince you that you ought to follow Buddhist ethics in order to be a good person. It certainly doesn’t work for me. One benefit of not identifying as a Buddhist is that I am not beholden to any of the religion’s principles. Mindfulness makes sense to me both personally and intellectually, so I’ve tried to integrate it into my life. But I don’t feel obligated to follow any set of moral rules just because the Buddha—or anyone else—said so. 

That said, I still believe that you can’t properly practice mindfulness without some strands of connection to ethical behavior. In my view, mindfulness is intrinsically connected to ethics, and I believe this is the case for the following reasons: 

  1. The type of calm required to enter into tranquil meditative states is hard to achieve if you’re acting unethically. Here’s an extreme example: If you try to go on a ten-day meditation retreat immediately after stealing a car and running over an octogenarian lady walking her schnauzer across the street, chances are that you’ll have a hard time sitting in silence with the loud roar of your guilty conscience. The lesson from this is that being good in the world declutters the mind, making it easier to relax and be mindful. This may not apply to every individual on Earth, but assuming that you aren’t already habitually malevolent, this probably holds true for you. 
  2. Just practicing mindfulness meditation might cause you to be a little more ethical. A psychology study led by professor David Desteno at Northeastern University suggests that meditation could increase compassion for others in need. The study broke participants into two groups: one was given an eight-week mindfulness meditation course, the other was not. After eight weeks, when put in a situation where participants could offer their chair to a woman hobbling on crutches, the participants who had taken the meditation course were significantly more likely to help the woman.  

The two points above suggest that mindfulness, if properly applied, could be a kind of ethical feedback loop: ethical behavior produces mindfulness, and mindfulness produces ethical behavior. 

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But what constitutes ethically good action? Isn’t it subjective? How do we know right from wrong? 

Rather than drag you down the philosophical rabbit’s hole of one of humankind’s most enduring questions, I want to simplify the conversation to an idea that I think pretty much everyone agrees upon: 

Ethics is about concern for the wellbeing of humans and other animals. 

If you’re talking about ethics, you’re talking about concern for wellbeing. You do not care about the ethical treatment of rocks likely because you don’t think rocks can experience joy, suffering, hope, despondence, or any gradation in between. And you might care about many moral-sounding concepts—family, love, God, kindness, justice, fairness, honor, equality, integrity, freedom, fulfillment—but you only care about those things insofar as they contribute to the wellbeing of humans or animals. So I’m going to assume that you agree with me on this as a starting point: You at least care about a small circle of people that includes yourself and a few others. Learning to expand that circle is, I think, the chief concern of a moral life. 


Over the next few weeks, I’m going to plumb the depths of my feelings on this topic. Hopefully, by the time I come to the surface, I will have shared with you pieces of writing about the meaning of doing good in the world given that we’re all on spaceship Earth together. I can’t say whether it will be poetry or prose, normal or strange, emotional or logical. But I can say that all posts in the next few weeks will orbit around the moral concepts of altruism, compassion, and the desire to have a positive impact on the world.  

How can we make a positive impact on the world? I don’t have all the answers. Using the lens of my own experience and aspirations to be a better person, I plan to think out loud about what it means to live ethically, to live a life with purpose, and especially how to apply this in the context of an impactful career. 


Related posts: 

What is mindfulness? 

If you’re curious about meditation… 

Just trying to get home