Mindfulness & The Thin Line Between Helping & Harming

Path to Relaxation by Muha…

We all want to do good, but in the messiness and complexity of real life, it isn’t so simple as exchanging the black hat for the white one. Notions of what is helpful and what is harmful are diverse and they seem to change with the times.

Helping and harming are emotionally laden concepts. There is a long tradition of valuing thought and behavior that supports the first and prevents the second. A number of the commandments from the Judeo-Christian tradition, several of the precepts in Buddhism, and many of the yamas and niyamas in yoga involve non-harming. You’ve probably also heard the phrase, “First, do no harm” (or primum non nocere in Latin), which is one of the primary concepts we learn in the caring professions.

Its Complicated

Actions that, in the moment or on the surface, seem helpful, can turn out to be quite harmful in the longer term or once we’ve dug a little deeper into the factors. In addition, responses that are helpful in one context may not translate well in another context. Finally, there are situations in which some proportion of harm may occur in pursuit of the greater good. While we tend to give priority to non-harming over adding benefit, there is often a weighing of pros and cons that is necessary before we can come to a wise conclusion.

In US culture there is a high value placed on fighting for what we think is right and against what we think is wrong. This strong sense of justice deems silence or inaction in the face of harmful behavior problematic, even labeling them as acts of complicity. At its extreme, we may become intolerant of any phenomena that even hints at potential harm. Eventually, our minds may turn to thoughts of radical prevention – perhaps a demonstration of strength or an act of force is needed in order to prevent future harm.

So how is a conscientious person to avoid sliding into paralysis? How can we choose the path that serves the higher good? What is the formula for benefitting others and working toward ending suffering without risking even greater harm? Wiser minds than mine have pondered this over the centuries and there are no easy answers. But, there are some considerations that can be useful.

Knowledge is Important

There are rare occasions when time is of the essence. For example, if a friend is about to be run over by a bus, we must act on instinct or reflex to prevent harm. Usually though, we have more time than we allow ourselves to unpack a situation. If we have a regular mindfulness practice, our minds are better trained to make space space for skillful responding. Being mindful in the moment helps us pause, observe and consider both internal and the external phenomena, as well as our options for responding.

Is there an urge to action arising from strong emotion? If so, what is the story line behind this emotion? Does it fit the facts of the situation or are there biases and assumptions at play? Do you adequately understand what is happening in the moment? Are you aware of all the factors at play including history, context, cultural implications, etc. and their interactions? Or is it only in hindsight that the situation will become clear?

Intention is Key

An intention is a roadmap for thoughts, feelings and action. Intention doesn’t require action and is not attached to outcome. Cultivating intentions that are “pure” may be the best we can aspire to with our limited senses and biology. After all, we can’t read minds or divine the future – mistakes will be made. If our intentions are benevolent, this sets the tone and shapes the attitudes within which action may arise. Of course it is important to learn from the effects of any action we take, which brings us back around to knowledge that we can use for wise decision making.

How can we know if our intentions are pure, toward benefiting others and ending suffering? Ask yourself if there is something you are hoping to accomplish in a particular situation. Is there an outcome you are attached to? How much of this outcome is related to I, me and mine? Does it align with your highest values? Is there compassion for the “transgressor” – a wish for their wellbeing, or is there merely a desire to punish or destroy?

To act rightly–to do the right thing in the right way at the right time in the right place–and nothing more: that is the way of the Gita. Therefore, to keep the fruit, the effect, of an act in mind as our purpose, is to deflect ourselves from the right motivation and to entangle ourselves in the net of egotism and the snare of binding deeds. – 

When we have taken the time to see things as they are and examine our intentions, we may actually discover that silence or inaction are indeed the wisest response. We find that we can stand for what is right without causing additional suffering for others. Leading by example is underrated in this country, maybe because it isn’t flashy and plays the “long game”. It is a quiet, but very powerful change agent and one over which we actually have some influence.

Life is an Experiment

Since change is constant and nothing lasts forever, life is an experiment with many variables. Like everything else, helping and harming become moving targets. A devoted mindfulness practice reinforces the skills to truly “be here now” so that we have the greatest possibility of responding compassionately and effectively to what is arising and transforming moment by moment.

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