Practicing mindfulness without a system of ethics runs counter to its original purpose, which is the alleviation of suffering. This is because cultivating values like non-harming, compassion, and moderation are necessary for cutting through the misunderstandings that make life dissatisfying. Merely learning to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally can have its benefits, but it becomes just another feel-good technique when practiced to achieve goals that feed the ego (i.e. boost self-image, accumulate worldly desires) or temporarily avoid what is unwanted (i.e. distract from unavoidable problems, resist what is unchangeable).
It would be similar if you were practicing only yoga postures (asana) and never delved into the other limbs of yoga’s eightfold path (ashtanga). You would likely become stronger, more flexible and develop better balance – you might even feel better about yourself. But, unless you eventually begin to explore the virtuous habits and ethical restraints (yamas and niyamas), more profound evolution is unlikely to happen.
Our ethics inform the intentions behind our actions. In Buddhism (the root of modern mindfulness), ethics do not come from somewhere outside of us such as tradition or authority. Rather, they are discovered through experimentation and observation – the collection of data. In the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta: Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone, it is said than we should mindfully reflect upon 1) our urges to perform an act, 2) our action while we are performing it, and 3) its after-effects, to see whether the act is harmful to ourselves or others (skillful or unskillful) – in other words, whether the consequences are beneficial or harmful. Then we should make adjustments accordingly and learn for ourselves what is truly helpful and unhelpful. This becomes our system of ethics. Practicing mindfulness helps us see our own motivations and choices more clearly for wiser responding.
The intention behind our actions powerfully impacts our state of mind. Research is showing that when we act virtuously, there are beneficial consequences for ourselves as well as for others. Some studies are revealing correlations between altruism and increased mental, physical, social and financial health. The Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame has funded a number of studies which have demonstrated a relationship between generosity, happiness and well-being. A compassionate lifestyle seems to be correlated with better health and longevity, perhaps through a mechanism that decreases inflammation in our bodies.
Mindfulness is a practice conceptualized under the premise that: 1) life is unsatisfactory, causing beings to suffer, 2) the cause of this suffering is that we have bought into some basic misunderstandings, which compel us to cling to the things we desire (attachment) and resist the things we dislike (aversion), 3) its possible to awaken from this deluded state and be liberated from the dissatisfaction it causes, 4) there is a path to awakening and liberation. This path serves as an ethical framework for practice, of which mindfulness is only one part. The Buddhist Eightfold Path to Liberation includes the following interconnected components (click the links to learn more about each component, a work in progress):
- Ethical (Right) View – Understanding the causes of unsatisfactoriness and the path to happiness
- Ethical (Right) Intention – cultivating attitudes and thoughts that are likely to result in skillful behavior
- Ethical (Right) Speech – abandoning false, divisive, and abusive speech, avoiding idle chatter, and speaking the beneficial truth at the appropriate time
- Ethical (Right) Action – acting with compassion for the welfare of all sentient beings, abstaining from killing, sexual misconduct, and taking what is not ours
- Ethical (Right) Livelihood – making a living in a manner that is legal, honest and doesn’t harm others, fulfilling ones work duties diligently and conscientiously
- Complete (Right) Effort – diligence and perseverence in developing skillful qualities and abandoning unskillful qualities
- Complete (Right) Mindfulness – bare attention toward clear comprehension, free from the constructs and elaborations that lead to suffering
- Complete (Right) Concentration – wholesome, one-pointedness of mind
Please visit the Mindfulness Meditation New York Collaborative for a list of articles and papers about ethics and mindfulness. You can also read more about the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path at accesstoinsight.org.
What’s your need for sleep?
And what sleep is there for the afflicted,
pierced by the arrow (craving),
Train firmly for the sake of peace…
Heedless is dust,
dust comes from heedlessness
has heedlessness on its heels.
Through heedfulness & clear knowing
you’d remove your own sorrow.
– Utthana Sutta: Initiative