Implicit vs Explicit Ethics in Mindfulness Teaching

A few weeks back I wrote the blog post Is Secular Mindfulness Shoehorning in the “Other” Seven? in which I bemoaned the fact that secular mindfulness courses included most of the parts of the Buddhist Eight Fold path but only claimed to include one of them.

Last week BBC Radio 4 – Beyond Belief was on Mindfulness. In the programme Ernie Rea lead a discussion with Christopher Titmus co-founder of Gaia House,  Chris Cullen from Oxford Mindfulness and Rebecca Crane from Bangor Mindfulness Centre. This was a very good programme. Well balanced and thoughtful. I recommend listening on the link above if you haven’t heard it already.

For me it crystallized my earlier thoughts on the missing seven. Chris explains that the ethical components are included implicitly within secular practice but not explicitly. I transcribe below a section of the dialogue about it and add a couple of notes.

What I am uncomfortable with is the boundary between implying something and hiding it. I’m not saying we have to smack everyone in the face with the truth whether they like it or not but I do feel one should be honest about what one is trying to impart. If ethical conduct is not part of the course material but the teacher is supposed to embody it with the intention of influencing the student then, at some point, a line is crossed into becoming dishonest. Where that line is drawn probably depends on the circumstances. What Rebecca says about the importance of the ethics of the teacher is exactly where I am coming from.

Transcription starting about minute 26:

Ernie: So do the courses that you teach in Westminster include that ethical dimension?

Chris: They include it implicitly and this is universal practice in how mindfulness is taught in secular contexts.

Ernie: Christopher. Should that implicit teaching be explicit when it comes to MPs?

Christopher: Yes because mindfulness is spoken frequently by the Buddha as going along with enquiry, with introspection, with investigation, with looking into and we have to just go deeper if we want to change the climate that we live in.

Rebecca: So the way that we pay attention to ethics in these courses in secular contexts is very largely through the preparation of the teacher who is offering the course. So there is a huge amount of emphasis in teacher training programmes on how that teacher is working with their own experience, with their own mindfulness practice and within that a huge attention to ethical process. But I think it is very important that these courses are offered in a way that aren’t attached to any particular tradition. (1)

Ernie: So are you content to allow people to take what they can from mindfulness, whatever bits they can take it, whatever bits don’t discard.

Rebecca: I am very content for people coming to the courses to do that and in my experience of teaching over the years that certainly is what happens. Some people radically transform the way they are living their lives. Other people pick up some strategies that they use, that support them in moments of their lives.

Christopher: I would make a distinction here. So one distinction is the great application of mindfulness to deal with despair, depression, pain and all that is going on in the medical profession but it is a different animal altogether when we are talking about politics and when we are talking about the corporate world. … [ list of issues ] … all that has to be in the dialogue at some point for those people with privalege and power.

Ernie: I expect Christopher what you are saying is that for some Buddhists, for instance (although we have established it is not an exclusively Buddhist concept) this may feel like Buddhism-Lite.

Christopher: I wouldn’t put it in the Buddhism-Lite category. Simply because of the extraordinary work that people like Chris and Rebecca are doing…[ repeat the same point about priveleage and power ] … If the mindfulness teacher addresses these issues they may not be invited back.

Rebecca: I really think it is the role of the teacher to support each participant in that group to engage in a very alive exploration of their immediate experience.

Ernie: But is that not a cop-out. Basically if you work for a major corporate firm who’s focus is on the profit motive all they are interested in is getting their workers into a state of calmness and alertness so that they can maximise that profit motive.

Rebecca: I completely agree that there is some challenging ethical tensions around mindfulness in these contexts and I think it is behoven on each mindfulness teacher who goes into those contexts to deeply explore their motives and to really be clear about their intentions in the work they are doing.

Ernie: I heard a very interesting phrase when I was doing the research for this Chris, it was MacMindfulness. Just tell me what MacMindfulness is.

Chris: I think it is an appropriate challenge from Buddhist teachers and scholars who have said there is a danger of mindfulness being co-opted and just a mind training technique that furthers the ends of corporate endeavours without actually challenging them and in a certain way I want to say that if it is not ethical and if it is not about a paradigm shift it is not mindfulness. [Sounds of Christopher and Rebecca agreeing in the background] That mindfulness when people start to practice it notice that this goes against the stream of our usual habits, our usual reactivity, our greed and hatred and delusion, as the Buddha described it, and in a sense forces us or asks us to question how we are living our lives and whether the way we are living our lives is truly for the benefit of ourselves and those around us. (2)

Ernie: You see if I was a corporate manager and I accepted your definition of mindfulness I would never introduce it into my workforce because it would raise all sorts of ethical challenges that would cut right across the grain of my profit motive.

Chris: And maybe it should just be called attention training if that is the context in which they are doing it because this is radical. Mindfulness is radical and it changes lives and it changes organisations when it is properly practised.

Note 1: Here Rebecca switches from ethics to religion. There is no reason to assume that having an ethical approach (say a respect for life or a sense of social justice) should not belong to any religion or none but she says that it is excluded from the course because they not attached to any “tradition”. It is actually excluded because ethical discussion (even secular ethical discussion) is considered inappropriate.

Note 2: Chris points out that if it isn’t transformative it isn’t mindfulness – with agreements from the others in the room. Yet just before we had established that people could leave courses with just some tools to apply when they needed them. This would imply these people haven’t succeeded in learning real mindfulness techniques as they haven’t been transformed. Can you have just a little bit of a paradigm shift?

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