Mindfulness, 1.0.2: Mindfulness, Morality and the Masters of the Universe

The vigilant Ron Purser forwarded a link for “Amid the Chattering of the Global Elite, a Silent Interlude.”

The article is standard self-congratulatory mindfulness movement hype of the “Isn’t it wonderful, the Masters of the Universe are learning to meditate, soon all will be well!” sort, and the author is fully in the role of cheerleader rather than demonstrating the least bit of critical journalistic sensibility. It reads more like something from the Style section than from the Business section. For example, Arianna Huffington is quoted as repeating two of the more mindlessly empty tropes of popular religion rhetoric: “Modern science is validating ancient wisdom,” and “We are living through a major tipping point.” Despite the pablum, its content does point to the contradictions in messaging regarding the goals of mindfulness—and in doing so implicates the ethical issues.

The article mentions that “meditation can benefit workers”—but does not specify in what ways workers are benefited. Then William George, a member of the Goldman Sachs board is quoted as saying “The main business case for mindfulness is that if you’re more focused on the job, you’ll become a better leader,” and that “It causes us to behave less aggressively.” A few further quotes from the article—

Meditation, the panelists said, also can reduce stress, improve well-being and promote calmness, clarity and creativity.

…many on the panel and in the audience professed that meditation gave them a competitive advantage.

“There is a hunger for this type of approach, especially at the World Economic Forum,” said Dean Ornish, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “We focus so much on success and power, but people are beginning to realize that the more at peace we are, the more we can spread peace in the world.”

These quotes reveal the fundamental moral ambiguity of the mindfulness movement’s rhetoric. On the one hand mindfulness is supposed to make you better at achieving your ego-based goals, while on the other it is supposed to move you past those to greater levels of relatedness with others and the world around you. While these are not inherently contradictory to one another, they should be distinguished from one another. Mindfulness rhetoric, like any good sales pitch, appeals at many different levels and as a consequence, blurs the difference between ego-based goals, and relatedness-based goals. For any kind of ethical analysis, however, the difference must be kept clear.

Frequently though, when articulated more clearly than as a sales pitch, mindfulness rhetoric does begin to segregate the two kinds of goals. In some cases the argument seems to be that moral development is intrinsic to meditation practice. The argument for an intrinsic moral development appears in three different versions. These presume

(1) that there is a “natural” progression from the accomplishment of ego-based goals to being motivated by relatedness-based ones (which is perhaps a vestigial recollection of Maslow’s needs hierarchy, or of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development), or

(2) that relatedness-based goals are discovered to be more important in one’s own life, or

(3) that simply unconsciously, relatedness-based goals begin to motivate one’s actions—though I would think that the ethical status of unconscious actions is itself a philosophically problematic concept.

If we presume to be more explicit than is usually done, the argument appears to be that as one meditates, one begins to naturally or automatically relativize the ego—that is to see it as existing in relation with the rest of existence—and that this shift in the self-perception of the ego follows from the intrinsic character of meditation generally, or of mindfulness as such.

One of the concerns raised about secularized mindfulness based interventions (MBIs) as offered in hospitals or other therapeutically oriented institutions is that it does not include any ethical training. Some proponents of secularized MBIs argue that they actually are providing ethical instruction, but do so implicitly rather than explicitly.

Jon Kabat-Zinn would appear to be the source of the distinction between implicit and explicit ethical instruction, specifically in his “Some Reflections on the Origins of MBSR, Skillful Means, and the Trouble with Maps” (Contemporary Buddhism, 12.1 (May 2011), 281–306). In that essay Kabat-Zinn argues that the ethical basis of mindfulness in a clinical setting is in fact best kept implicit, because there are already professional and institutional ethical standards in place. He also suggests that our society allows for a kind of ethical duplicity, apparently implying that explicit ethical training is therefore ineffectual (the qualifications are necessary because the argument underlying his rather cynical aside is not clear). He says that an implicit approach is more appropriate “for cultural reasons having to do with how common it is in our society to profess a moral stance outwardly that one does not adhere to inwardly.” (note the dualistic conception of the self here) In their essay, “Traditional and Contemporary Mindfulness,” Monteiro, et al., add that in many such clinical settings giving explicit instruction in ethics is in fact contrary to institutional rules that enforce a kind of secular neutrality.

The point that is of particular interest to me here is the follow on argument that Kabat-Zinn makes, that the ethical behavior of the staff of the training program creates an environment of implicit ethics, such that those enrolled in the training program will be positively influenced in their own ethical behavior. This implicit ethical training depends on a conception of the causality involved that may quite reasonably be called a “theory of contagion.”

Those familiar with the history of the study of religion will recognize that contagion constitutes one of the kinds of magical thinking, the other being similarity. This analysis was proposed by Frazer, who in turn drew on the cognitive theories of Hume (the theory of the association of ideas). While its proponents would no doubt object to the characterization, it would seem that the argument that depending on implicit means of ethical instruction, as opposed to explicit ones, is an instance of magical thinking. Or, one might also say that the idea that in eight weeks, the normal time period of a MBI, the foundations for a shift from ego-based goals to relatedness-based ones can be successfully established is an instance of wishful thinking.

Monteiro, et al., give fuller attention to explicit ethical training than does Kabat-Zinn, discussing several programs (including their own) which include such training. In their discussion of how these are employed, they make the important point that such

extensions of Buddhist concepts make some meta-ethical assumptions—for example, that ethics are not entirely relative or tradition-specific, that they can have some universal application across times and cultures which in turn rest on an understanding of human nature as being universal.

These meta-ethical assumptions are indeed quite important, and their consideration deserves further development. What we want to note here, however, is that both the intrinsic and extrinsic conceptions of the place of ethical training depend upon a kind of modular conception. In other words, meditation training is one discreet module, while ethical training is another. It is possible in this modular conception to have one without the other, the combining of modules being optional—like having fries with your burger.

In addition to the intrinsic conception of ethical development and mindfulness, and the modular conception with its two forms, implicit and explicit, there is a fourth understanding which may be called integral. Citing Gombrich (What the Buddha Thought), Monteiro, et al., summarize his view of the practice of ethics in Buddhism, saying that he “conceptualizes them as practices with a virtuous intent completed in the service of purifying the mind and inseparable from the practice of meditation.”

Here we come to one of the contradictions between an understanding of mindfulness as a practice in which ethical development is integral to meditation (which it seems to me is the most plausible from a phenomenological view), and the kind of understanding of mindfulness as formulated and promoted by Kabat-Zinn. Perhaps it is not surprising that the best he can come up with regarding ethical training in MBSR is the magical thinking that it can be done intrinsically. There is an inherent contradiction between ethics as necessitating reflection on the consequences of one’s actions, which involves making judgements about two events separated in time, and the very form of mindfulness taught in MBSR: “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future” Clinical Psychology: Science and practice, 10 (2003), 144–156: 145; cited in Dusana Dorjee, “Kinds and Dimensions of Mindfulness: Why it is Important to Distinguish Them” in Mindfulness, 1 (2010), 152–160: 152). If one is non-judgmentally observing the present moment unfolding, then there can be no ethical reflection. Mindfulness in this form cannot provide any ethical grounding for human action, as it is in the literal sense amoral. The best that one can do, therefore, is wish and hope that the ethical environment somehow rubs off on clients, that ethics is contagious and they can catch it.

NB to the incautious reader: my concern in this post is with the discursive claims that mindfulness instills a higher level of ethical functioning. (Like being Masters of the Universe is not enough, they need to be morally superior as well—cf. the relationships between Calvinism and capitalism). I am not saying that Kabat-Zinn or MBSR are immoral, which is an entirely different matter. Nor am I saying that it is ineffective—especially since definitions of what constitutes being effective can be quite varied. The assistance that MBSR and related therapies provide for depression is apparently quite well established—but relieving depression and instilling ethics are different. Indeed, Monteiro, et al., make a plausible case for symptom relief as a valid measure of a practice being effective. Of course, whether this addresses duḥkha or not is yet another matter, since it is trivializing to simply render duḥkha as suffering and then assert that symptom relief is relieving suffering, and that makes it Buddhism. The reductionist and trivializing interpretations of Buddhism as being solely concerned with the relief of suffering need to be rejected, as for example in Purser’s response to Monteiro, et al.

1 thought on “Mindfulness, 1.0.2: Mindfulness, Morality and the Masters of the Universe

  1. Brilliant. You really have put your finger on these assumptions and contradictions. It is really good.

    I can see an article here for The Journal of Buddhist Ethics or Contemporary Buddhism.

    Or a popular article for Tricycle that politely but cogently ask these sort of questions.

    We are on the same wavelength here and I too have been wrestling with trying to decipher the ethical obscurantism of the MBI/Secular mindfulness movement.


    Sent from my iPhone

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