I wanted to write a few comments on the issue of mindfulness and sila (virtue). This is not an exhaustive or academic analysis but comes from my experience in teaching 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses over several years. I have a long background in Buddhist practice and in supporting and teaching at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery. So I have taught both traditional Buddhist retreats as well as secular MBSR.
Moving from teaching traditional Buddhism to MBSR was unsettling. After many years of teaching traditional Buddhist meditation, I had unconsciously developed a position that I only became fully (and uncomfortably) aware of when teaching secular groups. As a Buddhist teacher my role is considerably bolstered by sitting in front of the shrine and a large golden statue of the Buddha. I am regarded by many of those present as a priestly figure, or a quasi-monk and this conditions a level of reverence and respect that makes teaching formal and easier. This is not the case with secular mindfulness groups where there are no religious trappings to inflate one's status and respect develops over time.
Whilst finding the continuing discussion between academics, mindfulness teachers and traditional Buddhists very interesting in identifying different views of mindfulness in both the traditional and secular ‘camps’; much of the discussion appears abstract and ignores the reality of why people voluntarily attend MBSR courses. I will write about the specific area of corporate mindfulness training later, but will start with my experience of offering MBSR courses to members of the public.
I should add that coming from a traditional Buddhist background; I deliberately included a session on sila in my MBSR courses – where we explored the five precepts plus generosity, kindness and patience. Like others from a traditional Buddhist background I initially felt that the omission of sila from mindfulness training was something to be remedied.
My experience, however, was that specific teaching on the five precepts was usually either irrelevant or presumptuous. Most of those attending my courses were only too well aware of moral injunctions and the ideals they should live up to but were experiencing stress (dukkha) from a whole range of challenging life events.
For many, their suffering was linked with misfortune. Many people are blameless victims of trauma. Such as being an abandoned mother or the victim of a road accident, being overworked, suffering from insomnia, depression or anxiety, or chronic illness of various kinds, or having to hold down a difficult job in order to pay the bills, or witnessing the sickness and death from bone cancer of one’s husband after a year of marriage (an experience of one of my students).
In my experience, those attending MBSR courses are not suffering because of immorality and are well aware of normal moral standards of behaviour.
In no case did I knowingly teach any people who were suffering from the results of their activities as career criminals, illicit drug manufacturers, torturers, rapists, burglars or snipers. Such people must exist, but they don’t voluntarily attend MBSR courses in Hertfordshire.
The reality is both more mundane and more concerning since it points to a large number of decent people who struggle with daily life challenges and trauma, and are stressed and unhappy as a result.
To suggest to people – such as stressed teachers, mothers or nurses or those suffering post-traumatic stress (PTSD), or from chronic pain, or from bereavement - that they would do well to consider their moral behaviour and imply that this may be connected to their present suffering is both unhelpful and patronising.
However, teaching them to cultivate mindful presence and to open to their feelings, memories and sensory experience and to cultivate spacious present moment awareness is usually extremely helpful. To realise that the vivid reliving of the moment an accident took place can be faced and not necessarily be psychologically crippling, or that anxiety is an impersonal feeling that can be tolerated and opened to, or that repetitive thoughts are just mind events arising and passing, or that painful sensations change and that we do not have to add extra anguish to unwanted feelings, was and is, an enormous relief for those suffering from these difficulties.
I am not suggesting that carefully considering our behaviour and its results is not an essential component of a fulfilling life or that our activities are not intimately linked with some of the mental events we subsequently have to experience, just that in my particular context of mainly UK educated participants, the dukkha experienced by participants was not caused in most cases by their ethical transgressions. The possible exceptions were a few course participants who had a problem with alcohol – but that arguably is a health problem – an addiction - that easily leads to subsequent moral problems.
I think it is easy to become self-righteous and dogmatic about virtue and there is a risk of giving the impression that cultivating impeccable moral behaviour automatically leads to a stress (dukkha free) life and even more perniciously, that immoral behaviour from the past (perhaps a past life) is the direct cause of current misfortune (like a severe car accident caused by another driver). The underlying message here is that victims are to blame for their own misfortune.
In some Buddhist contexts these types of misfortune may be regarded as kammic justice for past misdeeds. This is a superstitious misinterpretation of early Buddhist scriptures. There are a number of teachings in the Pali Canon where it is made clear that the workings of kamma are complex and that not all that we experience is caused by our particular intentional actions.
I find it most useful to regard virtue as a practical training that we work with over a lifetime and that helps establish wholesome mental qualities that enable us to relax into mindful presence and ultimately nibbana. But even impeccable virtue on its own does not guarantee much – we could still be a dogmatic deluded sanctimonious prig who experiences a lot of dukkha.
I think we also need to take a good hard look at the five precepts – the basic Buddhist moral guidelines for lay people – and see what they offer at this time and place. There can be few brought up in the UK and who take on board our cultural values who would not find the five Buddhist precepts to be simple common-sense. In this country at this time and to most citizens they are unremarkable. In fact many idealistic Westerners would find them too limited and want something more inspiring and with a more demonstrable positive impact on society. But there are places in the world and some cultural and religious groups that do need to cultivate basic sila – the five precepts - especially not harming others, but also the other basic precepts. It seems incredible to me that some religious teachers seem to think it acceptable to condemn, and to praise the murder of, individuals and groups on the basis of their race or religion.
But the idea that most ordinary people in the UK – especially those with families and jobs - are habitually immoral and regularly break the five precepts in serious ways is in my experience, nonsense. In fact those leading family lives have to be decent, hardworking, and trustworthy if they are to establish a good reputation to make a living and they often have to deal with hugely difficult daily challenges in juggling care of children and the elderly and in holding down a job to pay for food and accommodation and all the other responsibilities they have.
And those of us who live engaged lives with work, relationships and families have to constantly work with the principles inherent in the five precepts and the complexities of the real world. The situations we face in an engaged life are often highly complex and actions that we take may cause harm to some and reduce harm to others. The world of decision taking is about dealing in the wisest and most compassionate way - with good intentions- with many shades of grey, not black and white. Perfection is usually hard to achieve in the world and working with difficult challenges can lead to a much more developed ethical sense.
However, there are other ways that we can identify a moral aspect to Mindfulness Based Interventions (MBI). For example, what are the aims of the MBI – is it aiming to cultivate mindfulness for a purpose that is unethical; and what choice do participants have in participating with mindfulness training? Another key consideration is the embodied moral stance of the mindfulness teacher.
I think it is very important not only that mindfulness teachers have a good and regular pattern of contemplative experience, but that they are teaching from a place of compassion and integrity. Even without any specific instruction on sila in a course, the teachers embodied qualities of kindness, care and integrity will communicate to participants and be linked with the attitudes needed to cultivate mindfulness. In order to rest in mindfulness we have to develop a caring, opening, accepting, patient witnessing of facets of our human nature that are normal and widespread but may be unwanted and difficult for us to witness.
The Mindfulness that I teach ( and is the basis of MBI and the 'gold standard' of MBCT / MBSR) is sati-sampajana - mindfulness and clear knowing - noticing sensory experience from the six senses – including the mind sense – thoughts and feelings. I do not teach much bare attention through the five senses – but include such exercises as part of a complete mindfulness teaching. Perhaps it is this type of bare attention that more easily leads to abuse – especially in training of repetitive movements or activities with what we could call ‘mindlessness’ – where there is no presence of mind but only a direct concentration - unity - with a learnt activity, perhaps activity such as striking off an enemies head with a sword, or the hackneyed example of the sniper. Unfortunately this kind of ‘mindless’ behaviour has appeared within Buddhism – where warriors have been taught to see their enemies as empty and encouraged to act without thought to destroy them. (see the book 'Zen and War' for a broader examination of the appropriation of Buddhist for nationalistic purposes )
Sati-sampajana cultivates a presence of mind where one is aware of context – time and place and the ethical qualities of action and where one becomes mindful of habits – learnt behaviours that are automatic and mindless – and which are not necessarily beneficial, giving one a chance to change these behaviour patterns.
The fundamental aim of mindfulness cultivation – of MBI - must be to live more fully in our current context in ways that reduce suffering both to ourselves and those around us. Just as with physical exercise, mindfulness practice is most beneficial with regular and diligent practise. These are attitudes that come much more easily from within – from self-motivation rather than being imposed by some authority – certainly self-motivation is very helpful if we want to establish long-term mindfulness practice.
And this sheds some light on concerns about workplace mindfulness courses and on courses for captive participants – for example students and prisoners. I think we could say that workplace courses are to be encouraged provided they are offered by professional and experienced teachers and aim to promote sati-sampajana via good MBSR / MBCT courses and that those participants are motivated volunteers.
Teaching mindfulness to a captive audience in prisons could be of great benefit and prisons are a context where examination of sila becomes more central. But it is still important that participants volunteer to take part, even if their motives are not pure. For example prisoners may see participation on a mindfulness course as helping them with early release.
Students are also a captive audience, but it seems thoroughly sensible to teach young people, especially those in secondary education, ways to be able to step away and rest from relentless automatic entanglement with thinking, emotions, and the conditions they experience in awareness.