Starving to Death Instead of Drowning: Mindfulness and Ethics
Mindfulness and Ethics
Mindfulness can be defined as a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. This sounds simple, and it is, but it’s also super not-simple. There’s a lot that goes into returning to our most natural state being, especially in a very unnatural world.
Mindfulness is cool and lifechanging and all that, but it’s also a word we so often right now that it has started to lose its meaning and potency as that force for change in our lives. This sucks, but it makes sense. Any time something is re-processed and re-purposed to make it more palatable (and profitable) many of the most beneficial parts of it will be stripped away.
Mindfulness as a fad (I’ve seen it called McMindfulness, which is apt) has led to the deeper meaning being stripped away, and has seen what is a practice of wisdom and compassion be co-opted by corporations as a way to keep employees happy in jobs that no healthy human would be happy in. This is the unfortunate side effect of anything we want without doing the work, and it is the problem with removing a practice from its ethical roots for the sake of making it more broadly palatable.
So what is unpalatable about mindfulness? There are a few things.
- Mindfulness is not always easy and requires discipline.
- Mindfulness angles us into a dialogue with wisdom and compassion, and the necessity of both
- Mindfulness begins to wear away at many of the things we hold most dear, many of which society leverages for the good of society.
- Mindfulness forces us to re-examine one of our most sacred and sentimental assumptions – the idea that there is a “me”.
What Mindfulness Is Not
Mindfulness is not a simple tool for making everything more tolerable.
Mindfulness is not a quick fix for everything in your life.
Mindfulness is not a way of becoming numb to the world around you.
Mindfulness is not an excuse to avoid evolving because “everything is perfect as it is.”
Mindfulness is not a relaxation technique.
Mindfulness is not an amoral or neutral practice.
If any of these statements are surprising, you should not blame yourself. Mindfulness, when presented as an exclusively secular/mental health practice does often claim these things. Part of this is to make it presentable to everyone – atheist, Christian, agnostic, and everyone else, part of it is from a desire to avoid morality-oriented positions, and part of it is either from a desire to avoid the word meditation and all the associations that come with it or an ignorance of mindfulness’ place within the world of meditation.
It is essential to understand that mindfulness and meditation are not only not interchangeable words, mindfulness is a type, and only one of many, of meditation, and it is not even the type that is generally best to start with.
The most important thing to understand is that mindfulness will not make you perfect, it will not make all of life’s experiences equal or neutral, and you will still be human – maybe even more human. You will still experience anxiety and pain and anger and jealousy and heartache and heartbreak and sickness and death.
If you only remember one thing, please remember this:
Mindfulness is not about changing or improving our experience, but learning to observe and accept and embrace it exactly as it is.
Mindfulness and Meditation
At its core, mindfulness is about learning to observe your experience as a human without attachment or judgment. We mostly see this directed outwardly in the context of mindfulness-as-self-help, but it applies to our internal experience as well, and this is where things can get complicated. As we come face-to-face with the swirling and shifting ground of our thoughts, emotions, judgments, opinions, fears, worries, expectations, assumptions, stories, identities, physical sensations, aches, pains, and everything else that arises in us we find that it isn’t easy to be a human, and this isn’t relaxing.
This requires a steady mind, so many meditation traditions start off by teaching us how to focus on the breath until we learn how to maintain it for at least a little while. This is important because the mind isn’t used to staying on one thing, so mindfulness of our experience is very frustrating as we get pulled away over and over again. Focus takes practice.
It is also vital that we understand how to turn toward refuge when the internal stream becomes too overwhelming or chaotic for us. We spend a lot of our lives escaping what’s going on inside of us, and this seems to be more and more prevalent as the rates of anxiety, depression and general stress are on the rise. It can be overwhelming when we immerse ourselves in everything we have been avoiding. Being able to rest on the breath or a mantra is a way of turning away from the sharp edges of our experience for a few moments until we are ready to begin wearing them down and desensitizing ourselves to them again.
The Shortcomings of Secular Mindfulness
This started out as an exploration of mindfulness as a practice inextricable from the Buddhism from which it emerged. As I wrote, I realized that it was less about this, and more about the problem of mindfulness being promoted as nothing more than a tool to help us feel better or to make a boring corporate meeting less miserable. Mindfulness and ethics is what we’re really talking about here.
While it is unarguable that mindfulness has its roots as a Buddhist practice and there some aspects of mindfulness best understood in a Buddhist context, the more significant issue can be addressed through acknowledging the spiritual or moral character of mindfulness. I put spiritual in italics because it is a squirmy word – I am not sure it is the correct one, but I cannot think of something more appropriate.
Keep this idea in mind: mindfulness cannot be divorced from wisdom, compassion, and the idea of no-self. Wisdom and compassion are not unique to this practice and are present in any valid ethical system. The idea of no-self is somewhat uniquely Buddhist. There are notions of no-self in the mystical traditions of every religion, though often not as explicitly as it is in Buddhism. This is important because the observation of the impermanence of self cannot be avoided in mindfulness practice.
A quick note on citations: this is all I read, write, and talk about so I cannot remember where different bits of information came from. Because of this, I am including my ongoing and often-updated reading list at the end. I assume everything I talk about here is on that list somewhere, though podcasts are another avenue I utilize but have not listed on a per episode basis.
Starving to Death Instead of Drowning
I don’t really like writing things like this. I don’t like to seem like I am sniping at people who do work similar to me, or claiming to be the expert that has everything right. I also dislike the easy credibility/legitimacy that can be found by criticizing others, and I am not seeking that.
That being said, I cannot help but have some concern and even worry over the presentation of mindfulness I see in our society, specifically, the fad/cure-all nature of its presentation.
I’m a fan of mindfulness as a lifestyle. I’m a fan of mindfulness as a way of being. I’m a fan of mindfulness in (what I see as) it’s proper context of an ethically-directed practice or, at the very least, as part of a more profound discipline.
I am not a fan of mindfulness as the silver bullet, easy fix it is being offered as, especially in the field of mental health or personal development. I have seen it bring harm to people, and I have seen it make things harder for others. This makes sense – you cannot divorce something from its foundations and still expect it to work as well as it did when it was built on something completely different.
Let’s say someone is going to the lake for the weekend. They don’t know how to swim, so they decide to learn beforehand. Instead of finding an instructor who will teach them everything, they take the quickest route and learn to float because it’s the easiest way – the body already knows how, so why not. They don’t want to bother with actually learning to actually swim, they just want to not drown.
So, they go to the lake, and the boat sinks. They manage to escape the debris and begin to float. And they float, and they float, and they float, hoping to make it to shore eventually, though when and where they land is out of their control. Eventually, they starve to death floating around in the water rather than drowning.
I see this happening a lot with mindfulness. People read a book or two and begin to teach others, or people read a book or two that’s the extent of their self-education. Some even get a certification and start teaching, but certifications are unregulated and do not guarantee any foundational teaching or depth of study. As I mentioned at the beginning, some fail to even explain that mindfulness is a type of meditation, rather than being synonymous with meditation. This is problematic.
Look, I get it. I had to learn about this all through books and certifications as well. I was lucky to come to it through the lens of Buddhist teaching and philosophy but I still approached from a secular/mental health perspective. I saw it as a cure-all for a while, and I sought ways to strip it of its Buddhist constraints to make it more palatable to everyone. I wasn’t ever able to see it as amoral, but, years back, I did not address the morality and ethics as necessary or essential. This was a mistake.
Mindfulness without its ethical underpinnings is just a slower death through suffering – it is not enough to simply be aware of the present moment. We cannot use mindfulness to numb ourselves to very real social problems, but we run the risk of doing exactly that if we remove the ethical foundations of the practice in the name of making it more palatable for everyone.
I’ve avoided this word for quite a while.
I live in West Texas. From what I understand, we are more Christian than Pakistan is Muslim, and we are dominated by a strict sect of Christianity. This is not a welcoming ground to talk about Buddhism.
And I get it. People have their beliefs, and that’s cool. People want to believe that their belief system encompasses all the wisdom the universe has to offer, and that makes sense.
It makes sense, but it doesn’t make it True.
There is a functionality and correspondence to everyday experience in Buddhism that I have not found in other religions. Buddhism offers an understanding of the human condition that is verifiable and action-oriented. I am not even sure you have to believe anything at all to find the truths of Buddhism useful – it is a grounded practice, one anyone can do. You don’t need to be a Buddhist in any sense.
But, all that said, I do not think it is wise or beneficial to completely divorce mindfulness from its Buddhist roots.
Mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism whether we like it or not. This may or not be a problem for you. Where I live, it has been a problem for some people, so let’s break a few things down.
It’s important to consider the idea that many of the core tenets of Buddhism can be explored and even accepted without compromising whatever your current religious or lack-of-religious belief is. Most every faith embraces psychology to some extent these days, and Buddhism is, in many ways, a psychology, and maybe the best one I’ve come across.
Let’s set one thing aside at the very beginning: we are not going to talk about reincarnation. I don’t have an opinion on it because I haven’t died yet (that I know of – rimshot), and, it’s actually the subject of some debate even among religious Buddhists. It is unnecessary to our conversation here either way.
I’m also not going to go into many of the mystical or magical aspects of the story of the Buddha, who was a real person named Siddhartha Gautama and lived about 2500 years ago. The backstory is also not really necessary, neither is the supernatural stuff, that is also a subject of some debate, even among religious Buddhists.
You may see a pattern here: religious Buddhists, like people of every faith, have a wide and varied perspective on what is and is not necessary and true within their faith.
Here are the things that I see as necessary, and that I know a million people would have million different ideas about:
The Four Noble Truths
Gautama tried a lot of different ways to understand our lot in life. After years of arduous practices, he had a moment of realization, and arrived at 4 Truths about the nature of the mind, the self, and being human. It’s important to note that these are things to reflect on rather than ideas to accept as absolutes. This isn’t a set of rules so much as a set of explanations that you have to apply to your own life and practice.
The First Noble Truth
This one seems simple, but it’s also not-so-simple. The most common way I’ve heard this phrased is that “life is suffering.” From what I’ve read, this is accurate, but it also needs clarification. The word Gautama used was dukkha, a Pali word with a lot of different meanings. These include satisfactoriness, pain, imperfect, impermanent, empty, unsubstantial. You get a general idea. More than anything these all engage some notion of change or being ungraspable. We don’t like things like that.
This is not meant to be optimistic or pessimistic, it’s meant to be a statement about reality. This world dukkha applies to all aspect of human life, including times of happiness, because they too are impermanent and will shift on us.
The Second Noble Truth
So the first Noble Truth tells us that life is inherently and inescapably unsatisfactory, and the Second Noble Truth tells us why: attachment. This isn’t the healthy kind of secure attachment we talk about in counseling, but the pathological desire we have for things that we think we will make us happy. Some of these are easy to see: wealth, sex, prestige, fame, etc. There are some less tangible things we use to comfort ourselves as well – beliefs, opinions, concepts, theories, identity, and a host of other mental constructions that we try to solidify into something we can hold on to.
We are in a constant struggle to fulfill cravings, but there’s a problem with this: they cannot be satisfied in any real way or for any length of time.
You are excited to see a movie, you see it, and it’s no longer new.
You are hungry, you eat, you are no longer hungry, but you will be again.
You are tired, you sleep, you feel rested, but you will get tired again.
You meet someone you love, you have a life together, they will die and so will you.
Everything we think is stable is actually dependent on something else. You cannot be hot without the idea of cold, you cannot be bored without the concept of interested, you cannot fear death without seeing life as the right way of being. These are not solid, they only exist in relationship to each other.
In short: Everything, everything, everything changes in this life, there is nothing to hold on to, nothing that will not shift. I hear people say God is unchanging and eternal, and maybe he is, but our understanding and relationship to him through this understanding changes throughout our life, so there is no permanence in that perspective or relationship. There is nothing to grasp on to in the way that we want to grasp on to things.
Learning to observe this impermanence also brings us into close contact with one of the deepest roots of our suffering: a misapprehension of what we are. At the heart of a mindfulness practice is the observation of the impermanence of everything. This is seen in the world as people, places, fads, countries and entire cultures come and go. We can see this in ourselves as well: thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, everything that makes up this idea of “me” is an endless flow of change. This solid self, this “me” we spend so much time defending and providing for is actually very hard to find. At the very core of all of this, even this person I am so invested in is hard to find.
The Third Noble Truth
This one is pretty simple: attachment and desire cause suffering, but there is a way out of it. We do this weird thing where we take our desires and our wants and our beliefs as True and real and us.
Why do I want a cookie? Because I want it.
Why do I desire sex with that person? Because I feel like I do.
Why do I believe what I believe? Because it’s what I believe.
We like to think these things are substantial, but there’s not much more reflection than we see here. So much of our lives are lived chasing one thing and then another and another, always looking for that small bit of satisfaction that immediately turns into the search for something else.
So, what’s the way out?
Learning to reflect on these things, without attachment. Cultivating an understanding of the inherent emptiness of these desires, and letting them come and go without clinging or rejecting.
This doesn’t mean nothing matters, and we don’t have anything to look forward to, only that the things external to us don’t get to drive us, they don’t get to run the show and keep us locked in the rollercoaster cycle of craving-attainment-joy-despair-craving.
The Fourth Noble Truth
So, we have the truth of suffering, the truth of why we suffer, the truth that there is a way out, and then we arrive at the actual path itself. It’s important to note that this path has a clear ethical direction to it – there is nothing amoral about it. Called the Noble Eightfold Path, it consists of a series of nonlinear, non-rule-oriented areas of proper behavior:
- Right Understanding
- Right Thought
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration
The use of the word “right” here is essential – it has a deeper meaning and context than our ordinary understanding of it as an absolute or the simple opposite of wrong. Terms like appropriate, complete or well-directed may be a better fit, as these 8 ideas have a lot of space in them for interpretation and application. Let’s look at that.
The Noble Eightfold Path
In no particular order:
Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood seem to pertain to things we do. How we speak of others, whether or not we gossip, how we behave, the things we do and things we avoid, and how we make our living – whether or not we do this in a way that helps others or harms them.
Right Thought and Right Understanding seem to point toward wisdom as being important. The thoughts we cultivate and nourish matter, and it is important that we see the world and the mind and cravings and desires as they are if we are to walk this path. Thoughts of selflessness and compassion are more skillful than selfish or self-absorbed thoughts, and we should focus on compassion and gratitude more than their opposites.
Lastly, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration point toward inherently positive things, but seem to imply that there are correct ways of doing even things that are good. We need to direct our effort toward skillful mind states, so mindfulness and concentration are not necessarily useful in and of themselves. Concentration on things like greed, hatred, lust, and a host of other things will not benefit us or anyone around us, and mindfully cultivating and planning things that bring harm is not skillful.
Why Mindfulness and Ethics Matters
Mindfulness emerged from a tradition with a deep sense of ethics. Compassion was central, as was wisdom and ethical behavior. This is important because mindfulness divorced from these things becomes a liability – to ourselves and to society at large.
The important thing here is the clearly implied and inherent direction to all of this – it is not amoral or neutral, it is not just a tool to cultivate peace and equanimity to everything. There are things that are helpful and things that are not helpful, there are things that are skillful, and there are things that are not skillful.
Being mindful of the destruction one’s drinking problem is wreaking on their children and having equanimity toward the damage and long-term scarring this behavior brings is not okay. One needs to learn to steady the mind enough to bring mindfulness to the things that might drive the compulsive drinking, put in the effort to seek out help, and try to find a more skillful way to live. Things are not all neutral, some things bring suffering and destruction to those who depend on us. There is something in the nature of this world, in the nature of the mind that keeps us from growing and evolving amid this kind of behavior.
Wisdom and Compassion
Mindfulness needs wisdom and compassion and wisdom and compassion need each other.
Wisdom without compassion leads to arid intellectualism. Many acts can be done mindfully, but are not necessarily good acts to be performing. It would take a high degree of mindfulness to plan and execute a robbery, blackmail or even a murder, but we should not cultivate a desire to perform these acts well. Psychopathic behavior may be mindful, but it is not skillful.
On the other hand, compassion without wisdom leads to foolish people with good intentions (I recently heard this called “idiot compassion”). Working as a counselor, these were often the most destructive people I would encounter, though usually indirectly as I worked with someone to repair the damage the compassionate fool had done. We see this in society at large in policies that bring harm to people in the name of feeling good for a moment, and in religion, as well-meaning leaders step into places they do not have the skill or training to be.
We need both wisdom and compassion in our mindfulness to avoid making a mess one way or another, this is implicit and essential in the Buddhist path, and that offers us a guardrail against these two ditches.
This one is more difficult and pushes back at something we all believe, though we do so without much examination. I do not think there is a religious problem here, and this can even be verified for those who are more scientifically minded.
If someone is using a mindfulness practice to find peace or be happier, then this part of the equation – this no-self – becomes a problem. It can, in fact, be terrifying or mentally harmful if you are not ready for this. It is difficult even when you are looking for it!
This idea of the self very much matters because so much of what we do emerges from it.
I need this, even if it means others cannot have it.
I deserve this more than him/her/them.
My family is especially important. \
My city/state/country has a divine right to prosper, even if its at the expense of others.
It’s not that explicit, of course, but the self, this ego we cart around with us, very much creates an us/them mentality in everything we do. When everything goes through the filter of “me”, we will always assess everything based on what it does for us, at the expense of everyone else.
Swim and Float
None of this is to say that there’s no benefit to an amoral mindfulness. I’ve seen it help people when used as a simple tool to help with the smaller trials of everyday life. It’s helped people deal with stress at their work, their screaming kids, and not to throw a fit in traffic. These are good and decent things.
That being said, I do think there is value in exploring and understanding, if not embracing, the spiritual and ethical roots of the practice, especially if one is going to dive into it in any real way.
It seems indisputable that mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist thought, which traces itself back to Hindu/Vedic roots. There are mindfulness orienting practices in every tradition though, from the mysticism of Christianity to Sufi Islam.
The unifying principle in all of these is the idea of there being an underlying ethical perspective that emphasizes wisdom and compassion – if we are honest these other traditions speak of love as the most significant aspect of these practices. These are not only beneficial characteristics, but they may also be necessary for a complete practice.
Informal practices weave into our lives seamlessly. We like taking a mindful walk, doing the dishes without all the stories, and watching our breath during that boring meeting at work that you have every Monday even though nothing has ever been accomplished in any meeting, ever, much less one that happens every single Monday without fail. We like these fun, peaceful moments into our lives and being all Zen for a few seconds before returning to the hustle and bustle and struggle of being a human.
This is all well and cool, but there is a lot more to this practice of mindfulness. Learning to steady our mind through concentration meditation allows us to experience a more continuous mindfulness throughout our day, and investing in a formal practice of mindfulness itself helps us process through so many of the difficult things in our lives.
Neither of these is easy, but I’m not sure that many things are easy in life that are worth having. I am also not sure that we can be mindful – that we can dig down into the deeper aspects of being a person on this planet – without a formal sitting practice. There are too many distractions for us these days.
Think of how many worlds we live in: the world of our mind, work world, other people’s perceptions world, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Bumble, Tinder, eHarmony, Match, (etc., etc.) world, the worlds of our television shows, and all the things I am missing. Our minds shift from one world to the next to the next, and a few moments of quiet observation on the bus ride to work or school is not going to help us parse this in any significant way.
A formal practice gives us a set amount of time – 20-30 minutes – where we aren’t doing anything else except focusing and watching the mind. It’s the difference between taking the stairs instead of the elevator versus having a dedicated eating and workout plan that we stick to daily. The results speak for themselves.
There is another, more subtle benefit to a formal sitting practice: it is a rare thing in this world to do one thing, and doing one thing is good for us. We tend to sit, looking at our phones – texting, Snapchatting, scrolling Reddit, playing a game (maybe all at the same time) while also watching Netflix, and even having a conversation if someone happens to be nearby (and they are probably doing all of these things as well). Sitting, doing one thing, for a small part of our day, can actually be life-changing in and of itself.
So, What is Mindfulness?
We haven’t really answered this question in any real way, and I am not sure I can. We can go with all the standard definitions like “a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment” (still my favorite), but this definition leaves a lot to be desired.
Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment, but this applies to everything. A nonjudgmental awareness of the traffic jam, the neighbor and their thumping stereo or stomping footsteps, the barking dog, the rain on our day off. But it also a nonjudgmental awareness of our own beliefs and opinions, of the shifting seascape inside of us – thoughts and emotions and aches and pains, and all with the understanding that these things are impermanent and insubstantial.
Mindfulness is about allowing ourselves to move with the unceasing flow of time around us, not getting stuck on any one thing. As we’ve discussed already, this might be pleasant during a difficult meeting or boring bus ride, but it still applies equally when looking at the things we like and cherish and love – our opinion on something does not imbue it with permanence.
Mindfulness is an informal practice, a formal practice, a way of being, all at once, and each feeds into the other. It is difficult to be truly skillful in any of these without investing in all three.
Mindfulness is an ancient practice, with its roots tracing back into the traditions of India, but being clearly delineated in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama 2500 years ago, and having been refined, elaborated on, and, unfortunately, twisted and dumbed-down since then. Mindfulness is inherently an ethically-oriented practice, emphasizing wisdom and compassion, most clearly laid out in the Noble Eightfold Path.
All that being said, mindfulness is a practice that is compatible with any of the great moral and ethical systems that occupy our hearts and minds in modern times. Whether we call it centering prayer or choiceless awareness, mindfulness can adapt itself to our lives, provided we are willing to act skillfully and with love.
How Do We Practice?
As mentioned, there are formal and informal practices, I encourage people to begin with a formal practice, make it a habit, and stick with it. Here’s how to build mindfulness and concentration:
- Set a timer for however long you want to practice – 5 or 10 minutes might be a good place to start.
- Take up a dignified posture. This can be in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. Sit in a way that you can do so comfortably for 20 minutes or so. Let your spine be straight but relaxed.
- Let your hands rest comfortably, let your eyes close naturally.
- Take a moment to notice everything coming in through your senses:
- What do you hear?
- What do you smell?
- What can you taste?
- What do you see (we are at least seeing the backs of our eyelids)?
- What does the temperature feel like on your skin?
- Notice the places where your body makes contact with the chair or floor.
- Let yourself explore these things, see what they feel like.
- Turn your attention to your breath, let yourself watch it come and go. When you get distracted, return to the breath – there is no one there who needs the distraction analyzed or explained.
- After a few moments of this, begin counting the breath – one on the inbreath, two on the outbreath, and so on. If you get distracted, go back to one. If you make it to ten, go back to one. If you find yourself striving to get to ten, count one/two, one/two. This isn’t a competition or a performance – it’s about focusing the mind.
- When your timer goes off don’t jump up. Take a moment to observe the mind and body, accepting it all exactly as it is. Then, move your fingers and your toes to ease your nervous system back into wakefulness, and, when it is comfortable, open your eyes.
Want more? I write a lot. I also have a podcast and post videos and mini-blogs on Instagram.