The Ethics of Mindfulness

BL00 -  The Ethics of Mindfulness-Max-Quality

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By Ted Meissner, Mindful Leader MBSR Instructor 

When I first joined a meditative community, they were in the midst of a schism. Past inappropriate behaviors from leadership had recently surfaced, and the group was deeply divided by hurt and different ideas about how to continue.  Over time they recovered, but it was a long and winding road to mend the fractures. Those events left a mark on everyone involved, and I was no exception. Though there were no painful memories to work through because of joining after those events, it nonetheless demonstrated the tremendous impact unethical actions can have on a community.

Ethics remains a pivotal aspect of mindfulness teaching and practice, with many different perspectives and situations to consider. And many of them center around how we relate in a number of circumstances:

Relationships in the Mindfulness Program

Some critics of mindfulness programs have challenged their integrity as being a disingenuous means of promoting a religious agenda, while simultaneously insisting on the explicit inclusion of ideological stances from those traditions. MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) does not hide having inspiration and direct practices from contemplative traditions, but also acknowledges influences of neurology, group dynamics, contemporary teaching methods, behavior change research, and poetry just to name a few.  It would be unethical to stealthily include religious or other undisclosed views in a secular program, which is why MBSR courses have a different intention and primary objective -- stress reduction, not enlightenment.

Relationships in the Community

While it may seem self-evident that teachers should not take advantage of the perceived power of their role, examples abound of teachers in contemplative communities doing exactly that. These unfortunate occurrences bring with them tremendous suffering for those directly involved, and for others caught up in the storm of abuse.  The violations can show up in many forms, from taking on airs of superiority at others' expense, to cognitive bias and discrimination based on gender identification or preference, ethnicity, or other cultural aspects of one's personal life and background. The discrimination may lead to denial of opportunities, and sometimes all the way to physical, mental, emotional, or sexual abuse.

Relationships in the Discipline

As mindfulness has grown and become more mainstream, there are also ethical considerations about how we relate with others in the same field. While competition is a part of contemporary society, many within the discipline of mindfulness might prefer to adhere to a standard reflective of our best selves. Might the focus be on collaboration rather than competition, for example, avoiding plagiarizing the work of others while respecting their efforts?

Even with a full understanding of that, transgressions have continued to occur. Here are three ways to help prevent more in the future:

  • Clear and Transparent Codes of Conduct. More and more, organizations are taking the initiative to be specific about what is acceptable and what is not. Some also make plain a grievance process administered by neutral third parties, rather than in-house and perhaps less objective resources. If you're not sure what the policies are, ask for them in writing, and ask about how often they are reviewed and updated.
  • Feedback. Being able to gauge how well ethics are being adhered to is an additional encouragement that can take many forms.  Of course hearing from members of a community in a safe, judgment-free way is critical, but that tends to be an after-the-fact expression of violations. People in positions of perceived power -- teachers, board members, group facilitators, etc. -- need to not only understand their responsibilities while interacting with members, but would do well to actively seek out insights about their behavior from others in a variety of roles.
  • Address Bypassing. While mindfulness practice includes facing what's here rather than avoiding or suppressing, even experienced teachers are only human. Bypassing is a particular threat to the ethical behavior of those in senior positions, as identification with one's own long-standing practice can lead to not grasping where we still stumble.  Here, too, feedback can be beneficial, especially when the conversations challenge us more than telling us what we want to hear.

While policies and procedures are a good first step, they are only that, a first step. Not everyone will adhere to codes of conduct even when they are well-known and agreed to, so additional layers of prevention can help keep our ethics compass pointed to true north.

Ted Meissner created the UMass Medical School Center for Mindfulness MBSR live online program, is a Certified MBSR Teacher, and has been teaching mindfulness for over twenty years. He is the host of the podcast Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science, has been published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Mindful, and The International Journal of Whole Person Care. He mentors MBSR teachers, holds Masterclasses for Oxford Mindfulness Centre on live online mindfulness program delivery, and is the Executive Director of Mindfulness Practice Center.


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