Mindfulness is more than a practice – its a way of living our lives. We get all kinds of conflicting advice from many different “authorities” about how we should conduct ourselves – about the right way to speak, how we should think about things, and how we should act. This can lead to confusion. Is expressing emotions necessary for wellbeing? Does being authentic mean doing what is felt in the moment without much forethought? Does finding one’s voice require speaking one’s mind? The answer to all of these questions is, it depends…
When we live mindfully, we often find that we begin living more ethically. The space mindfulness creates between stimulus and response highlights the uncomfortable dissonance that arises when our choices are not in alignment with our values. We are also more conscious of the aftereffects of our actions, seeing for ourselves what is skillful and what isn’t. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. How can we free ourselves from dissatisfaction or suffering if we are frequently acting in ways that cause, maintain or add to it? Yet, each person must discover for themselves which ways of being ultimately lead to more suffering in their lives and which ways of being lead to deep and lasting happiness.
The ancient traditions behind modern mindfulness have a helpful way of teaching us about mindful living. They divide this domain of mindfulness into three categories:
- Mindful Conduct – doing our best to refrain from harming ourselves and others through our actions. This includes many forms of physical violence as well as taking without consent (killing or inflicting pain with intent to harm, abuse, stealing, manipulation, sexual misconduct).
- Mindful Speech – doing our best to refrain from harming ourselves and others through our words. This might include things like lying, gossip, unkindness, and rhetoric that is divisive.
- Mindful Livelihood – opting out of a vocation that causes or contributes to the suffering of ourselves and/or other beings. Doing our best to choose jobs that contribute to happiness and wellbeing.
When thinking about it in this way, it becomes clear that acting “authentically”, speaking one’s mind, and expressing one’s feelings, when done mindlessly, could actually be harmful and bring consequences that work against one’s highest intentions. If my authentic self is mindless, my speech and conduct will likely also be mindless. I may never even consider how my actions, words or career may be contributing to harm in the world. The more I repeat these mindless and harmful habits, the more entrenched I become in the cycle of suffering.
Fortunately, training ourselves to be mindful through daily practice gives us an embodied way of knowing when our way of living is beneficial. Humans are hard wired such that acting with benevolence feels good – it contributes to our survival. We become even more conscious of this when we are mindful. We also get to know our own habits, patterns, and proclivities. This allows us to make reasoned decisions rather than being dragged around by urges and impulses. With dedicated practice comes wisdom and a natural inclination toward what contributes to collective wellbeing.
Baer, R. Ethics, Values, Virtues, and Character Strengths in Mindfulness-Based Interventions: a Psychological Science Perspective. Mindfulness 6, 956–969 (2015).
Chen, S., Jordan, C.H. Incorporating Ethics Into Brief Mindfulness Practice: Effects on Well-Being and Prosocial Behavior. Mindfulness 11, 18–29 (2020).
Stanley S., Purser R.E., Singh N.N. (2018) Ethical Foundations of Mindfulness. In: Stanley S., Purser R., Singh N. (eds) Handbook of Ethical Foundations of Mindfulness. Mindfulness in Behavioral Health. Springer, Cham
Mindfulness: Awareness Informed by an Embodied Ethic https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-014-0372-5
Seven Ethical Guidelines for Teaching Mindfulness: First, do no harm http://drchristopherwillard.com/ethical-reflections/2018/5/9/seven-ethical-guidelines-for-teaching-mindfulness