The critical role of ethics as process in an MB program – a gentle critique of Grabovac, Lau and Willet’s article

A recent article, Mechanisms of Mindfulness: a Buddhist Psychological Model by Grabovac, Lau and Willett in Mindfulness attempted to re-insert Buddhist Psychology into the foundations of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Grabovac and her colleagues did a good job of putting the Three Dharma Seals (impermanence, suffering and nonself) into the service of explaining the mechanisms involved in mindfulness-based interventions. Drawing partially from the Abdhidhamma (the texts that form the basis of Buddhist Psychology), they worked out a pretty good set of visuals that lead us through sense perceptions, attachment/aversion, and the generation of suffering and nonself. I found their explanations of the concept of nonself narrow, but that’s not as critical as what comes next.

About halfway through the article, they address the role of Ethics (sila) in the cultivation of mindfulness. After listing the Five Precepts (not killing, stealing, engaging in sexual misconduct, lying, or using intoxicants), Grabovac and colleagues make what is likely one of most faulty statements of the intent of a practice founded on sila.

(O)ne of the major purposes of the ethical guideline is to reduce the baseline amount of mental proliferation, thus aiding both concentration and mindfulness practices… Leading an ethical life, in the context of the (Buddhist Psychological Model),implies that the meditator experiences less guilt, doubts, worries, etc. that can often be a source of mental proliferation.

I don’t think one can get more off-track than this. In effect, Buddhist Ethics are reduced to a utilitarian process of feeling good. In terms of Kohlberg’s moral development that makes Buddhist and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction practitioners capable of not much more than the second level in which we choose the “right” thing to do because it gets us something in return. What Grabovac and friends have missed is that sila plays an equal role (if not more so) to Wisdom and Concentration in the triumvariate model of practice. (The Buddhist practice model is formulated by the Eightfold Path which is categorized into Wisdom, Ethics, and Concentration.)  It is more than just doing something to get something in return. And perhaps, this is where I find the teaching of Mindfulness-Based courses to be inherently limited if we stop, as most courses do, at symptom relief -and that includes “feeling good.”

The ethics of a Buddhist Psychological or Applied Model requires opening to our interconnectedness (non-self is the start point). The practice of the Five Precepts (or Five Mindfulness Trainings of Thich Nhat Hanh) is more than about avoiding a poor rebirth or ensuring some Thing for ourselves. To miss this, places their translation of Dharma into Psychology on very shaky ground. In fact, I think it just collapses.

It’s disappointing that researchers who put so much into developing a bridge between the two worlds would have missed something so critical and obvious. And in a journal of some repute, it concerns me that readers not well-versed in Buddhist thought will take the diminishing of Buddhist Ethics to a utilitarian role as a fact. I haven’t seen an open challenges to this part of the article. Perhaps it will come soon.

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