A Rationale for an Ethics-Based Mindfulness Program

This is a slide from Dr. Richard Davidson’s keynote speech at the 10th Annual Scientific Conference of The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, March 31, 2012.  The text in the second bullet reads: Basic research on “naturally occurring” virtuous qualities; Toward a scientific foundation for secular ethics.

The third bullet reads: Research on contemplative practices other than meditation; e.g., intentions and vows.

These are two issues very close to the heart of the programs at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic.  Beginning with the second point addressed by Dr. Davidson, the underpinnings of mindfulness are described (see research by Shauna Shapiro and colleagues) as intention, attention, and attitude.  Other writers, both from mindfulness and Buddhist Psychology, emphasize the need for creating an intention which directs the attention to cultivate a particular attitude to our experience.  Intention forms the foundation of the practice of mindfulness and it is a necessary component of practice.  It is, at the heart of practice, the means by which autopilot is interrupted and compassionate attentiveness is given to the moment.

Dr. Davidson’s reference to secular ethics is an important consideration.  It opens to a debate that has flowed in Buddhist circles for centuries and perhaps reflects more of a habit than any real schism of ideology.  One set of teachers views ethical behaviours as an emergent property of practice.  Another school of teachers suggest that while this is true, it cannot be left to happenstance and the ethical actions require conscious cultivation.

Regardless of the different points of view, the endpoint is the same: both perspectives require active, intentional practice of actions that are guided by ethics.  As we cultivate our meditative skills, we become aware of the impermanence of life, situations, and feelings, of our deep interconnections with each other, and of the universal nature of suffering.  We cannot help but feel compassion and empathy grow from this deep profound insight. We practice meditation in all forms, formal and informal, to cultivate this realization that we have choices in the actions we activate.  And in those moments, we practice intentionally choosing the actions that reflect respect for life, generosity, unexploitative relationships with each other and ourselves, mindful speech, and mindful consumption.  We are both motivated by compassion to practice these actions and these actions deepen our capacity for compassion.

Meditating without awareness of the intention to cultivate an ethical lifestyle is possible.  There has been much in the news recently about Norwegian Anders Breivik who killed 77 people including children in 2011 and claimed he practiced meditation to numb himself.  While it would be possible to argue about whether he was “meditating” or not, it is more important for teachers of mindfulness skills to understand that a practice of sustaining attention and cultivation of a particular attitude can result in a belief that the practitioner is “freeing themselves” of emotions.  Without the litmus test of ethical choices, this “detachment” is easily mistaken for acceptance or equanimity of the individual situation or feeling state.  In other words, intention while necessary is not sufficient and directionality of that intention must be included in practice.  Even Breivik referred to his meditation process as “de-humanizing” – an outcome in direct opposition to the intent of a mindfulness practice of becoming more open to our humanity.

In traditional practices, usually Buddhist but actually any contemplative practice, the guides of intention are a set of ethical values.  Typically there are universal virtues but these can also be spiritual or religious ones.

It will be interesting to see where Dr. Davidson’s call for a scientific study (and hopefully inclusion) of “secular ethics” in the mindfulness realm of interventions will take us.  Hopefully, it will be to a deeper understanding of our responsibility to each other and the world.

Dr. Richard Davidson’s research and papers are available at Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.


  1. Thank you, Lynette. This really helps me understand a debate my husband and I have been having for years. Reflecting on my own process of awakening, I don’t think spontaneous vs. cultivated arising is an either-or situation. My teacher has a vast heart, and his speaking from that, I’m sure, directly influenced the qualities awakened in me. And still, it seems like there are a number of attitudes I cherish that arose out of…I know not where! The practice itself?… Proximity to embodiment?… The momentum of the dharma? I see this happen with students as well. Ethical qualities are contained and evoked both via the ground of practice as well as through the embodiment and spoken/written teaching I received. This is how it appears to me. My husband, meanwhile, does not enjoy the word “ethics” and thinks it points to an imposed thought and behavior system exclusively. I guess it all comes down to intention. : ) And then, to imagine scientists studying this… well, they’ll find a way to measure it somehow, they’ve done so much already! cheers, Margaret

    1. Hello, Margaret, and thank you for your clear and heartfelt comment. Ethics and ethical behaviours have been studied for a long time by the social scientists. Zimbardo at Stanford and Milgram at Yale conducted some very revealing experiments (which could not be done today) on the factors that affect our ability to access ethical behaviours. While we can believe in “original goodness,” we see over and over that accessing that goodness is not always our default. Davidson’s work will likely be in the localization of brain areas that are activated in the engagement of such behaviours and it will be interesting to see if it is related to aspects of mindfulness.

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