The notion of focusing on the present moment is the essence of mindfulness practice. In many spiritual traditions there are three forms of mindfulness; present moment awareness, ethical awareness of the present and spiritual awareness of the present. In a previous post we discussed present moment awareness. Today’s essay essays will focus on mindfulness suffused with ethical considerations.
Ethics are omnipresent in the traditions from which contemplative practices emerged. The present moment is never without an ethical/moral context. Mindfulness includes the actions of the individual within the present moment and how the individual should conduct himself/herself. This is based upon a mindful understanding of the consequences of actions and which are desirable and which not.
In many spiritual traditions there are moral and ethical dictates sometimes called commandments that are provided to guide mindful ethical conduct. To transgress is a sin, an affront to a supernatural being. In other traditions, particularly eastern, ethical conduct is guided by the consequences of the actions. Ethical actions are ones that lead to greater spiritual development while those that would be classified as unethical would interfere with the individual’s spiritual development. There are no absolutes, only skillful and unskillful actions.
The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is an exemplar. It specifies the actions and attitudes that lead to spiritual development. Three of these are associated with ethical conduct; right speech, right livelihood, and right action. It is not considered sinful to not follow these principles, rather it is considered as detrimental to the individual. So, the consequences are direct and immediate to the individual.
Right speech is not to engage in false speech or more simply to be truthful. But the notion extends beyond simple lying and truthfulness to a mindfulness of the consequences of what we say and its impact on others. Our words can hurt, our words can be used to manipulate, our words can mislead, and our words can hide the truth. These are all unskillful actions. Truly being mindful we can become more aware of the consequences of our speech and learn to better tailor it to help ourselves and others.
Right livelihood is to make our living in such a way as to not harm others, including other living things and the world itself. If we are truly mindful of our job or occupation we can see the consequences of our livelihood. Doing things that are harmful to others such as engaging in gun sales, production and distribution of harmful drugs such as alcohol and cigarettes, or which extract funds from those who can least afford it are unskillful and in the end harm both the other and ourselves. Similarly, making our living in such a way that it is harmful to the environment or unnecessarily destroys life is also unskillful. The idea of right livelihood is that we should engage in occupations that assist others in the lives and are sustainable within our environment.
Finally, right action is not to engage in harming others, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, and more subtly doing things that promote unmindfulness, such as ingesting intoxicants. More positively, it is to cultivate loving kindness, generosity, and awareness. Mindfulness of our actions helps us to see clearly when our actions are kind, generous, and leading to greater mindfulness. It helps us see the positive consequences of these actions for ourselves and others. It helps us to see their skillfulness.
It should be clear that mindfulness can be much more than simply being aware of the present moment. Unfortunately mindfulness as practiced in modern west cultures is for the most part neglectful of the ethical aspects of mindfulness. Only being aware of now and our actions in the present moment is not enough. Actions have consequences and without proper mindful appreciation of those consequences the practice of mindfulness is without a compass to guide actions. We need to reintegrate ethics into mindfulness. We need to make it a vital part of our practice.
So, develop mindfulness, but ethical mindfulness as well, be skillful and grow and thrive.