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TonyB

Ethics and Mindfulness

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Hi everyone,

Having recently completed the online training handbook, I'm now piloting a mindfulness course to complete the work needed to qualify and the course is going really well.  I've loved the training so far.

 Its come to my attention that there seems to be quite a bit of controversy in the wider mindfulness meditation community about the absence of the 'five precepts' (sila) from most mindfulness training courses and the wider social and political implications of this omission.  Prior to taking this course, my previous experience of mindfulness meditation has been mostly in attending Vipassana meditation retreats, where there is a very clear and strong focus on the importance of the five precepts as being essential for the personal development in mindfulness, so on reflection I assumed this as a given, however, whilst the precepts are discussed in the handbook and in the 'Clinicians Guide', the focus here seems to be solely on the teacher's own practice and not on explicitly embedding these even as suggestions in course content.  

My questions here for you all are:  

1. Has this issue come up for you and if so, how have you addressed it?  

2. Are there any specific reasons why you think the five precepts are not taught on mindfulness courses

Thanks!

Tony

 

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Hi Tony,

Thank you for your wonderful reflection and questions. I must admit I had not yet reflected on this as intently as you have, but I am very glad you brought it up as it gives me food for thought. I did a bit of searching and came to a great article on this subject written by Gil Fronsdal. He outlines many explanations for why the five precepts are not taught in mindfulness courses. Below is a quote that highlights one explanation, but there are many others he makes reference to in the article:

Quote

"Perhaps the most important reason for the relative absence of discussion of the precepts in the vipassana community may be that, while the precepts are simple in their formulation, their application to lay life is complex. For example, do we kill the termites eating our houses? Practice vegetarianism? What about euthanasia and abortion? Do we agree with those who would say that not stealing means not buying items whose manufacture exploits workers or the environment? Is it sometimes appropriate to tell an untruth in service of a higher ideal? Does the fifth precept on intoxicants prohibit moderate social drinking? As for sexual misconduct, does any American teacher dare offer any guideline other than avoiding harm?"

https://www.inquiringmind.com/article/1701_30_fronsdal_curious-absence-of-precepts/

I would love to hear your thoughts on this piece if you read it. Let me know what stands out to you.

*Note - I will delete the second posting of your reflection just so we can keep the conversation streamlined here.

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Dear Gillian,

Thank you for your response and for sharing the link to the article in the Inquiring Mind.  Thank you also for deleting the second posting, much better to keep the conversation streamlined.  

I have read the article with much interest and there is much that stands out to me!

First of all the finding that 'these precepts have been, I think, curiously under stressed by the vipassana community'.  This is certainly not my experience,  I have attended Vipassana retreats in the tradition of S.N.Goenka in Australia and the UK over the past 20 years, so maybe in this article, Gil is referring to the other vipassana retreats in the USA such as Spirit Rock and the Insight Centre in Barre.  

From my experience, the five precepts are certainly taught as a fundamental element on every single retreat in the Goenka tradition and their importance is stressed very highly.  From this perspective, and from my own experience of working with the precepts and testing them in my own life, I agree with Gils initial point that "as the Western Vipassana movement evolves... the precepts can become increasingly helpful on our spiritual practice".

The next point of interest for me is the quote from a vipassana meditation teacher "Precepts are not the main interest; wisdom and meditation are".  What this represents for me is that in practice there appears to be a significant difference of focus of importance between the Goenka Vipassana tradition and the other American Vipassana centres.

I think Gil Fronsdal's analysis as to the potential reasons for this difference are probably on point in terms of concerns from teachers about alienating people, however, if this were actually true, we should expect to see a significant lack of interest from westerners in attending the Goenka Vipassana retreats, when in fact their popularity consistently outstrips their capacity to offer places.  At least in the UK for example, over the past few years if I wanted to book a place on a retreat (capacity of 180 people per retreat so not exactly small),  I would have to register within a day or so of the course being advertised on line - about 2 months before the date of the retreat.  This is almost akin to booking a ticket for Glastonbury Festival!

From my perspective also, there is a clear difference between western ethics as commandments (with their religious connotations) and how they are presented through Vipassana retreats in a very practical way as leading to specific consequences that can be tested and experienced directly through sensations on the body, changes to the rhythm of the breath and agitation in the mind.   This process offers an opportunity to 'critique' the validity of the precepts through one's own direct experience.

This brings me to the section you pointed out which is referenced as 'perhaps the most important reason for the relative absence of discussion of the precepts' being the complexity of ethical dilemmas in real life situations.  I have considered this and my response to it is that the way the five precepts are taught on Goenka Vipassana retreats stresses two key elements.  First the importance of intention for all actions and second the focus on our direct experience of the consequences of performing 'unwholesome actions' and particularly on our ability to practice meditation - to develop insight, equanimity and compassion.  There is a great quote from Jack Kornfield in the 'Clinicians Guide to Teaching Mindfulness' which I think nails it -  “It’s hard to sit down for a peaceful meditation after a day of stealing, lying and killing“.  

I personally don't buy the argument of complexity as being  a valid reason - although I can certainly see how some teacher might avoid discussing ethics as a result of it.  This avoidance however seems to me to be out of sync with one of the core aspects of mindfulness - that of turning towards difficult experiences, emotions, sensations, of opening our hearts to them, of working with them.  As Gil says later in the article "We may not find uncomplicated or satisfying solutions to ethical dilemmas, but we may come to better understand the complexity of some situations - or the unnecessary complexities that we sometimes create".   I would go so far as to say that the avoidance of dealing with ethical complexity and difficult situations is potentially significantly problematic for mindfulness teachers and the mindfulness movement in general in terms of long term consequences.

 Of course there are many situations in life where we are faced with a choice between two options where someone ends up being harmed.  We just have to work through it and the more present, mindful, compassionate and responsible we are able to be in that situation the better.  When the 'sh*% hits the fan' we all want people who can keep calm, dispassionate, think clearly and compassionately and take appropriate responsibility, including helping clean up any resulting mess and ensuring follow up action, learning from the situation, future risk mitigation etc.  The issue here is that if I haven't established a practice with a clear appreciation of the precepts (which are there to support development of the practice), my mindfulness practice may well have been frustrated so the consequences for me and everyone else involved in that situation are going to be affected - result, more suffering than otherwise might have been the case.

My overall impression of the standpoint Gil takes here is that the five precepts should be part of mindfulness teaching and the more I reflect on this the more I think its important and should be included.  I agree with the points Gil makes about the potential pitfalls of teaching the precepts - of leading to self-condemnation or self-righteousness and the suggestions made for how to avoid those.  On the other side of the coin, I agree with the suggestion to present them as protections, recommendations on how to live safely - to 'create an environment of safety'.

Here's a metaphor I have found useful to explain the importance of the precepts:

Bicycles have always had brakes.  If someone  offered to sell you a bike without brakes, (assuming you understood the importance of brakes), you would probably say no; or arrange for brakes to be fitted pretty quickly.  Brakes protect us, they help keep us safe.  The ‘five precepts’ or ‘Sila’ as they are traditionally know, are like the ‘brakes’ to the ‘bicycle’ that is mindfulness meditation practice.  

Just like with brakes on a bike, you don’t have to use them, but knowing they are there, how to use them and why it’s probably a good idea is important isn’t it? 

As mindfulness teachers then, if we don't include sharing an appropriate teaching of the five precepts with students, then its a bit like selling someone a bike (who's never ridden one before) without brakes...isn't it?

So as a result of reflecting rather deeply on this issue, I have decided to included teaching the five precepts in a mindfulness course I'm running at the moment.  If you are interested I will let you know how my class respond and what issues (if any) arise from it.

Thanks again for your kind response and especially in sharing the article with me.

With metta!

Tony

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Thank you for these reflections Tony! I really value your thoughtfulness on this subject matter and it is great to hear that you are going to include them in your course. Let us know how it goes.

I agree with everything you've said here and will add a few comments/additions:

1) Regarding complexity - I definitely think that despite the complexity and potential nuance we might interpret of the five precepts, it is worth the discussion. I think emphasizing non-judgment and curiosity would be crucial here given that we live in a very strange and disconnected world. So for instance, we might simply spark dialogue: What do we do about mosquitoes? What about the products we use that are toxic to wildlife? I think about this often given that we live in such a way that we don't often see the downstream consequences of our actions. It is an uncomfortable topic to broach and might lead us to make difficult choices, but if we are committed to the path, then they are questions we need to ask and decisions we need to make.

2) That brings me to my second reflection regarding the fear of alienating people. Though I haven't attended a Vipassana retreat myself, they are always booked up when I look into it! Also reflecting upon your own experience, alienation does not seem to be impacting too many people. With that said, I wonder if alienating people should be a big concern in any case. In other words, should the fear of alienating people dictate whether we include the five precepts or not? Should we 'water down' traditional teachings in order to reach a wider audience? That's a question I don't have an answer for. If the five precepts make some people want to turn away, I think they should still be able to access mindfulness teachings without. Perhaps overtime their interest will deepen. At the same time, I know there is a concern amongst many (which I very much understand) that mindfulness is losing its true essence without these more traditional teachings included. So it is a tough question to answer.

I also very much appreciate your analogy. It is kind of like saying, "Here are some tools for you to use. You can do what you like with them." Including the precepts is not a prescription then but a valuable insight to enrich our practice and process of inquiry.

Wonderful thread for this forum. Thank you again and feel free to share any more thoughts you have on this 🙂

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This is such an interesting discussion! I really don't have much understanding of the Vipassana tradition. I have attended a few day long retreats, and have struggled to understand some of the teachings that are very new to me. I can't say that I attend retreats to learn from the Buddhist traditions as an intention. I'm also not planning on teaching retreats any time soon! I came to meditation 15 years ago when I needed major surgery at 21. It was a very strange time, and I found a book called Healing the Self (I think it's called?) by Saki Santorelli. I then progressed to read Conversations with God, and then Jon Kabat Zinn due to his connection with Saki Santorelli. (Dr. Santorelli was the main doctor J. Kabat-Zinn worked with, to provide MBSR for medical patients in the Boston MA area). Personally, my meditation foundations lie in MBSR, and I first heard about MBSR from my surgeon (I'm from New England). These teachings are foundationally what I have taught with others (clients) in the therapist-clinical world as it is what I'm comfortable with.

From what I've read here, the five precepts of Vipassana sound very much alike to the Yamas (and the Niyamas) from the Yogic traditions I am more familiar with. The first Yama being- ahimsa- basically meaning do no harm or more literally meaning "nonviolence." All other facets of the Yamas and Niyamas end up following the first tenet. So for instance, if we notice we are "stealing" or "grasping" for something, the main tenet applies- are we doing harm by this action? In most cases, yes! However, there may be instances where it would do more harm to not steal or grasp, as just a very basic sort of example. I find the same difficulties as Tony is saying here apply to teaching yoga philosophy. It feels like tricky territory in learning how to teach the Yamas and Niyamas during yoga classes, as this too may be felt as controversial with students. What I have been learning about in my yogic studies, is how to teach the 8 limbs of yoga by modeling, and by teaching through the asana and meditation practices. It then comes off as less preachy, to those who might be uncomfortable. Alike what Tony and Gillian are saying here, I think it does end up watering down the yogic practices and thus its traditions. 

Thank you for this thought provoking thread! 

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Thanks for sharing your reflections Amy! Yes, I can certainly see how this lines up with the Yamas and Niyamas (in fact, I have my YTT training manual beside me now and have flipped it open for reference). 

What comes to mind now is something I remember a yoga teacher saying once to a class, which was something along the lines of:

"So today we are practicing yoga asana, which isn't the whole of yoga. Asana is just one part of the 8-limbed philosophy of yoga". She didn't go into details about the other limbs at all, but it certainly planted a seed for my own exploration. I was quite knew to yoga then and found her comment both helpful and non-preachy. I'm thinking that could be one of many ways to bring more of the tradition and philosophy into our teachings. Even if we're not going into depth about something, things could be brought into awareness in small and subtle ways. 

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Hi everyone,

Thank you for commenting on this topic, I have read all the comments with interest.  I just wanted to let you know that I included a basic teaching of the 5 precepts in a Foundation in Mindfulness course I recently delivered.  I took care to emphasise that these are not commandments but recommendations.  The feedback I received on including a discussion about this was overwhelmingly positive; of course it might be the case that I just 'got lucky' with a group who are naturally ethically minded but nevertheless it was good to get positive feedback.  Here are some of the comments I received in feedback forms:

"Good to know. Was interesting to see how these precepts are the foundations for the practice. Think it was worth doing. Don't feel the need for any more knowledge about it though."

"I think it makes sense!"

"I am all for it. It speaks directly to our inner being and so we recognise it as true and worthwhile. It goes very well with Loving Kindness"

"I enjoyed learning about the precepts. I feel like they offer guidance on how to live mindfully and ethically. I don't understand them to be strict and have no problem in them being included in a mindfulness course."

It also prompted some reflection from one participant who struggles with addiction to painkillers about whether this may be affecting her ability to practice with more dedication.  That particular participant is actively engaging with support services to come out of addiction, so it was useful for her to consider the 5 precepts as an additional motivation to come out of her addiction.

I found an article recently by Thich Nhat Hanh on the 8-fold Noble Path,

https://www.mindfulnessbell.org/archive/2016/02/dharma-talk-the-eightfold-path-2

in it, he talks about the 5 precepts as arising form the insight that comes out of mindfulness (extract from the article copied and pasted below):

"Mindfulness is the foundation of all precepts. When you practice the Five Precepts, you see that they are not imposed on you by someone else. They are the insight that comes out of mindfulness: “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to protect all life. I vow not to kill.” That First Precept is born from mindfulness of the suffering caused by the destruction of life. Precepts are a concrete expression of mindfulness. If you don’t practice the precepts, you cannot say that you are practicing mindfulness. To practice mindfulness means to practice the precepts in your daily life."

This resonates with me because in my own life I have experienced a personal transformation, as my practice has developed I have found that the way I live my life has naturally aligned with the 5 precepts - I no longer take any intoxicants because the desire to indulge in them fell away.

On reflection looking back at my personal journey with meditation I can see how the initial experience of being in an environment (a retreat) where I took a vow to abide by the precepts gave me a taste of what life can be like when lived in alignment with them, I was able to then experience how drinking alcohol (after returning to life outside the retreat) gets in the way of being able to practice meditation on a regular basis for example.

With Metta

Tony

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Thank you for the update Tony! I'm glad to hear you included the precepts and that the response was positive. Wonderful that you asked for feedback about this!

I also really like that excerpt you pasted here, particularly this part:

21 hours ago, TonyB said:

When you practice the Five Precepts, you see that they are not imposed on you by someone else. They are the insight that comes out of mindfulness:

It rings true for me. Mindfulness is what guides us to live in certain ways - into or away from certain behaviours. The precepts then do not need to be impositions. While I do think there are some grey areas/different possible interpretations (i.e. Is killing plant life considered killing? Are hallucinogens used ceremonially considered intoxicants?), I think that generally speaking, if we tune into our experience with open awareness, we will naturally be guided to live in alignment with the precepts (perhaps by the interpretation that aligns with our own moral, intuitive compass). 

I really appreciate you bringing up this subject and sharing your experience leading it in your session. 

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