The ethics of mindfulness

Can you practice meditation and mindfulness without morality? Is mindfulness practice inherently selfish? What are the ethics of right mindfulness practice? 

These are the questions that I have been asking myself since July, when I attended the International Conference on Mindfulness in Amsterdam, but I only got around to writing this blog today for two reasons. Firstly, it is a huge undertaking. Morality, ethics, and even mindfulness are topics that are as deep as they are wide, and their impact is only overshadowed by the difficulty of putting such important debates into words. After all, I am just a busy PhD student, freeing up time as I go. Secondly, I simply had no idea what to write.

Then I came across a great blog post by fellow blogger Tobi, entitled “Why I Stopped Meditating”, and my interest piqued again. Tobi wrote:

“I still believe that morality is an integral part of meditation, as much as dieting is an integral part of working out. You will not build any muscles without the right diet, and you will not achieve a quiet mind without a moral foundation.”

So I thought I would give this post a go after all. But to get into the topic of morality, it is crucial to first touch upon what mindfulness actually is, yet again. And, if mindfulness is simply about being present, then the logical questions to ask are: Being present with whom? Being present for what purpose? More generally, regardless of what mindfulness is, what are we actually mindful of? 

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

According to the Abhidhamma, there are four foundations of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna): 1) the contemplation of the body (kaya), 2) the contemplation of feelings (vedanā), 3) the contemplation of consciousness (citta), and 4) the contemplation of mental objects (dhammā). To practice the four foundations of mindfulness is to practice “right mindfulness”, which is the seventh factor of the Noble Eightfold Path.

As beginner practitioners, we tend to start with mindfulness of breath, walking meditation, and other such contemplations of the body, which is the first foundation of mindfulness. We may then move on to the second foundation, which concerns itself with pleasant and unpleasant sensations and emotions (feelings). As such, the first two foundations primarily involve noticing and bringing our awareness to our body and our feelings.

The third foundation is more evaluative in nature. We start evaluating what we have noticed as present or absent, pleasant or unpleasant, and what we experience attachment or aversion to. This foundation is also referred to as mindfulness of mind, or citta. Citta is often translated as “heart-mind”, because it has an emotive quality. It takes us deeper into our practice and past the point of simply noticing what is. Like our sensations and feelings, we learn that our own state of mind shifts, that the various mind states come and go, and that they are also, ultimately, impermanent.

The final foundation of mindfulness is arguably the most advanced aspect of mindfulness practice, and one that is probably most important to this blog post. In this foundation, mental objects refer to all things that surround us as we perceive them. In this foundation, we become aware of the inter-existence of all things. And so this foundation encompasses much more than it first appears to. In fact, according to the Abhidhamma, the fourth foundation of mindfulness comprises the five hindrances, the five aggregates, the six sense bases, the seven Enlightenment factors, and the Four Noble Truths.

It is far beyond the scope of this blog post (and my own knowledge) to discuss each one of these aspects in depth, but already we can understand that mindfulness is much more than simply “being present”. And only practicing mindfulness of body and feelings is not right mindfulness, because it is incomplete.

I guess the main conclusion I can draw so far is that right mindfulness cannot be selfish, because one of its foundations directly relates to the inter-existence of all things. Additionally, right mindfulness is the seventh factor of the Noble Eightfold Path that also comprises other important factors, such as right intention, right speech, and right action, which directly apply to other living beings. Finally, meditation and mindfulness practice also fosters the four qualities of love, which are mettā (loving-kindness), karuṇā (compassion), muditā (empathetic joy), and upekkhā (equanimity).

So one of my questions (is mindfulness selfish?) is more or less answered, at least to the point that I am fairly satisfied that mindfulness practice is not inherently selfish or egocentric.

But here is where it gets a bit more complicated…

The morality of mindfulness

What really interested me about this topic is not so much the practice of mindfulness itself, but what we do outside of our formal practice (which is of course part of right mindfulness anyway).

For lay Buddhist practitioners, the moral conduct is largely made up of the Five Precepts (which are likely to be present in all branches and practices of Buddhism): 1) to refrain from taking life (killing), 2) to refrain from taking that which is not freely given (stealing), 3) to refrain from sexual misconduct (or overindulgence in any sensual pleasure), 4) to refrain from unwise/unskilful speech (lying or slander), and 5) to refrain from intoxication that clouds the mind (e.g., through alcohol or drugs).

At first glance, these precepts may appear straightforward and even universal, as they serve as the Code of Conduct in many other religions as well. However, I do not see them as black and white, straightforward, universal, or completely undeniable. There is plenty of room for debate, discussing definitions of words such as misconduct or false speech. And there are plenty of Buddhist traditions that have additional precepts or rules that are followed by their practitioners. As mindfulness is inherently Buddhist, these precepts are important to take into account. Equally important is the notion that if individuals from other religions and even agnostics or atheists can practice mindfulness and follow Buddhist teachings, then the rules and precepts of each individual’s religion and discipline should also be considered.

Most of us would agree that right mindfulness fosters compassion, kindness, and acceptance of others, as well as the awareness that we are all interconnected. But do we need to follow all the ground rules to practice right mindfulness? Or can we make up our own rules, as long as our intention is right? As individuals, we are likely to hold different interpretations and definitions of morality, which makes me wonder: Do universal definitions of morality exist? Or are they all relative? Put simply, are rules meant to be broken?

For example, can we eat meat and still practice mindfulness? How about if we have to eat meat due to a health condition?

Can we have sex and still practice mindfulness? Can we choose not to deny ourselves a biological and potentially beneficial human need?

Can we lie and still practice mindfulness? What if lying can protect someone else from a painful truth?

Can we steal and still practice mindfulness? How about if we steal a loaf of bread to feed someone else?

Can we drink alcohol and still practice mindfulness? Can we become intoxicated if we do not break any of the other precepts by doing so?

The discussion of morality will never have a neat conclusion. And maybe I still don’t have all the answers to this topic.

But what I do know is that right mindfulness practice without morality is incomplete.

Mindfulness practice is contemplative in nature. It enables us to become conscious of what we do and how we treat ourselves and others. It allows us to become connected with all mental objects and living beings around us. It allows us to become aware of our true values. It fosters compassion and loving-kindness. It encourages us to act with kindness, thoughtfulness, openness, and respect. It is a practice not only of the body, but of the mind and heart as well.

So maybe it is ultimately our intention that is honed by mindfulness practice. Maybe morality is black and white when it is guided by pure or right intention. Maybe rules are not meant to be broken, but the interpretation of the rules matters.

And maybe mindfulness is the key to this interpretation.

What are your thoughts?

I realise that I have actually posed more questions in this blog post than provided any answers, but I will end on yet another question nonetheless.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Can you practice meditation and mindfulness without morality?

I have posed this question on my Instagram page last week and received some very interesting answers, so I would love to hear about your experiences and opinions. Please comment below and don’t forget to subscribe. And thank you for sticking with this post until the very end! 🙂



  1. Really enjoyed this. I’ve been thinking, watching and reading a lot about morality in recent weeks. Good to read a mindfulness perspective. Though I’m not too educated on the matter, I would say mindfulness and morality have a bit of a chicken and the egg situation: mindfulness inclines one naturally towards a more moral life, but a desire to improve oneself on a moral level may compel one to pursue mindfulness practice in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

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