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May 24, 2016       

Does Mindfulness Make You Good? No, but Does It Matter?
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Buddha statue

A raging controversy in the mindfulness community involves whether divorcing mindfulness from its ethical framework could potentially be harmful rather than helpful (Harrington and Dunne, 2015). Originally, for mindfulness and its benefits to be accepted by society it needed to be separated from its religious roots. Scientists found that mindfulness practice had health benefits apart from the spiritual framework so the focus became on how to use mindfulness to improve health, well-being and happiness.

However, mindfulness has also been shown to help improve athletic performance, focus when gambling, the sexual experience, and performance of soldiers on the battlefield. Some would say this is not the purpose of mindfulness. Do we really want to teach people how to be better gamblers or soldiers?

What they miss, though, is that mindfulness is a tool. People can choose to use any tool ethically or in a harmful way. A hammer can be used to build a house for the homeless or it can be used to kill someone. Or, think of money as a tool. It is something that can be used to help people or hurt people or it can be used in a more neutral way.

I've written before about the difference between mindful focus and a mindful attitude (see: Mindfulness: What's in a Name? and The Difference Between Mindful Focus and a Mindful Attitude). Mindful attitude is a way of living life whereas mindful focus is the tool. And as a tool it can be used in a variety of ways.

Thus, mindfulness, or even meditation, by itself, does not create more ethical, compassionate people. Can it? Yes, if a person chooses to use this tool in such a way. A person can choose to develop a mindful attitude which is a philosophy and approach to life that incorporates ethics, compassion, and loving-kindness. Otherwise, they can choose to use this tool to reduce anxiety or improve health and well-being or improve performance.

It doesn't matter whether mindfulness makes a person more ethical because ethics has always been divorced from our tools: to paraphrase, hammers don't kill people, people do. Mindfulness doesn't cause harm but, perhaps, mindful soldiers do.

Mindfulness is a tool to be used for a variety of purposes. Some people will use it to improve well-being and happiness, others for better health, some to be better gamblers, and others as a way of life.

So the purpose of teaching mindfulness is not to create a better world but to give the people a tool they can use if they decide they want to create a better world.

Harrington, A. and Dunne, J.D. (2015). When Mindfulness Is Therapy: Ethical Qualms, Historical Perspectives. American Psychologist, 70, 621–631 DOI: 10.1037/a0039460

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Dr. Monica Frank

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