The morality of meditation: enhancing our ethical decision-making

At first glance, it may seem that meditation practice has very little to do with morality or ethical behavior. Mindfulness meditation in particular is often presented as a non-sectarian method that can help us do a better job of just about anything: studying, sleeping, working efficiently, de-stressing, strategizing, playing sports, etc. There is nothing inherently ethical about paying attention to thoughts, emotions, sensations, or perceptions in the present moment. Or is there?

It depends. The forms of mindfulness that have become so popular in the west are rooted in the teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni, a sage who lived and taught on the Indian subcontinent some 2600 years ago. These teachings, when studied and practiced, gave his students everything they needed to develop their potential as upright, compassionate, and wise human beings. Based on his own understanding and experience, the path the Buddha proposed is comprised of three essential branches: meditation or concentration, understanding or wisdom, and morality.

Mindfulness and awareness meditation belong to the first branch, concentration, and they can indeed stand alone as practices that do not require the practitioner to adhere to Buddhist teachings, called the dharma, or any other spiritual doctrine. Indeed, the only belief required is that something good might come from meditating.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the applied mindfulness pioneer whose MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) courses put secular mindfulness on the collective map, put it this way:

“MBSR (and hopefully the same can be said for its many mindfulness-based cousins) was always meant to be a skillful means for making the universal essence of dharma, or at least a first taste of it, accessible to virtually anybody who cared to explore it, thereby, hopefully, reducing the barriers to ongoing wakefulness, embodied kindness, and wisdom in human beings, whatever their views, convictions, and personal history.”

“Embodied kindness and wisdom” and sound moral principles are perfectly compatible. Similarly, a grounding in meditation can be useful in ethical decision making, as meditators learn to recognize their own patterns and emotions and gain the tools they need to distance themselves from unhelpful reflexes when necessary. Ethical decision making takes into account the welfare of as many people and other living beings as possible.

While meditation may be a morally neutral activity in and of itself, it often helps practitioners recognize which actions contribute to personal well-being and the greater good, and which do not. Most of us would agree that mindful decision-making is generally preferable to knee-jerk reactions. So while not inherently ethical or unethical, mindfulness is a great ally of moral, sensible, and effective behavior.

The understanding or wisdom aspect of the three essential branches focuses on developing insight into our experience as human beings. Through study, reflection, and practice, our comprehension of human nature and of the world around us becomes increasingly stable and organic.

It’s easy to see how, for a Buddhist, moral and ethical teachings—the third branch—would tie into the other two, wisdom and meditative concentration. By striving to develop all three, practitioners are following a time-tested roadmap to a wholesome life, personal transformation, and, ultimately, to unconditional freedom.

Buddhist or not, the practice of meditation famously boosts cognitive functioning, promotes good health, and helps us manage our emotions. And the benefits don’t stop there. In the article The Morality of Meditation, author and professor David DeSteno recounts a conversation he had with renowned scholar and meditation master Trungram Gyaltrul Rinpoche.

“Imagine my happy surprise when Rinpoche told me that all the cognitive benefits of meditation—better focus, better memory, et cetera—were traditionally considered secondary to its true purpose: development of a deep and abiding compassion. All the cognitive training is simply a means to an end, and it is that end—a feeling of great compassion for all beings—that ultimately makes self-control and related virtues more automatic.”

DeSteno goes on to describe an experiment he and his team devised to test whether meditation practice had any measurable effect on compassion and self-control in new meditators. The results clearly indicated that it did. His conclusion?

“And while it’s true that we can remind ourselves daily to be kind and exert the requisite willpower to behave accordingly, practicing mindfulness—a route by which compassion begins to emerge automatically and continuously—offers a better route.”

Meditation may be morally neutral in theory, but when practiced effectively, it naturally leads to more compassion and discernment. Quite the fringe benefits!