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Erric Solomon

Is Meditation Ethical?

I met someone the other night who criticized one of the most popular and successful secular meditation programs out there. His point was that while it is wonderful that people are meditating and through mindfulness leading healthier lives, BUT, there is nothing in that system that promotes any kind of ethical behavior. In other words, you can meditate in the morning and then lie, cheat and steal all day long. My new acquaintance’s position was that ethical behavior is a necessary component for true spiritual discovery.

For a moment, I was a little stunned by the frank, intensity of his manner and how he stated his view. I even know some of the people behind that program and I always had a lot of respect for both their work and the people themselves. Then I realized that he was actually on to something.

Meditation should ultimately lead to a direct perception of reality, unmitigated by our normal habitual, neurotic patterns of perception. This is different from our normal way of seeing things through the distorted lens of ego centric concerns. When perceiving reality directly, we are no longer beholden to thoughts of “I like this” and “I don’t like that”.  Those kinds of thoughts normally lead to all kinds of desire, attachment and aversion that just reinforce or strengthen the grasping habit of our mind. That constant, often times subtle, grasping is what covers up and distracts us from both the true nature of our mind and a direct perception of reality.

Since very, very few of us are able to stay in the meditation state as we go about our day, we ought to engage in activities that weaken the habit of grasping, reduce the amount of time we stay uselessly focused on endlessly repetitive thoughts about what we like and want and what we don’t like and are trying to avoid.  When we spend less time thinking about our selfish needs and more time thinking about the needs of others, our self cherishing and grasping desires weaken. We begin to undo the habit of taking what we like and dislike so seriously that it rules our every moment. And this in turn creates a new momentum in our lives which reinforces the practice of meditation.

From this point of view, how we choose to behave is not because there is some kind of God or universal measuring principal evaluating our every move. Instead we in those activities which will bring us closer to recognizing the nature of mind and the nature of reality. We try not to engage in activities that will lead us further away from our true selves, distracting us from seeing things as they really are. The more we are able to rest our mind in the present moment, free of fabrication and grasping, the more likely are to gain the real insight into ourselves and our world.

We shouldn’t indulge our anger and act on it, because when we do we are reifying the habit of grasping after an ego centric world view. Indulging our anger just brings us farther way from experiencing who we really are, beyond our thoughts and emotions. This is one part of what is meant when Buddhist masters say that when you harm others you are really harming yourself or what His Holiness the Dalai Lama means by “enlightened self-interest”. Conversely, when we act out of love and compassion, by thinking of others needs, we are reducing the habit of creating a “me centric” universe.

So, by acting in ways that are normally termed ethical, avoiding duplicity, considering others and working for their benefit, refraining from taking what is not freely given, we strengthen our meditation practice. And by practicing meditation we release the grasping habit of mind and become more and more familiar with an uncontrived state of mind free of constant self cherishing. The more we rest in that state the easier it becomes to live an ethical lifestyle. One reinforces the other in a unfailingly non-vicious cycle.

So is meditation ethical? That depends. Of course if you are never distracted from the essence of mind, then you are free from habitual self-cherishing thoughts, and are free from the tendency to engage in satisfying desires and worrying about not satisfying them. But for the vast majority of us, meditation alone isn’t enough to achieve that kind of freedom. Meditation begins to weaken the strength of the grasping. But on its own, meditation doesn’t necessarily overcome the habit. That is why in many Buddhist traditions, we also engage in ethical behavior, which in tandem with meditation practice, becomes, over the course of a lifetime, a powerful undoing of this pernicious habit of grasping which only serves to cover over and distract us from the true nature of reality.

I still support many secular meditation programs because of how helpful they are and because they offer many people their first introduction to meditation practice. And we will continue to feature some of them on our site. Yet, they only offer a tiny fraction of the benefits of meditation practice. In the absence of ethics, meditation could very well just be a way to be less stressed-out while enjoying a life of lying, cheating and stealing.