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Mindfulness, ethics and values

In this video, Craig and Richard explore how being present helps us connect with deeper values and ethics.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: We hope that by now in the course you’ve realised that mindfulness is about much more than just meditating. It’s about being present to whatever is happening in each moment, developing discernment and the ability to learn from our experiences. And it’s also about becoming more intimate with deeper parts of ourselves. So that we naturally start to get in touch with our deeper values and ethics, what’s truly important to us. And this starts to guide our behaviour. Mindfulness also helps connect more deeply with others and to notice the effect of our actions on the world around us.
This is why most of the world’s great wisdom traditions all have some form of attention or awareness training at their heart, just being able to focus on the words or intention of a prayer, for instance. Could you say something about that, Craig?
CRAIG HASSED: Well, yes. Because I think that to really understand our own behaviour, the way that we relate to others, to make more discerning choices and conscious choices in our lives, it very much goes to the heart of ethics. That we could respond and behave in a reasonably good way if we’ve been conditioned and habituated to do that. But we get into some unhelpful habits. And to undo those unhelpful habits, really requires awareness, to actually really notice the effects that maybe our decisions and behaviours have, to notice whether or not they’re helpful, or whether they resonate with what’s actually within us.
Because when we’re acting out of sync with what’s actually innate and natural to us– and I believe that, for example, being compassionate to others, and being fair to others, and being honest with people actually is natural to us. But we get into other habits. And so if we’re actually aware, we notice that when we step outside of those things that are actually quite natural to us, it’s very easy to start to notice the stress and tension. And then even the lie detector, for example, all that’s measuring, it’s actually measuring the stress response. It’s stressful to lie. It’s much more relaxing to be authentic to ourselves and authentic to others.
And so I think that mindfulness can really put us much more in touch with that. So we actually are able to recognise these things and make the choices that are actually not only good for ourselves, but actually good for others as well.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: Hm. There’s some fascinating research actually, done with infants, I think, six months old. If we show them cartoons, where there are different shapes. And some shapes are acting compassionately and others in sort of less compassionate or friendly or helpful ways, afterwards when they’re shown the shapes, they tend to rest their eyes for longer on– rest their gaze for longer on the helpful shapes. Which shows that it actually is an innate quality of human beings to be compassionate, empathic, that kind of thing.
CRAIG HASSED: Yes. The love and the joy and so on, that’s actually quite natural to a very young child. And also the sense of being present just indicate that this is actually much more of a natural state. Relatively early in our life, we get into other patterns. We have other things that we’re presented with, other behaviours modelled to us, that are not always perhaps the absolute gold standard for how we’d would like to be in our lives.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: Uh-huh. And so mindfulness helps us to notice, first of all, what our deeper values and ethics are, to get in touch with then on an experiential level. But also, as you said, to notice the effects of lying and acting in unethical ways, noticing the stress response in the body. So that naturally starts to point us towards more wholesome and healthy activities.
CRAIG HASSED: Yes. And we often notice, for example, if we’re feeling stressed and distracted, it’s easy to say something that might be insensitive. It might be easy to do something that might be hurtful to somebody, which we wouldn’t do, perhaps, if we were really paying attention to what we’re doing in the moment. So it’s a kind of a discernment that comes in, that is really going to help us to behave in ways that are going to be perhaps not just driven by habit and distraction.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: I, sometimes when I teach mindfulness, think about that serenity prayer, having the strength to change the things that we need to change and the patience to accept the things that we can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference. I think mindfulness is a very powerful way of developing that. And that’s why it’s, therefore, a very profound source of wisdom in this experiential sense. If, for example, we stop and notice ourselves killing a mosquito, and really pay attention to what’s happening, we’ll notice that we have to generate a whole lot of anger really to be at able to slap that mosquito dead.
And if we notice how that feels in the body, that takes quite a lot of attention and presence. But if we can notice how that feels, we’ll notice it feels extremely unpleasant. The physical sensations, the mental state, is a very unpleasant state. And it will naturally start to lead us to a desire to avoid doing things like this. And we may start, of course, killing less mosquitoes. [LAUGH] And likewise, if we tune in and notice more fully what happens when we lie about something, we’ll notice that just the act of bending the truth brings with it a sense of confusion for us and maybe an anxiety or a paranoia about being discovered.
CRAIG HASSED: Yes. Because it’s one of the things that often comes up in programmes. People say they start relating to people so differently at home. They might notice that they’re about to be judgmental or critical of somebody. And all of a sudden, they pick themselves up when they’re about to do that. And they notice how they’re feeling or they’ll notice the effect that it’s having on somebody else. And that awareness– [SNAPPING] –in the moment, actually helps the person to make the other choice. What is it that’s not working for me?
Actually, paradoxically, when the person is more mindful and just communicates in a more attentive and less reactive way, very often the actual message gets through a whole lot better anyway. Because there might be something that needs to be said, that gets said in a whole lot more attentive way.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: So that actually when we start to pay attention, we become aware of our effect on the world and the people around us, but also how our actions affect us. And so it has naturally lead towards more useful beneficial actions for others, and doing things that are unhelpful just become something that we don’t get so caught up in.
CRAIG HASSED: And this is certainly not a course in ethics. But, of course, when you look at, say, some of the ethical principles that you find in ethics courses around autonomy, which, of course, means like self-governing, if you like, the ability to be free, we understand that in a totally different way from a mindfulness perspective than in the way that we commonly take that to be. What does it mean to be free within ourselves? What does it mean in terms of how we act and respond when we’re more free within ourselves?
So all of these ethical principles about beneficence, for example, autonomy, all of these things have a whole deeper meaning when we actually understand them in a way with a high level of awareness.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: Hm. It was Socrates, wasn’t it, that said that when we act unethically, we’re always acting from some lower motivation, like greed, or ignorance, or delusion, or selfishness, really acting without awareness. And then when we start acting in more ethical ways, we just notice that our mind calms down, our body relaxes. And it has better effect on the people and the things around us. And that the sense of separation that we normally feel from others just starts to dissolve when we now actually start to interact and communicate more effectively.
CRAIG HASSED: Yes. And we often notice that one of the effects of that too is that we have perhaps responded in a way that we feel happy with, it feels right. And maybe it wasn’t always easy because sometimes doing the thing we feel intuitively is right, sometimes feels uncomfortable. We notice when we’ve acted in the way that might be mindful, the effect on us afterwards is to have a sense of unburdening, a sense of a calmer and clear mind. Where we act in a way that’s not in accord with that, we find very often the opposite of that effect.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: And this is what Albert Einstein meant when he said that, “A human being is part of the whole called by us the universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. And that our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion, to embrace all living creatures, and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Nobody is able to achieve this completely.
But the striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.

Watch Craig and Richard explore the link between mindfulness, values and ethics, and see how we can use mindfulness to start engaging in more ethical behaviour ourselves.

As we become more present through mindfulness, we become more aware of our speech and actions, and the effects these have on others. As we develop greater intimacy with ourselves, we also start to get in touch with deeper values and aspirations. As we bring these more into our everyday actions, we naturally start to act in ways that are more ethical – and notice the benefits this has both for ourselves and others.

Talking point

Within the Comments, consider sharing with other learners your reflections on the following questions:

  • How has mindfulness helped you get in touch with your values and ethics?
  • Have you noticed any changes in your behaviour and relationships as a result?
  • If so, what was the effect of this?
  • If not, what do you think got in the way of noticing?

Would you like to know more?

Would you like to know more about the link between mindfulness, values and ethics? Go to See also for links to articles that explore how mindfulness can be used to become more aware of our actions.

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Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance

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