Mindfulness and morality

Every day, for about thirty-five minutes, I sit cross-legged on a cushion with my eyes shut. I regulate my breath, titrating its speed against numbers in my head; I watch my breath surging and trickling in and out of my chest; I feel the air at the point of entry and exit; I export my mind to a point just beyond my nose and pour the breath into that point. When my mind wanders off, I tug it back.

The practice is systematic and arduous. In some ways it is complex: it involves 16 distinct stages. When I am tired, and the errant mind won’t come quietly back on track, I find it helpful to summarise the injunctions to myself as:

  • I am here
  • This is it

I alternate the emphases: ‘I am here’: ‘I am here’; ‘I am here’; ‘This is it’; ‘This is it’; ‘This is it.’

I note (although not usually, and not ideally, when I’m in the middle of the practice) that each of these connotations presumes something about the existence of an ‘I’. This is less obvious with the second proposition, but clearly there: ‘This’ is something that requires a subject.

This is Samatha meditation, a Buddhist practice that aims to develop concentration (the ability to keep my mind on the task at hand) and mindfulness (the wider view of myself that allows me to recognize that I’ve wandered, and prompts me to return). The relationship between the ‘I’ that’s attached to the task and the ‘I’ that summons the concentrating ‘I’ back to the job is fascinating and mysterious.

There is no metaphysics in this; no theology; no creed. It is practical psychology; a tool for cutting out the white noise that prevents us from hearing properly; for stilling the mind and enabling it to rest where it is needed; it is, in short, a tool to maximize volition. St. Paul wrote: ‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.’ 1 Every meditator understands. You want your mind to stay counting up and down from one to nine, but it won’t do it. It’s very frustrating and very strange. It makes you wonder who’s the boss. Mindfulness meditation would have helped St. Paul a lot.

Paul went on to bemoan the effect of this psychological turbulence on his morality. Quite right. Which brings me to the point of this post.

When I meditate I’m nicer than when I don’t. Many people have noticed it. Meditation makes me less selfish and more altruistic. I noticed this long before other people pointed it out to me, and long before I knew that the literature suggested that it was likely to be the case: this wasn’t, therefore, a placebo effect. I thought that meditation was entirely about my personal calm and focus.

The literature is sparse but emphatic: Some examples: A one day course in compassion meditation enhanced the making of prosocial economic decisions: here and here.

A dramatic and colourful example of the general gist is a 2013 paper by Condon et al.— ‘Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering’. 

The study group went to a weekly meditation class for 8 weeks, and was instructed to practise meditation between classes. The members of the control group were told that they were on the waiting list for a meditation class.

After the 8 weeks, the subjects of both groups were invited to a lab. They were told that there they would undergo some psychological experiments. In fact, though, the real experiment took place in the waiting room.

When each subject arrived she found that there were three chairs in the waiting room. Two were occupied already (by people in the pay of the investigators) who had been instructed to keep those seats whatever happened. The new arrival sat on the vacant chair. But then another person entered (again a set-up by the investigators). The new arrival was on crutches and wore a boot indicating an orthopaedic injury to the foot. Since there was no vacant seat, he leant against the wall, groaning audibly.

A depressingly low 16% of the control group gave up their seats. But 50% of the meditators did.

Why? The question was examined in Lim et al: ‘Mindfulness and compassion: An examination of mechanisms and scaleability’ (2015),  which concluded that the effect was not due to increased ability to decode the emotional experiences of others.

One of the authors of the Condon paper, David De Steno, speculated in the New York Times  on the reasons. There were two candidates, he thought. First, since meditation enhances attention, meditators might more readily notice someone in pain, rather than being wrapped up in their own thoughts. And second (his preferred explanation), it might be a result of the view, fostered by meditation practice, that all beings are interconnected. ‘The increased compassion of meditators, then, might stem directly from meditation’s ability to dissolve the artificial social distinctions – ethnicity, religion, ideology and the like – that divide us.’

I expect that both of these candidates contribute. But I have two other suggestions.

  1. The expansion and consequent increased relationality of the Self

There is lots of talk in eastern mysticism, including Buddhism, of making the Self dissolve. But that is not how it feels. Quite the opposite – up to a point. It seems to me that what dissolves in meditation – like limestone in vinegar – is the pathological carapace in which the real self is suffocatingly encrusted. Each act of bringing the mind back to the ascending or descending numbers drops a little more vinegar on the crust. The Self can slowly expand. Perhaps it can eventually wriggle free, and perhaps that’s what’s called Enlightenment: I wouldn’t know.

But what happens when it does expand? It impinges, for the first time, on the other Selves that are clustered all around it. It feels them, as a butterfly emerging from a cocoon feels the sun for the first time. It becomes relational. And no doubt it does become blurry at the edges as a result of that contact – though no less (in fact more) itself.

Those supposedly ‘big personalities’ are, usually, the tiniest, most truncated personalities of all. As soon as you become yourself, you’re immediately and ecstatically aware of your place in the social nexus: of your dependence, your vulnerability and the dependence of others on you.

This is one of the main reasons why ethicists’ traditional insistence on the primacy of autonomy (seen particularly in bioethics) is ludicrous If you’re properly autonomous you will consequentially and necessarily define yourself primarily in terms of the network of relationships in which you live your life. Only someone tragically constrained by the crust will continue to preface every sentence with ‘I’.

A footnote to this: questions of identity are under-discussed in ethics. It tends to be blithely assumed that it is self-evident what the ‘I’ is in examining (for instance), the statement: ‘I give consent for that treatment’.2 If you make the wrong assumption about something so basic, no amount of learned nuance will redeem your subsequent argument. Much of the incoherence and downright tedium of bioethical debate can be traced to the failure to examine the assumption with the benefit of all the tools (literary, neuroscientific, intuitional, philosophical and so on).

  1. Being present in the moment3

Remember those two injunctions: ‘I am here’: ‘This is it’. Both focus attention on now.

The notion that now is the stage on which ethical dramas are played out is trite but easily forgotten – particularly by professional philosophers, who rarely have to make actual decisions; whose proclamations are generally conditional, theoretical and abstract. Indeed the very sophistication demanded by philosophy is often an excuse for indecision. Sometimes to philosophise is itself plainly immoral. If a child is drowning in a shallow pond, to take time and effort over a detailed utilitarian calculation is simply obscene. Intuition (an emanation of the expanded ‘I’ if ever there was one) should rule. And if your intuitions prompt you to stay dry, meditate some more.

The focus on the immediate is a challenge to the tendency of us all to procrastinate; to say ‘On the one hand….and on the other…..’ Inhabit the moment, and the moment will be the only possible time for ethical decision. I’ve been unkind to St. Paul. But he wrote this: ‘Indeed, the “right time” is now. Today is the day of salvation.’4 Perhaps he’d gone to those mindfulness classes after all.


  1. Romans 7: 15-16
  1. There is, of course, plenty of literature around the subject: a good starting point is David DeGrazia’s Human Identity and Bioethics, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  1. There is no doubt some overlap between this and the first of David DeSteno’s postulated mechanisms.
  1. 2 Corinthians 6:2



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4 Responses to Mindfulness and morality

  • Margaret R. says:

    “Sometimes to philosophise is itself plainly immoral. If a child is drowning in a shallow pond, to take time and effort over a detailed utilitarian calculation is simply obscene.”

    This is a straw man argument to show the natural primacy of mindful ethics over thoughtful ethics. Ethicists and utilitarians would obviously not hold a debate whilst a child drowned in a shallow pond.

    • Anthony Drinkwater says:

      Agreed, Margaret.
      But the drowning of refugees in the Mediterranean leads to very little action and plenty of utilitarian-style calculations, so perhaps Charles is not too far wrong.
      ( I’m not convinced, though, that meditation courses for all would change the situation very much……)

  • Roland Nadler says:

    Kudos on a fantastic post, Charles. Work like this sets a strong example for the claim that philosophy can at once be useful and poetic — that it need not be an exercise in analytical stuffiness.

    While it’s clear that no actual ethicist or utilitarian would endorse debating over whether to save a drowning child while the child drowns, I think (if I read you correctly?) that your point is more along the lines of — it’s all too easy for a cowardly or selfish (or actively malicious) person to bog down common-sensical good actions by insisting that everyone first come to consensus on a philosophically sophisticated account of why the good action should be undertaken. So I think of “sometimes to philosophize is itself plainly immoral” as akin to the adage that justice too long delayed is justice denied, and philosophy can in the right hands be an insidiously effective tool of delay.

  • Roland: very many thanks for your kind comment. And you summarise perfectly my position re philosophising over drowning children.


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