Is Mindfulness Ethically Neutral?

By Toni Bernhard

Mindfulness is variously defined as “paying attention to your present moment experience” or as “non-judgmental awareness.” The Buddha is often quoted as describing it this way:

In the seen, there is only the seen,
in the heard, there is only the heard,
in the sensed, there is only the sensed,
in the cognized, there is only the cognized.

Mindfulness was so essential to the Buddha that it is one of the eight factors in the Fourth Noble Truth’s delineation of the path to awakening. But, as with the other factors on the path, the Buddha didn’t use the standalone word “mindfulness.” All eight factors are modified by the word samma. Samma is variously translated as “right” or “wholesome” or “skillful.” So, if there is right or wholesome or skillful mindfulness, this means there is wrong or unwholesome or unskillful mindfulness.

In my understanding, by using the word samma as a modifier, the Buddha was tying mindfulness to the intentions of the person practicing it. In this sense, mindfulness is inseparable from the Buddhist precept of non-harming.

Thus, the focused attention of a sniper while looking through the sight of a rifle is not mindfulness as it was taught by the Buddha. By the same token, if a person is practicing “mindfulness of traffic” and sees a child run into the street, I feel safe in assuming that the Buddha would not have told that person to passively observe: “Seeing a child run into traffic; hearing the screech of brakes.”

I’ve begun to define mindfulness as “caring attention to the present moment.” Caring attention is characterized by the intention not to harm and by the pro-active intentions to be kind, compassionate, generous. When, with mindfulness, you see a person suffering, this means you do what you can to help, even if it’s only giving a caring glance as you pass by, even if you’re only able to silently wish for the person’s suffering to ease.

Caring attention also means that you know when to abandon observing your present moment experience and, instead, take action to prevent harm, such as grabbing that child who’s about to run into traffic.

Finally, with caring attention, you’re better able to become aware of how your own actions might be harmful to you. For example, if you have a drinking problem, focusing on a row of whiskey bottles in the grocery store may be “attention,” but it’s not “caring attention” because it will increase your suffering as opposed to alleviating it.

Mindfulness practice is not ethically neutral even though some of the more popular descriptions of it may leave that impression. I hope that those who teach mindfulness in either a spiritual or a secular setting will include a modifier before the word, as did the Buddha, and as I’m suggesting by the use of the word “caring.”

Toni Bernhard is the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers and the newly-released How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Her blog, “Turning Straw Into Gold” is hosted by Psychology Today online. She can be found online at

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  1. Kevin Knox says

    The quote from the Bahiya sutta has nothing to do with sati or mindfulness, and neither do the secularized, Jon Kabat Zinn derived "nonjudgmental attention to the present moment" appropriations of the term. The canonical definition of sati in the suttas is crystal clear – and not value free in the least:

    • gregorywonderwheel says

      Sati (Pali) or smrti (Sanskrit) just means "recall to mind" or recollection practice. There are many methods of recollection practice, the most widely instructed is the practice of recollecting the breath, recalling the breath to mind. There is also the practice of simply recalling to mind the Tathagata.

      To me, Thanissaro Bhikkhu's essay on Mindfulness shows that the canonical definition is not crystal clear because otherwise there would be no need for the essay. Or we could say though the definition is crystal clear, people will misuse it in a variety of ways, so the definition is not the important part by itself but how it is used or misused.

  2. mindfulness? says

    A third time, Bāhiya said to the Blessed One, "But it is hard to know for sure what dangers there may be for the Blessed One's life, or what dangers there may be for mine. Teach me the Dhamma, O Blessed One! Teach me the Dhamma, O One-Well-Gone, that will be for my long-term welfare & bliss."

    "Then, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress."

    – Udana 1.10, Bahiya Sutta

  3. gregorywonderwheel says

    Thanks Toni for the insightful comments.

    Zen has an aspect of the non-judgmental in it, but this is often confused in the application. When the Sixth Ancestor said “Don’t think good, don’t think bad, immediately what is your original face?” he was teaching something very specific about how to inquire into the source of mind, not laying down a rule for practice "in the world." Too many people appropriate the “non-judgmental” as an excuse to not distinguish. We can’t transcend life and death to see our true nature as long as we are being judgmental, but we can’t engage within the world of life and death without correctly distinguishing, which just means having “right view” or as I prefer to translate “aligned view,” based on prajna wisdom rather than delusion.

    In translating, I generally prefer the meaning that points to the concrete image over the meaning that points to the moralistic ideal. So I prefer translating “samyak/samyag” (samyaJc) (samma in the Pali) as “aligned,” because the word has the actual concrete meanings of “going along with or together, turned together or in one direction, combined, united, lying in one direction, forming one line,” which is how, for the eightfold path, it gets the derived value meanings of “correct,” “proper,” or “right,” as when the eight orientations to life are brought into alignment and then judged to be correct or right.

    So to avoid the judgmental flavor (stain) of “correct” or “right,” I prefer the term aligned. When our car’s tires are unbalanced (after all, the etymology of “dukkha” is the unbalanced wheel or uncentered hub) we could but usually don’t say “I’m going to get my front wheel’s corrected.” Instead we say, “I’m going to get my front wheels aligned.” The Eightfold Path is the diagnostic work order to get our life aligned in these eight ways to remove the dukkha of the eight kinds of misalignment causing the bumpy ride.

    The prescription for “aligned recollection” (Skt. samyaksmrti, Pali sammasati) is the directive to engage in recollection practice that is aligned with the Buddha Dharma and will bring us into alignment with the Buddha Dharma. Recollection practice that takes us out of alignment with the Buddha Dharma is misaligned recollection (A.K.A. wrong mindfulness). Aligned recollection practice (right mindfulness, samyaksmrti, sammasati) just means that when we are distracted in our thoughts, to recall to mind our method of practice.

    There are several methods of practice in the Buddha Dharma in the various traditions. Attending to the present sensory awareness is only one of the methods of practice that come under the category of recollection practices. Attending to the present sensory awareness may be aligned or may not be aligned with the Buddha Dharma. As the examples of the soldier and the driver show, sometimes attending to the present awareness is not aligned with the Buddha Dharma. To say “be non-judgmental” is already saying too much because the concept “non-judgmental” has already fallen into the realm of conceptual judgment. If engaging in the practice of attending to the present sensory awareness is done while maintaining the notion of separation between “self and other” and the division between “inside and outside,” then that is not right mindfulness, but wrong mindfulness.

  4. gregorywonderwheel says

    Toni wrote: "In my understanding, by using the word samma as a modifier, the Buddha was tying mindfulness to the intentions of the person practicing it."

    This is very important and could be overlooked. The reference to intentions is to samyak-saṁkalpa (Pali samma-sankappa), aligned intention, right intention. This reminds me that the Eightfold Path is ONE PATH with eight folds. It is not eight separate paths. We can't take mindfulness and extract it from the seven other folds, such as aligned intention and aligned view, and say this is a practice that can be imported to the West as a separate practice. That is to say, we could separate mindfulness as we see done so often, but to do so would be a perversion of the Path, not the Eightfold Path. All eight folds of the Path must be in alignment together.

    • aebernhard says

      Thanks so much Gregory for these insightful comments. I think "aligned" view is an excellent translation and may begin using it myself. I also agree that the Eightfold Path is eight folds, not one. That includes not exclusively practicing meditation (concentration).

      Thanks again.
      All my best,

  5. says

    Because mindfulness always feels good, we think it always is good. Ours is not the first civilization to confuse pleasure with virtue, and like every other we’ll pay a price if we don’t stop and pay attention. Paradoxically, stopping to pay attention is what mindfulness is all about, but no one until now suggested it was good in itself. It was always meant to be combined with ethics and intelligence, without which it will never be an agent of positive personal and social change.