In their recent article published in a special mindfulness edition of the American Psychologist, Anne Harrington and John D. Dunne recount the historical underpinnings of modern therapeutic mindfulness practice. They reveal how a medicalised mindfulness practice emerged out of several distinct but related Eastern religious origins.

In summary, attempts to incorporate the Buddhist principles that foster non-judgemental awareness into psychotherapeutic practice have occurred in three main waves: during the 1950s when a group of humanistic psychoanalysts seeking to humanize Cold War era psychoanalytics latched onto the Japanese teacher of Zen, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki’s teachings of the potential of the unconscious mind as a tool for liberation; during the 1970s when Maharashi Mahesh Yogi in response to the demand for a quick and easy way to practice meditation, introduced Transcendental Meditation (TM) which subsequently led researchers M. Robert Keith Wallace and Herbert Benson to come to discover the physiological changes that occur during TM and hence cemented a valid scientific interest in the area; and finally and most recently during the 1980s and beyond with the emergence of the third wave of psychotherapeutic treatments that developed off of the back of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBFT) which was developed to include both medical and Buddhist components in order to treat individuals with chronic illnesses.

As most of us are now aware, Kabat’s Zinn’s melded adoption of Buddhist traditions within a clinical format took off and has led to the widespread popularity and promotion of mindfulness informed psychological treatments. In their article, Harrington and Dunne query the ethical standings of this medicalised adoption of ancient spiritual principles. They highlight how mindfulness practice is now incorporated into mainstream clinical psychology as well as in educational, occupational and even military settings. Just as its popularity is growing exponentially, the evidence suggesting it as a method for increasing well-being and performance and decreasing aspects of distress is following suit. Harrington and Dunne suggest that the adoption and promotion of many of these ancient principles may go against the core underlying practices from which they came. Perhaps rightly so they question what right modern psychology has to utilise aspects of a sacred practice in order to train better soldiers or increase workers productivity.  Furthermore they reflect on what right psychology has to utilise aspects of this practice that are of benefit to it and yet ignore the overarching sacred principles that encourage committed cultivation of wisdom and discernment.

Indeed their article makes several supporting arguments for and against the ethical standings of mindfulness in psychological practice. They highlight the fact that the adoption (in particular the most recent) of mindfulness into psychotherapeutic practice was about improving the lives of individuals experiencing distress. For instance for every study examining the effect of mindfulness on productivity or output, there have been several more aiming to demonstrate the place of mindfulness in treating a host of human problems including chronic pain, disordered eating, depression, anxiety, PTSD, stress, OCD and suicidality. If adopting principles from a source of spirituality that emphasizes that mindfulness is the key to caring for the mind and that caring for the mind is the foundation of all moral practice and development, surely the sharing of this framework should be ethical, regardless of its medium.

Nevertheless as posited earlier in this post, Harrington and Dunne highlight in their article how utilising methods entrenched in ancient Buddhism was undoubtedly never meant to be commercialised and sold as a commodity, which is clearly what is occurring now with the rapid expansion of mindfulness practice into less altruistic pursuits. Given each of these considerations, Harrington and Dunne succumb to the conclusion that the ethical standings of the practice of a mindfulness, that is sitting on an unstable knife edge between spirituality and secularism, therapeutics and pop-culture, is currently fixed in a clouded grey area.

Indeed its applicability and the increasing neglect of the related spiritual components of mindfulness have made shaken the ethical standing the practice. In terms of Harrington and Dunne’s stance regarding the ethical placement of mindfulness practice in its various applications, perhaps we are over-examining the issue. Even now as Eastern spiritual practice is continuously appropriated and stripped for elements that piece effectively into Western psychotherapeutic practice, religious figures have stepped up to comment on how they feel the ethical concerns regarding mindfulness may be absolved. Many like American Theraveda Buddhist monk, Bhikkhu Bodhi call for an increase in ‘conscientious’ or ‘caring’ mindfulness practice. If we encourage the practice of mindfulness with an emphasis on conscientious or caring attention with the intention not to harm and instead to be kind, compassionate, generous, then by all estimations we are still abiding by the underlying principles of the Buddhist intentions.

As the incorporation of mindfulness practice into mainstream clinical psychology has been largely inclusive of this element of conscientiousness, one could argue that this particular uptake of Buddhist principles has been entirely ethical. This is in comparison to other areas of psychology and its related disciplines that whether intended or not, have overlooked this particular caveat for ethical practice. This would suggest that the ethical problems facing modern clinical psychology today and its adoption of Buddhist practices lie not in the practice itself but in how clinical psychology distinguishes itself from other closely related areas of interest. Thus by identifying a distinct ethical framework that centres around the principles of a caring and conscientious mindfulness practice, modern psychotherapeutic practice can rise above the ethical quandaries that have arisen in recent times.




To access Harrington and Dunne’s full article please see the link below:




Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.

Is the rise of Mindfulness pushing ethical boundaries?

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