Ethics and values of being a mindfulness teacher (Part 1)
Updated: Jun 15
A consideration of ethics and values related to working as a mindfulness teacher, brings to my mind ethical parameters for social research. I have been actively involved in this area for the last two years, so these themes are fresh in my mind. And not that a Mindfulness Based Program (MBP) is a research project, but there appears to be some overlay in how research is conducted and the way an MBP unfolds. MBPs are after all the interventions around which much recent research has been conducted. There is a level of experimentation and uncertainty as to how the intervention or program content will land for the individuals in the group, while the process of enquiry is at least partially an attempt to have the participants articulate how they relate to that experience, and how it has affected them. It may be that by signing up for an MBP, the participants research themselves, from the inside out, and come to their own conclusions about the extent to which the process of learning how to be mindful in their lives and exploring this mode of being has made a difference in their everyday. For therein lie the potential benefits. These will be enhanced by the values and principles adhered to by the teacher and facilitator of the program or course.
The ethical considerations I’d like to examine as signposts for guiding MBPs, are in accordance with the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Helsinki — Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects. They can be categorised as follows:
• Autonomy and respect for the dignity of persons
The practical expressions of the principle of autonomy include individual and organisational confidentiality and informed consent. In fulfilling these ethical obligations, the MBP facilitator will provide information about the program and may have potential participants sign informed consent forms which will outline what they can expect from the facilitator, and what her obligations may be during the course, while explaining the participants’ responsibilities and their rights. One of those is the right to have one’s participation in an MBP remain confidential. It will be of benefit to the participants if considerations of confidentiality are reinforced during the course. At the outset of the program, it is to be made clear that “what is shared in the circle, stays in the circle.” Confidentiality and the limitations of confidentiality may be openly discussed with the group, and the spoken contract honoured by the raising of the participants’ hands. Being part of this process and witnessing everyone else take part, will begin the process of building a safe container — a place within which each participant is afforded the greatest opportunity for development.
The principle of nonmaleficence advocates that no harm is done during an intervention. The benefits of mindfulness practice such as through MBP participation, have been well documented by some rigorous research. Yet there remains potential for harmful behaviour. As a middle-aged white male teacher, I sense that I enter the teaching space with what feels like centuries of patriarchy and modernism imbued with male dominance. These weigh on my shoulders, but the practical implications of this are revealed in a potential power imbalance. I must be aware, and take responsibility for this, especially when coming into contact with younger female students. My own experience as a course participant reminds me of how much I projected onto my teachers, holding them in unnecessarily high regard and sometimes elevating individuals, male and female, to spheres from which they could have taken advantage of their perceived position. Luckily I was never harmed, but I see how a power discrepancy in the teacher/student relationship holds the potential for harmful behaviour. It will therefore benefit both the participants and myself, when I as a teacher, follow clearly-set boundaries regarding what is and what is not permissible in the way I interact with those under my care. These could be aligned with the code of conduct prescribed for counsellors and therapists, while the integrity of this space will be well-served by outside supervision.
Beneficence is the realm of how what is offered as an intervention is of benefit to individuals and humanity. As a teacher I guide attending to the aspiration that what I offer makes a positive difference in the everyday lives of my participants. It may be appropriate at this point to mention the roots of the MBP tradition which are grounded in the millennia old Buddhist principles of the realisation of the universality of human anguish and dis-ease related to how our minds interpret reality, and the steps proposed toward the end to this personal and collective torment. Related to the understanding of this sphere of human existence, the Buddha proposed what have become known are the Four Ennobling Truths. One, that by virtue of being human, we are all subject to misery and torment. Two, that this is the result of delusion and misunderstanding of our true nature and the laws of the universe, and can be largely attributed to the cognitive errors we make. Three, that there is a way to end this anguish. Four, that the path to this fresh space from which life can be engaged with in a graceful way, includes among others appropriate mindfulness, effective meditation practice, and adequate effort. These qualities and values distilled into the MBP will indirectly but powerfully affect the usefulness of the program.
Finally, justice is the notion that everyone is to be treated equally, that no-one is be left behind or be given special treatment. In the context of an MBP for example, a circle discussion or group enquiry my be dominated by a voice or two. Being sensitive to this, a teacher may actively invite active participation from others in an effort to balance the container, or may steer the discussion for everyone to experience internally for themselves what it is like to speak rather than listen, and vice versa. Similarly, when an individual’s sharing and levels of vulnerability are such that there is an opportunity to explore, the teacher may invite all the participants to notice how what has been spoken about, has activated within the physiology of their own self. Such opportunities for group exploration with then invite and include those who may be feeling on the periphery or at times left out.