As individuals who teach Unified Mindfulness, we are guided by these general ethical principles:
As individuals who teach Unified Mindfulness, we are committed to the following guidelines:
These guidelines come from discussion among the staff of Unified Mindfulness. Parts of the guidelines have also been adapted from the following:
United Kingdom Network of Mindfulness-Based Teacher Trainers (January 2010) Good Practice Guidance for Teaching Mindfulness-Based Courses.
American Psychological Association. Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.
Spirit Rock Meditation Center. (2016) Code of Ethics.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Mentorship Documents. University of California San Diego Mindfulness-Based Professional Training Institute.
More on the Ethics of Teaching Mindfulness
Don McCormick, Ph.D.
A code of ethics can help mindfulness teachers to:
It can also help an organization and a budding profession clarify its values and identity.
Ethical standards are usually fairly abstract; that way they can apply to a wide range of situations. When it comes to your teaching practice, the task at hand is determining how standards apply to specific situations that you face. This often takes a certain amount of skill at moral reasoning. This document tries to help with this by providing some explanation and elaboration of UM’s specific ethical standards.
An example may make this clearer. I was talking to a friend who is a licensed clinical social worker about the ethical standards in her field that apply to romantic involvement with clients. She explained that ethical standards in social work prevent a social worker from dating a client for at least two years after the end of their professional relationship.
So, if you were teaching mindfulness to someone who was seeing you as a clinical social worker, then you need to work within the ethical standards of your profession. That is, you could not ask out your former client until at least two years after the end of your professional relationship.
I should mention that my friend also said that she “would never socialize with a client, even years after terminating. I just feel it crosses a line.”
One person in the Pathways program asked us, “Is each trainee’s area of competence defined in writing for each course?” No. This is more of a general guideline than something that is precisely defined. This is one of many standards whose application ultimately depends on your sound professional judgment, but an example may be helpful here. If you have only been teaching U.M. to your students in college classes and just finished the Foundations program, you shouldn’t be taking on a new client with severe, easily triggered trauma without some kind of preparation, supervision, consultation, study, etc.
Mindfulness Training and Psychotherapy. Sometimes people confuse learning mindfulness with psychotherapy, and this is understandable because mindfulness practice can help with mental health problems. If someone approaches you for help with a mental health problem like anxiety, what are you to do? It would be dishonest to say that mindfulness can’t help with anxiety and at the same time it would be dishonest to say that you are qualified to treat it (assuming that you aren’t a psychiatrist or other mental health professional).
In some ways you are in a situation that is parallel to a fitness instructor who is approached by someone who is suffering from depression and wants help. Exercise can help with depression, but fitness instructors aren’t trained to treat it. Both the mindfulness teacher and the fitness instructor can say what they have to offer that may help, but may also want to explain that they aren’t a substitute for a trained mental health professional. They may offer to work with the depressed person and at the same time recommend that she or he work with a counselor, psychotherapist, or other mental health professional.
Sometimes mental health clients want to escape from certain types of treatment—especially those involving drugs. U.M. doesn’t train people to provide treatment for mental health disorders, or to determine what mental health treatment is necessary. So, if you don’t have a relevant degree or license, you are ethically obligated to be clear about your limitations—that you aren’t an expert in treating mental health problems. Asking a mindfulness teacher about mental health questions is like asking a car mechanic those same questions–it doesn’t make sense. Teachers should make clear that mindfulness techniques and skills are their area of expertise and that the clients must be responsible for their mental health needs. Among other things, this means that it isn’t the teacher’s responsibility to coordinate with health care providers.
If you do have a degree and/or license in a mental health field, and if you have been trained in using mindfulness in the treatment of a specific disorder, then you have the option to do so.
Either way, if you’re not trying to be their therapist, don’t act like you are. Be explicit about this so that your client is clear what your professional relationship involves.
Also, as a teacher, if you think someone needs professional mental health support, consult with others and be prepared to say so to any client that needs to hear it. Be supportive, not afraid.
“Regular formal mindfulness practice”
Does this mean that if someone wasn’t practicing every day, they would not be up to the standard? Isn’t that a high bar?
We should make clear that we don’t mean that the occasional lapse means that you should quit teaching. By “regular formal mindfulness practice” we mean a minimum of most days of the week for people who have completed the Foundations course, and more often than that for people who complete more advanced training, such as Pathways. It is essential that individuals who teach mindfulness have a deep, regular practice. Their own experience of mindfulness is an important source of their authority. When we teach, we often ask others to engage in formal mindfulness practice, to engage in life practice, to attend retreats, and to be accountable. With regard to these basics of practice, we should only ask others to do these if we do them ourselves.
“Accountability to a group, teacher, or coach”
This may involve regular meetings with a group of fellow mindfulness practitioners, or working individually with a mindfulness teacher (or coach). Or it may involve having an agreement with another mindfulness practitioner in which you text each other each day about your practice. For example, two long-term mindfulness practitioners may want to do more micro-hits each day. They keep each other accountable by texting each other every day, saying how many micro-hits they did.
“Regular supervision with a qualified mindfulness teacher”
What makes someone qualified? This generally refers to someone who has been teaching for a longer time than you have, and who knows the UM system in depth. You may also want to work with someone who teaches mindfulness but who is not a UM teacher.
There are many ways that you can do this. You might join the American Mindfulness Research Association, which puts out a monthly list of all the recent published research on mindfulness. You could create a Google alert for new research on mindfulness. Subscribing to Mindful magazine or the academic journal Mindfulness are also ways to keep up.
Although UM is a secular program, it is still important to be sensitive to the spiritual and religious stances of your individual clients and of participants in a class. Because the origins of secular mindfulness programs go back to Buddhism, some people may perceive them as religious. (For example, see https://www.spectator.co.uk/2014/11/whats-wrong-with-mindfulness-more-than-you-might-think/)
For a mindfulness teacher in the U.S., this can become a particularly touchy issue when you are teaching in a school system or other government organization, as they are prohibited by the U.S. Constitution from advocating a particular religion or religious point of view. Roughly 4,000 religious discrimination lawsuits are filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission each year.
A good example of how a lawsuit can happen even in a non-government organization occurred years ago at the Pacific Bell corporation in California. Management required all 67,000 employees to attend a leadership training program based on the works of Gurdjieff—a maverick spiritual leader whose teachings resemble those of the Sufis of Islam. The $25 million program did not mention Gurdjieff by name, although it incorporated many of his spiritual principles. Understandably, some Christian employees objected and sued, claiming that it violated their religious beliefs. A large controversy arose which received national news coverage and eventually involved Pacific Bell’s state regulatory agency. The company dropped the program.
If someone objects to a UM program because of religious concerns, you might gauge their degree of objection. Some people are simply not candidates for the training. But others just need validation that the concern is legitimate while also being open to reassurance that frees them to voluntarily participate. If they are asking for an alternative perspective, you may point out that UM is a secular program and its effectiveness is supported by scientific research. Other points that you might make include:
Some people assume that mindfulness practice will challenge their deeply held beliefs and make them stop believing. That may be possible, but we haven’t personally seen any evidence of that.
You may mention all the points above, and a person may still feel that they do not want to try practicing mindfulness. It is important to respect their decision.
In one respect, your beliefs and motivations don’t matter so much when it comes to this issue. You can have Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, ethical, or even monetary motivations for teaching, but it is your actions that count. If you believe that your mindfulness teaching practice is a way of helping individuals learn some Buddhist techniques and values, but you are teaching mindfulness as an attention-based behavioral intervention and you aren’t trying to sneak in any religious content, that doesn’t pose an ethical problem from the perspective of UM. You wouldn’t want to prevent Muslims from teaching mindfulness because they see it as a way of promoting the Islamic values of mercy and compassion, or prevent Christians from teaching mindfulness because they see it as a way of promoting love. You wouldn’t want Jews, Hindus, or anyone to be prevented from teaching mindfulness because of their religion. In fact, in the U.S. it is illegal to discriminate against someone in a job situation because of their religion.
On the other hand, if your main motivation is to transmit Buddhism through your mindfulness teaching and this influences the way you teach, you should not hide this. It’s important to be honest and transparent. You don’t want to misrepresent what you’re doing or mislead people.
Crazy claims are often made about mindfulness. One of my favorites appeared in a Forbes Magazine blog post. It claimed that entrepreneurs who practice mindfulness always increase their cash flow. While we don’t think any of you would claim something like this, the actual business of making a claim about mindfulness practice can be tricky.
For example, there are levels of support for a claim.
How much you want to go into the evidence for a claim that you’re making about mindfulness depends on many aspects of the situation, but the main thing is to not make a claim about mindfulness that you believe is untrue.
Sometimes we feel like we should have all the answers, but almost no one actually expects this. Being honest when you don’t know the answer to a question builds trust. You can simply say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you.”
Few things can reduce trust more between you and a client than for them to discover that they can’t rely on you to keep what they have revealed confidential.
Further, we disclose that it is not in any way necessary for a client to reveal personal information to us, in order for us to effectively train them. And if they choose to reveal personal information, we are transparent and explicit about our role: We are not counselors or therapists, but we can help them work with the issue, using applied mindfulness techniques and strategies.
How do you make decisions about whether to engage in romantic relationships with clients? Are there any general criteria? How and when you draw the line when it comes to sex? Should romantic involvement never be an option with anyone who has had any interaction with you as a mindfulness teacher, or does it depend on the situation? If the situation does make a difference, what are the things to consider? Does it make a difference:
The question of romantic involvement is a complicated one, although there is a clear answer to at least one question. If you do become involved with someone, you should not be their mindfulness teacher.
On the other hand, many questions do not have a clear answer; they require a judgment call. In situations where you are unsure, remember that you represent the UM community and are accountable to it. It can be a good idea to consult with people that you respect in the community before deciding.
All that being said, if you aren’t sure about whether a romantic relationship with someone is a good idea, it’s usually a good idea to err on the side of restraint.
Andrew Olsen points out that the ethics codes of:
the engineering professions tend to place greater importance on engineers’ responsibility to society while healthcare professions tend to place greater importance on the responsibility to the individuals within the society…The reason for this difference in priorities is not that engineers lack concern for individuals or that healthcare professionals do not care about society. The difference occurs because the tasks of engineers often directly involve the improvement of conditions of society (or at least groups within society); in contrast, the tasks of healthcare professionals directly involve the improvement of the condition of individuals. Therein lies the reason for writing codes of ethics specific to a group of people. The type of activities engaged in by members of the group determines the situations in which the practice of ethical conduct may be jeopardized.
Our code of ethics, like those in healthcare, focuses on our responsibility to individuals. But we also have a responsibility to society as a whole.
We have not yet developed any guidelines with regard to the obligations that mindfulness teachers have towards society, but we can say what some of the societal issues and controversies are. Diana Winston, of UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, has identified many of these. They include:
There is also concern about diversity in the secular mindfulness movement. The mindfulness movement in the U.S. is largely made up of middle and upper-middle class, liberal, white people, and most mindfulness programs in organizations are offered to professionals and management. In most mindfulness settings there is a noticeable lack of people of color, poor people, working people, and political conservatives.
These are some of the societal-level concerns and issues about secular mindfulness.
The UM code of ethics does not cover every situation. General ethical approaches (Utilitarianism, rights, justice, the feminist ethic of care, etc.) are useful when it comes to problems that aren’t covered by this code of ethics. With these problems, if you know one or more of these approaches, do apply them. If you aren’t familiar with these, there are a couple of crude (but often effective) guides that you can use.
Ask yourself how comfortable you would be if your decision and behavior were reported on the front page of the New York Times(or some other paper). If you cringe at the thought, your decision is probably a poor one.
Taking into account the suffering of all parties involved, which decision would result in the least amount of overall suffering? This approach can be very helpful in situations where some action that would be a minor inconvenience to you is likely to result in a major reduction of suffering on the part of someone else. It makes the moral choice quite clear.
UM is committed to the ethical teaching of mindfulness. We hope that the code of ethics and other material presented here will help you to identify and solve ethical challenges in your work teaching mindfulness. But if it does not provide the answers you need, remember that you are part of the UM community, and you can rely on it for support.
 Olson, Andrew. Authoring a Code of Ethics: Observations on Process and Organization. Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, Illinois Institute of Technology. http://ethics.iit.edu/ecodes/authoring-code Accessed October 6, 2018.
 To do this, go to https://scholar.google.com/and click on the icon in the upper left with the three lines. The third choice down is “Alerts.” Click on that and then click on the red box that says, “Create Alert.” In the “Alert query” box, type “Mindfulness.” Because you created this alert in Google Scholar, you will only receive alerts about scholarly publications about mindfulness. If you created a regular Google alert, you would be inundated with alerts for every time anyone on the web mentioned mindfulness.
 This in part comes from the editor of Mindful magazine, in an interview he did in the podcast “10% Happier.”
 Diana Winston. “Mindfulness: An Update on the Field. 2018.” Presentation to the 2018 Training in Mindfulness Facilitation, UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.