01/16/2015 11:44 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2015

Being Mindful About Mindfulness

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Can we be more mindful about mindfulness?

Practicing mindfulness can sharpen attention, improve health and increase productivity. However, as mindfulness spreads into more and more areas of modern life, some advocates of the practice are concerned that it is being separated from ethics.

At the recent Mind & Life International Symposium for Contemplative Studies, the Dalai Lama was asked: "Are there any guiding principles that should be considered when applying mindfulness to settings such as business and the military?"

In other words, is mindfulness practice inherently good? Does it naturally promote positive values and an ethical worldview as it changes behavior? Could it transform the organizations and companies that are starting to offer it to their employees?

It's a question worth asking. Meditation practices can now be found just about everywhere--from Google to the U.S. Army. How is mindfulness practice being conveyed in those settings? As a transformative practice, is it only being offered as a method for stress reduction and performance enhancement? If the focus is on improving concentration and increasing the bottom line, is there a place for compassion and ethical concern for others?

While mindfulness is attracting attention precisely because it does help people manage stress and improve their focus and overall well being, especially in the workplace, it can also be fertile ground for developing empathy and compassion. It is true that standard mindfulness practice can be taught without reflection on the ethical dimension of behavior, but as many practitioners soon experience, mindfulness helps us see how connected we are to each other.

As mindfulness practice clears the way for recognition of our deep interconnectedness, an effortless sense of empathy and compassion toward others arises. It is not compassion in a conceptual, "golden rule" sort of way where we're good to others so that they'll be good to us, but rather, it is a genuine empathic desire to see others' suffering come to an end.

Of course, there are many ways that we can learn how to cultivate compassion, including metta or lovingkindness meditation, which is the practice of making a deep wish for the welfare and happiness of others. In fact, mindfulness is often taught along with lovingkindness meditation.

Sharon Salzberg, author of the best-selling book Real Happiness at Work, has popularized this approach and teaches a lovingkindness course at the Garrison Institute. And we recently explored lojong, a Tibetan Buddhist practice designed to instill compassion with Norman Fischer, an American Soto Zen roshi, poet and Buddhist author, and Rachel Cowan, author of Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience and Spirit. In each of these practices the key is empathy, the ability to put oneself in someone else's shoes.

As mindfulness practice becomes the norm in corporate and other secular settings, there's a growing recognition of the ways that it helps us to improve our relations with others and become more caring individuals. And as we cultivate a greater sense of responsibility toward others, we naturally reflect on the ways our behavior impacts them, which brings us full circle to the question of ethics in the spread of mindfulness in our culture.

Whatever your practice might be, I hope that it involves training in compassion. Now, with all the challenges we face in the world, we can be confident that kindness and compassion are the bedrock of personal and social change.

Together we can take on humanity's most important task: creating a more compassionate and resilient future.