A recent article in this website discussed the effort of a group of secular dharma practitioners located in various countries to develop an online course on Mindfulness Based Ethical Living (MBEL). The course development project emerged out of a four-part workshop offered by Stephen Batchelor in October 2022 and which was sponsored by Buddha-Stiftung. Based on Stephen’s notion of the four tasks, the group is attempting to develop an MBEL course which links a secular interpretation of mindfulness with an ethics of care and a philosophy of human flourishing.
As Dave Smith notes in this interview, there are many ways in which an MBEL approach can be designed and offered. Beginning in January 2024, Dave, an insight meditation and secular mindfulness teacher, will be offering his new program on MBEL. On 10 July, Dave discussed the content, format, and objectives of his MBEL program. For more information, click here.
The video of the interview is below, followed by a transcript of the interview, which has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Secular Buddhist Network (SBN): I’m here today with Dave Smith, who’s a good friend of mine, a meditation teacher who lives in Colorado. He was one of the cofounders of the Secular Dharma Foundation. He’s done a lot of work in Buddhist recovery and developed online programs. He’s done mentoring work for people. So, he’s had a long and varied career in this area. It’s great to talk to you today.
Dave Smith (DS): Yeah, good to see you, Mike. Thanks for doing this.
SBN: Today, we want to talk about a new project that you’ve been working on and putting a lot of effort into. It’s to develop a course and a program on what’s called Mindfulness Based Ethical Living (MBEL). Now, this is a new program that grew out of Steven Bachelor’s work on the secular dharma. Stephen has wanted to connect the secular dharma with the broader mindfulness movement in order to bring a philosophical and ethical and psychological dimension into mindfulness. And he did a program sponsored by Buddha Stiftung in October of 2022, where he presented some of his initial ideas on Mindfulness Based Ethical Living. Since then, there’s been a number of people who’ve been developing this program. Stephen has indicated that he just wants to see people kind of run with this and develop it in different ways. And Dave Smith is one of the people who is doing that. So, Dave, let me just start off by asking you: How did you get interested in beginning to work on this program, on Mindfulness Based Ethical Living?
DS: Yeah, the funny thing is about 10 years ago, I wrote an e-book called Ethical Mindfulness. And the story about that was sort of funny: I got hit by a publisher to write a book on that topic. And they didn’t think an ethical mindfulness book would be popular or a good enough idea to be a printed book. So, it ended up being an e-book. So, I’ve been dancing around this ethical mindfulness idea for a long, long time. I both love and appreciate secular mindfulness, MBSR, and all the mindfulness based therapeutic programs that have been developed. I’ve taught a lot of those, I think there’s a lot of value in those, and I support those. And I teach classic Theravada insight meditation retreats and I like that world. And I like the Pali canon, and I like early Buddhism. I like both of them. And for many, many years, I kind of waffled back and forth. Do I want to be an insight teacher? Do I want to be a secular mindfulness person? And I personally really struggled with what I wanted to do. And ultimately, I was like, well, wouldn’t there be a great way to do both?
You know, kind of ‘both and’, not ‘either or’ thinking. Like how can we both have fidelity and respect for the early Buddhist tradition and adapt it to meet the secular needs of the modern world, including some of the therapeutic ideas we have? I mean, we’ve made a lot of advancements in therapy and psychology in the modern world. Why not blend that with early Buddhist thought; it just seemed like kind of the best of both worlds. And ironically, I was going to do a big, long secular dharma program with Stephen Batchelor; I’ve been working on it for years. And then in the midst of me putting together this program – it was at one point called Mindfulness Based Human Flourishing although I didn’t like that title so much – I was talking to you. And you mentioned that Stephen and the people who attended his October 2022 program renamed it as Mindfulness Based Ethical Living. And then I said, ‘Well, I should just do that.’ Because that was kind of what we, me and Steven, were going to do anyway. And because I feel like I’ve been wanting to be part of something bigger as I’ve been in the past with different Buddhist organizations; I felt like it was a time for people like you, people like myself, people around the world who have kind of been doing this secular dharma, secular Buddhism dance for a little while – all of us dancing around the same fire – but not being really sure what that looked like. And it hit me pretty strongly that MBEL was kind of a way in which a lot of us could sort of stick a flag in the ground and say: ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing’ and being more specific about what it is that we’re talking about, and really creating a doorway for anybody who’s interested. I’ve been reading Stephen’s books for years and talking to him on Zoom and Skype for 10 years and sitting retreats with him; I really feel very happy now that we have something that we can kind of stand on and say, ‘Hey, here’s an actual program that’s rooted in early Buddhist thought, that has respect for the early tradition, and also bridges these other ideas but doesn’t require you to have any sort of belief system.’ It’s in many ways a kind of perfect secular program.
SBN: That’s really helpful, Dave. So, tell us now a little bit more about the program. Tell us when you’re offering it, the dates, but also a bit about the format. Is this a program that someone will be taking just online or is there any in person component?
DS: The other thing about building the program, which is great, is that I got to build the program myself. And having been both a participant and teacher in many programs like this, I believe it blends the best of two worlds. There is an online component; it’s an eight-month program that runs from January 1, 2024, to September 2024. There’s a monthly group meeting on a particular topic and a monthly practice group on Zoom. There are also two residential retreats, which will happen in March and September; they are seven-day residential retreats at Big Bear Retreat Center in California, which is a lovely place.
One of the things I’ve noticed over the years, and I’ve heard people complain about, is that people study the dharma; maybe they go to a Barre Center for Buddhist Studies or they take an online workshop. So, there’s the study of dharma, like an academic study of material. And then there’s these long retreats where we go and we don’t talk to anybody, and we don’t make eye contact. But wouldn’t it be nice to merge the two together? So, that way, you’re practicing with other people doing long periods of meditation, being in long periods of silence, but then actually being able to present ideas and then talk about those ideas as a group. So, it’s more of an educational format. Yet, the retreats will be not unlike a silent insight retreat; we’ll do something which is what I call partial silence. So, there’ll be some conversation. And then there’ll be periods of time when we won’t be talking, we will be in silence. We’ll be practicing for a significant part of the day, having meals in silence and having some of the meals talking. So, we’re going to kind of rock back and forth between being in a contemplative space, being in a quiet space to practice these ideas, and then being able to discuss those ideas.
The other thing that we’re doing that I think is really helpful and important, that I’ve been doing for years and I really like to do, is getting a little bit away from me being the expert on the material and you being a student. And having this top-down, sort of patriarchal thing that we kind of just see in all religions; and Buddhism is certainly guilty of that. Where I’m presenting ideas, and you are kind of expected to agree with these ideas. And there’s not a lot of room for debate or controversy. So, we’re not going to do the classic one-hour dharma talk, but we’ll have teaching sessions in the morning, where maybe I’ll present an idea on the four tasks for 20 or 30 minutes. Then, people will get into small groups; they’ll have a discussion about that. And then we’ll come back as a larger group. So, we’ll really be kind of coming at dharma not as scriptural text – here’s the word of the Buddha. But here’s some early ideas and let’s talk about these ideas. Let’s just have a dialogue and say, ‘Well, what do we agree with? What do we not agree with? What makes sense? What doesn’t make sense?’ And we know when you go to a college or university, it’s okay, it’s allowed and it’s encouraged to have a debate about the material that’s being presented. And I think that that’s one of the features that the dharma world could really use, a lot of people would benefit from; it’s a dialogue and a conversation. So, that will be a big part of it. And that will be something that you’re not really going to see in other places is a way to have a conversation about that. So, it’s more of a dialogue than a top-down teaching model.
SBN: And that’s something that in your own teaching, as you’ve developed it over the years, has been become more and more prominent: this movement away from the sort of traditional role of the teacher and a teacher centric perspective to one that involves more engagement, more group discussion, the use of dyads, and so forth. And so, in a sense, this new program that you’re offering in 2024 is very consistent with the kind of approach that you’ve been developing over the years. So let me ask you this, Dave. We’re talking about, as you say, a ‘both and’ approach, where a central element of the program involves reflection on and engagement with early Buddhist concepts. And, at the same time, an engagement with developments in psychology and ethics, politics, and so forth. So, if you were describing this program, obviously you wouldn’t call it a Buddhist program, per se. Let me ask you this: What for you are the main perspectives that will be included in this program?
DS: Yeah, great question. I’m actually sorting that out at the moment. But yes, it’s not a Buddhist program. You know, I could go down that road but that’s a big can of worms. Like Steven Bachelor’s book After Buddhism, this is an after Buddhism program. You know, we have no problem with Buddhism. But that’s not what we’re doing here. And so really, I guess, the overarching theme, we would just say is mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness is certainly well respected and well revered, and well taught within the Buddhist tradition. But there are also these current applications of it. And let’s just be really clear about one thing. Mindfulness is not a Buddhist thing. Mindfulness is an innate capacity of human experience. So, it’s not this specialized thing that the Buddhists developed. It’s just a way in to explore our experience; it’s a very natural way for a human being, whether they’re a Christian or Buddhist or atheist, or a Muslim – doesn’t matter what your belief system is. Mindfulness is something that’s available to everybody. So, it’s very secular in that sense. So, the overarching theme is, of course, the practice of mindfulness, and we’ll come at it from different perspectives.
And then also ethical living. What does ethics mean and how do we live an ethical life? And for me, there’s really three constituents of that. For me, the goal of secularity is to improve life for everybody on the planet, to be tolerant towards other people. Second, if we’re going to trust anything, if we’re going to put faith or stock in any ideas about how to live a good life, science is probably the one to trust. And finally, the idea that it’s good to do good, it’s good to be good. It’s good to give back. It’s good to be kind, it’s good to be generous. It’s very good and healthy. We know from many perspectives this basic insight. And the ethical framework that we’re coming from is not from Buddhist precepts. It’s not about what specific behaviors one should do or not do. I think we’re staying out of the weeds on that. That’s very much morality and that’s a can of worms which I have no interest in opening. But it’s more of the ethics of what we would call Brahma-vihara ethics. And it’s the ethics of how do I live a life where I can be kind to myself and others? How do I actually do that? How can I be caring to myself and be caring to other people? How do I have gratitude and joy for myself and other people? And how can I have equanimity, amid the reality that this is a messy game.
So, we’re not really so much interested in defining ethics and telling you what one should do or not do. But really how using mindfulness as an awareness, as a posture, internally and externally, in how we relate to the world. These are some of the earliest ideas in the Pali canon; they can be found in the Sutta Nipata, including the teachings of the Metta Sutta, which is one of the oldest discourses. So, these ideas are very rich there. They’re also very well respected and very well talked about in the world of emotional intelligence, in the arena of what’s called constructive emotions. We’re trying to live a life where we’re engaging our emotional life, which we experience with ourselves and others. And the emotional landscape of the world that we live in right now is not a very healthy landscape. I don’t think anybody’s gonna argue with that. So, we’re trying to bring kindness and compassion and gratitude and equanimity into life practices. So, you have mindfulness; you have these relational healthy emotion concepts. And that becomes a conversation where lots of different conversations can emerge.
Honestly, this takes a lot of inspiration from the Dalai Lama’s book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World. I don’t think we’re gonna have a prerequisite book for this course, but if there was one that might be it because the big idea that he talks about is that of tolerance. Having tolerance for other people, having tolerance for other people’s political views, social views, religious views. And I don’t have to really highlight this too much. But if you look at the current world we live in, there is very little tolerance for other people’s views and perspectives; and Buddhists and mindfulness people and nice people like us are just as guilty as everybody else in clinging to our views and having contempt and thinking we have the right view and you have the wrong view. And this is clearly a problem. And so, Mindfulness Based Ethical Living is trying to re-think these ideas. If we want to create a better world for ourselves and our children and other people, we really, really have to tackle these kinds of ideas. So that’s kind of the context that we’re holding all of this in. And which gives us a lot of opportunities to explore a whole range of things.
SBN: I think that we both share very much the goal of trying to make sure that mindfulness is not just a kind of self-help modality but is embedded in a broader framework, one that involves personal relationships, but also concern and care for the wider community and society. And I think this is something that Stephen has also talked a lot about as well. And this is really a positive development. So, having told us what you see as being some of the important core elements of the program, what do you see as your objectives for this program in terms of the people who are participating? What would you like to see come out of it for them?
DS: I’ve talked to a lot of people about this and I think there is large appetite for an MBEL-type program. Frankly, you have Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach’s teacher training, you have MBSR training, you have a huge plethora of great mindfulness trainings out there. Mark Coleman has a training program. And a lot of people do these trainings; they learn MBSR and different kinds of secular mindfulness things. They get a lot of bang for the buck out of it and feel like it is very, very helpful. And then they finish these programs and they go: Okay, what’s next?
And there is no what’s next. So, you have all these people who don’t really want to maybe go to an IMS or a Spirit Rock; they don’t want to dip their toe too far in the Buddhist pool. And they’re kind of wandering around in the dark looking for somewhere to go. So, my hope is to bring the dharma to those folks, but the dharma – not Buddhism. Meaning that, let’s just look at these texts, these Pali canonical texts, from an academic lens, not saying this is the right thing or this is the only thing that is true, but just to say: here’s where this stuff came from, let’s just talk about it. Let’s see what it says. And that’s where we get into these 32 facets of awakening. So, looking at it more from an academic, for lack of a better word, but more like, hey, let’s look at these, let’s observe and talk about these texts in a way that we would any other texts that we would ever read. You know, they’re not religious scripture, to be believed and to be adhered to, but they are ideas to be explored. And I think that bringing it in that way will help people have a lot of conversations.
I think there are a lot of people who will really love the dharma; they love mindfulness and they love these practices, but the overarching religious undertone or overtone or ‘Buddhism-me’ stuff, it just doesn’t feel really authentic. So, I’m trying to bring those two worlds together, where maybe the mindfulness people could use a little more dharma and the Buddhist people could use a little less Buddhism. I am trying to create a format or a structure or, even dare I say, a community where people can practice from a like-minded perspective, where we’re looking at these things more conversationally and staying away from looking at these texts as Truths with capital T’s. Instead, let’s explore them, let’s check them out. And that actually fosters a lot of mindfulness ideas: looking at them with curiosity, looking at them with investigation, looking at them with interest, and looking at them with suspicion. These are all qualities of mindfulness that we all talk about. But shouldn’t we be bringing those qualities of mindfulness to some of these teachings, rather than just feeling as though we’re expected to adhere? Which is kind of the business of religion.
So, I think it’s a very exciting time for mindfulness because I think there’s a lot more interest out there than people might think. I think that there’s an appetite for this kind of thing. I hope there will be.
SBN: Yeah, I agree there is a strong interest. There was a recent article in the Secular Buddhist Network website about a parallel effort to develop a course on Mindfulness Based Ethical Living, which is actually quite different than yours in terms of its format. It’s an online course over a shorter period of time. But it’s interesting, the readers’ responses to the article were very positive. And people were saying: ‘Bring it on, we want it.’ I think there is a bit of a hunger for that.
I just want to back up to the beginning of your reply to the last question. You talked, and I think quite rightly, about the fact that we want to look at the texts from the Pali canon not as religious texts that we assume are correct and in the way that some fundamentalist Christians look at the Bible. But we want to explore it, to discuss it; and you use the term in an ‘academic way.’ I would slightly differ with you just in the use of the term ‘academic’ – not that you meant it in this way – that academic implies the idea that it’s not going to be connected with engagement or action. And I think you and I both see the exploration and the discussion of these ideas as vitally part of how we live in the world, how we act toward other people, how we engage with our community. I’m not sure what the correct word to use is.
DS: Right, I say the word with some degree of hesitation but I don’t have a better one. I guess the term seems a bit dry. I almost think about the texts as like a map. I get a map to a city; I’m not necessarily believing in the map or worshipping the map; I’m just using the map to find my way around. And so, I think these formulas in the Pali texts, when I think about them, I think about them very much in a map-like kind of language. These are maps to the human experience that will help you find your way around. Some of the map might be useful, some of the map might not be, some of the map you might not be interested in. But yet, what it gives you is a way to guide you through your inner experience and guide through your world. And I think that we don’t cling to maps so much; we see them as a useful device. They are a navigational tool. When I look at the teachings in the Pali canon, they’re really map-like formulas. And so, you check them out. Even if you went to a city with a map and you didn’t like the map, or didn’t believe in the map, or didn’t think the map was useful, you’d probably take a look at it anyway. And you might find a couple of things in the map helpful. ‘Oh, I didn’t know where that was, well, there’s that place we want to go to.’ So, I think holding with the looseness of that kind of thinking is a way to stay out of the sticky weeds of clinging to views, or viewing things as right or wrong beliefs, and all that kind of stuff.
SBN: So just a couple more questions. Who would you like to have participate in this program? Is it someone who has already done retreats? Or has done a mindfulness program? Or do you want to open it up to actually anybody who has an interest in this?
DS: Honestly, that’s a key question and this will be a bit of an experiment. I hope and believe that somebody who knows nothing about mindfulness, nothing about early Buddhism, who knows nothing about any of the things you and I have discussed so far, could take this course, and could get a benefit from it, and would not be hearing anything that was over their head. That’s one of the compliments I get as a teacher, that I’m able to convey these ideas in very real, practical situations. So, our hope is to keep it wide enough that you don’t need to have any sort of prerequisite courses to take it. In fact, and I would probably argue this, somebody who doesn’t have any background in this stuff actually might do better in the course because they don’t have any unlearning to do.
Maybe they take our eight-month course and then find that they’re actually resonating more with the MBSR stuff. Or they want to go more into psychology and science. Or they do the MBEL program and they become more interested in the dharma or more interested in the Pali canon and being able to respond to that range of needs. There will be different responses because we’re all so different.
One thing I just want to add – I’m glad you mentioned the online course – and I know that Stephen feels strongly this way; I’m not interested at all in making kind of a cookie cutter program for MBEL. I’m not interested in making a manual or doing what some of the other programs have done. I think there could be many different MBEL programs. And mine looks different than yours. Because there’s lots of different ways to approach mindfulness. There’s lots of different ways to approach this material. And I think, as Stephen has also emphasized, that we do not want this to just turn into another version of what we’re trying to get away from. Where we have our views and our beliefs, and these are the correct ones. I think there could be eight or 10 different MBEL programs that have both great similarities and maybe some great differences. And people can kind of find their way to the program that makes most sense to them. And now, hopefully, we won’t screw that up. It will be hard to not screw that up. But I think that that’s an intention for all of us out of the gate, that every MBEL program doesn’t need to look exactly the same and probably shouldn’t.
SBN: I think that’s absolutely right and MBEL is a work in progress. So, who knows where it leads? If it goes well, we can bring these programs out there. And they may develop in different ways; there may be an MBEL for psychologists and an MBEL for political activists. Who knows?
So, let us finish up. Can you let folks know how to register for this program? So, it’s beginning January 1, 2024, right? You’ll have two in person retreats at the Big Bear Retreat Center. And then monthly zoom meetings and material on the website. So how would someone sign up for this?
DS: Well, I think in your show notes, here, you’ll have a link so people can click on that. It is open for registration. The Secular Dharma Foundation is the host of the program. So, it’s going through our social profit organization. People can register, they can sign up, they can get in touch with us. We’ve had quite a few signups already.
We need 25 people to make it work, which I think will be no problem. And we will probably cap it at about 40. So. there’s not a lot of spaces available per se. But they can go to the website and get all the details. If they have more questions, they can email one of us, me and my wife, off the website.
In terms of workload, I get a lot of questions about this. It’s not that demanding of a workload. The big demanding part, I think, for everybody is going to be to get to the seven-day, in person retreats. If you have to fly, if you have to get a timeout for work – going on retreats is never convenient for any of us. So, if you can make the retreats work, I think that you’re good because the monthly stuff will be 90 minutes for a monthly teaching and Stephen Batchelor will be doing quite a few of those. He won’t be at the in-person retreats, but he’ll be in the online part of the program. And there’ll be a practice session every month, which will be just a mindfulness practice. And that will be it. Everything else, all the reading material, all the curriculum stuff, will be housed in an online learning management system that people can log in and access at any time. If you miss one of the sessions, we’re going to record all the sessions. So, if Steven does a session, and you can’t make it and you’re bummed out because you’re going to miss it, we’ll just record it and put it back into the course. So, it’s not a huge time commitment. I just want to be clear about that. But the course will also be quite rich; there’ll be a lot of stuff there. And it will be self-paced; a lot of the course material you can read at your own leisure, you can watch the videos, and you can do the meditations at your own pace.
Anybody is encouraged and invited to sign up regardless of their background or their practice history. This is totally available to everybody. And like I said, funnily enough, the less experience you have, you might actually find that you have a jumpstart over the other people.
SBN: Thank you, Dave. This has been great. And, you know, it’s also exciting to be part of an ongoing process and something that can really, I think, be helpful in terms of contributing to what Stephen once referred to as a ‘culture of awakening’, with more mindfulness and compassion, I think, in our own way, we’re each trying to be a part of that. So, thank you for being here.