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Anxiety, mindfulness, and prayer: Questions and a Catholic perspective

Is mindfulness a morally neutral psychological technique? Or should Catholics be wary of the use of mindfulness?

(Image: S Migaj/Unsplash.com)

If COVID-19, rioting and unrest, and a contentious election didn’t cause you anxiety in 2020, perhaps the long-term effects of social distancing, supply chain impacts on family life, and joblessness are doing so now. How does our culture recommend that we deal with all this mental stress? Mindfulness has become a popular remedy in recent years.

But is mindfulness a morally neutral psychological technique? Or should Catholics be wary of the use of mindfulness?

Mindfulness has been popular for decades and can be easily found in books, podcasts, videos, classes, shows, and even supermarket tabloids. Some aspects of mindfulness have been incorporated into school curricula. Online medical resources for the general public even encourage its use.

But where did mindfulness come from? What are its roots and goals?

A brief overview of mindfulness

In the 1960s and 1970s, there was an increased openness to Asian medicine and religion in the West. (Think about how the Beatles traveled to India in 1968 to study with a famous yogi.) As interest in Hinduism and Buddhism became more widespread in Western culture, one aspect of Buddhism—mindfulness—was introduced into modern psychology. Since that time, clinical psychology has discovered the favorable effects of meditation in general, and it’s not hard to find medical resources that encourage people to try mindfulness as a meditation technique. It’s said to help reduce stress, anxiety, pain, depression, insomnia, and even high blood pressure.

But there is not one single definition of mindfulness. To a Buddhist, mindfulness might be considered part of the noble eightfold path of enlightenment, linked to other concepts such as Zen Buddhism and Transcendental Meditation. To a psychologist, mindfulness might be considered a concept underlying modern therapies (such as MBCT and MBSR) used to treat people dealing with depression or an illness. To others, mindfulness may simply be an approach used to encourage wellbeing in the workplace, help easily distracted students pay more attention in class, or decrease hostility among prison inmates. The term has evolved over the past decades to include a variety of meanings.

What would be a reasonable way to define a modern understanding of mindfulness, apart from its specific Buddhist context? Dictionary.com defines it as “a technique in which one focuses one’s full attention only on the present, experiencing thoughts, feelings, and sensations but not judging them.” Wikipedia describes it as “the practice of purposely bringing one’s attention in the present moment without judgment, a skill one develops through meditation or other training.”

The American Psychological Association describes mindfulness meditation as “training your attention to achieve a mental state of calm concentration and positive emotions.” The APA’s web site also indicates that there are two steps to this technique: turning your attention to what is happening in the present moment and then accepting what you observe without judgment.

So where does the Catholic Church stand on mindfulness?

So far, the Church has not made an explicit statement—for or against—the concept of mindfulness. But, compared to the lifetime of the Church, this modern phenomenon is so new that it hardly merits analysis in a Vatican document. At least not yet.

Catholic perspectives on mindfulness

Today there are faithful Catholics who strongly support mindfulness as a technique which can benefit people in their everyday lives. For example, Dr. Greg Bottaro authored a popular book advocating the practice, encouraging Catholics to “find God one moment at a time” through mindfulness. Dr. Kevin Majeres, who works in the field of cognitive-behavioral psychiatry, also recommends mindfulness techniques to help us to better relate to our emotions and thoughts.

Our modern culture, unlike Catholicism, does not see each human being as a composite of body and soul. Instead, our materialistic culture tends to believe that our bodies are a mere conglomeration of cells and generally teaches that there is no such thing as a soul. Since so many people in our world today are trapped in this distorted understanding of what a human being is, mindfulness’ emphasis on becoming aware of one’s physical body in the present moment may help people recognize that their physical bodies really do affect their emotional state and vice versa.

On the other hand, Catholic author Susan Brinkmann has written a book which is very critical of mindfulness; it describes mindfulness’ origins, its recent popularity, and the problems caused by the differences between the Buddhist aspects of mindfulness and Catholic spirituality. Catholic writer K. V. Turley recently pointed to a 1989 Vatican document issued by the office of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. This document warns Catholics to beware of the religious fusion of Eastern methods of meditation with Christian meditation, which sounds a lot like today’s mindfulness. Daniel Burke, another Catholic author and a former chief operating officer of EWTN News, describes the limitations of mindfulness with respect to the Catholic mystical tradition in this video.

On the other hand, the apologists on staff at Catholic Answers offer this succinct summary of both sides of the argument:

Mindfulness as a natural technique has both advocates and critics in Catholic circles. Some think that it is inherently dangerous, whereas others believe it can be integrated into Christian practice.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this public discussion of mindfulness from a Catholic perspective is that both sides tend to present only one side of the issue. Catholics who promote mindfulness emphasize how effective it is and how it can be utilized in a manner that is compatible with the Catholic faith, but they sometimes fail to acknowledge the possible dangers resulting from its Buddhist origins. Catholics who discourage the practice of mindfulness accurately focus on the dangers of a practice which comes from an atheistic religion, but they sometimes fail to recognize that some aspects of a psychological technique may be morally neutral.

Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a two-part essay. Part 2 will look at how we can evaluate this meditation technique based on a Catholic understanding of prayer.


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About Dawn Beutner 14 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year from Ignatius Press and blogs at dawnbeutner.com.

27 Comments

  1. The difference between mindfulness/centering-prayer/zen/quietism and authentic contemplative prayer is that the first class is totally self-powered by own efforts, and amounts to conjuring where one simply follows a recipe, to still the mind.

    Authentic prayer realizes that we can do nothing without the love and grace of God, that we are powerless to even desire this prayer without his prompting, much less accomplish anything in it, without his grace. All we can do is attempt to return the love he holds for us, and trust him to supply the rest. The key is love, the key is God who IS love.

    Authentic contemplative prayer centers on simply reaching out and in to God with love, and letting go of anything else which intrudes. This includes desires for exceptional states of consciousness, which only God gifts in his own good time. The other prior mentioned methods have this altered state as the aim. And that is greed, not love, and following such while thinking it authentic is plain dangerous.

    For a primer on the aims of Christian life which is a life of prayer, see Father Gabriel Diefenbach’s 1947 “Common Mystic Prayer”, for an excruciatingly detailed and lengthy treatment including exercises see Father Augustine Baker’s 1600s “Sancta Sophia/Holy Wisdom”, and for a highly readable how-to, the classic Anon.1200s “The Cloud Of Unknowing” and companion “Book of Privy Counsel”. All three deal thoroughly with attempts to manufacture a religious experience by merely following techniques.

  2. PS to above comment.
    The first and greatest commandment is not “Thou shalt still thy mind” and second is not “Thou shalt still the mind of thy neighbor”.

    Instead, it is “Thou shalt love the lord thy God with ALL thy strength, ALL thy heart and ALL soul”, which when done and us tapped into that divine love, allows us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Without loving God first, the second is always tainted by own selfish greed for what we get out of that “love”.

    Granted, authentic contemplative prayer DOES still the mind, granted techniques are nearly identical, such as concentrating on a single word such as Love or God while breathing to dispel distractions, but the heart of our prayer is a blind stirring of love for the beloved, and NOT for what we can get out of the deal. If lacking in this love, as most are, pray earnestly for God to supply it, as our every instant is in his loving hands.

  3. Instead of self-annihilating (e.g., Buddhist) or non-judgmental “mindfulness” in the “present moment,” Jean-Pierre de Caussade preached the “sacrament of the present moment.” By which he meant not generic and possible escapism (?) of some sort, but rather that “for most people the best way to achieve perfection is to submit to ALL (caps added) that God wills for their particular way of life.”

    This “moment” is very highly varied. We surrender our countless moments to the influence of grace, not to a pacifying technique.

    It is likely that St. Therese was influenced by Jean-Pierre. As one example, even her analogy of Christ’s arms as being “the elevator which must raise me to the heavens” seems to recall this: “Let us acknowledge that we are incapable of becoming holy by our own efforts, and put our trust in God, who would not have taken away our ability to walk unless he was to carry us in his arms” (Abandonment to Divine Providence, 1861, Ch. VI, 2).

  4. St. Teresa of Avila wrote this: “I watch my understanding, and leave it alone to see what it will do. Glory be to God, for a wonder, it never runs on what is wrong, but only on indifferent things, considering what is going on here, or there, or elsewhere.” (“Life”, 30, 19) Is this a form of mindfulness?

  5. Suspension of judgment, the first principle of mindfulness is detrimental to our inborn moral nature. Peace acquired by this self induced suppression of our apprehension of good and evil opens us to amorality. Dawn Beutner presents a good overview with what Cardinal Ratzinger warned as a fusion of Eastern and Christian meditation. Beutner cites the danger of its origins with atheistic Buddhism. For the Buddhist meditation suspends judgment, visualizing all as good. Evil is consequently the emotive consequence of judgment. Concerns that cause anxiety and depression. Although, she adds “Catholics who oppose mindfulness sometimes fail to recognize that some aspects of a psychological technique may be morally neutral”. Out of interest she’d help to explain. For the reader I recommend an abbreviated easy to follow work on Christian contemplation by Saint John of the Cross titled The Living Flame of Love. We are created to love the true good that is God. He is our peace.

    • Mindfulness does not involve suppressing anything, let alone suppressing an understanding of good and evil. And the “goal” of mindfulness practice is not inducing peace. These assertions represent a fundamental misunderstanding of mindfulness.

      • If mindfulness doesn’t propose suspension of judgment to appreciate the present, then quote an authoritative source that denies suspension of judgment. Simply calling someone out saying they’re wrong is suspension of common sense.

        • Having run mindfulness groups for cancer patients, individuals struggling with chronic pain conditions, and those battling addictions, I can say unequivocally that the mindfulness that is practiced in medical settings to help people is not even remotely related to anything that you have asserted. Unlike you, I am familiar with the growing body of empirical research that defines the concept of mindfulness and applies its practice effectively and ethically to a wide range of conditions and situations. There is nothing inherently evil or problematic about helping people be more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and bodies and be more fully present to their lives as they are actually unfolding. If anything, basic mindfulness allows people to be more aware of their thought processes, not less.

          • Thomas there are features of mindfulness such as you describe, therapeutic awareness that benefits persons. My experience in medical centers relates to some of what you refer to, though not specifically mindfulness. I drew my understanding from Psychology Today, “To live mindfully is to live in the moment and reawaken oneself to the present, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. To be mindful is to observe and label thoughts, feelings, sensations in the body in an objective manner. Mindfulness can therefore be a tool to avoid self-criticism and judgment while identifying and managing difficult emotions. Mindfulness is rooted in Buddhist and Hindu teachings. Buddhism includes a journey toward enlightenment, and the concept of sati, —which encompasses attention, awareness, and being present—is considered the first step toward enlightenment. The term was roughly translated from the ancient language Pali into the term mindfulness” (Psychology Today). For my work as a priest “dwelling on the past” involves judgments some of which are harmful, example a PTSD patient, who virtually unaware related his sense of guilt to his fathers’ harshness. And there are legitimate moral judgments related to mental well being that mustn’t be displaced, which frequently happens when a prejudiced therapist is involved. Ms Beutner refers to features of mindfulness that can be therapeutic. And undoubtedly there are various interpretations. I have no issue with what you described.

          • Also, Thomas, there is something for you to consider, a type of catch 22, “I am familiar with the growing body of empirical research that defines the concept of mindfulness and applies its practice effectively and ethically to a wide range of conditions and situations”. Empirical research that defines the concept. What might that be regarding a definitive conceptualization if the concept is not first defined? Is it randomly choosing perceived positive outcomes in a transient body of knowledge to fit a preconception? For example, in my quality management experience for chaplain service I might cite positive outcomes, earlier than expected discharge, improved emotional bearing due to pastoral care. Although to definitively prove that empirically is not possible because of other variables, assuming your patients like mine are being treated by other disciplines, and have their own recuperative capacity that may have at least contributed. That’s similar to adverse reaction to a vaccine that can only be inferred due to proximity not cause. The best we may infer from a therapeutic methodology is contribution not cause.

      • The article’s point about only presenting both sides of the argument is illustrated well in a lot of these comments. Many of them assume from the start that mindfulness = Buddhism-lite, and denounce a straw man. Others prove too much, and a lot of the arguments against mindfulness are really arguments against all therapy, counseling and psychology…as if not just the concept of mindfulness but the concept of mental health itself were un-Christian!!

    • It may be helpful to use a relativelty recent Catholic and scholarly translation of the works of St. John of the Cross, rather than something now in the pubic domain produced years ago with limited scholarly resourses:

      From The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD:

      Includes The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night, The Spiritual Canticle, The Living Flame of Love, Letters, and The Minor Works

      (paperback)
      Revised edition (1991)

      Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD and
      Otilio Rodriguez, OCD

      This revised edition of The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross was produced to mark the fourth centenary of the death of St. John of the Cross (1542–1591). The result is an English translation of his writings that preserves the authentic meaning of the great mystic’s writings, presents them as clearly as possible, and at the same time gives the reader the doctrinal and historical information that will lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the teachings of the Mystical Doctor.

      Included in The Collected Works are St. John’s poetry, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love, as well as his extant letters and other counsels.

      ICS code: ICS-JJ
      Format: paperback
      Pages: 814
      ISBN: 978-0-935216-14-1

      • I find your post, in effect an advertisement, highly off-putting in this context. Do you make money off the sale of this book? Are you after what is essentially free advertising and thus morally unjust when not offered by CWR? You add nothing to the conversation other than your own hope of gain.

  6. I suppose it important to mention how this ties into the Christian vocation and eternity.

    We exist for one purpose, to love God, and all of life is a school from which we all graduate ready or not, and the one lesson we are to learn in this school is to love God as he loves us, totally and completely, as best as possible in this life.

    Lovers share EVERYthing with one another, and our Divine Lover, who loves us into existence every nano-second, whose love knows no limits, not time, not space, shares all that he is with us, including eternity, so long as we are totally united and bound to him in love.

    In addition, there is nothing in the intellect which can encompass God, nor in the imagination in the case of trying to force an experience of God through some manner of self-generated exertion in a technique. To follow those is delusion which ends with this life. The one power we have which is capable of knowing God is in love, and for this we were made.

    And it makes no difference when in time one finally manages to arrive at this, it only takes an instant, so long as one applies themselves, so do not despair if a late starter. The more you attempt this, the easier it becomes, and the goal is to live in this love, “to pray constantly”, every moment of our lives, united to God in love, a saint. You start that road to perfection here, and complete it in eternity.

  7. What the Holy Spirit instructs through Scripture:

    Psalm 1:1-3
    Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
    nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
    but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.
    He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season,
    and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.

    Psalm 63:5-7
    My soul is feasted as with marrow and fat, and my mouth praises thee with joyful lips,
    when I think of thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the watches of the night;
    for thou hast been my help, and in the shadow of thy wings I sing for joy.

    Philippians 4:8
    Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

    Colossians 3:1-3
    If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.

    Matthew 6:32-34
    For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.
    “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.

  8. I have successfully used a Mindfulness tape– exactly like a Relaxation tape– for stress and anxiety relief, and insomnia, as well as pain control. I was in a traumatic accident long ago, when young– and was allergic to pain medication– quite a “cross to bear!” Regular use of the Mindfulness tape has produced excellent results! It is a very simple thing to use. The tape guides you through a sequence to relax your breathing, relax each body part, let go of your worries and fears, relax your mind, don’t think about anything, just focus on the tape’s instructions. When you are finished, you feel deeply relaxed, and so much better! (I often fall into a deep sleep, though!) When you get up, you feel refreshed, able to easily focus on whatever you have to do, make good decisions and good judgments, and feel easily accepting of self and others– much better frame of mind! With being more relaxed, it helps me with pain and inflammation of old wounds, from my past accident. It has nothing to do with meditation, prayer, and God. Except– God is everywhere in life– and He is the great Healer, Health-Giver, and the Source of all Life! He guides the doctor’s healing hands, He led St. Bernadette to the healing waters of Lourdes, He can help each of us with our health and healing needs. Prayer is a separate part of my life, a serious and intentional focus on being with God, talking to Him, listening to Him, happy and joyful to sometimes receive His loving consolations. Relaxation is not prayer, though! Except, God helps in all healing endeavors! As for Mindfulness originating in Buddhism– I do not care what a Buddhist monk does! I know that things like fasting, prayer, penance, meditating, practicing virtue, and doing good works to help others, are common to all world religions. I never compare what people of different religions do, I just admire good people of various world religions, whom I may meet. I have long ago read all the great books by the great Catholic Saints– fine for them, if God led them to these beautiful and lofty heights of Contemplative Prayer and Divine Union! Sounds wonderful! But He is not leading me in that direction! It’s not what most of us are called to! So, whether I use a tape labelled “Relaxation” or “Mindfulness,” and whoever made it up– that’s fine with me, it works! I think the actual “doing” of this kind of thing, is much better than “intellectualizing” about it!

    • I will just say one more thing. When you are more relaxed, and feeling better, in mind and body, it helps you to do anything better, including prayer, and reception of the Sacraments. And if you feel that God is calling you to be still with Him in the Divine Presence and meditate, it is good to be relaxed, first. I have found that it is very difficult to attend Mass, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, say the Rosary, or do anything in the church– if I am in terrible pain, or not feeling well, in mind or body. My Mindfulness or Relaxation tape has been a big help to me, for a long time!

      • Experts in fields related to the mind-body connection, healing of trauma, pain management, and health and healing, all acknowledge that the neurological connections between body and mind are very complex, and not completely understood. Highly trained and skilled therapists in various body-mind healthcare fields, cannot do everything. In the end, best to also have things you can do for yourself, at home. When people try simple exercises that progressively relax the mind and body, focusing and becoming more aware (more “Mindful”) of breathing, and of pain and stress in certain areas, making gentle movements and adjustments– progressively tensing and relaxing different muscle groups, slowly, from head to toe– you will probably find greater relaxation, improved health, and some pain relief, overall. Sometimes, you may also find that totally different parts of the body were interconnected to the parts with pain and stress, strangely, and to find greater relief of pain and stress in one part, may also likewise positively affect other parts of the body, with some healing benefits, for unknown reasons. The brain interprets different neurological signals in ways not completely understood– and sometimes, pain relief can occur in very unique ways. As I am allergic to pain medications, I am happy to have some “natural” pain relief and more relaxation and health, with this simple “Mindfulness” or “Relaxation” method. Just to lie down and relax for maybe a half hour, perhaps in the early afternoon, each day, whether you do a “Mindfulness” or “Relaxation” session or not– may be very beneficial to health.

      • I would not call an exercise in “Relaxation” or “Mindfulness” (focusing, becoming aware of your feelings, in body or mind) as being connected to God and religion, in any way.
        But to sit or kneel quietly in church, making a Visit to the Blessed Sacrament, or participating in Adoration– and to be intentionally quiet and still, focused on God and prayer, relaxing and listening to God, allowing God to lead you in any way He chooses– that is totally different. That is a religious exercise!

  9. I’m not familiar with Dr. Majeres, but I did read Dr. Bottaro’s book, and he did not fail to acknowledge the possible dangers resulting from its Buddhist origins. He devoted some pages tackling that issue head-on. In my own opinion, he successfully refuted and debunked the “possible dangers” side of the argument being pushed by Brinkmann and others.

    I think the “Buddhist origins” part of the argument also needs to be debunked. Many definitions of mindfulness such as the above one are purely psychological: “in which one focuses one’s full attention only on the present, experiencing thoughts, feelings, and sensations but not judging them.” That’s not a definition stripped of Buddhist features; it’s a statement that mindfulness is a **trait of the human psyche itself** as old as the human race itself. At the risk of disrespect to the Buddhists, if an Eastern civilization centuries ago discovered this ability of the human mind, and decided to build a philosophy and religion around it, why should that be our problem? If mindfulness really is nothing other than than a potential skill that is equally present in all human minds — an aspect of our common human nature created by God — then one must necessarily admit that it doesn’t “belong to” Buddhism. It never did.

  10. “ feel easily accepting of self and others–”

    Which may or may not be a good thing, depending what self and others are doing.

    • Sorry, you are reading way too much into a very simple statement– and making very false, negative assumptions! When you take an exercise class, listen to a relaxation tape, or simply get a good night’s sleep and feel relaxed and refreshed– you are more at ease with yourself and others, less irritable– nicer to be around, too! That’s all!

      • Thank you for clarifying what you meant. I didn’t make “false, negative assumptions” I made no assumptions at all, simply commented on what seemed a straightforward statement.

  11. For Fr. Peter Morello: To illustrate further your point of “various interpretations,” the term “sati” which “encompasses attention, awareness and being present” ALSO means this:

    “Sati or suttee was a historical Hindu practice in which a widow sacrificed herself by sitting atop her deceased husband’s funeral pyre” (Wikipedia). I missed this simple side point in a graduate-level course final exam on the Politics of South Asia(India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the then-new Bangladesh), lo, exactly five decades ago, and still cannot forget.

    • As to being present, Sati has the nuance of some personal projection that as you well suggest can’t be disconnected from contemporary mindfulness self awareness as therapy. It may be beneficial, and may not depending on the person’s psychological state. It seems Benedict XVI had issues like this in mind when he cautioned. Most Indian religious practice is psychology, but psychology deeply influenced by long held cultural practice and traditions.

      • Not a straw man. I was simply noting with a touch of needed levity, that words (many words!) lend themselves to multiple interpretations. More seriously and historically, take “makusatsu,” for example, with its tragic results. The word was translated to mean the WWII Japanese were ignoring the US instead of that they were, perhaps, reserving comments from the US when the Japanese were given an ultimatum to surrender.

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