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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