Recently there have been one or two threads of concern popping up in regard to my teaching of Catholic Mindfulness. As my concern is always to lead people towards greater flourishing through a deepening encounter with Christ, I publish my response here to one such concerned author. I hope this is received in a spirit of charity and openness to truth as that is how it is being written.
The text from the original post appears in [green] and my response in black.
Why am I addressing mindfulness again so soon? “Catholic mindfulness” is currently being marketed vigorously all over the internet. Readers have forwarded unsolicited emails from Catholic sites promoting mindfulness. Easter Tuesday, I received an email from Ascension Press about a podcast on the subject. The podcast was from a two-part interview with Dr. Gregory Bottaro, who has created an online “Catholic mindfulness” program.
It is very concerning to see this from Ascension Press. They are (up until now) one of the most reliably sound Catholic publishers in the U.S. Others have voiced their concerns about “Catholic mindfulness” with the publisher. I have been told Ascension received the criticism well. But I have been unable to find any public retraction. When I just checked Ascension’s Facebook page, I found their post on mindfulness still there, with 25 likes and some shares. How many of Ascension’s subscribers, Facebook friends, and other followers saw them promoting this course? Without a public correction, many of these people may be led astray.
My purpose is not to slam Ascension Press, nor to make a personal attack against Dr. Bottaro. I do think a response is needed, however.
To begin, I am disheartened that no effort was made to contact me directly from the author of this blog. I work closely with Ascension, they are (still) one of the most reliably sound Catholic publishers in the U.S. I happen to know the one detractor who voiced his concern to Ascension. He also published quite publicly his “concerns” about my work. In a spirit of charity I reached out directly to him and still have not, to date, written anything naming him publicly.
The most concerning thing is that the theologian who is so publicly speaking out about my work, as well as the author of this blog (whom I assume to be in contact with him based on her points below), have both admittedly not actually taken the course on Catholic Mindfulness! They go on equating my work with the dangerously destructive era of “Centering Prayer,” which taps into a whole epoch of recent Church history that involves gross disobedience to Church authority, without having done the due diligence of actually researching my work.
The author of this blog, however, does comment directly on a short ebook that I wrote to introduce the idea of Catholic Mindfulness. I appreciate her attempt to look critically at some of my actual work. I also appreciate the opportunity to tweak my work in the ways that I have fallen short. In all of my classes, through all of my work, I am constantly asking my students (and patients) for critical feedback so that I can continue to grow in my own way of understanding and teaching. It is often difficult to find people to give me critical feedback and so I am authentically grateful for her work here. Let’s move on…
Parallels with Centering Prayer
I am concerned that the “Catholic mindfulness” movement is today where the Centering Prayer movement was thirty years ago. Centering Prayer is now practiced at parishes throughout the nation and the world. So many people have been led astray! I am too young to have spoken up about the practice in the 1980s. Today I have an opportunity to stop history from repeating itself with another New Age meditation form being “married” to Catholic spirituality. I must speak.
There is an appropriate emotional response to the Centering Prayer/Transcendental Meditation movement because of how much it has lead people astray, but that is not appropriately equated with Catholic Mindfulness. Centering Prayer as a movement arose during a time of total chaos in the church and there is a lot of negativity that came with its practice. One can speak of the practice of psychology in the same way (rightfully so). As a Catholic Psychologist, I work against the errors that came post-Vatican II to lead people away from Christ- including the kind of “self actualization” that has always lead people away from Truth. Centering Prayer very easily became part of that. It is nothing like my presentation of Catholic Mindfulness.
The Trappist monks who created Centering Prayer were no doubt well-meaning. I believe Dr. Bottaro is as well. Being well-meaning does not guarantee that one will not be led astray or lead others astray.
Fr. Thomas Keating and the other promoters of Centering Prayer claim that it is part of the Christian tradition of contemplation. They essentially took an Eastern meditation form and sold it as identical with, or in the same vein as, the teaching of the Fathers and saints. They were wrong. All the good intentions and use of Christian terms cannot change the fact that Centering Prayer is not prayer. It should never be taught at Catholic parishes.
Dr. Bottaro is now doing something similar with mindfulness. He has taken an Eastern meditation technique and made claims that “mindfulness is Catholic.” Let’s look briefly at some of the errors in his work. Please note that I have not taken Dr. Bottaro’s course, although I am in dialog with others who have (some of whom have had an extended conversation with Bottaro about their concerns). I have read a preview of the course, plus his free download, 10 Things You Need to Know About Catholic Mindfulness, and various other articles online, as well as listening to the podcast. I will restrict my comments to the material I have encountered myself.
Once again, it is not an argument against Catholic Mindfulness to equate it to the errors of Centering Prayer. I am not “doing something similar” as anyone who takes the course will immediately realize. I clarify the difference from the first step between “meditation” and “exercise.” Catholic Mindfulness teaches a series of brain exercises, and is in no way to be understood as prayer. “Centering Prayer” is clearly trying to make itself known as prayer.
The confusion may come from the fact that I immediately bring prayer into the program. As I explain in my defense of Mindfulness as Catholic, there are two reasons why one might believe these brain exercises work. (There is indisputable scientific evidence that they work). Some might believe they work because all being is unified and the self is an illusion (the Buddhist worldview), or one might believe they work because we have a God who is a loving Father whom we can trust to take care of us (the Catholic worldview).
Because the Catholic worldview is where I practice from, I immediately bring the reality of the Father who loves us into the course. We do lots of praying during the course. The whole thing is entrusted to the intercession of St. Therese and St. Teresa of Avila. I launched the course on October 1. I weave teachings of the saints into all the material, and we pray before and after each exercise we are practicing. There is lots of prayer while learning Catholic Mindfulness- but the mindfulness itself is not the prayer.
Others who practice mindfulness exercises might call their practice “meditation.” We as Catholics know this to be a misuse of the word. (Words matter as I will comment on later). Most people in our culture today think that being quiet and breathing is a “meditation.” We have a rich and robust history of what meditation actually means. This author seems to be familiar with Carmelite spirituality, so we don’t have to look further than St. Teresa or St. John to know that there is a definition of “meditation” that requires more than simply being quiet. Culture today, however, has none of this. In its poverty, people of today simply stop talking and think it equals meditation. Silence is not the same as meditation. Breathing is not the same as meditation. Mindfulness exercises are not the same as meditation.
Mindfulness and Yoga
Bottaro is aware that mindfulness is usually associated with Eastern religions. One of his “10 Things” is titled “It is not Eastern or Buddhist.” His arguments fail to convince me.
He contrasts mindfulness with Yoga, saying:
“Yoga is a part of Eastern practice that is also connected to a Buddhist philosophy. Essentially, Yoga is a series of movements of the body with the purpose of bringing the mind to a certain place. That place is indicated by the word ‘Yoga’ because Yoga in Sanskrit means ‘Union.’ The Buddhist philosophy is that all being is unified, and the sense of division within being is an illusion.”
Yoga originated as a Hindu practice, long before Buddhism appeared (although some Buddhists may practice Yoga). Bottaro does not seem to recognize that there is a distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism. It is difficult to place confidence in his statement that “mindfulness is not Eastern” when his grasp of Eastern religions appears shallow.
I appreciate this distinction and a need to clarify my words. The ebook I wrote was meant to be a quick introduction and I didn’t spend enough time editing it for clarity- so thank you! My point here was to clarify something about the word “yoga,” not the reality of the practice itself or its history. I am also more interested in disentangling the words related to Buddhism, since the arguments and concerns revolve around the fact that mindfulness is found in Buddhism.
“Obviously this is directly contrary to a Christian philosophy. We believe each one of us is made with unique dignity, in the image of God. Our individuality is not an illusion but an objective reality. We will exist for eternity as individual persons. Since the word ‘Yoga’ directly translates to the Buddhist philosophy, it cannot be presented in a Catholic way. Though there are many who try, ‘Catholic Yoga’ simply can’t exist. It is a contradiction in terms.”
He goes on to say that the term “body movement” is not essentially Eastern, and concludes, “Mindfulness, then, would be more like the word ‘body movement’ and not like using the word ‘Yoga.’”
I see several problems here:
Bottaro provides a conclusion without giving any evidence why the term “mindfulness” is more like “body movement” than “Yoga.”
The evidence is that the word “Yoga” has a specific connotation. The word itself has a meaning, not simply “union” but Hindu/Buddhist “union,” which means everything else is an illusion. “Body movement” would be an analogous way to describe what you might be doing physically in a Yoga practice but stripping it of it’s Hindu connotation and practice. Therefore “mindfulness,” which is a word that describes a mental process and not a whole worldview connotation in itself, is more like saying “Body Movement” than it is like saying “Yoga.” While Buddhists can use the word “mindfulness,” whether in sanskrit or english or any other language, there is nothing implying the Buddhist or Hindu philosophy within the word itself.
Would the term “Yoga” be okay if it were translated to English? After all, “union” is a Christian concept too.
If the term meant “Union and Separateness” as would be consistent with a Christian worldview, there would be no problem. That’s not what “Yoga” means though, so “Yoga” is problematic.
What if the popular term for “mindfulness” was a non-English word?
It doesn’t matter what language it’s in, it matters what the word means.
“Mindfulness” is one of the steps towards enlightenment in Buddhism.
Yes that is true, and so is “Right Action,” and “Right Speech.” This is a point I have yet to get a response from the aforementioned theologian on. As Catholics we have a system of virtue theory and moral development, which includes acting well and speaking well. The first steps on the path to Buddhist enlightenment also include “Right Action” and “Right Speech.” If you read what the Buddhist philosophy means by this, you might think you were reading St. Thomas Aquinas. Just because something is found in another worldview doesn’t make it automatically wrong. Just because mindfulness is a step towards enlightenment when used in the Buddhist system doesn’t automatically make it wrong. One would have to look carefully at what the thing actually is before being able to make a judgment on it. Right Action and Right Speech are also steps towards Buddhist enlightenment, does that mean it is wrong to practice them? Quite the contrary. Buddhists have simply observed something about human nature and applied it to their own worldview. Just because we disagree with their ultimate worldview doesn’t mean that we disagree with their observation of humanity as it relates to Right Speech and Right Action. In fact, we as Christians understand the vital importance of Right Speech and Right Action to living the Gospel life. It is the same with Mindfulness. Buddhists have observed that being more aware of the present moment is good for humanity. Christians have understood that being more aware of the present moment is good for humanity. There need not be a conflict here. (Until you look further along the path to the ultimate goals of each).
Are we primarily concerned with terms or with the substance of the practice?
We need to be concerned with both! Terms relate to the substance, and we need to be open to understanding both. One could possibly add stretching the body to forms of prayer (SoulCore or Pietra Fitness), but why would you call it “Yoga” if you understood what the word “Yoga” actually means?
The term “mindfulness” means very simply “paying attention.” There’s nothing esoteric or secret about it. Mindfulness, as a thing in itself, is simply paying attention. It can be utilized in a Buddhist worldview, or it can be utilized in a Christian worldview (as it has been for centuries).
More directly related to my work is something called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This is a specific 8 week protocol that is used in many applications to help people relieve the suffering in their life. As a Catholic psychologist, I am always looking for ways to help people actually grow through working on changing oneself instead of just popping a pill. Yes, sometimes medication is necessary, but I think as a whole our culture is over medicated. MBSR teaches people how to correct difficulties in their lives by changing the way they think and perceive the world and themselves. I bring this up because here because I want to be clear on my terms. When I talk about Mindfulness, I am being even more specific to mean the application of mindfulness as found in MBSR.
MBSR, by the way, has been used for 30 years in many clinical contexts. It is taught at Divine Mercy University, a very well established and trusted Catholic program of psychology and counseling, and the scientific proof of how well it works cannot be denied. If it works, we need to look very carefully at it. It either works because it is consistent with our humanity as God created us, or it may work because of supernatural demonic influence (this is known to happen with misleading “treatments”). If it works through demonic influence, we would need to take this very seriously and be very clear speaking out about it (as we do things like Reiki or the Enneagram or Voodoo Syncretism). If it works because it is consistent with our humanity in Christ, we need to not demonize it. Wouldn’t that be something a faithful Catholic should be pretty cautious about? Catholics need to be just as energetic about not demonizing things of God as we are demonizing things of demons.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction works, and it works because it teaches us how to be more human, the way God created us to be. If someone suffers from some disorder, it can help them, and it can also help everyone who is trying to be more human.
This point constitutes his whole argument (in the ebook) as to why mindfulness “is not Eastern or Buddhist.”
Again, the argument was concerning the actual word “mindfulness,” not the practice as a whole.
Illusions and empty minds
His next point is that “There are some forms of Mindfulness to avoid.” He writes in part:
“The ultimate danger to Buddhist Mindfulness for a Christian [sic] is moving towards the belief that the self and God are illusions. This may be subtle or overt. In one of the trainings I have attended for Mindfulness lead by a well-known practitioner, there was a specific module titled, ‘The Self Is An Illusion.’ I was grateful for the clarity of his teaching as he labeled exactly where his philosophy was coming from. Unfortunately, not every mindfulness exercise you look up on YouTube is going to be as clear. Many are very good at leaving out any reference to this question, but some do not.”
Again, I see some problems here:
I am not arguing against all forms of Eastern meditation in my explanation, but specifically against Buddhism. Buddhism is a philosophy more than a religion, and if it needed to be fit into a religious definition it would be more like atheism than anything Hindu. Again, the greatest danger to Buddhism is to end up believing that God is not distinct from you and I- that ultimately everything is the same oneness. This is another flavor of believing that God does not exist.
Bottaro’s promotion of “Catholic mindfulness” may embolden Catholics to attend a training like the one he mentions, and thus fall into serious theological errors.
This is the most consistent argument offered by the theologian I corresponded with, and frankly, it’s pretty patronizing. We need to be careful to not assume people can’t or won’t think for themselves. In my previous correspondence, the point was made that if it weren’t for the internet, Catholic Mindfulness might not be so dangerous. The mentality in this point seems to say the same thing. I like to give people a little more credit and provide the tools to discern what is of God and what is not instead of seeing myself as some sort of net nanny whose job it is to protect the “faithful” who are not capable of discerning for themselves.
Furthermore – and this is what I simply can’t get my head around when it comes to Catholics who like to “speak out” against things like this – part of my work is to help people avoid this very danger! Mindfulness is blowing up all over the place! There is mindfulness everywhere, and people are looking into it. People are going to the trainings, and as it stands, there are a lot of Buddhist teachings being promulgated through them. The whole point here is to take that interest and parley it into a deepening of Christian faith! People take my course because they are interested in mindfulness, and they leave the course having a greater encounter with the Father who loves them. Faithful Catholics who have not figured out how to stop worrying about their kids, or their job, or their sickness, or any myriad of issues realize that they need to connect their faith to their emotional life. It is not enough to simply act faithful in spiritual matters, but to let faith in God permeate every part of our daily lives. That is what Catholic Mindfulness teaches. Whether I created it or not, I would certainly be trying to get more people to take a course like that.
On one Catholic site on which Bottaro was interviewed, a resource link under the post led to a site promoting Eastern meditation. It’s unclear whether Bottaro provided the link himself.
I did not provide that link. Thank you for tipping me off, I will explore further.
Mindfulness, like all Buddhist meditation, is ordered to seeing the self as an illusion. It promotes a Buddhist de-personalized detachment. This is true with or without a module on the self as an illusion.
With all due respect, this is simply not true, and there is no evidence that backs this up (nor could there be). Mindfulness simply means to pay attention. Paying attention does not give a judgment on what you are paying attention to. A worldview does. The Buddhist worldview sees the self as an illusion, and therefore judges what you are aware of in mindfulness as illusion. The Christian worldview sees the self as a reality, and therefore judges what you are aware of in mindfulness as real.
Bottaro’s next point is that “Mindfulness is Not Mind-emptiness.” I agree, but the point is irrelevant. Many Catholics associate “emptying the mind” with giving room to demons. They thus tend to focus their criticism of Eastern meditation on mind-emptying. Neither Vatican document on the New Age mentions “mind-emptying,” so it is not my primary concern.
It is a concern of many Catholics though, so that is why I included the point. There are some practices that try to help people clear their mind. Centering Prayer does that with a prayer word, many forms of Eastern practice do that with a “mantra,” but that is not what mindfulness is or what it does.
Besides, even Buddhists themselves would deny that meditation involves making the mind blank. Rather, they would say that it involves letting go of or eliminating certain types of thoughts.
Mindfulness does not say to let go or eliminate certain types of thoughts. That would be the opposite of mindfulness. She is correct that Buddhists would deny that mindfulness involves making the mind blank, because mindfulness, whether practiced by a Buddhist or a Catholic or any other worldview, simply means paying attention.
Centering Prayer advocates often argue the same thing: Centering Prayer doesn’t empty the mind; however, the practice involves setting aside all thoughts, which should result in what the average person would term an empty mind.
Those advocates seem to be contradicting themselves, don’t they? An average person would term that an empty mind! That is why Centering Prayer can be confusing and misleading. (The author and I agree on many things). Mindfulness, however, does not attempt to clear the mind. It does not attempt to “set aside all thoughts.” It is simply paying attention.
An altered consciousness
One of the Vatican documents does mention “mind expansion,” “consciousness,” and “awareness.” Here is where the real problem lies. As Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life states:
“The New Age offers a huge variety of techniques to help people reach a higher level of perceiving reality, a way of overcoming the separation between subjects and between subjects and objects in the knowing process, concluding in total fusion of what normal, inferior, awareness sees as separate or distinct realities.”
Mindfulness is a Buddhist technique designed to help accomplish these very ends. The Center for Mindfulness says:
“Mindfulness is a practice of present moment awareness. Mindfulness increases ability to see things as they arise clearly without judgment. Mindfulness facilitates both focusing and widening our attention as we become aware of ourselves and the world around us. The ‘goal’ is to be more fully present in our lives.”
I’m not sure how “being more fully present in our lives” equates with reaching a “higher level of perceiving reality, a way of overcoming the separation between subjects and between subjects and objects in the knowing process, concluding in total fusion of what normal, inferior, awareness sees as separate or distinct realities.”
To equate these two things is to make the error that I precisely described in the difference between a Buddhist and Christian worldview. For a Buddhist, reality is that all is one. For a Christian, we believe that there is the mysterious union of unity and diversity (the Trinitarian mystery). A Buddhist being more fully present in life as he sees it would be in error, a Christian being more fully present in life as he sees it would be experiencing a deeper encounter with truth. How is this an “altered consciousness?” If altering my consciousness means transforming it to be more in line with the revelation of Jesus Christ, then yes, sign me up.
Now, of course, there is nothing wrong with being “more fully present.” But mindfulness, as defined by the very people who first introduced it to the West as of possible medicinal benefit, is about changing one’s awareness, which plays a principle part in all forms of New Age meditation. Again, changing one’s awareness is not necessarily a problem in itself. It depends on what one’s awareness is changed from and to, and how. Does the mindfulness technique really make one more fully present? If so, more fully present to what? And why is that a good goal for Catholics?
Yes! The author is consistent with the teaching of Catholic Mindfulness here. This is exactly what Catholic Mindfulness is all about. More fully present to the reality of our world and our very selves as God created us!
Dr. Bottaro writes:
“Mindfulness does involve consciousness, so it is invisible, but it is not spiritual.” (The Present Moment: a Christian Approach to Mindfulness)
Eastern meditation techniques involve various means of altering one’s consciousness. In Centering Prayer, for example, one is supposed to become “aware” that one is already in union with God. This awareness comes about through operating at a subconscious rather than a conscious level during one’s centering time.
This is not Mindfulness so there’s no argument to respond to here.
The “ultimate goal of all Buddhist teaching,” according to Buddhism for Dummies, is “waking up to the truth of your authentic being, your innermost nature.” This awakening is enlightenment. Enlightenment requires a change of consciousness.
This is not Catholic Mindfulness so there’s no argument to respond to here.
Mindfulness focuses on details of life that the subconscious mind usually notes, but that the conscious mind often considers beneath its notice. Now, some of what we don’t normally notice, we should be noticing. For example, if you usually tune people out when they are talking to you, you should work on changing that. On the other hand, some things should normally remain beneath our conscious notice. We should not always be aware of our heart beating, blood pulsing through our veins, blinking, and other involuntary bodily functions, for example. The human mind was made for greater things.
Absolutely. This is a point I make in my course.
We should also ask, is it helpful or healthy from a Catholic spiritual standpoint to always be aware of the sights and sounds around us? What about during personal prayer, for example? What if the Holy Spirit inspires us with a thought or feeling and we turn away from it in an effort to practice mindfulness?
Absolutely. This is a point I make in my course.
In Christianity, our transformation is not primarily one of consciousness but of sanctification. Being more aware of the present moment does not make one holier. If mindfulness has truly been secularized, as Bottaro insists, associating it with the writings of the saints does not make it Catholic unless the practice itself is changed. And then, why cling to a term with Buddhist associations?
Absolutely! This is also a point I make in my course. However, to the last sentence, I will only say again that Right Action and Right Speech are also Buddhist. Why cling to terms with Buddhist associations? It’s because they aren’t intrinsically Buddhist- they are intrinsically human. Just because Buddhists also happen to have discovered truths about humanity doesn’t make those truths wrong, harmful, or not worth studying.
God versus the senses
Bottaro defines mindfulness this way:
“The practice of mindfulness is simply learning how to control our focus so that instead of paying attention to the fantasies we create in our imagination, we pay attention to the reality that is occurring outside of the space between our two ears. Mindfulness means ‘coming to our senses.’ It is a way of plugging ourselves into reality instead of letting the creations of our minds dictate what we pay attention to.” (Ibid., emphasis in the original.)
What if God wants us to spend some time in reflection, rather than paying attention to our (external) senses? What about the internal senses? They involve much more than the disparaging phrase “the fantasies we create in our imagination” implies. Both our external and internal senses are meant to lead us to God. He created both. Is Bottaro scorning the higher faculties of the soul?
Absolutely not! This is a point I make in my course. Mindfulness is an exercise. It helps with a certain chronic lack of focus that our culture suffers from pretty much globally. That doesn’t mean we always have to be practicing. It is like physical exercise. Just because it is good to do sometimes doesn’t mean you should always be doing it. However, just because it is good to rest, sit and read, converse with people, work, or create art, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also exercise at times. There are times we need to sit and dream. There are times we need to pray with the imagination. I teach a whole section on the imagination in the course. God gave us the ability to “create reality” in our mind that doesn’t correspond directly to this time and place. That is what gives us the ability to begin to connect with God himself who is beyond this time and place. We can also meditate on scriptures, examine our conscience, and do many other healthy things with our imagination.
This turning our focus away from our thoughts to our senses again reminds me of Centering Prayer. Of course, in Centering Prayer, one turns away from exterior and interior senses.
Of course. They are totally different.
But both it and mindfulness as presented by Bottaro, seem to sweep away too much.
Mindfulness doesn’t sweep away anything, it helps us turn towards reality, to become more aware. It is totally different from Centering Prayer.
As I have said many times in speaking of Centering Prayer, thoughts are not the problem for Christians. Thoughts are actually a good and necessary means of growing closer to God. Beasts share with us the external senses. It is the rational soul that raises us above the beasts.
Yes, and mindfulness helps us pay more attention to our thoughts (and everything else).
The means or the end?
“These two books teach us that trustful surrender to God, who is ever-present, actually leads to mindfulness. Christianity holds the key to true mindfulness.” (The Present Moment)
By saying trustful surrender leads to mindfulness, it seems as though he is making mindfulness the goal. We surrender to God in order to enter into greater intimacy with Him, in order to love Him more perfectly. We don’t make this surrender a means to the end of practicing mindfulness or reaping the physical or psychological benefits of mindfulness.
I wrote this line as a means of describing the study, not a person’s progression in the spiritual life. It seems that this author, as well as the previous correspondent, equate mindfulness with a way of growing spiritually, as if I was presenting a new “Interior Castle” or other manual for spiritual growth. I can understand how someone who is immersed in this kind of study can see other things through this lens. However, I make it very clear that mindfulness is a brain exercise. It is not meant to be a spiritual program. The end of mindfulness is to be more aware of one’s life. If a person is living in perpetual sin, that doesn’t mean he is going to be holier just because he is more aware of it. When I said “leads to” mindfulness, I was referring to the fact that we can see that “Awareness” is already in our spiritual tradition. Christianity gives the true and appropriate context for understanding what we need to be aware of. It also gives a fully integrated justification for why mindfulness would work as a brain exercise, as opposed to the Buddhist perspective.
This mistake appears to be repeated a few lines later:
“Practically speaking, instead of just saying, ‘I trust God,’ we can put our minds behind our words. When we ruminate about the past or future, churning worries or regrets over and over in our minds, we are acting as if we are in control and we need to figure everything out. If we want to make an act of trust in God, we can try to let go of that false control, and focus our minds on the realities of the present moment instead. This is how we practically ‘let go and let God.’ Integrated with a Christian understanding of the path to holiness, this is how we can experience true peace.” (Ibid.)
Are we seeking peace, or are we seeking God?
We need to be at peace when we are seeking God. Being at peace is how we know we are actually on the right path. I’m not talking about superficial lack-of-suffering when I talk about peace. Peace is the resonance we have in our soul when we are actually living according to God’s commandments. There is no true dichotomy between peace and God.
Think instead of the person who prays often, makes it to daily Mass, fasts and focuses on many spiritual things. But when Mass is cancelled one day, a host serves some food not part of the fasting regiment, or something else doesn’t go according to plan, he or she becomes agitated, distracted, anxious, or caught up in many thoughts. This person is not at peace, and I would say that this person is missing something when it comes to seeking God. It can also happen when children go a different path than we would like, or many other common and simple things that happen in the course of a person’s life. Maybe the author of this blog is more advanced than any of this in the spiritual/emotional life and doesn’t experience this kind of disintegration between her spiritual life and her daily emotional life. That is really great if true, but it doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t benefit from some practical means of getting control of the ruminating mind so as to turn it more easily to things of God.
Once again I see the parallel with Centering Prayer. Fr. Thomas Keating regularly speaks of Catholic dogma and spirituality as though they are only the means to personal fulfillment or enlightenment.
This is not what Catholic Mindfulness teaches.
We do need to relinquish control to God, but mindfulness is neither the needed means nor the end. How do these Christian classics, and the writings of the saints, tell us to make acts of trust in God? Not by “focus[ing] our minds on the realities of the present moment,” but by focusing our minds on Christ.
There are many Christian classics and writings of the saints that actually do teach us to focus our minds on the present. They have not developed the robustness of the MBSR program by integrating so much understanding of psychology, but they certainly do talk about focusing on the present moment. I have many quotes on my website.
For example, Jean-Pierre de Caussade writes in Abandonment to Divine Providence that for perfect union with God’s will two things are needed:
“firstly, the profound conviction that nothing happens in this world, in our souls or outside them, without the design or permission of God… secondly, the firm belief that through the all-powerful and paternal Providence of God, all that He wills or permits invariably turns to the advantage of those who practice this submission to His orders.”
There is nothing here about purposely (mindfully) paying attention to the world of the senses or discounting rumination.
This is the foundation of why mindfulness works. Again- I am not proposing mindfulness as the answer to all of life’s problems. It is simply a healthy exercise. It works precisely because of the above quoted two things that form the foundation of our Catholic worldview.
I am glad that Bottaro recommends these books. But the practice of mindfulness that he attaches to them is at best laying an added burden of mental exercises on those who are seeking God. For the average, healthy person, putting one’s trust fully in God brings an abiding peace, “the peace that passes understanding” (Phil. 4:7) — though that peace is never the goal. If Bottaro’s readers and clients read Fr. de Caussade’s work through the perspective of mindfulness, they risk distorting his meaning, stripping the book of its power to transform their lives.
I and countless others have experienced just the opposite. There are many beautiful spiritual writings that when read, inflame the heart. I’ve read Abandonment 10 or 12 times in my life and each time fills me with great consolation and spiritual motivation. The problem is that when I put it down and return to “life” the old wandering, ruminating mind comes back. The spiritual works are wonderful as spiritual works, but we need to integrate them into our life. When we come up with tools that make it possible to do so, it helps us apply the spiritual truths. Mindfulness is simply a tool, a brain exercise that trains our “focus muscle.” When we apply greater focus to the truths that we learn in Abandonment (or the Mass or the rosary or Eucharistic Adoration), we can only enter more deeply into the grace we receive from those prayers.
Something similar has already happened in the case of Centering Prayer. Fr. Keating claims that Centering Prayer is in the tradition of the Desert Fathers, saints, and especially The Cloud of Unknowing. Practitioners, most of whom never read the classic works of Catholic spirituality before their introduction to Centering Prayer, consistently misinterpret them in a New Age manner. They are unable to understand the true tradition and so benefit from the teaching of the saints.
This is one of my main concerns with the “Catholic mindfulness” course.
I have read those authors, along with many powerful writings against the New Age from the Church Magisterium and I am not interpreting anyone in a “New Age manner.”
Does everybody need it?
And that brings me to the final criticism of Bottaro’s work. I could say much more if I had the time, but this will have to be it for now.
I certainly hope the author reviews the actual material of Catholic Mindfulness before attempting to comment even further on it.
Bottaro’s first “Thing You Need to know About Mindfulness” is “You need it.” He is not promoting mindfulness just to the anxious or depressed or those with chronic pain, but to every Catholic, prescribing it for:
“anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addictions, insomnia, scrupulosity, anger, marital difficulties, parenting difficulties, spiritual difficulties, and a host of other problems. Mindfulness will help you to overcome normal stress, anxiety, exhaustion, and even depression.”
Parenting difficulties? Really? “A host of other problems?” And spiritual difficulties? Mind exercises to make me holier? I wish it were that simple. With Bottaro, mindfulness has evolved from a central practice of Buddhism, to a (supposedly) secular aid to dealing with chronic pain, to a secular stress reliever and booster of corporate productivity, to a Catholic cure for virtually everything, including spiritual difficulties.
Again, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction works. It works almost across the board. If it works because it is consistent with our creation as human beings in God’s image, then it will be good for everyone. However, I definitely never said the mindfulness will make anyone holier. Mindfulness will make you more aware. If you use that awareness to change your life and grow in holiness, than you can certainly say mindfulness was a tool that helped you on your journey. It is not, in itself, a prayer or a specific means to growing in holiness.
Catholics for the first twenty-one centuries of Christianity did not practice mindfulness. They did not need to. They had the teachings of the saints and other holy men and women. We still do. Why do we need mindfulness now?
One of my points in the course is that people in general for thousands of years did not need MBSR as they do today. This is because for thousands of years people were much more deeply connected to the present moment through normal life. The problem is that now, with the proliferation of technology, we are becoming more and more detached from the present moment. Hours upon hours are spent online, on phones, and not in real communion with people or nature. Our brains are affected by this. There is a massive increase in anxiety and depressive disorders, as well as undiagnosed increases in worry and depression, aimless, meaningless, and hopelessness, because of this change in culture. I’m not saying mindfulness is the cure, but it is a tool. Many times people who are depressed do not need a pill, they need to go hiking or camping for a week. Spending a week in nature can change someone’s whole emotional disposition. Camping without a phone. This is not mindfulness per se, but it is getting at the same thing mindfulness does.
Real Catholic alternatives to mindfulness
If you are looking for real Catholic aid to stop whirling, anxious, or harmful thoughts, here are a few suggestions.
When you are suffering, imagine yourself embracing a life-size cross, kissing it, and saying words of submission to God’s will.
To remember God throughout the day, practice saying a short prayer whenever you consult your watch or a clock.
To calm your fears, imagine the Divine Mercy image as you pray, “Jesus, I trust in you.”
When you find yourself thinking about meaningless things, picture the Eucharist in the monstrance and mentally bow before the Lord.
If you find your mind wandering when someone is talking to you, remind yourself that the speaker is made in God’s image and beloved of Him, and treat that person as you would treat Jesus Himself.
When your senses encounter anything beautiful, immediately thank God for it, then praise Him for His greatness, which is far beyond any beauty found in creation.
Practices like these will bring you closer to God. They will sanctify your whole day. As your intimacy with God grows, He will relieve your fear and anxiety (but I am not discounting the need for help with diagnosed psychological problems).
I think these are all wonderful suggestions. I hope to build a spirit of unity and communion acknowledging that we are working together here for the Kingdom of God. There is enough necessary divisiveness as it is in the world, that we don’t need to go creating more of it where it is unnecessary. The points of concern are well taken, and I have already edited parts of the course due to the original dialogue I had with the author’s friend. I am happy to continue to look for ways to revise my work to make it better and more in line with truth.
I will also add that you cannot seek to employ any one of these suggested interventions when you want to “stop whirling, anxious, or harmful thoughts” until you have become aware that they are there. Just know that when you do become aware of it and choose to employ one of these techniques, you are being mindful.
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