Catholic Guide to Mindfulness

by Susan Brinkmann

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism


Several factors have contributed to the popularity of mindfulness among practicing Catholics including a wave of Catholic interest in Eastern spirituality following the wake of the writings by Father Thomas Merton, who traveled to Asia, where he kept a detailed journal, wherein he wrote such remarks as, “Our real journey in life is interior; it is a matter of growth, deepening and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.” Whether Merton intended his writings to inspire the mixing of Christian prayer and Buddhist meditation, many who followed after him published works that did just that. Others developed the same sense in their spiritual exercises. The author of this book engages the claim that mindfulness is non-religious; its founder, Kabat-Zinn, admits as much. This book reveals that the distinction between the “science” of psychology and the spiritual properties of human thought is not as easily determined as persons such as Kabat-Zinn insist in truth, the field of psychology and the supernatural realities known to Christians are often at odds, and this point is made in the introduction to the first volume of the eastern Christian spiritual classic, The Philokalia. This book does more than explore the differences between Christian spirituality and mindfulness; it also provides examples of Catholic methods of prayer that are deeply freeing for Christians, and also effective toward attaining authentic serenity and insight. The teachings of St. Teresa of Avila are discussed in the concluding chapter.

The author agrees on the definition that “Mindfulness is what arises when you pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, and as if your life depended on it.” Mindfulness is primarily a meditation technique it can also be practiced as simply disciplining yourself to pay attention to where you are, what you’re doing, and how you’re feeling at any given moment. The purpose of becoming more mindful is to learn how “to inhabit another domain of mind that we are, as a rule, fairly out of touch with.” The author describes different types of meditation such as expanding awareness meditation, breathing space meditation, and body scan meditation. Mindfulness, as it is practiced today in the West, is referred to as “secularized” yet even the pioneers of this secularization don’t hesitate to honor its Buddhist roots.

MBSR is now described as “a well-defined and systematic patient-centered educational approach that uses relatively intensive training in mindfulness meditation as the core of a program to teach people how to take better care of themselves and live healthier and more adaptive lives”. For Kabat-Zinn, the introduction of mindfulness into the American mindset, as well as the program he developed, was always about much more than just the relief of suffering. Even his patients realized this and would often explain, “This isn’t stressed reduction. This is my whole life.” As for instructors of MBSR, Kabat-Zinn believed that it would be ‘hugely helpful” if they had a strong personal grounding in the Buddhadharna and its teachings.

As of this writing, a whole “family” of mindfulness-based interventions has sprung up including Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy which was developed by Dr. Zindel Segal. The author points out several others that are in the same category. The question becomes: “How effective are these programs? Are they safe? Have they been scientifically tested? Researchers warn that there are many caveats to take into consideration before adopting the prevailing view that mindfulness is the next best thing to a cure for cancer. There is an ever-burgeoning collection of research that alleges dozens of physical health benefits of mindfulness, such as improving brain and immune system functions, lowering blood pressure, improving sleep, treating binge eating and even reducing the pace of cellular aging. Mental health benefits are even more impressive with research suggesting the practice of mindfulness can reduce stress and anxiety, improve concentration and focus, treat depression and various personality and bipolar disorders. In 2014 researchers at Johns Hopkins University reviewed nearly 19,000 meditation studies and came up with only forty-seven that met their criteria for a well-designed study. What was missing was the control for the placebo effect. The research found that there was only moderate evidence of improved anxiety, depression, and pain as a result of mindfulness-based programs and low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life. In other words, the effect of mindfulness-based interventions is not nearly as spectacular as the mainstream media tends to report it. This book is well researched and gives a plethora of information about the use of mindfulness.

In Christian meditation the exact opposite of mindfulness is true. As one’s commitment to the Gospel and trust in God deepens, the Christian gradually and willingly relinquishes control of one’s prayer life to the Almighty, which is essential to growth in prayer and intimacy with God. “Learning true prayer means learning to die in the sense Jesus meant by this: dying to egotism, self-determination, and self-achieving, and letting God recreate us in love in a way that only God can do.” Christians don’t need techniques to recollect themselves. They need faith and grace. Even for the limited purpose of providing recollection, mindfulness can undermine the spirit of Christian prayer. This is primarily because as we learned the focus of mindfulness is on the self rather than on finding oneself in God, and these two intentions are essentially incompatible.

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