Anyone who reads about mindfulness, from either a secular or religious viewpoint, will quickly realize that many authors deeply believe that Catholicism and mindfulness are compatible and can be merged. However, upon closer scrutiny, very real questions will arise in the astute reader’s mind.
For instance, the pure definition of mindfulness based on the modern Buddhist definition, which was popularized by Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s: “mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment, which can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training.” This “correlates with the term sati, which is a significant element of Buddhist tradition,” (see here).
Some authors on mindfulness also pepper their integration of the psychology of mindfulness with very little Catholic theology perhaps by offering a prayer and then proceeding to instruct people in Body Scan Meditation, which is derived from Buddhism (you can read more in A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness by Susan Brinkmann). As you can see, all mindfulness techniques are entirely absent of any form of prayer, save the brief invocation of God’s presence at the beginning and ending of each.
There is a lack of depth to the Christian philosophy on mindfulness, as the spiritual aspect of a person is easily overlooked. If we are to accept the Christian assertion of mindfulness at face value, then those who advocate for its use in the alleviation of chronic pain, depression, and anxiety are severely neglecting the influence the spirit has on mental illness and health.
However, apart from admitting that mindfulness has nothing to do with God but is merely a matter of altering the mind (which is dangerous in and of itself), it’s of value to note that on September 6, 2019, the Spanish bishops officially declared at their national conference that mindfulness is incompatible with Christian prayer. Specifically, in their document “My Soul Thirsts for the Living God, for the Living God: A Doctrinal Orientation on Christian Prayer,” they condemn the popular belief that mindfulness is simply a secular, therapeutic technique: “Many times these meditation techniques, such as mindfulness, try to hide their religious origin and spread in movements that could be gathered under the New Age denomination, [inasmuch as] they are proposed [as an] alternative to the Christian faith” (footnote 8).
Rooted in Buddhist belief, the goal of mindfulness is to eliminate suffering, usually marketed towards psychological suffering. As Catholics, however, we know the value of suffering not as something to be avoided, but rather to be embraced. Our suffering, when united with those of Jesus’, are powerfully redemptive as we participate in the ongoing mission of the Church. St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church”(1:24). This is our mission as Catholics, too.
Beyond these troubling contradictions, it is important to note that mindfulness as a purely psychological practice is widely used to control one’s thoughts in order to lessen symptoms of stress, depression, or anxiety. However, empirical studies are mixed regarding the efficacy of mindfulness. In fact, a group of fifteen prominent researchers published a critical evaluation of mindfulness studies to date, citing many methodological problems. The group stated: “Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled and disappointed.”
Essentially, mindfulness is superfluous in the development of our relationship with God or to ameliorate the symptoms of stress and psychological maladies – at least if we believe the evaluation of the research. As Catholics, we understand that our ultimate goal is not to control our thoughts but to surrender to God and to fill our hearts and minds with thoughts of Him, (Brinkmann, A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness, p. 77). The treasures of Christian meditation and contemplation far supersede the very superficial, flat “practice” of mindfulness that promotes a focus on self rather than on God.
It is clear that mindfulness offers no assistance on working through the real, deep issues that plague us. It does not address the spiritual value and gift of suffering in our lives. Instead, it’s a technique used to entice us to eschew the reality of meaning in our lives. Any real relationship requires depth, discipline, and devotion – all of which take time, and none of which mindfulness helps us achieve.
Authentic Catholic spirituality is one that is relinquished to the care of the Holy Spirit and follows His lead, rather than tightly monitoring one’s thoughts and emotions toward self. When we are truly living in the present moment, we abandon ourselves to God’s movements, not our own, which is the receptivity necessary for us to fully love.
If you struggle with anxiety, my recommendation as a former Catholic counselor is that you don’t turn to Buddha or pop-psychology, but to Christ. He is the One who promised that if we fill our minds with whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, whatever is excellent, whatever is worthy of praise, what you have learned and received and heard in and through His Church, do; and the God of peace will be with you.