A Catholic asks about Mindfulness practice
“As I am practising Catholic I would like to know if “Mindfulness Courses or exercises” can act or go against our Catholic Faith doctrine or teaching directly or indirectly ? Are there any Catholic studies about Mindfulness?”
Reply by Tony Macelli
Thank you for your question! Please do not expect a yes/no answer. Here are some thoughts about how to make your own decisions on this. Afterwards I will present some objections to mindfulness which I found on several websites calling themselves Catholic sites.
HOW TO DECIDE?
If you remain open to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit may clarify this issue for you. Here is some food for thought. Practising Catholics, just like other Christians, need to prayerfully make up their own minds on many things. When they go through any change, such as stopping an old practice or taking up a new practice, they should be aware of the effects of the change on their path to holiness. So, is your own new practice, or your mindfulness group, showing any progress in the fruits of the spirit as St Paul enumerates them in Galatians 5:22:
22 …the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (…) 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
If you are mature and educated and well-read on Christian spirituality and on the mindfulness issue, perhaps you can decide for yourself. If not, then perhaps you need to get guidance from a practicing and knowledgeable Catholic whom you admire and who in himself or herself shows St Paul’s signs of holiness.
Mindfulness (in Maltese “li tkun konxju-attent”) is the practice of being aware of your sense perceptions and emotions and thoughts and your environment. So instead of simply feeling or suffering pain, you become aware of the pain sensation without judging it or rejecting it automatically or reactively (that is, as an automatic reaction). Similarly so for when you are observing your own actions, thoughts, or the sights and sounds and smells of your environment. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) courses can help people to live in the present moment instead of being continually lost in daydreams and judgments and other thoughts. To be sure you are getting Mindfulness practice, not ideologies or religious beliefs, examine the syllabus, or talks to the instructor.
There are many Catholics and Catholic organisations that are against mindfulness practice. There are many others which are in favour of it. Sometimes the correct decisions are not obvious. You have to work on them.
Nowadays the era of the “Index of Forbidden Books” etc. is mostly finished. Does that mean that all books are good, everything is OK, or that nothing matters? Certainly not; just like always, certain things lead you to God and certain other things don’t. The new thinking in the Church means that the modern Catholic must learn the fundamentals of the faith and of prayer and contemplatio (resting in the presence of God) to the level that is appropriate for himself or herself, and keep taking more and more responsibility for his or her own faith and spirituality and work for the greater fulfilment of the Kingdom of God. This thinking can help remove unnecessary fears, focus on what is essential, and realise that one interpretation of a truth is usually not the whole truth for everyone. A side effect of all this is that the Church – that means you and we – continues maturing.
If you are not well educated and well-read, it’s a good idea to keep away from the beliefs and practices of other religions and spiritual traditions, not because they are all wrong or bad, but because you will be out of your depth. Obviously (it’s not obvious to everybody) you should refrain from condemning what you do not understand. “I have sheep which are not of this fold,” said Jesus.
Also, if you cannot handle the idea of various levels and types of interpretation of a statement of truth, then, until your thinking has become a bit more flexible, it is better not to get into things that you don’t understand. But refrain from condemning!
Mindfulness came recently into Western thought from a practice in Buddhist tradition. The proponents of mindfulness, and the therapists and practitioners that use it, mostly claim that it’s a secular or secularised practice, not a religious or spiritual one.
MINDFULNESS PUTS YOU IN TOUCH WITH DEEPER SELF
Mindfulness puts you in touch with deeper self. Some Christians object to this because they say that it’s not one’s self that one should be aiming towards, but rather one should be aiming toward God. What do you think about this? Let us remember that Christianity is about Christ. Jesus, speaking no doubt as the Eternal Christ, said according to the Gospel of John 17:22-24 :
…22I have given them the glory You gave Me, so that they may be one as We are one— 23I in them and You in Me — that they may be perfectly united, so that the world may know that You sent Me and have loved them just as You have loved Me.
This sacred statement from the great Oneness seems to mean that the Christ is in our deeper self. The breath of God, that sustains what and who we are in love and by love, is in the tabernacle at the centre of the temple that St Paul reminded us we are:
“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
So, if you want to be open to God, is it good to be in touch with the deeper level of self? Think about that. Is this egoism or self-centredness? No, egoism and self-centredness are wild behaviours of the superficial self, that part of us that thinks itself separate and has various insecurities and tendencies such as competition and domination. The deeper levels of self are something else entirely. In fact, in some way, a Christian person has to “die” to the superficial levels in order to reach the deeper levels where Christ can, through that person, bear fruit:
23Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
MINDFULNESS IS KEEPING WATCH
Some Christians object to mindfulness simply because it is not familiar to them, and they are instinctively suspicious of anything new. Does that mean that Christianity has stopped learning? Do you think that everything that is new is bad? In any case, I think that mindfulness is in the Christian tradition. See what method Jesus proposed in order to make way for the divine Master of the House to take over: it’s keeping watch, that is, being mindful.
“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back–whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn.” (Mark 13:35)
It is said by some Christians that because of its historical Buddhist origin, and because Buddhism strives for compassion, it follows that a lay practice of mindfulness is supposed to lead to compassion. (I hope it does). These Christians then say that compassion is not what the Christian should be concerned about, but rather “action”. With all due respect to them, do you detect any muddled thinking here? Compassion, literally “to suffer with,” is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). Thus a readiness for action is an essential part of compassion.
Compassion is not only Christian, it is Christ himself. As Jesus said, if you give a glass of water to a thirsty person, you are giving it to Christ. Even more importantly, perhaps, the really proper way for this to happen is that Christ through you is the one that gives the glass of water to the thirsty Christ-person. In this amazing interaction, the superficial levels of the self, or ego, would have gotten out of the way.
Does a Christian isolate himself or herself from those who are needy and vulnerable? When a Christian acts, in practice, from what level of self does that action emerge? Contemplatio and contemplative practices in the Christian tradition are designed to discourage or train the superficial self from getting in the way, both during perception and during action. Does mindfulness practice help you to do the same? Think about it. Read about both mindfulness and Christian contemplative practice.
The Mindfulness type of awareness is nonjudgmental. One objection to mindfulness in some Christian circles is: “It is not good to look at things non-judgmentally.” What do you think about this? I think that what is meant by nonjudgmental mindfulness is that you should really notice what you are perceiving, without automatically judging, because judging while observing keeps you locked into your ego (ordinary self) and blinds you to the actual reality, the core reality, of the world and of your deeper self; it also denies permission to God and God’s love to enter and heal. Do you have any objections to any of these thoughts? It may or may not be reasonable to evaluate. But before evaluating you must see. The same thing can be said, but even more strongly, about judging (condemning). Judging while seeing distorts what you are seeing, it distorts you yourself, and it takes you out of touch with external and internal reality. What do you think Jesus meant when he said the following?
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-6)
Here is a website of Carl McColman, a Catholic and a lay Cistercian – a kind of lay Trappist, who writes about Christian contemplation. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/about/
Here is what Carl says on Mindfulness to a person who asked about Mindfulness and contemplative practice:
Here is a book that you may wish to purchase: Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality – Making space for God, by Tim Stead, an accredited mindfulness teacher and Anglican priest. It has 144 pages and is published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, UK. Here is the text on the back cover, including the testimonials.
May I be safe and protected.
May I be at peace in mind and body.
May I live with ease and kindness.
(Kindness practise p. 120)
We can all engage with such longings – and wish these good things for the people we love. Mindfulness practice is hugely popular these days! But what, Tim Stead asks, does it have to offer Christianity? How might it help us to transform the way we manage stress and open up more completely to the promised ‘life in all its fullness’?
Key is the definition of mindfulness as being more fully aware of our own experience in the present moment in a non-judgemental way. The author finds that ‘distractions’, so often the bane of those trying to pray, can be taken note of without our being caught up in or taken over by them. A non-judgemental approach seems entirely consistent with talk of grace, and as Christians we know we can only ever experience God in the present moment. Tim reflects: ‘If I feel loved entirely without judgement, I will gradually dare to allow every aspect of myself to come into the light of God’s gaze and so into relationship with the rest of myself – and this is how healing comes.’
“The book on mindfulness that many of us have been waiting for! Tim Stead writes with disarming honesty for anyone seeking a fruitful and truthful way to live.” John Pritchard, former Bishop of Oxford
‘A fascinating and insightful examination of the links between the Christian contemplative tradition and the stress-reducing mindfulness programme developed by Professor Mark Williams and others. I learned so much from reading this book and strongly recommend it.’ – Michael Mosley, Awar5d-winning BBC author, science journalist, and BBC presenter
The popularity of mindfulness in our time is a reminder that the ancient contemplative practices of attentiveness and stillness are needed more than ever. Tim Stead suggests that the practice of mindfulness brings gifts to Christian faith and living, it is more than just another therapy ~ it makes space for God.’ – David Runcorn, author of Spirituality Workbook
ISBN 978-0-281 -07486-0
And here is the text of the Introduction to the book.
Introduction: Making space for God
‘What another book about mindfulness?!’You may have noticed how books on mindfulness are multiplying like coat hangers in a wardrobe. There is ‘mindfulness and this’, ‘mindfulness and that’ and soon, probably, ‘mindfulness and the other’. It is clearly the big new tiling and therefore probably time to get cynical about it and start wearing the ‘I don’t do mindfulness’ T-shirt.
However, there is very little on mindfulness and Christianity. This seems to me somewhat curious as there are so many overlaps, and something that is the big new thing surely ought to have a Christian response.
I wonder whether there are two reasons for this. One might be that we feel we already have two millennia and more of spiritual tradition behind us and so perhaps this is just ‘spirituality’ for those who don’t belong to any faith. In other words, we don’t really need it. And the other is that we have heard that mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism. Now this could be good or bad depending on your point of view, but it is still a ‘competing’ religion, isn’t it, and surely I should be looking to my own faith for my spiritual practices?
Well, all this may be true – or true enough. But there are other questions that may still linger in the mind:
- Could it be that Christianity is still learning?
- Are we open to insights of other faith traditions?
- Is there more of our own tradition that remains generally unexplored?
- Are we open to the insights of science?
- Are we up for a further stage in the adventure of Christian faith and spirituality?
Introduction: Making space for God
If the answer to any or all of these questions in your own mind
is yes – even a qualified yes’ – then this book may be worth reading.
But first, let me say something about the approach of this book, beginning with what it is not It is not a textbook on mindfulness, nor is it a mindfulness course. Plenty of these have already been written and are definitely worth turning to if you want to explore mindfulness for yourself in its own right. (A fist of good books and where to find a course can be found at the back of this book.) Neither is this a theological treatise. Rather, it seeks to ask the question: ‘What might mindfulness have to offer Christianity?’ I could have chosen to have a go at answering the question the other way round: ‘What does Christianity think of mindfulness?’, but actually the former question seems much more interesting and full of possibilities – and perhaps somewhat humbler. So, although I will take time to say something of what mindfulness is and what is beneficial about it in Part 1, I am assuming that it is accepted that it is basically a good thing. Essentially, as psychologists are suggesting, this is about having a healthy mind, just as physical exercise and a good diet lead to a healthy body. But I want to go further than this and suggest that mindfulness might have a part to play in helping Christians to respond to the call of Christ in our lives.
I have always had two burning questions when I have thought about my faith:
1 Does it make sense?
2 Does it make a difference?
As lar as the first question is concerned, apart from my earliest days as a Christian, when I simply took everything as read, I have always been someone who has wrestled with belief and the statements of faith that we proclaim. There have been times when I have simply wanted to say, ‘I can’t believe that.’ But in the end, that has seemed a bit presumptuous and anyway it doesn’t really lead me anywhere. So, what has seemed a more interesting question has been, ‘I wonder what we really mean by saying that?’ – about God, about Jesus, or whatever. This keeps the question open and the quest alive. So Part 2 will take time to reflect on what mindfulness might have to offer in terms of what and how we believe.
The second question has been almost more pressing for me. I know that Christian faith offers comfort, inspiration and a sense of purpose, but can it actually change anything? Or are we simply forever ‘moving the deckchairs around on the Titanic – offering ‘opium for the people’ because basically the news is bad and always will be? I deeply want a faith and a spiritual practice that works – that can make a difference to my life and really change things for the better in all of our lives. Added to this is that many of us are acutely aware of a kind of faith that lays down very clearly what we ought to be or what we ought to do, but feel a constant sense of failure in the extent to which we have actually been able to live up to such expectations. And that is just the reasonably humble and self-aware ones! My New Testament teacher at theological college used to remark on how people would say to him that they weren’t really Christian but they did live by the Sermon on the Mount. To which he would reply, ‘Have you read the Sermon on the Mount?!’ If they had, he would surmise, they would have realized that the ideal is, in fact, impossible. For those who have realized this, though, it may not be quite enough simply to accept God’s forgiveness for our failure. We do genuinely want to find ways of responding, growing, moving towards this ideal, however slowly. So, does our Christian faith work? Does it make any difference? Mindfulness, for me, also has a part to play in enabling our faith to work for us, and in Part 3 I will suggest some ways in which this might be true.
Part 1, though, addresses the question, ‘What is mindfulness?’ This is not a mini course, but I hope it will provide a basic understanding of mindfulness itself. I approach it in three ways: first, by telling the story of the development of mindfulness in its clinical and academic contexts; second, by reflecting on mindfulness in the Christian tradition; and finally, by reflecting on mindfulness from the perspective of my own faith journey.
However, an important point to note at every stage is that mindfulness is only truly appreciated at an experiential level. Because of this, practical exercises are interspersed throughout the book, which you are welcome to have a go at. These are no more than tasters, but will, I hope, give balance to the mainly reflective material.
Finally, a word on the subtitle of the book: Making Space for God. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot even heal ourselves. Christians believe that only God, in Christ, is our Saviour and healer. But there is something we can do — and need to do — and that is to make space for God to come to us. We can choose to open ourselves up and invite the work of grace into our lives. This may be familiar language but still it raises the question: ‘But how do we do this opening up and inviting in?’ It is my suggestion that mindfulness offers us a way of opening up, inviting in – making space for God.