Recently the concepts of “mindfulness” and “meditation” have seemingly taken over our culture and are commonly considered the ultimate remedy to any emotional or physical distress. Supposedly, mindfulness can lower stress, anxiety and even blood pressure, all the while increasing self-control, brain function and awareness.
However, for as much praise as the practice of mindful meditation receives, it is matched with an equal amount of disapproval from practicing Catholics. The reason for this is that the practice of mindfulness is rooted in Hindu tradition and has been largely popularized through Buddhism. It is the seventh step known as “Samma sati,” or right mindfulness, in the Noble Eightfold Path and is intrinsically against Christian tradition.
Unlike Christianity, Buddhism rejects the notion of a superior being and does not believe in the existence of a soul. Therefore, meditation is not used for the betterment of one’s soul, but rather as a practice to escape corporal suffering.
As Catholics, we should be most concerned with the betterment of our souls rather than the notion of transcending the physical. We should not try to escape suffering but rather should acknowledge suffering as a means of coming closer to God. In these ways, we can see how the popular practices of mindfulness and mediation are contradictory to Catholic tradition since they are not concerned with one’s soul.
However, as college students frequently battling stress, the concept of mindfulness appears extremely attractive and beneficial. How then, as Catholics, can we experience the benefits of meditation and mindfulness without breaking Catholic tradition?
For starters, if you are struggling with anxiety and find that focusing on your breathing lowers your anxiety levels, remind yourself that you are not breathing by your own doing, but rather that each breath is a gift from God. By simply recognizing this, you can redirect your focus away from yourself and toward God. As a result, you will gain the physical benefits from meditation, while simultaneously focusing your mind on the Creator.
Additionally, if you find yourself stressed about the future, then the act of meditating on the present and that which you can directly control is effective in decreasing stress. However, you can modify this meditation by recognizing that you are safe in your present state only by the grace of God and that He is there protecting you and preparing you for your future.
Lastly, unlike Buddhist tradition, we are not intended to transcend our sufferings, rather we are called to embrace hardships and offer them up to God. By rejecting the presence of suffering, we are discounting Christ’s crucifixion and the sacrifice He made for us; we are essentially saying that even though Jesus suffered and died for us, we do not feel called to do the same.
Instead of attempting to escape our emotions through meditation, we should practice an examination of conscience and recognize where our toxic emotions arise from. By doing this, we can come to understand ourselves better and recognize our faults and need for God’s guidance.
It is important to take time everyday to care for ourselves; setting aside five minutes a day to truly focus on yourself and become aware of your emotions can be beneficial in many ways. However, we have to be careful to make sure that the time we take for ourselves does not take away from our time or love for God.
Although the traditional practice of meditation is contradictory to Catholic doctrine, we can instead practice Catholic mindfulness. Through Catholic meditation, we can better integrate our daily lives with our spiritual lives. By recognizing our hardships and offering them to God, we will find ourselves in a more peaceful state. By allowing ourselves to exist in the present moment, we can strengthen our trust in God and recognize His plan for us.
Thank you for your essay. You raise an interesting question: How should a Catholic Christian approach a practice from another religious tradition? It’s a good piece and inaugurates an important discussion.
I do think that there is at least an apparent contradiction between your statement that the Buddhist practice of mindfulness is “intrinsically against” and even “contradictory” to Catholicism and your advice that Catholics should practice Catholic mindfulness. The latter point seems like good advice to me, but the former, an overstatement, even a mistake.
The authors of Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate are clear that other religions are a resource for Catholicism: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” I would recommend the whole document, available at the Vatican website.
For the best treatment of the question of interfaith discussion broadly construed, see Fr. Roch’s Christianity Among the Other Religions, a book Fr. Thomas uses in his class of the same name. I would recommend the book, the class and the opportunity to speak to either one of them on this topic.
Thank you again for your essay, and may your Catholic mindfulness bring you peace.