Yoga practitioners salute the sun (photo by Diamond Mountain, Wikimedia Commons).

 

In the last few weeks I’ve had several interesting discussions on Facebook regarding different aspects of the New Age Movement and how Catholics should respond to it. Confusion abounds, as does frustration. In this 2-part series, I want to discuss the three most popular New Age practices in contemporary America: Yoga, Centering Prayer, and mindfulness.

In Part I, let’s establish four principles.

1. The Church has cautioned us not to flirt with the New Age.

In 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. This authoritative document, as its name indicates, was primarily focused on distinguishing between authentic Christian prayer and New Age prayer methods. The first footnote mentions Zen, Yoga, and Transcendental Meditation. It continues:

“The orientation of the principles and methods contained in this present document is intended to serve as a reference point not just for this problem, but also, in a more general way, for the different forms of prayer practiced nowadays in ecclesial organizations, particularly in associations, movements and groups.”

In other words, the principles of Christian prayer laid out in the CDF document can and should be applied to other practices not specifically mentioned. Neither Centering Prayer nor mindfulness is mentioned by name in either document, but as we shall see, they both fall under some of the New Age errors outlined by the CDF.

In 2003 the Pontifical Councils for Culture and Interreligious Dialogue created a working document on the New Age called Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life. Its purpose was to put New Age challenges in context, and to help teachers of the faith in particular to dialog with those in the New Age movement while teaching the truth without compromise.

Even if it can be admitted that New Age religiosity in some way responds to the legitimate spiritual longing of human nature, it must be acknowledged that its attempts to do so run counter to Christian revelation.” (1.4)

In other words, we should be cautious.

2. Caution is not scrupulosity or rigidity.

Pope Francis often criticizes rigidity. Some Catholics take offence at this criticism, and it does seem (note that word, please) that in some instances he is calling people rigid who only intend to protect the deposit of the Faith or the beauty of tradition. However, I have seen and continue to see lots of rigidity among my fellow Catholics, especially on social media.

How is caution different from rigidity or scrupulosity?

Fr. John Hardon defines scrupulosity as:

“The habit of imagining sin where none exists, or grave sin where the matter is venial.” (Modern Catholic Dictionary)

Rigidity has a more mundane meaning:

“A moral trait characterized by an unwillingness, or inability, to change one’s attitudes or way of acting. Great difficulty in adjusting to socially justifiable change.” (Ibid.)

So, here is a real-life example that many of us have encountered. Some traditionalist Catholics argue that women should always wear skirts or dresses, never pants. This seems to be an instance of both scrupulosity and rigidity.

The scrupulous person feels guilty even when he has not sinned. On the other hand, when the Church feels the need to caution us at length about New Age practices, it is not scrupulous for individual Catholics to caution others. It is prudent and shows a care for others’ souls. It is not remotely akin to an individual requiring other Catholics to live up to a higher standard than the Church requires.

3. Lack of complete condemnation does not mean “anything goes.”

On researching this post, I found that Catholic proponents of mindfulness argue that what the Church has not specifically condemned is fine for Catholics to practice. I meet this same argument often when debating the permissibility of Centering Prayer or Yoga. The argument goes:

Nostra Aetate said we should accept whatever is good in non-Christian religions. [Insert New Age practice] is good or neutral, so it does not matter that it originated in Eastern religions. Besides, in On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, the CDF said even non-Christian meditation techniques can help us prepare for prayer. Therefore, if you condemn these techniques, you are being scrupulous and rigid.

What does the CDF actually say?

“That [which the CDF has been outlining] does not mean that genuine practices of meditation which come from the Christian East and from the great non-Christian religions, which prove attractive to the man of today who is divided and disoriented, cannot constitute a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God with an interior peace, even in the midst of external pressures.” (No. 28)

Note, the CDF does not say that all meditation practices indiscriminately are suitable. It simply says we cannot dismiss all of them as unsuitable.

Eastern meditation techniques can help us slow down and calm a racing mind. That does not mean the CDF is recommending that we use them or even giving a blanket green light to them (excuse my mixing of metaphors!).

4. New Age meditation techniques are not prayer.

This is the most important of the four points, one both Vatican documents emphasize. Christian prayer is dialog with God, even if that dialog is sometimes beyond human understanding.

Meditation techniques originating with Hinduism or Buddhism are not and can never be Christian prayer. Buddhism avoids speculation about gods. In Hinduism there is a wide variety of beliefs, with some sects worshiping a personal god and others not. In either case, Hindu theology and anthropology are very different from their Christian counterparts. It follows that Eastern meditation can never take the place of Christian prayer. A generally healthy person who does not spend time in daily mental prayer should never be encouraged to spend time in daily meditation of an Eastern type, as though one is just as good as the other. (We will talk about the therapeutic uses of each practice in the next post.)

Now, many Catholic proponents of Yoga and mindfulness would protest that they are not proposing these activities as a kind of prayer. There are some Catholics who recommend Yoga as a spiritual practice. Centering Prayer advocates, of course, are always promoting their practice as prayer, but it is really just eastern meditation with a few Catholic terms patched onto it. Catholics who promote mindfulness generally claim it is only psychological, not religious/spiritual, or that they have baptized it and made it Christian. We will discuss these points in detail next time.

So, that sums up the foundational principles. Next week we’ll look at the three practices in light of these principles.

Note: The original version of this post said that Hindus do not believe in a personal god. It has been modified, thanks to an alert reader.

Connie Rossini

 

Written by Connie Rossini
Hi, I'm a Catholic writer and homeschool mother of four boys. I practice Carmelite spirituality. Check out my Books page for publications to help your whole family grow in holiness.

    24 Comments

  1. Stacy Palmer February 24, 2017 at 8:17 am Reply

    Thank you for this post! I told my husband the new “buzzword” for the year is “mindfulness”. I appreciate you shedding light on the confusion. 😀 God bless you!

    • Connie Rossini February 24, 2017 at 8:52 am Reply

      You’re welcome! Yes, I feel like mindfulness is the new Centering Prayer. It’s being taught at Catholic schools now all over the country, with little thought. We need to put a stop to it.

  2. Sherrylynne February 24, 2017 at 9:45 am Reply

    Thank you, Connie. This is a wonderful piece to reflect on and I truly look forward to reading more!

    • Connie Rossini February 24, 2017 at 10:33 am Reply

      You’re welcome, Sherrylynne. It’s been a while since I took the time to post. It’s fun to get interaction from readers again.

  3. Chris February 24, 2017 at 9:58 am Reply

    I am somewhat behind in the New Age, what is mindfulness?

    • Connie Rossini February 24, 2017 at 10:37 am Reply

      Chris, I’ll be talking about this in detail next week. In the meantime, here’s a definition from Jon Kabat-Zinn, “secular” mindfulness guru: ““Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” It started as a principle of Buddhism, but now has become a mental health fad.

  4. cmittermeier February 24, 2017 at 5:49 pm Reply

    I’m looking forward to your next post because, living under a rock, I am not sure what you mean by mindfulness. Living with ADHD, with two sons like me, pulling back into the moment instead of the fantasy track that comes along is a super important skill. I never thought of the “mindfulness” training we did as anything but that, a skill to keep us in the here and now, not chasing what ifs and (fun) flights of fantasy. If there is a spiritual side, our doctor certainly never showed it to us. I homeschool, and the doctor is very Jewish and highly respectful of our faith practices. Only once did she mention some of her clients find yoga helpful, but she found any exercise worked and there was nothing special about yoga. I’m really curious to find out if what we were taught as mindfulness really is the thing you are writing about.

    • Connie Rossini February 24, 2017 at 6:08 pm Reply

      Yes, it is a Buddhist practice. In fact, it comes from one of the core beliefs of Buddhism. Jon Kabat-Zinn is a Buddhist who has popularized mindfulness as a “secular” means to anxiety-free living, but that was not its original purpose. If you Google “What is mindfulness?” you’ll see that some of the top hits are Buddhist sites. Like Yoga, some people can and do practice it in a purely secular manner. You are at least my 3rd reader who has said it has helped with psychological problems. That’s what makes it such a sticky issue. I will try to distinguish among the many ways it is taught and the purposes for it and give good counsel. You can pray for me, because this isn’t easy and it’s quite controversial, just like Centering Prayer and Yoga. Thanks!

      • cmittermeier March 3, 2017 at 1:14 pm Reply

        Okay, I’m reading your next post and obviously have a lot more reading to do. What we were taught was a very basic and doesn’t seem to be the same thing you are talking about. Or maybe it’s just that we had a very stripped down version of mindfulness. It was super simple, first ask, “what is your focus supposed to be right now”, second, “stop, breathe and mentally inventory your present thoughts comparing against your goal – ie, is the thought related to your math problem?”, next, anything not related to your goal, discard by saying, I will deal with this later, fourth, return to your goal by finding your last clear point, restate that along with your goal and move forward”. Other than breathing in rhythm to your inventory, I don’t remember anything meditative. there was nothing about our other senses beyond closing our eyes If we found that easier to categorize your thoughts. The only thing I remember on the breathing was to remind us that our thoughts were like breath, something we could control, so, take control of your breath to remind you that you can control your thoughts. (A lot of ADHD kids like to think they can’t control their thoughts) if we couldn’t return to the goal, then we were told to do jumping jacks or something else physical to reset the system and try again. This isn’t quite the same as what I’m finding when googling mindfulness, so I think it might be a simple matter of a highjacked term, but I’m still looking, just in case something is trying to sneak in the back door!

        • Connie Rossini March 3, 2017 at 2:19 pm Reply

          What you are describing sounds perfectly okay to me. Nothing Eastern/meditative about it, just taking control of your thoughts. I would not worry about practicing it. God bless.

  5. Jennifer February 26, 2017 at 9:10 pm Reply

    Totally disagree with this. I think meditation in any form can bring people to an experience with Christ-although they may not know it at the time what they are experiencing.

    And why are you discouraging people from slowing down and being “mindful”? You totally miss the point of mindfulness and in my opinion are being rigid.

    • Connie Rossini February 26, 2017 at 9:42 pm Reply

      Hi, Jennifer. Eastern meditation was not designed to bring people an experience of Christ, because those who designed it do not believe in Christ. It was designed for Hindu and Buddhist ends, which are not compatible with Christianity. This is not just my opinion; it is the teaching of the CDF. Did I anywhere in my post discourage people from slowing down? All I have done in this post is establish some principles. If the Church says we should be cautious about some activities, we should be cautious. Is it rigidity to repeat the teachings of the Church? As I said in the post, Part 2 will go into more detail on each of the 3 practices, examining the spiritual aspects and also whether any can be used by Catholics in a purely therapeutic manner. If you come back, you may even find that you agree with some of it.

      • Jennifer March 1, 2017 at 1:10 pm Reply

        Here’s a priest using scripture relaxation and guided meditation. So what you’re saying, by mixing traditions, this is wrong??
        http://www.theprodigalfather.org/apps/Pray40Days/index.html

        • Connie Rossini March 1, 2017 at 2:48 pm Reply

          No, you are misunderstanding. The word “meditation” has a different meaning to Catholics than it does to Buddhists or Hindus. For Catholics, “meditate” means “consider,” “ponder,” especially Sacred Scripture. This is the Church’s preferred method of mental prayer, as recommended in the Catechism and by nearly all the saints who wrote about prayer. Eastern “meditation” does not mean “pondering.” In Eastern meditation, instead of using the mind to consider revealed truths, you set aside all thoughts, seeking to operate at a subconscious rather than a conscious level. That is not compatible with the Christian definition of prayer. It would indeed be wrong to mix Eastern meditation in with Catholic practices. Eastern meditation has as its goal the complete loss of self. Christian prayer seeks to unite the self with God in a bond of love. We do not lose our identity when we come closer to God. But you don’t have to take my word for this. We have the teaching of the CDF:

          “The meditation of the Christian in prayer seeks to grasp the depths of the divine in the salvific works of God in Christ, the Incarnate Word, and in the gift of his Spirit. These divine depths are always revealed to him through the human-earthly dimension… With the present diffusion of eastern methods of meditation in the Christian world and in ecclesial communities, we find ourselves faced with a pointed renewal of an attempt, which is not free from dangers and errors, to fuse Christian meditation with that which is non-Christian.” You can read the whole document here: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19891015_meditazione-cristiana_en.html

  6. Sherrylynne February 26, 2017 at 9:40 pm Reply

    Aw, lovingly wait first to see how these areas are qualified and discussed. Words carry so much meaning for each of us and we can easily misunderstand the other, take offense and shut a door. I remember a funny instance with my grandmother when I told her about a new boyfriend, telling her, “I’m ‘going with’ Larry.” She replied, “That’s nice, dear. Where are you going?” To be understood, I could have said ‘going steady’ but in my day, you’d say, ‘going with’ to mean the same thing. I know that is completely different. Yet, this is a limited space to understand each other. Let’s extend an opportunity to prayerfully understand another’s terminology and material. Pax

  7. Alyosha February 27, 2017 at 2:40 pm Reply

    Mindfulness is one aspect of Buddhist meditation. It is called shamatha (sha-mat-ha in Sanskrit) or shine (she-nay in Tibetan). As a technique, it doesn’t have philosophical or religious content but is an effective method for cultivating self-knowledge and maître — loving-kindness — toward oneself. It involves training in loosening attachment to thoughts and emotions and seeing that who we are is not what we think — or who we think we are.

    Mindfulness is complemented by awareness meditation. This is called vipashyana (vi-pash-nah in Sanskrit) or lhakthong (lack-tong in Tibetan). Vipashyana arises as a result of relaxation with the meditation practice — when the meditator becomes less self-absorbed and more open to the world and to others. It is the dawning or threshold of a deeper development of compassion in the meditator. So, in a sense, shamatha comes first — but is complemented by vipashyana which loosens the goal orientation of the beginning meditator and opens the meditator to a broader, more selfless point of view.

    I am not a big fan of mixing traditions. In part, this is because each of the genuine wisdom traditions — Christian, Buddhist, Sufi, Jewish, etc.have great integrity. Mixing encourages a cafeteria style approach where a student might mix and match based on what seems most helpful — but the student may not be the best judge. The trouble is that our ego (to use a Buddhist word) or our sinful nature or the devil (to use Christian words) likes to be able to pick and choose. Sometimes the more difficult demands of a tradition that go against our easy inclinations are what is required to develop on a spiritual path.

    This isn’t to say that we have to follow a path blindly — or that we can’t learn from other traditions and even pick up some useful techniques. It is good to be both curious and careful. .

    • Connie Rossini February 27, 2017 at 3:24 pm Reply

      Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Alyosha! I agree, we can’t just make a smorgasbord of practices from different religions, picking each out of its own tradition and plunking it into a new one. Maybe it’s just because I’m Christian, but it seems to me that this mixing usually happens on our side. I can’t imagine a Buddhist, for example, practicing Lectio Divina. But maybe some do and this just show you how few Buddhists I know.

      • Alyosha February 27, 2017 at 4:01 pm Reply

        That’s probably true. Although there is a wonderful Tibetan Buddhist teacher in the Mindroling tradition — Khandro Rinpoche — who was raised by Catholic nuns before taking her seat as a high Buddhist lama. She is fluent in English, teaches in the US, and has a meditation center called Lotus Garden in the Shenandoah Valley.

        I credit the openness of Catholics and Jews, particularly, that so many have found value in some of the Buddhist practices and in interfaith dialogue.

        • Alyosha February 27, 2017 at 4:04 pm Reply

          I don’t mean to imply that Khandro Rinpoche mixes traditions — but she does have a great deal of respect for the Catholic tradition.

          • Connie Rossini February 27, 2017 at 4:21 pm

            And that’s where we should be working, at mutual understanding, dialog among the teachers. When we try to practice someone’s else’s tradition we just end up with a mess. If a method was designed for Hindus or Buddhists, chances are it will not suit Catholic ends very well.

  8. Tracy Loignon March 3, 2017 at 6:02 pm Reply

    I am Catholic and have been studying this topic for some time. I understand your concern about using practices of other religions. There is a possibility of falling down an unintended slippery slope and being led in a direction we as Catholics may not want to or should not go. However there is no denying that practices like mindfulness and even yoga as it exists today in the West are, for the most part, so devoid of the religious trappings that they were originally developed with. Most of the yoga instructors I have encountered wouldn’t recognize a Hindu god if they tripped on one! And as far as mindfulness, while I fully understand it’s Buddhist roots, those roots are virtually unrecognizable in how it is generally being taught today. I do agree that as a Catholic who wants to remain true to her faith, it is important to understand the roots of these practices and, as we have been instructed, to “use caution”. I see no harm, however, in using these practices as a psycho-physical preparation for my own Catholic prayer life. Quieting my mind and focusing on my breath for a moment or two before lectio divina is a wonderful way to prepare myself for Catholic meditation. I think the “danger” exists when a Catholic who perhaps is not as strong in her faith is lured into devoting more and more time to these practices. For example instead of taking an innocuous yoga class here and there, they begin attending yoga retreats or instead of using the mindfulness practices to prepare themselves for Catholic prayer, they start studying Buddhist philosophy. Perhaps the thought is if a little is good, more will be better. The problem is taking these practices to the next level will lead undoubtedly lead the Catholic down that slippery slope. So this is not an easy topic to tackle since there are benefits to be had from some of these practices! And quite frankly I do not find the advice of “use caution” to be all that helpful. Looking forward to Part II!

    • Connie Rossini March 3, 2017 at 8:40 pm Reply

      Hi, Tracy. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Part II is up now too, so I won’t repeat what I wrote there, but I will address a few of your points. I disagree that Yoga and mindfulness have been stripped of their religious context. On mindfulness in particular, the overwhelming majority of mindfulness sites mention Buddhism or give instructions for Eastern meditation. Many Yoga classes, though they may not display idols, do incorporate meditation techniques. In my view, the problem is that the average Catholic is so ignorant of these matters, they wouldn’t recognize dangerous spiritual practices if they tripped over them, to use your terminology. The Catholic “who is not strong in her faith” is unfortunately a description of the majority of Catholics. I agree that there is nothing wrong with “quieting [one’s] mind and focusing on [one’s] breath for a moment or two” before prayer. In mindfulness practice however, focusing on what the conscious mind usually deems beneath its notice is an all-day project. That can be problematic on many levels. If every Catholic were well-versed in authentic Catholic spirituality, these practices would never catch on to the extent they have, nor would I be nearly as concerned. The fact is, most people today are turning away from established religion, and practicing these Eastern techniques gives them the feeling of being “spiritual.” They find “peace” in religious practices that are not Christian. So why give any thought to the religion of their childhood, which never ‘did anything for them” anyway?

      • Tracy Loignon March 3, 2017 at 9:32 pm Reply

        You are so very right in that far too many Catholics/Christians are turning to Eastern practices/religions to satisfy the need I believe is inherent in every human being, namely to search for the truth and connect with the divine. And as I am sure you know being Catholic is not a passive endeavor. God demands a lot of us but as you also know, He gives so much more in return! These practices I will admit are “feel good” practices that can be done even halfheartedly and do provide a sense of momentary peace, relaxation etc. But once again, for individuals who are not solid in their Catholic faith it can lead them down the wrong path, I will agree. Perhaps the answer is that more Catholics should figure out ways to draw people back to the faith with our own “feel good” programs/practices. For example, Soulcore is an exercise program done to the rosary and is a perfect alternative for people who are considering yoga. (note: I am not affiliated in any way with Soulcore, but I have purchased their programs) Or spend more time teaching our young people about prayer and Catholic meditation and contemplation. I will admit I incorporate mindfulness-like techniques in the confirmation program I teach. It consists of sitting quietly for 2-5 minutes, eyes closed, focusing on our breath. I find that it is only then that they are able to relax enough to engage in lectio divina or Eucharistic Adoration. Our young people in particular are bombarded with so much stimuli all day long and as a result this is a skill that frankly most of them just don’t have…Keep up your good work…I think we are more on the same page than not….I look forward to reading more of what you have to say on this topic….(and fyi, I have been a home school mom as well!)

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