Recently I wrote a two-part series on Yoga, mindfulness, and Centering Prayer. If you haven’t read that, I suggest you do so now. I will try not to repeat myself here.
Why am I addressing mindfulness again so soon? “Catholic mindfulness” is currently being marketed vigorously all over the internet. Readers have forwarded unsolicited emails from Catholic sites promoting mindfulness. Easter Tuesday, I received an email from Ascension Press about a podcast on the subject. The podcast was from a two-part interview with Dr. Gregory Bottaro, who has created an online “Catholic mindfulness” program.
It is very concerning to see this from Ascension Press. They are (up until now) one of the most reliably sound Catholic publishers in the U.S. Others have voiced their concerns about “Catholic mindfulness” with the publisher. I have been told Ascension received the criticism well. But I have been unable to find any public retraction. When I just checked Ascension’s Facebook page, I found their post on mindfulness still there, with 25 likes and some shares. How many of Ascension’s subscribers, Facebook friends, and other followers saw them promoting this course? Without a public correction, many of these people may be led astray.
My purpose is not to slam Ascension Press, nor to make a personal attack against Dr. Bottaro. I do think a response is needed, however.
Parallels with Centering Prayer
My earlier series highlighted some of the similarities between mindfulness and other types of Eastern meditation. Here is Part 2.
I am concerned that the “Catholic mindfulness” movement is today where the Centering Prayer movement was thirty years ago. Centering Prayer is now practiced at parishes throughout the nation and the world. So many people have been led astray! I am too young to have spoken up about the practice in the 1980s. Today I have an opportunity to stop history from repeating itself with another New Age meditation form being “married” to Catholic spirituality. I must speak.
The Trappist monks who created Centering Prayer were no doubt well-meaning. I believe Dr. Bottaro is as well. Being well-meaning does not guarantee that one will not be led astray or lead others astray.
Fr. Thomas Keating and the other promoters of Centering Prayer claim that it is part of the Christian tradition of contemplation. They essentially took an Eastern meditation form and sold it as identical with, or in the same vein as, the teaching of the Fathers and saints. They were wrong. All the good intentions and use of Christian terms cannot change the fact that Centering Prayer is not prayer. It should never be taught at Catholic parishes.
Dr. Bottaro is now doing something similar with mindfulness. He has taken an Eastern meditation technique and made claims that “mindfulness is Catholic.” Let’s look briefly at some of the errors in his work. Please note that I have not taken Dr. Bottaro’s course, although I am in dialog with others who have (some of whom have had an extended conversation with Bottaro about their concerns). I have read a preview of the course, plus his free download, 10 Things You Need to Know About Catholic Mindfulness, and various other articles online, as well as listening to the podcast. I will restrict my comments to the material I have encountered myself.
Mindfulness and Yoga
Bottaro is aware that mindfulness is usually associated with Eastern religions. One of his “10 Things” is titled “It is not Eastern or Buddhist.” His arguments fail to convince me.
He contrasts mindfulness with Yoga, saying:
“Yoga is a part of Eastern practice that is also connected to a Buddhist philosophy. Essentially, Yoga is a series of movements of the body with the purpose of bringing the mind to a certain place. That place is indicated by the word ‘Yoga’ because Yoga in Sanskrit means ‘Union.’ The Buddhist philosophy is that all being is unified, and the sense of division within being is an illusion.”
Yoga originated as a Hindu practice, long before Buddhism appeared (although some Buddhists may practice Yoga). Botarro does not seem to recognize that there is a distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism. It is difficult to place confidence in his statement that “mindfulness is not Eastern” when his grasp of Eastern religions appears shallow.
“Obviously this is directly contrary to a Christian philosophy. We believe each one of us is made with unique dignity, in the image of God. Our individuality is not an illusion but an objective reality. We will exist for eternity as individual persons. Since the word ‘Yoga’ directly translates to the Buddhist philosophy, it cannot be presented in a Catholic way. Though there are many who try, ‘Catholic Yoga’ simply can’t exist. It is a contradiction in terms.”
He goes on to say that the term “body movement” is not essentially Eastern, and concludes, “Mindfulness, then, would be more like the word ‘body movement’ and not like using the word ‘Yoga.’”
I see several problems here:
- Bottaro provides a conclusion without giving any evidence why the term “mindfulness” is more like “body movement” than “Yoga.”
- Would the term “Yoga” be okay if it were translated to English? After all, “union” is a Christian concept too.
- What if the popular term for “mindfulness” was a non-English word?
- “Mindfulness” is one of the steps towards enlightenment in Buddhism.
- Are we primarily concerned with terms or with the substance of the practice?
This point constitutes his whole argument (in the ebook) as to why mindfulness “is not Eastern or Buddhist.”
Illusions and empty minds
His next point is that “There are some forms of Mindfulness to avoid.” He writes in part:
“The ultimate danger to Buddhist Mindfulness for a Christian [sic] is moving towards the belief that the self and God are illusions. This may be subtle or overt. In one of the trainings I have attended for Mindfulness lead by a well-known practitioner, there was a specific module titled, ‘The Self Is An Illusion.’ I was grateful for the clarity of his teaching as he labeled exactly where his philosophy was coming from. Unfortunately, not every mindfulness exercise you look up on YouTube is going to be as clear. Many are very good at leaving out any reference to this question, but some do not.”
Again, I see some problems here:
- Seeing the self and God as illusions is only one of many concerns about Eastern meditation. Here’s a document by the CDF on the subject, and another by other Vatican dicasteries.
- Bottaro’s promotion of “Catholic mindfulness” may embolden Catholics to attend a training like the one he mentions, and thus fall into serious theological errors.
- On one Catholic site on which Bottaro was interviewed, a resource link under the post led to a site promoting Eastern meditation. It’s unclear whether Bottaro provided the link himself.
- Mindfulness, like all Buddhist meditation, is ordered to seeing the self as an illusion. It promotes a Buddhist de-personalized detachment. This is true with or without a module on the self as an illusion.
Bottaro’s next point is that “Mindfulness is Not Mind-emptiness.” I agree, but the point is irrelevant. Many Catholics associate “emptying the mind” with giving room to demons. They thus tend to focus their criticism of Eastern meditation on mind-emptying. Neither Vatican document on the New Age mentions “mind-emptying,” so it is not my primary concern. Besides, even Buddhists themselves would deny that meditation involves making the mind blank. Rather, they would say that it involves letting go of or eliminating certain types of thoughts.
Centering Prayer advocates often argue the same thing: Centering Prayer doesn’t empty the mind; however, the practice involves setting aside all thoughts, which should result in what the average person would term an empty mind.
An altered consciousness
One of the Vatican documents does mention “mind expansion,” “consciousness,” and “awareness.” Here is where the real problem lies. As Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life states:
“The New Age offers a huge variety of techniques to help people reach a higher level of perceiving reality, a way of overcoming the separation between subjects and between subjects and objects in the knowing process, concluding in total fusion of what normal, inferior, awareness sees as separate or distinct realities.”
Mindfulness is a Buddhist technique designed to help accomplish these very ends. The Center for Mindfulness says:
“Mindfulness is a practice of present moment awareness. Mindfulness increases ability to see things as they arise clearly without judgment. Mindfulness facilitates both focusing and widening our attention as we become aware of ourselves and the world around us. The ‘goal’ is to be more fully present in our lives.”
Now, of course, there is nothing wrong with being “more fully present.” But mindfulness, as defined by the very people who first introduced it to the West as of possible medicinal benefit, is about changing one’s awareness, which plays a principle part in all forms of New Age meditation. Again, changing one’s awareness is not necessarily a problem in itself. It depends on what one’s awareness is changed from and to, and how. Does the mindfulness technique really make one more fully present? If so, more fully present to what? And why is that a good goal for Catholics?
Dr. Bottaro writes:
“Mindfulness does involve consciousness, so it is invisible, but it is not spiritual.” (The Present Moment: a Christian Approach to Mindfulness)
Eastern meditation techniques involve various means of altering one’s consciousness. In Centering Prayer, for example, one is supposed to become “aware” that one is already in union with God. This awareness comes about through operating at a subconscious rather than a conscious level during one’s centering time.
The “ultimate goal of all Buddhist teaching,” according to Buddhism for Dummies, is “waking up to the truth of your authentic being, your innermost nature.” This awakening is enlightenment. Enlightenment requires a change of consciousness.
Mindfulness focuses on details of life that the subconscious mind usually notes, but that the conscious mind often considers beneath its notice. Now, some of what we don’t normally notice, we should be noticing. For example, if you usually tune people out when they are talking to you, you should work on changing that. On the other hand, some things should normally remain beneath our conscious notice. We should not always be aware of our heart beating, blood pulsing through our veins, blinking, and other involuntary bodily functions, for example. The human mind was made for greater things.
We should also ask, is it helpful or healthy from a Catholic spiritual standpoint to always be aware of the sights and sounds around us? What about during personal prayer, for example? What if the Holy Spirit inspires us with a thought or feeling and we turn away from it in an effort to practice mindfulness?
In Christianity, our transformation is not primarily one of consciousness but of sanctification. Being more aware of the present moment does not make one holier. If mindfulness has truly been secularized, as Bottaro insists, associating it with the writings of the saints does not make it Catholic unless the practice itself is changed. And then, why cling to a term with Buddhist associations?
God versus the senses
Bottaro defines mindfulness this way:
“The practice of mindfulness is simply learning how to control our focus so that instead of paying attention to the fantasies we create in our imagination, we pay attention to the reality that is occurring outside of the space between our two ears. Mindfulness means ‘coming to our senses.’ It is a way of plugging ourselves into reality instead of letting the creations of our minds dictate what we pay attention to.” (Ibid., emphasis in the original.)
What if God wants us to spend some time in reflection, rather than paying attention to our (external) senses? What about the internal senses? They involve much more than the disparaging phrase “the fantasies we create in our imagination” implies. Both our external and internal senses are meant to lead us to God. He created both. Is Bottaro scorning the higher faculties of the soul?
This turning our focus away from our thoughts to our senses again reminds me of Centering Prayer. Of course, in Centering Prayer, one turns away from exterior and interior senses. But both it and mindfulness as presented by Bottaro, seem to sweep away too much. As I have said many times in speaking of Centering Prayer, thoughts are not the problem for Christians. Thoughts are actually a good and necessary means of growing closer to God. Beasts share with us the external senses. It is the rational soul that raises us above the beasts.
The means or the end?
“These two books teach us that trustful surrender to God, who is ever-present, actually leads to mindfulness. Christianity holds the key to true mindfulness.” (The Present Moment)
By saying trustful surrender leads to mindfulness, it seems as though he is making mindfulness the goal. We surrender to God in order to enter into greater intimacy with Him, in order to love Him more perfectly. We don’t make this surrender a means to the end of practicing mindfulness or reaping the physical or psychological benefits of mindfulness.
This mistake appears to be repeated a few lines later:
“Practically speaking, instead of just saying, ‘I trust God,’ we can put our minds behind our words. When we ruminate about the past or future, churning worries or regrets over and over in our minds, we are acting as if we are in control and we need to figure everything out. If we want to make an act of trust in God, we can try to let go of that false control, and focus our minds on the realities of the present moment instead. This is how we practically ‘let go and let God.’ Integrated with a Christian understanding of the path to holiness, this is how we can experience true peace.” (Ibid.)
Are we seeking peace, or are we seeking God?
Once again I see the parallel with Centering Prayer. Fr. Thomas Keating regularly speaks of Catholic dogma and spirituality as though they are only the means to personal fulfillment or enlightenment.
We do need to relinquish control to God, but mindfulness is neither the needed means nor the end. How do these Christian classics, and the writings of the saints, tell us to make acts of trust in God? Not by “focus[ing] our minds on the realities of the present moment,” but by focusing our minds on Christ.
For example, Jean-Pierre de Caussade writes in Abandonment to Divine Providence that for perfect union with God’s will two things are needed:
“firstly, the profound conviction that nothing happens in this world, in our souls or outside them, without the design or permission of God… secondly, the firm belief that through the all-powerful and paternal Providence of God, all that He wills or permits invariably turns to the advantage of those who practice this submission to His orders.”
There is nothing here about purposely (mindfully) paying attention to the world of the senses or discounting rumination.
I am glad that Bottaro recommends these books. But the practice of mindfulness that he attaches to them is at best laying an added burden of mental exercises on those who are seeking God. For the average, healthy person, putting one’s trust fully in God brings an abiding peace, “the peace that passes understanding” (Phil. 4:7) — though that peace is never the goal. If Bottaro’s readers and clients read Fr. de Caussade’s work through the perspective of mindfulness, they risk distorting his meaning, stripping the book of its power to transform their lives.
Something similar has already happened in the case of Centering Prayer. Fr. Keating claims that Centering Prayer is in the tradition of the Desert Fathers, saints, and especially The Cloud of Unknowing. Practitioners, most of whom never read the classic works of Catholic spirituality before their introduction to Centering Prayer, consistently misinterpret them in a New Age manner. They are unable to understand the true tradition and so benefit from the teaching of the saints.
This is one of my main concerns with the “Catholic mindfulness” course.
Does everybody need it?
And that brings me to the final criticism of Bottaro’s work. I could say much more if I had the time, but this will have to be it for now.
Bottaro’s first “Thing You Need to know About Mindfulness” is “You need it.” He is not promoting mindfulness just to the anxious or depressed or those with chronic pain, but to every Catholic, prescribing it for:
“anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addictions, insomnia, scrupulosity, anger, marital difficulties, parenting difficulties, spiritual difficulties, and a host of other problems. Mindfulness will help you to overcome normal stress, anxiety, exhaustion, and even depression.”
Parenting difficulties? Really? “A host of other problems?” And spiritual difficulties? Mind exercises to make me holier? I wish it were that simple. With Bottaro, mindfulness has evolved from a central practice of Buddhism, to a (supposedly) secular aid to dealing with chronic pain, to a secular stress reliever and booster of corporate productivity, to a Catholic cure for virtually everything, including spiritual difficulties.
Catholics for the first twenty-one centuries of Christianity did not practice mindfulness. They did not need to. They had the teachings of the saints and other holy men and women. We still do. Why do we need mindfulness now?
Real Catholic alternatives to mindfulness
If you are looking for real Catholic aid to stop whirling, anxious, or harmful thoughts, here are a few suggestions.
When you are suffering, imagine yourself embracing a life-size cross, kissing it, and saying words of submission to God’s will.
To remember God throughout the day, practice saying a short prayer whenever you consult your watch or a clock.
To calm your fears, imagine the Divine Mercy image as you pray, “Jesus, I trust in you.”
When you find yourself thinking about meaningless things, picture the Eucharist in the monstrance and mentally bow before the Lord.
If you find your mind wandering when someone is talking to you, remind yourself that the speaker is made in God’s image and beloved of Him, and treat that person as you would treat Jesus Himself.
When your senses encounter anything beautiful, immediately thank God for it, then praise Him for His greatness, which is far beyond any beauty found in creation.
Practices like these will bring you closer to God. They will sancitfy your whole day. As your intimacy with God grows, He will relieve your fear and anxiety (but I am not discounting the need for help with diagnosed psychological problems).
In conclusion, let me repeat that I have no doubt of Dr. Bottaro’s sincerity and good will. I mean no disparagement of him. I have been praying for him regularly. I am trying to prevent another infiltration of New Age spirituality into the Church that could lead countless Catholics toward Eastern meditation.
You may also enjoy this video on mindfulness by Dan Burke.