In Part I, we established the difference between being scrupulous or rigid and simply urging caution in areas in which the Church Herself urges caution. Today, we’re going into more detail on Yoga, Centering Prayer, and mindfulness. We’ll see how similar they are to one another in origin, technique, and purpose. We’ll also discuss whether any of the three can ever be safely practiced by Catholics, and if so, when and how.
Please note that I can’t go into as much detail as I would like without spending several weeks on this, which my schedule does not allow for at this time. I will have to be brief and just give you a taste of the arguments.
Yoga is mentioned twice in Jesus Christ, Bearer of the Water of Life, and once in a footnote to On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. For example:
“Psychology is used to explain mind expansion as ‘mystical’ experiences. Yoga, zen, transcendental meditation and tantric exercises lead to an experience of self-fulfilment or enlightenment.” (Bearer of the Water of Life, 18.104.22.168)
“The expression ‘eastern methods’ is used to refer to methods which are inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism, such as ‘Zen,’ ‘Transcendental Meditation’ or ‘Yoga.'” (On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, note 1)
Yoga holds a special place, since it alone is mentioned by name in two Church documents. But as we saw last week, the CDF caution also applies to some practices that were not specifically mentioned. To discern whether Centering Prayer and mindfulness fall under the purview of this caution, we need to examine some of the general problems these documents see with New Age practices, then compare them to Centering Prayer and mindfulness.
On my other blog, I have been examining Centering Prayer in light of On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. I will not repeat all those posts here. I will sum them up. Interested readers can view the original posts for more details.
On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation mentions all of the following problematic beliefs and practices. Each one applies to Centering Prayer:
- a non-dualist view of God and the soul
- prayer as awareness rather than dialog
- pseudognosticism, especially as manifested in —
- using a method to try to set aside everything perceptible by the senses
- leaving aside the humanity of Christ for something more “spiritual”
My series on Centering Prayer and the CDF is ongoing, but this should give you enough to see that Centering Prayer is definitely a New Age practice, not Christian Prayer, according to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (i.e., this is not just my opinion).
Altered states of consciousness
On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation does not speak in detail about “altered states of consciousness.” However, Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life does.
“The New Age way of purification is based on awareness of unease or alienation, which is to be overcome by immersion into the Whole. In order to be converted, a person needs to make use of techniques which lead to the experience of illumination. This transforms a person’s consciousness and opens him or her to contact with the divinity, which is understood as the deepest essence of reality. … It is often an ‘ascent’ on the level of consciousness to what is understood to be a liberating awareness of ‘the god within’.” (3.4)
What exactly is an “altered state of consciousness?” Here is my explanation, from the Quick Questions page of my other blog:
“An altered state of consciousness refers to a condition of being awake, yet having a different level of brain wave activity than in one’s normal wake state. Besides meditation techniques such as Zen, TM, or Centering Prayer, an altered state of consciousness can arise from hypnosis, drug use, psychosis, sleep deprivation, fasting, or various illnesses or accidents. Buddhists use altered states of consciousness to achieve enlightenment and peace. Hindus use altered states of consciousness to realize their non-dual union with the Ultimate Reality. Occultists believe that in altered states one can tap into special psychic powers that are not evident during one’s normal waking state.
“In an altered state, a person is less aware of sensory perception and his own body. One’s past hurts and emotional wounds come to the fore…”
Eastern meditation has been faddish for some decades now, the latest addition to the fad being mindfulness. Some see meditation techniques as a cure-all for stress, depression, ADHD, or just normal everyday distractedness. But there is a growing body of evidence that for some people, Eastern meditation can actually be harmful.
Those who are interested in the health and wellness aspect of meditation techniques would do well do read this summary of “meditation myths” by one of the scientist-authors of The Buddha Pill, if not that book itself. The authors basically see therapeutic uses of meditation as similar to prescribing medication. Some people benefit, some do not, and many have side effects that range from annoying to serious.
An article in Psychology Today states:
“The most profound interaction you experience in meditation is the interaction with yourself. As part of that, you would get in touch with buried and suppressed emotions. Meditation could trigger waves of anger, fear or jealousy, which had been sitting deep within you, and that would make you feel uncomfortable…”
Are Yoga instructors, Catechists who teach mindfulness, or classroom teachers who lead their students in Centering Prayer equipped to deal with this phenomena? Dare we let non-medical professionals indiscriminately teach young people these practices, when we don’t know what kind of trauma it may bring to the surface?
Here are some other articles that speak about the potential problems on a psychological level:
- Is Mindfulness Making Us Ill?
- The 11 ‘Dangers’ of Mindfulness Meditation
- The Cult of Mindfulness
- Potential Psychological Dangers of Meditation – Especially Relevant for Those with PTSD
Now let’s take a look at the three practices individually.
The CDF cautions:
“Some physical exercises automatically produce a feeling of quiet and relaxation, pleasing sensations, perhaps even phenomena of light and of warmth, which resemble spiritual well-being. To take such feelings for the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit would be a totally erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual life. Giving them a symbolic significance typical of the mystical experience, when the moral condition of the person concerned does not correspond to such an experience, would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia which could also lead to psychic disturbance and, at times, to moral deviations.” (On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, 28)
Nevertheless, I have come across at least one Catholic writer who promotes Yoga as a spiritual practice. This is highly dangerous! We should never link the euphoria that Yoga gives to closeness to God.
Is Yoga okay just as exercise?
But what about using Yoga as mere exercise? Until researching these posts, I told people that exercise in itself is neutral, but that some Yoga classes incorporate Hindu elements into the class. That is still true, but I would now go further. My research has made me wonder if Yoga classes, even on a “secular” level, are designed to lead one into an altered state of consciousness.
Here is an explanation of Hatha Yoga from the Yoga and Consciousness Studies website:
“When most people think of Yoga, they think of exercises for the physical body. These ‘exercises’ are only one small aspect of traditional Yoga. The branch of Yoga that deals with the physical body is known as Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga begins the process of returning to one’s original state of balance through the physcial [sic] body. The end goal of Hatha Yoga, like all branches of Yoga, is to achieve a state of lasting peace and equanimity. … The practice of Hatha Yoga results in the body feel[ing] light and balanced as well as bestowing the gifts of increased vitality and longevity. However, these are considered side benefits. The real goal is to know one’s self.”
And, I might add, the self-knowledge it is supposed to bring is that one is united with or part of the Ultimate Reality.
Here is the definition of Hatha Yoga from The Self-Realization Fellowship:
“Hatha Yoga — a system of physical postures, or asanas, whose higher purpose is to purify the body, giving one awareness and control over its internal states and rendering it fit for meditation.”
Yoga is meant to help you reach a certain spiritual state, then, a certain “enlightenment,” not just make you more flexible.
“Depending on where you take yoga, there might be some Sanskrit chanting at the start or at the end of class…” (Popsugar.com)
Why would there be chanting at a “secular” exercise class? The chants are meant to help lead you into Eastern meditation. Some classes use Sanskrit chants that are blatantly pagan. Others may use only the “Om” chant:
“Om is a mantra, or vibration, that is traditionally chanted at the beginning and end of Yoga sessions. Coming from Hinduism and Yoga, the mantra is considered to have high spiritual and creative power but despite this, it is a mantra that can be recited by anyone. It’s both a sound and a symbol rich in meaning and depth and when pronounced correctly it is actually AUM…
“As such AUM is the basic sound of the universe; so by chanting it we are symbolically and physically tuning in to that sound and acknowledging our connection to all other living beings, nature and the universe.“In addition the vibrations and rhythmic pronunciation also have a physical effect on the body by slowing down the nervous system and calming the mind similar to meditation. When the mind is relaxed, your blood pressure decreases and ultimately the health of your heart improves.” (From mindbodygreen.com, my emphasis)
Others might employ only breathing exercises, which have the same purpose. Concentrating on one’s breath plays a role in nearly every type of Eastern meditation.
Every Yoga class is supposed to end the same way, with a “corpse pose,” the Shavasana. It is said to be a “final relaxation for self contemplation and meditation.” This final feeling is the true aim of Yoga. It reminds me of the need to transition from TM or Centering Prayer back to one’s regular level of consciousness.
So, chants or breathing exercises at the beginning, a meditative pose at the end — what is in the middle, besides an altered state of consciousness? (Note: I have never intended, nor do I ever intend, to take a Yoga class, so I cannot say for certain how universal some of these elements are.)
Suggestions regarding Yoga
Given all that, can a Catholic ever attend a Yoga class? Might you be able to find a class which has no orientation towards an altered state of consciousness and nondualist “self-knowledge?” Possibly, though I can’t say how likely that is. Even if you do find one, you should consider whether your attending the class could give other Catholics the wrong impression that there are no problems surrounding Yoga. Is an exercise class worth the potential harm to yourself and others?
Why not try some alternatives, such as:
- individual stretches at home, without calling them Yoga
- Christian stretching alternatives, such as Soul Core or Praise Moves
I have written a whole book on the problems with Centering Prayer, Is Centering Prayer Catholic? I won’t repeat all the findings here. I do want to say a bit about altered states of consciousness, though.
Fr. Thomas Keating, one of the creators of the Centering Prayer method has said:
“I saw psychotherapy right away as what God has been secretly doing for centuries by other names; that is, He searches through our personal history and heals what needs to be healed—the wounds of childhood or our own self-inflicted wounds. He preserves whatever was good in each stage of life and brings it to full flowering through the graces of spiritual progress and divine union. If you want to call this higher states of consciousness or if you want to call it advanced stages of faith, hope, and charity, that is up to you.”
Of course God can use psychotherapy. However, neither psychological processes nor higher states of consciousness has anything to do with Christian perfection. Fr. Keating equates all three. No one who has ever experienced infused contemplation would mistake meditation-induced altered states or psychological processes for the same thing.
Fr. Keating even incorporates the negative effects of altered states into his teaching, falsely equating them with the Dark Night of the Soul. He also says:
“So beyond spiritual marriage, there is the Night of Self, the total surrender of personal identity. Expressions of this by Meister Eckhart, the 13th century mystic, sound something like Zen, Mahayana, or Vajrayana Buddhism.”
This is in direct conflict with the CDF:
“In order to draw near to that mystery of union with God, which the Greek Fathers called the divinization of man, and to grasp accurately the manner in which this is realized, it is necessary in the first place to bear in mind that man is essentially a creature, and remains such for eternity, so that an absorbing of the human self into the divine self is never possible, not even in the highest states of grace.”(On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, 14.)
Unlike Yoga and mindfulness, Centering Prayer has no therapeutic use. There is thus no reason to ever practice it. My experience in speaking with Centering Prayer practitioners is that even good Catholics who practice it unknowingly allow errors to seep into their thinking. Some lose all sense of the truth of the Gospel and see Christianity as just one of many paths to the Divine. I strongly urge you not to practice Centering Prayer under any circumstances!
What is mindfulness? Mindfulness. org (publisher of Mindful magazine) defines the practice this way:
“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”
Now, there is nothing problematic in being fully present and “not overly reactive.” However, the page on which this definition is given quickly morphs into recommending mindfulness meditation. The writer recommends relaxing in a typical pose used in eastern meditation and then focusing on one’s breath. This is a New Age meditation technique.
“There are two forms of mindfulness practice. The first is the formal practice of mindfulness, which is commonly referred to as meditation… The informal practice is the rest of your life!”
So, when people speak about “Catholic mindfulness,” or mindfulness in a corporate setting, are they talking about being aware of the present moment (informal mindfulness), or setting aside time for Buddhist meditation (formal mindfulness)? The latter is not ultimately compatible with being a Christian.
Like Centering Prayer, mindfulness is essentially about awareness. In fact, the meditation techniques that are recommended on mindfulness sites are almost the same as Centering Prayer, except that one focuses on one’s breath instead of a “sacred word.”
When asked what the relationship is between Centering Prayer and mindfulness, Fr. Carl Arico of Contemplative Outreach (the official Centering Prayer organization) identified Centering Prayer with daily meditation, and mindfulness with practicing the same attitude throughout the day.
Is mindfulness Buddhist?
Another Catholic proponent of Centering Prayer, writes about the man who has popularized mindfulness in the west:
“[Jon] Kabat-Zinn is a student of Buddhism, but it’s my understanding that MBSR [Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction] explicitly intends to be a non-religious practice, aimed at mental and physical well-being. I’ve only taken one MBSR class, and was taught several practices, including a generic type of meditation, some gentle yoga postures, meditative walking, and ‘body scanning’ (a relaxation technique involving paying attention in a gentle way to each part of the body while sitting or lying down).”
So, a “non-religious practice,” taught and promoted by “a student of Buddhism,” which incorporates not only “a generic type of meditation,” but also Yoga and other practices? Hmm. Sounds pretty religious to me. As in Buddhist, Hindu, or New Age religion.
Few western practitioners of mindfulness know that it is one component of the eight-fold path of Buddhism. It is one of the foundations for Buddhist meditation. In other words, it is central to Buddhist thought and practice. Does that mean a Christian can’t practice it? Not necessarily. We need to look further.
Is mindfulness Christian?
Many Catholics who teach or practice mindfulness equate it with ancient Christian practices such as (acquired) recollection. I have seen claims that mindfulness is inherently Christian. But there is a gulf between the Buddhist mindfulness (which consists in being “non-judgmentally” aware of sensory stimuli, thoughts, and emotions) and Christian recollection. St. Teresa of Avila, who gives us the term recollection, said
“by its means the soul collects together all the faculties and enters within itself to be with God. … Those who are able thus to enclose themselves within the little heaven of their soul where dwells the Creator of both heaven and earth, and who can accustom themselves not to look at anything nor to remain in any place which would preoccupy their exterior senses, may feel sure that they are traveling by an excellent way, and that they will certainly attain to drink of the water from the fountain, for they will journey far in a short time.” (The Way of Perfection, ch. 28)
Far from focusing on its senses, the recollected soul turns aside from the senses to focus solely on God. There are other Christian practices that have some similarities to Buddhist mindfulness: the Practice of the Presence of God and the Examen Prayer, for instance. But these practices likewise are seeking God in the events of the day, not just “non-judgmentally” being aware of what is happening.
I can think of two instances in which it is important for a Christian to be aware of the present moment in a special way: when one is in conversation with another, including with God in prayer, one should listen lovingly and not let the mind wander all over the place. And when one has a duty to fulfill, one should give the mind to that duty to the extent necessary for fulfilling it well. In these instances, being fully present is a virtue.
But is being fully present to my meal, for example, inherently virtuous? Here is a typical mindfulness recommendation:
“Chew slowly. Stop talking. Tune in to the texture of the pasta, the flavor of the cheese, the bright color of the sauce in the bowl, the aroma of the rising steam. Continue this way throughout the course of a meal, and you’ll experience the third-eye-opening pleasures and frustrations of a practice known as mindful eating.”
Frankly, I am reminded of Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisted, wine-tasting to the point of drunkenness. A bit of this sort of thing can be appropriate, especially at special times, but every bite at every meal? What virtue is there in noticing how delectable a food or drink is, beyond an initial thanks to God (and perhaps the cook)?
In contrast to the mindfulness attitude, St. Ignatius of Loyola counsels in Spiritual Exercises:
“While the person is eating, let him consider as if he saw Christ our Lord eating with His Apostles, and how He drinks and how He looks and how He speaks; and let him see to imitating Him. So that the principal part of the intellect shall occupy itself in the consideration of Christ our Lord, and the lesser part in the support of the body; because in this way he will get greater system and order as to how he ought to behave and manage himself…
“Above all, let him guard against all his soul being intent on what he is eating, and in eating let him not go hurriedly, through appetite, but be master of himself, as well in the manner of eating as in the quantity which he eats.”
When we eat together with other family members, we should also engage them in conversation, rather than being focused on the food.
Mindfulness is not a safe practice to mix with Catholicism. I have heard from more than one credible source of Catholics requiring exorcism after dabbling in mindfulness.
Authentic Catholic spirituality does not need Buddhist-inspired mindfulness tacked onto it. Such syncretism is actually fraught with dangers:
“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. … These and similar proposals to harmonize Christian meditation with eastern techniques need to have their contents and methods ever subjected to a thorough-going examination so as to avoid the danger of falling into syncretism.” (On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, 12)
Nor is it prudent to present authentic Catholic spirituality as “Catholic mindfulness,” which can easily confuse the average Catholic who is woefully ignorant in spiritual matters.
What about relieving stress?
Many people use mindfulness to reduce stress or to help regulate depression or other psychological problems. Articles on the benefits of mindfulness and other meditation techniques abound. Yet, as we have seen, meditation practices can be harmful, even seriously harmful, to some.
I cannot see any benefit in teaching a classroom full of kids mindfulness and question its real value in a corporate setting. For the average, healthy person, it opens the door to Eastern meditation and its potential for psychological and spiritual harm, without giving any meaningful benefit.
If you are of average mental health, but sometimes have whirling thoughts (and who doesn’t?), why not:
- imagine the Eucharist in a monstrance and mentally genuflect before Christ
- pray a Hail Mary, slowly and reverently
- gaze at an icon
- say a favorite short prayer, such as “Jesus, I trust in You.”
- Breathe deeply while praying to the Holy Spirit
Such practices can actually sanctify you and your activities.
For those struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, do not stop practicing mindfulness without consulting your doctor. Your doctor should know best if there are other options. I am not a medical professional and I am not intending to give medical advice. It is possible that for some, the potential gain in psychological health may be great enough to outweigh the potential harm.
If you have been considering taking up mindfulness for mental health reasons, explore all options with your doctor first, just as you would if you were considering a new drug.
New Age fads change with the times. The Catholic life of prayer remains the same. The problem we face is not that more people need Eastern meditation methods, but that few Catholics know about the rich spiritual heritage of their own faith.
Here are a few books that can help you be more aware of God during your day:
- The Examen Prayer by Fr. Tim Gallagher
- The Practice of the Presence of God by Br. Lawrence
- Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence by Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade
If you are struggling with fear or doubt, you may also find my book Trusting God with St. Therese helpful. (Please note: these and the links to my book Is Centering Prayer Catholic? are affiliate links. That means you help support this blog when you purchase a book using these links. My husband lost his job earlier this week, so we appreciate every penny!)
The Church has never completely forbidden her children to practice Eastern meditation techniques, but she has seen fit to caution us on their dangers:
“From the point of view of Christian faith, it is not possible to isolate some elements of New Age religiosity as acceptable to Christians while rejecting others. Since the New Age movement makes much of a communication with nature, of cosmic knowledge of a universal good — thereby negating the revealed contents of Christian faith — it cannot be viewed as positive or innocuous. In a cultural environment marked by religious relativism it is necessary to signal a warning against the attempt to place New Age religiosity on the same level as Christian faith, making the difference between faith and belief seem relative, thus creating greater confusion for the unwary. In this regard, it is useful to remember the exhortation of St. Paul, ‘to instruct certain people not to teach false doctrine or to concern themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the plan of God that is to be received by faith’ (1 Tim. 1:3-4).” (Bearer of the Water of Life, 4)
Note 1: I have refrained from naming some Catholics who are promoting Yoga, Centering Prayer, and mindfulness, because I have not conversed with them privately before writing this. I do not want these posts to become a discussion of personalities, but remain focused on the issues.
Note 2: Many of the links in this post lead to sites that promote Eastern meditation. Use caution in your reading.