On September 6, Spain’s Congregation for the Faith published a controversial, but very needed, document on authentic Christian prayer. Echoing the CDF’s On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation — which will be 30 years old in October — they called methods of meditation that stem from Buddhism “incompatible with the faith.” A footnote specifically mentions mindfulness.
So far, there is no official English translation of the text. News reports in English are just beginning to appear. In this post, I wish to analyze what the text says (and doesn’t say) about mindfulness. I will use the English version provided by Google Translate — it is surprisingly good — with a few corrections or clarifications when necessary in brackets .
In October 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) published the authoritative document Orationis formas, better known as On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. The CDF, under Cardinal Ratzinger, enumerated problematic assumptions and practices in many new forms of so-called prayer. Rather than list each problematic practice and the names of those who teach them, Orationis formas (OF) laid out general principles of prayer. Bishops and bishops’ conferences throughout the world were expected to apply its teaching to the specific situation in their dioceses.
Unfortunately, most bishops seem to have ignored the document. Archbishop Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City was one who didn’t, producing the only document from a member of the hierarchy that specifically condemns Centering Prayer. The bishops of Argentina issued a document on the New Age, (which you can read in English through Google Translate), but it focuses more on occult practice than on those coming from Eastern religions. South Korea’s bishops later condemned Eastern religious practices such as Ki-gong. In 2015, retired Bishop Bruskewitz warned of the dangers of yoga.
But most of the world’s bishops seem to have ignored the issue.
The bishops of Spain have produced the most eloquent and thorough document on distinguishing between authentic and dangerous spiritual practices since at least Archbishop Carrera. Why Spain? Why now? According to many accounts online, mindfulness practice (among other Hindu and Buddhist techniques) is booming in Spain, while the pews of Catholic churches are emptying. What do the bishops themselves say?
“We are witnessing the resurgence of a spirituality that is presented in response to the growing ‘demand’ for emotional well-being, personal balance, enjoyment of life or [the] serenity [of reconciling opposites] …; a spirituality understood as cultivation of one’s interiority so that man finds himself, and that often does not lead to God. [To this end], many people, even having grown up in a Christian environment, resort to meditation and prayer techniques and methods that have their origin in religious traditions outside Christianity and the rich spiritual heritage of the Church. In some cases this is accompanied by the effective abandonment of the Catholic faith, even without [pretense]. Other times [people] try to incorporate these methods as a ‘complement’ of [their] faith to achieve a more intense experience of it. This assimilation is frequently done without proper discernment about its compatibility with the Christian faith, with the anthropology that derives from it and with the Christian message of salvation.” (No. 2)
Ignorance of Catholic Spirituality
The title of the document is My Soul Thirsts for God, the Living God (Ps 42:3): Doctrinal Guidelines on Christian Prayer. I will abbreviate it as My Soul Thirsts. The heart of every person thirsts for God, but in today’s culture, people seek to slake that thirst outside the Church. Ignorant of the tradition of deep spirituality found in the Church, and having little real conversion of heart, Catholics are turning to other traditions, particularly Buddhism, to find satisfaction.
“[T]he basic challenge is to ‘show’ men the beauty of the face of God manifested in Christ Jesus so that they are attracted to Him. If we want everyone to know and love Jesus Christ and, through Him, [to come to a personal encounter] with God, the Church can not be perceived only as a moral educator or defender of truths, but above all as a teacher of spirituality and [a place in which to come to have a deeply human] experience of the living God.” (My Soul Thirsts, no. 5)
Wow! I could not agree more. Teach people who Jesus is and how much He desires an intimate relationship with them, and the hungry will seek to be filled in Him. Teach them about deep prayer, and that God intends it for them, and they will persevere through difficulties.
Now, of course, we cannot speak the truth about prayer, without also speaking about errors regarding prayer. And this is what the bishops of Spain go on to do.
Buddhist Methodology is Problematic
I wish I had time to analyze the whole document in detail, but I want to move on to the parts that most relate to current debates among Catholics in the US. I too want to speak to the specific needs of our place and time.
We are seeing a resurgence of Eastern (non-Christian) techniques infiltrating the Church. In the 70’s and 80’s, the main culprit was Centering Prayer. Centering Prayer did not catch on with most people who are orthodox Catholics. Although some Catholics mistakenly call their truly Catholic prayer “Centering Prayer,” the practice itself, as taught by those who coined the term, has always been most popular among dissenters and those called “liberal” Catholics (as well as non-Catholics).
In the twenty-first century, the culprit is mindfulness. Mindfulness is being practiced and promoted by the very Catholics who would never consider doing Centering Prayer. Here we have a practice that even many Buddhists refer to as “stealth Buddhism” being marketed as a complement to traditional Catholic spirituality.
Thank God, the bishops of Spain noted and addressed this danger! Let’s explore how they did so.
Read the main text of My Soul Thirsts and you will not see the word “mindfulness.” So does that mean that the bishops have nothing to say about it? Not at all!
As anyone who has followed the Amoris Laeititia discussion knows, footnotes matter. Similarly, the first footnote of OF defines the scope of the document. The importance of footnotes is often emphasized in discussions on the documents of Vatican II and earlier councils.
The Spanish bishops write of Buddhist methodology:
“We cannot enter here in[to] an analysis of the differences between different currents. We will refer, rather, to some common elements.” (My Soul Thirsts, no. 11)
This is similar to the CDF’s teaching. However, just as the CDF mentioned Zen, TM, and Yoga in the first footnote of OF, My Soul Thirsts mentions one (and only one) specific practice in a footnote: mindfulness. Here is what it says:
“Many times these meditation techniques, such as mindfulness, try to hide their religious origin and spread in movements that could be gathered under the New Age denomination, [inasmuchas] they are proposed [as an] alternative to the Christian faith.” (My Soul Thirsts, footnote 8)
So, even though mindfulness is often presented as “secular,” or as some would have it, “merely brain exercises,” the roots of mindfulness are Buddhist. Mindfulness is thus included in the warnings given in My Soul Thirsts, particularly those that speak of Buddhist methodology.
But it’s Not Proposed as Prayer!
I can hear this criticism coming. If one does not propose mindfulness as an “alternative to the Christian faith,” but merely as a psychological foundation upon which one can then add the Catholic faith, where is the problem?
Let’s be clear and honest: the Church has never said, nor have the Spanish bishops, that merely doing exercises, whether physical (as in Yoga) or mental (as in mindfulness), stripped of all their religious elements and intents, is opposed to the Catholic faith. The Church is most concerned about these practices being used as prayer. So that means we can engage in them without danger, as long as we don’t confuse them for prayer, right?
Not so fast! The lack of a specific condemnation is not the same as a green light. I have written before of how some people take sections of Nostra Aetate and OF out of context to make it appear that the green light has been given. Such interpretations distort Church teaching.
Here is a passage on this question from my most recent book, The Q & A Guide to Mental Prayer:
“In the document On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) addressed the use of bodily positions and physical exercise in prayer:
“‘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 no. 28.]
“The Church here notes that practices like Yoga, presumably even if they are done purely for exercise, can lead you to think that God is somehow touching you. The danger is real. According to an article in Psychology Today, more than 90 percent of those who take up Yoga do so simply for exercise. Two-thirds of them change their motive after beginning Yoga, most often continuing for the sake of ‘spiritual benefit or self-actualization.’ In Catholic circles, one author styles herself as the Catholic Yogi, seeing her Yoga practice as prayer. Others teach or promote ‘Ignatian Yoga,’ in which groups are led through Yoga poses in front of the Tabernacle. Needless to say, Yoga is not in line with the teaching of Saint Ignatius, and Yoga is not Christian prayer.
“The CDF reminds us that the Christian life is one of conversion. Yoga and similar practices can make you feel spiritual, even as if you are experiencing deep prayer, when you may actually be living a life of sin. That’s because these practices are geared toward the feeling of oneness with God or the universe.” (The Q & A Guide to Mental Prayer, Question 81)
Applying this Principle to Mindfulness
Taking their cue from the CDF’s note about the dangers of Yoga, the Spanish bishops make a move that I have also made in recent discussions on mindfulness. They start with teaching about physical exercise and apply it to mental exercise:
“the goal of Zen meditation is that state of stillness and peace that is achieved by accepting events and circumstances as they come, giving up any commitment to change the world and reality. Therefore, if with this method the person is satisfied only with a certain inner serenity and confuses it with the peace that only God can give, it would become an obstacle to the authentic practice of Christian prayer and to the encounter with God.” (My Soul Thirsts, no. 12)
Just as Yoga stretches can produce a euphoria, Buddhist meditation practices can produce a “serenity” that is easily confused with the peace of Christ. In fact, some mindfulness practitioners have shown this confusion in their conversations with me. They believe that if they feel peace, the practice that produces it necessarily comes from God and draws them closer to Him. Jesus said, however,
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.” (Jn 14:27)
Merely secular (which literally means of the world) exercises, whether mental or otherwise, simply cannot impart the peace of Christ. Saying otherwise is directly contradicting Jesus. The peace of Jesus lies in placing our trust completely in Him, knowing that He is love and that He will use every circumstance for our ultimate good if we surrender to Him. This peace is thus a by-product of supernatural hope. It deepens as conversion deepens. Mental exercises cannot grant it.
“The criterion of authenticity of Christian prayer is filial trust in God, to accept that His will always be done, never doubting Him, and putting [oneself] at the service of his plan of salvation.” (My Soul Thirsts, no. 23)
If most people who take up mindfulness do so for mental well-being, not religious reasons, that does not mean that their practice is free of danger. Perhaps like Yoga practitioners their views and motives will change. Are they well-enough formed in the faith to refrain from seeing their mindfulness practice as something that draws them closer to God? Do they already have a practice of daily mental prayer? If not, how likely are they to start one, once they experience the “benefits” of mindfulness?
At this point, we don’t know how “secular” mindfulness practices may affect religious practice. As far as I know, no scientific study on the subject has been conducted. But it is reasonable to think that for some at least, mindfulness could “become an obstacle to the authentic practice of Christian prayer and to the encounter with God.” In fact, in her book A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness, Susan Brinkmann mentions a case where this has actually happened — a Catholic father who gave up praying the family Rosary because he perceived more benefit from his practice of mindfulness.
Using “part” of mindfulness practice
But what if one were to remove all the Buddhist elements from mindfulness practice? Would it then be okay?
One problem with this approach is discerning which elements are intrinsically Buddhist. Some maintain that if you just remove teaching about Buddhist non-dualism from mindfulness instruction, the practice of mindfulness can be incorporated wholesale into a Catholic’s routine. As I showed in my post on misinterpretations of Nostra Aetate and OF, that is not at all clear based on Catholic teaching. We must ask: Is mindfulness practice so intertwined with the Buddhist worldview and Buddhist goals that the two cannot be separated without a result that can no longer be called mindfulness?
What does My Soul Thirsts say?
“Sometimes Zen meditation is practiced by Christian groups and church organizations. Some even speak of a so-called Christian Zen. In principle, this would not represent an obstacle if it were limited to incorporating certain techniques into the pedagogy of Christian prayer that predispose the body and spirit to the silence necessary for prayer, but often times it goes beyond this, having no little impact on the understanding of what prayer is. As a rule of discernment, it is good to differentiate between particular techniques and the method. The method, considered as a complete itinerary of meditation, is inseparable from the goal to be achieved and from the anthropological, religious and theological assumptions from which it is born and that sustain it. On the other hand, concrete techniques to help reach a certain disposition prior to prayer could be separated from the whole method and its foundations. It is not possible, however, to have true Christian prayer that assumes a method in its entirety that does not originate in, or departs from, the content of faith.” (No. 14; this paragraph translated by Veronica Salazar)
Both the CDF and the Spanish bishops appear to be speaking about using certain elements found in Eastern meditation as an immediate preparation for prayer, such as concentrating on one’s breath for a few minutes before praying, in order to calm one’s whirling thoughts. Neither is green-lighting, for example, practicing a body scan twice a day for 20 minutes at a time as a means of praying better. Indeed, such an interpretation flies in the face of the bishops’ rejection of making Eastern techniques a “complement” to one’s Catholicism, as I quoted earlier:
“Other times [people] try to incorporate these methods as a ‘complement’ of [their] faith to achieve a more intense experience of it. This assimilation is frequently done without proper discernment about its compatibility with the Christian faith, with the anthropology that derives from it and with the Christian message of salvation.” (My Soul Thirsts, no. 2)
Which parts of mindfulness practice are inseparable from a Buddhist anthropology? The answer to this question still needs to be clarified.
There are certain isolated elements of mindfulness that we know Catholics can use, because Christians in the West have used them all along. They are not essentially Buddhist. They are simply human. Things like noticing when your thoughts and feelings are not in line with God’s will; not being preoccupied with either the past or the future; and really listening when others are speaking. None of these practices — in isolation or combination — equates entirely with what secularists, Buddhists, or the Spanish bishops mean by mindfulness.
We have the practice of the presence of God, the sacrament of the present moment, the discernment of spirits, and the teaching and example of the saints regarding loving our neighbor. No meditation technique (unless we are speaking of meditating on the truths of the faith, which is a different definition of the word) is either taught or practiced by any saint. There is simply not the least bit of evidence for it. Conversion of heart and Christian detachment are what lead to a Christian way of living in the present.
What if you are under the care of a psychologist who has prescribed mindfulness, complete with daily meditation techniques? Discuss your concerns as a Catholic with him or her, asking if there may be other therapies you could try instead, or if the practice can be substantially modified. Abruptly stopping on your own would be imprudent.
Thank you, bishops!
I wish I had time to go into more detail on My Soul Thirsts. I hope to analyze it in light of Centering Prayer on my other blog. I will probably write about the positive aspects of the document in a future post. But now I have family duties and other projects to attend to.
I cannot thank Spain’s Doctrinal Congregation enough for this beautiful document on what it means to pray as a Christian. Church renewal will not happen unless we see a renewal of personal prayer. As long as we run after Buddhist techniques, we hinder that renewal.
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