‘Mindfulness’ has become a bit of a buzzword these days, and to be honest, I haven’t always understood what’s involved. I initially regarded it simply as the practice of being attentive and aware. But the practice of mindfulness goes beyond that description. In the modern clinical sense of the word, it refers to a type of therapy that is offered in many health clinics, hospitals, and work places as a way to relieve anxiety, stress, and depression.
What is ‘mindfulness’?
Mindfulness is a practice that has its roots in Buddhism, and its primary purpose is to ‘awaken’ or ‘liberate’ a person from all desire and suffering. Originally an ancient practice found in Buddhist temples throughout the East, mindfulness meditation began to make inroads in western culture in the early 1960’s when the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh1 – sometimes called the ‘Father of Mindfulness’ – made his first visit to the U.S.A. As the head of a monastic and lay group, Nhất Hạnh began to promulgate his teachings on the moral imperatives known as the ‘Five Mindfulness Trainings’ and the ‘Fourteen Precepts’. “The hallmark of [his] teaching of mindfulness was its basis on conscious breathing and of being fully aware of the present moment – just like the Buddha. He taught that the only way to truly develop peace in oneself and the world is by living in the present moment through the practice of mindfulness.”2
But mindfulness is much more than a set of conscious breathing exercises; it includes practices such as Body Scan Meditation, Hatha Yoga, Sitting Meditation, and Walking Meditation. It is an approach to living that has become an integral part of some mainstream therapies, including Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialetical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), and Mode Deactivation Therapy (MDT), among others.
Mindfulness goes mainstream
Thích Nhât Hanh’s teachings had an enormous influence on thousands of people, including a young biomedical scientist by the name of Jon Kabat-Zinn. In the late 1960’s, Zinn was so inspired by a talk by Zen missionary, Philip Kapleau, that he embarked on the practice of daily meditation. Some years later, as he was pondering his karmic assignment during a two-week vipassana retreat (in 1979), Zinn had a powerful mystical experience that changed the course of his life.3 “It occurred to him that he could share the essence of the meditation and yoga practices he had been learning with people who would never come to a place like the Zen Center by making meditation so commonsensical that anyone would be drawn to it.”4 He set out to develop a vocabulary that would appeal to American people – “that spoke to the heart of the matter, and didn’t focus on the cultural aspects of the traditions out of which the dharma [the teaching or religion of the Buddha] emerged … not because they weren’t ultimately important, but because they would likely cause unnecessary impediments for people who were basically dealing with suffering and seeking some kind of release from it.”5 Zinn went on to become one of the most prominent pioneers of mindfulness in the West, founding the MBSR (an acronym for Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction) Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre in 1979.
Effects of Meditation on the Brain
Buddhism does not involve the worship of God, and because mindfulness is often learned in a secular manner, it is not generally regarded as a religious practice. However, in her book, A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness, Susan Brinkmann points out that “individuals often report spiritual benefits from their practice.”6 “Whether or not the Buddhist roots are promoted,” she writes, “mindfulness as therapy overlaps with mindfulness as spirituality … they likely interact and contribute to one another’s development. … This is especially true because mindfulness meditation is known to induce an altered state of consciousness.”7
The idea of inducing an altered state of consciousness might sound ominous, but recent studies in neurotheology8 have shown that all forms of meditation can alter the brain. “Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, … has been scanning the brains of religious people for more than a decade. Newberg has found that people who meditate, from Franciscan nuns to Tibetan Buddhists, go dark in the parietal lobe – the area of the brain that is related to sensory information and helps us to form our sense of self. He also found some areas of increased activity in the frontal lobes, which handle focused attention, in a person who was praying intently while being subjected to a SPECT [single-photon emission computerized tomography] scan. ‘The more you focus on something – whether that’s math or auto racing or football or God – the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain,’ Newberg says.”9 In other words, we are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we worship (Ps 115:8). Given that the focus of mindfulness is ‘self’ and the focus of Christian meditation is ‘God’, these are important implications.
In Psalm 8:3, we read, “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” These words of Scripture remind us that we are always in God’s thoughts – that we are always under His Providence and care. But it is only when we turn to Him in prayer that we become aware of this.
Many people do not realize that the practice of meditation is a fundamental part of our Catholic faith that has a long-standing history in the Church. Christian meditation is characterized by composure of heart and is, above all, a quest. In it, “The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking.”10 In meditation, we engage our thoughts, imagination, emotions; our desire is to arrive at “the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him.”11 “This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ.”12 St. Francis de Sales writes, “By often turning your eyes on him in meditation, your whole soul will be filled with him. You will learn his ways and form your actions after the pattern of his. He is ‘the light of the world’, and therefore it is in him and by him and for him that we must be instructed and enlightened. … Just as little children learn to speak by listening to their mothers and lisping words with them, so also by keeping close to our Savior in meditation and observing his words, actions, and affections we learn by his grace to speak, act, and will like him.”13
Although Christian mystics such as St. John of the Cross speak of the need for purification and detachment from the world of the senses, this detachment is not meant as an end in itself. St. John Paul II writes, “[St. John of the Cross] proposes detachment from the world in order to unite oneself to that which is outside of the world – by this I do not mean nirvana, but a personal God. Union with Him comes about not only through purification, but through love. Carmelite mysticism begins at the point where the reflections of Buddha end, together with his instructions for the spiritual life. In the active and passive purification of the human soul, in those specific nights of the senses and the spirit, Saint John of the Cross sees, above all, the preparation necessary for the human soul to be permeated with the living flame of love.”14
Buddhist vs Christian Meditation
There are many important distinctions between the practice of Buddhist mindfulness and Christian meditation, some of which only become apparent as we go deeper in examining their fundamental aims. Brinkmann writes, “For the Christian, the focus is on God. The prayer seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking. But for the Buddhist, the focus is on the self. The aim is to achieve self-enlightenment with the eventual goal of achieving ‘nirvana’, the state in which one extinguishes belief in the self and ceases to exist.”15 Maintaining control of one’s awareness on a single point or the rhythm of his breathing is key to the practice of mindfulness. “But in Christian meditation, the exact opposite is true. As one’s commitment to the Gospel and trust in God deepens, the Christian gradually and willingly relinquishes control of one’s prayer life to the Almighty, which is essential to growth in prayer and intimacy with God.”16
Where the Christian believes that Jesus is “the true light that enlightens every man” (Jn 1:9), Buddhists believe that every person must find their own path to enlightenment. Buddha’s final words to his disciples were, “Make of yourself a light. Rely upon yourself; do not rely upon anyone else. Make my teachings your light. Rely upon them; do not depend upon any other teaching.”17
“Where mindfulness offers a momentary escape from anxiety, the Christian alternative offers a solution to anxiety. Instead of being aimed at a momentary improvement, the Christian version offers permanent transformation.”- Susan Brinkmann, O.C.D.S.
The Buddhist view of the world is fundamentally negative; “[it] was not designed to make us happier, ‘but to radically change our sense of self and perception of the world.’’18 Christianity, on the other hand, has a positive attitude towards the world. Scripture tells us that when God created it, He declared that it was ‘good’ (cf. Gen 1:31). Our faith is distinguished by hope and the promise of joy. “These things I have spoken to you,” said Jesus, “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full (Jn 15:11). Where Christians believe that God created every person as a unique individual in His image and likeness, Buddha believed that individuality must perish.
“The aim of Buddhist meditation … is to extinguish belief in the self and cease to exist. This is very different from the Christian who aims to die to self, not by ceasing to exist but by casting off the ‘old self’ (Rom 6:6) and putting on the new self (Col 3:10). – Susan Brinkmann, O.C.D.S.
Pope St. John Paul II observed that, “The ‘enlightenment’ experienced by Buddha comes down to the conviction that the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and of suffering for man. To liberate oneself from this evil, one must free oneself from this world, necessitating a break with the ties that join us to external reality – ties existing in our human nature, in our psyche, in our bodies. The more we are liberated from these ties, the more we become indifferent to what is in the world, and the more we are freed from suffering, from the evil that has its source in the world.”19 Christians see a purpose in suffering; we recognize in it a path to purification, an invitation to maturity and growth in love and compassion, and a way to draw closer to God. One of the central tenets of Buddhism, on the other hand, is that suffering is something from which we need to escape.
According to the Buddhist tradition, observes St. John Paul II, “We do not free ourselves from evil through the good which comes from God; we liberate ourselves only through detachment from the world, which is bad. The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world. To save oneself means, above all, to free oneself from evil by becoming indifferent to the world, which is the source of evil. This is the culmination of the spiritual process.”20
“In mindfulness, one focuses on the present moment to become aware of it, to escape the doing mode and enter into the being mode in order to awake to the experience of each moment. In the Sacrament of the Present Moment, we dwell in the present not to enter into a state of awareness but into a state of abandonment to the will of God. These are two entirely different aims. One is focused on what we’re doing in the present moment and the other is focused on what He’s doing in the present moment. Instead of being about moment-to-moment awareness, it’s about moment-to-moment surrender. Put simply, the Christian remains in the present moment not for the sake of the present moment, but for the sake of hearing the voice of the God who speaks to it in that moment.” – Susan Brinkmann, O.C.D.S.
Know your faith!
In its Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote, “The majority of the great religions which have sought union with God in prayer have also pointed out ways to achieve it. Just as ‘the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions,’ (Decl. Nostra aetate, n. 2) neither should these ways be rejected out of hand simply because they are not Christian. On the contrary, one can take from them what is useful so long as the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and requirements are never obscured.21
The difficulty here is that Christianity and the religions of the Far East (especially Buddhism) have “an essentially different way of perceiving the world.”22 For this reason, writes St. John Paul II, “it is not inappropriate to caution those Christians who enthusiastically welcome certain ideas originating in the religious traditions of the Far East – for example, techniques and methods of meditation and ascetical practice. In some quarters these have become fashionable, and are accepted rather uncritically. First one should know one’s own spiritual heritage well and consider whether it is right to set it aside lightly.”23
Sharon van der Sloot
1 Thích Nhất Hạnh is also a well-known peace activist. In 1966, he met with Martin Luther King to urge him to publicly denounce the Vietnam War, an encounter that led to Dr. King to give his famous speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” (available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OC1Ru2p8OfU) at the Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967. That same year, King nominated Nhất Hạnh for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his work opposing the Vietnam War. (The prize was not awarded to anyone that year.) Nhất Hạnh also met the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, in 1966. When Vietnam threatened to block Nhất Hạnh’s re-entry to the country, Merton wrote an essay of solidarity entitled, “Nhat Hanh is My Brother.” Nhất Hạnh is now recognized as a dharmacharya (teacher) and is the spiritual head of the Từ Hiếu Pagoda and associated monasteries.
2 Susan Brinkmann, O.C.D.S., A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness (Bessemer, AL: Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, 2017), Kindle Edition, 18.
3 In Buddhist practice, karma is defined as “the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences.” (“Karma,” English Oxford Living Dictionary [online dictionary], available from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/karma; Internet; accessed 19 January 2018.) Brinkmann writes, “Karma is the law of moral causation, or cause and effect, which is based upon the idea that nothing happens by accident to a person. … The Buddhist views karma as a way to explain why one person is born into luxury and another is homeless or why one man is a genius and another has severe mental challenges. According to the law of karma, none of these inequalities is accidental, but each is the result of something the person did either in this or a past life for which he or she is being punished or rewarded.” (Brinkman, A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness, 60-61.) Vipassana means to see things as they really are. It is a type of meditation that includes contemplation and introspection through awareness and observation of bodily sensations.
4 Brinkmann, A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness, 22.
6 Ibid., 52.
8 “Neurotheology, also known as ‘spiritual neuroscience’, is an emerging field of study that seeks to understand the relationship between the brain science and religion.” Alireza Sayadmansour, “Neurotheology: The relationship between brain and religion,” NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information [website]; available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3968360/; Internet; accessed 23 January 2018.
9 Brinkmann, A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness, 88. Cf. Haggarty, Barbara Bradley, “Prayer May Reshape Your Brain – and Your Reality” (May 20, 2009), National Public Radio, Inc. [online website]; available from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104310443; Internet; accessed 23 January 2018.
10 Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 2705.
11 Ibid., 2708.
13 St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, trans. John K. Ryan (New York: Image Books Doubleday, 1st ed. 1972; this edition 1989), 81.
14 Pope St. John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, trans. Jenny McPhee and Martha McPhee, ed. Vittorio Messori (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1994), 86-87. Buddhism does not believe in the existence of the soul, and instead teaches the doctrine of the an-atta, or ‘no self’. … It’s denial of soul has practical import: It teaches us not to be ‘attached,’ not to send our soul out in desire, not to love. Instead of personal, individual, free-willed agape (active love), Buddhism teaches an impersonal, universal feeling of compassion (karuna). … Karuna and agape lead the disciple to do similar, strikingly selfless deeds – but in strikingly different spirits.” (Peter Kreeft, “Comparing Christianity & Buddhism,” available from http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/religions_buddhism.htm; Internet; accessed 23 January 2018.)
15 Brinkmann, A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness, 73.
16 Ibid., 76.
17 Anthony E. Clark and Carl E. Olson, “Catholicism and Buddhism,” Ignatius Insight (February 5, 2005); available from http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2005/clarkolson_cathbuddh_feb05.asp; Internet; accessed 22 January. 2018.
18 “Brief Summary of Mindfulness Research,” quoted by Brinkmann, A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness, 49.
19 Pope St. John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 85-86.
20 Ibid., 86.
21 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation (1989), 16. Italics added.
22 St. John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 89.
23 Ibid., 89-90.