Judging Mindfulness

The connection of Mindfulness to New Age principles cannot be severed

As the spiritual influence of the Church has waned in the West, it has created a spiritual void in the lives of many people.  Devoid of religion, the people still desire to be “spiritual but not religious.”  Nature abhors a vacuum, so this void is being filled by a great influx of Eastern spiritual practices.  Promising inner peace and enlightenment without any obligations, these practices continue to grow among the religious “Nones.”  Not only that, but many Christians themselves are turning to these practices and looking for ways to incorporate them into Christian spirituality — the most recent attempt being the Buddhist practice of Mindfulness.

Mindfulness finds its origins in modern Theravada Buddhism and seeks to create an interior disposition within the practitioner of simple awareness and acceptance, without judgment, of what he or she is thinking or feeling.  Or, to consult a prominent Catholic proponent of Mindfulness, Dr. Gregory Bottaro: Mindfulness is “paying attention to the present moment without judgment or criticism.”

Buddhists use this technique to “empty the mind,” controlling the flow of their thoughts and focusing their awareness on a “single point” in hopes of creating an altered state of consciousness.  As a technique for prayer, mindfulness obscures the Christian purpose of prayer which is to raise the heart and mind to God.  As a form of Christian prayer, then, mindfulness cannot be “baptized.”  Most of its proponents readily admit that, but instead they propose it as an aid to prayer by helping practitioners to control distractions.  What enthusiasts like Bottaro are proposing is that it be used as a psychological technique to be more aware of the present moment, clearing the way for an invasion of grace.

By moving from the realm of theology to philosophical psychology or anthropology, we are able to change the grounds on which we examine Mindfulness.  Because practical psychology borrows its first principles from philosophical psychology, we must first ask whether a technique is anthropologically sound before we begin to ask whether it works in practice.  Once placed under the lens of Catholic anthropology, we find that Mindfulness ultimately fails even as a means to deepening prayer.

When we speak of the phenomenon of distractions, the imagination and, to a smaller degree, the memory are almost always to blame.  These interior senses provide the raw material upon which the intellect operates.  The imagination forms images (called phantasms) based on exterior sense data and memories of past events.  The intellect abstracts the particulars from the image and then seeks to increase in knowledge and understanding of reality.  It does so by performing three acts: apprehension, judgment, and reasoning.  The first two, apprehension and judgment, occur almost simultaneously.  Apprehension identifies the nature of the thing and judgment decides whether it is true or not.  Reasoning takes off from there organizing and increasing knowledge.

By providing the raw material of our thoughts, the imagination in a certain way dictates the pattern of thoughts.  Those with an overactive imagination or one that has been conditioned to constantly develop images (from too much TV and the like) are plagued by potential distractions, feeding the intellect “spam” against which the intellect must battle.  If it latches on to the image and tries to include it in its current line of reasoning, we say it has been distracted.  If it judges it as spam, then it commands the imagination to give it an image related to the matter at hand.  The more often it does this, the greater the control it gains over the imagination and the less prone to distracting images the person becomes.  Judging properly then becomes the key to managing distractions.

Returning to the question of Mindfulness: Bottaro suggests it as a technique for quieting “interior chatter.”  Put in anthropological terms, he means learning to govern the imagination.  Based on the anthropological principles above, we have to admit that his solution is problematic.  Rather than judging distractions for what they are, he proposes that we pay “attention to the present moment without judgment or criticism.”  His solution, in short, is to abort the process of reasoning, cutting off the second and third acts of the mind (“judgment and criticism”).  Or, in order to control an interior sense, we should shut down the reasoning process, which is the exact power that can control it.  This may accomplish the goal of driving out distractions but not by governing the imagination.  A mind that doesn’t operate can’t be distracted.  To practice this regularly, shutting down what is normal operation of the intellect, would necessarily lead away from mental health and not towards it.

Mindfulness also acts as a force towards Buddhism, not so much for “spiritual” reasons but for anthropological ones.  Recall that apprehension and judgment happen simultaneously.  If we are to shut down the second act, then we must also avoid the first.  This means that as a technique for “emptying the mind,” it leads to a Buddhist goal: an empty mind.  An empty mind leads not towards God but away.  In my experience, at least, this rings true as many Catholics who begin by practicing Mindfulness move to adopt more and more New Age techniques.  The connection of Mindfulness to New Age principles cannot be severed. We are unable to “baptize” Mindfulness and include it among authentically Catholic practices.


Rob holds an MA in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary, with a concentration in moral theology. He has a passion for spreading the joy of the Catholic Faith through teaching and writing.

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