Written by Robert Miole
Mark Shea recently posted about the latest ‘Satanic panic’ piece published by National Catholic Register, this time warning against the dangers of mindfulness meditation which, like yoga, will leave you frothing at the mouth with a pool of mysterious blood at your feet as you emerge from the ecstasy of communing with the snake spirit at the base of your spine. Or something like that. Because the whole NCR interview reads like it was written by someone who has at best a rudimentary knowledge of mindfulness meditation, mixed with a fair bit of prejudice and fear regarding Eastern religions, and ending with an unjustified warning that this will lead to “spiritual disaster” and the “influence of spiritual entities.”
Combined with a healthy prayer life, practicing mindfulness meditation has equipped me with some seriously powerful tools to deal with my depression and anxiety. I would hate for another Catholic struggling with mental illness to be fearful of something so incredibly helpful because someone told them a demon would infest their mind if they try it.
She begins the interview with an okay definition of mindfulness:
“‘Mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism and seeks to bring about a state of active, open attention on the present by which one observes his or her thoughts and feelings as if from a distance, without judging them to be good or bad. Although it is promoted as a non-spiritual practice used as a means of vanquishing stress and anxiety, it is practiced through one of several forms of Buddhist meditation, such as ‘Breathing Space Meditation,’ ‘Body Scan Meditation’ and ‘Expanding Awareness Meditation.’ Connecting with God is not the goal of any of these types of meditation.”
Yes, mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist anapanasati (“mindfulness of breathing”) — that is, awareness of the physical sensation of one’s breath at the nostrils or abdomen is used as an anchor during meditation. If the author is against breathing practices because they seem too pagan for her, she should take it up with St. Gregory of Palamas and a host of Eastern fathers who would argue the contrary.
We ruminate endlessly over what someone said earlier, or what happened a decade ago, or what we should do tomorrow. It’s exhausting, and the mindful approach is to create a gap in the endless stream of thoughts and emotions flooding our brain. So when a thought or emotion begs for our attention, we gently acknowledge it, and return to an awareness of the breath. In meditation, we do this over and over and over again, gently with–as St. Teresa of Avila would say–”determined determination.” With repeated practice, we come to the realization that those thoughts and emotions cease to hold our being hostage; we create a gap for virtue to take hold, to choose a right course of action unburdened by anger or anxiety.The body scan meditation and breathing space meditation she mentions are adjuncts to the breath meditation that facilitates an awareness of what’s going on in our minds and bodies in the present moment, and with a Catholic outlook, can help us to choose virtuous action freed from what the Church Fathers would call the passions.
Further on in the interview, she says things that betray her assertion that she has any sort of expert knowledge regarding mindfulness meditation or Eastern religions. She writes:
“These practices induce altered states of consciousness through the use of techniques designed to empty or manage the mind. This gives people a false reprieve from their worries. In an era when we are suffering record levels of depression and anxiety, who wouldn’t want to escape their problems for at least a little while? Of course this is appealing!”
As I noted above, practicing mindfulness meditation isn’t a momentary escape from your problems or an attempt to empty the mind to escape suffering. Rather, mindfulness trains one to notice when we are subtly trying to push unpleasant experiences away from our consciousness, and we suffer all the more for it. By bringing your awareness up close to these difficult thoughts and emotions–by being gently curious about them and giving them your attention–they begin to lessen their grip on your heart and mind. When your reactions are automatic, habituated, they rule the way you think and behave without your knowing it, without your desiring it.
One of the things that Buddhists and Catholics can joyfully affirm together is that one should confront one’s suffering courageously and in doing so lessen the suffering of those around us. This author has nothing worthwhile to contribute both in attitude and actual knowledge about the subject. I wanted to do a full takedown of this piece, including the awful reasoning regarding the evidence-based research on mindfulness. Alas, this operating room nurse has neither the time or talent for such things.
(image via Pixabay)