The Mindless Catholic: Does “Mindfulness” Have a Place In Catholic Spirituality and Practice?

Image Shutterstock.

Image Shutterstock.

My fellow Patheosi, Will Duquette, at Cry Woof was wondering about the psychological technique of mindfulness and how it fits into Catholic spirituality.  He writes…

From what I’ve gathered, mindfulness involves quieting your thoughts and being aware and alert to your body and your environment.  As such, it’s a way of being present, of living in the moment; and apparently the goal is to start small and increase this mindfulness in all parts of life.  A caveat: I gather that mindfulness is a part of Eastern spirituality, and I’m sure that there’s more to it in that context than I’ve given above.   

Because he has some concerns that mindfulness may not be completely consistent with Catholic spirituality he concludes, mindfulness seems like a nice place to visit on my way from being scattered to being collected, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

Should Catholicism Be Mind-less?

I thought I’d throw in my .02 because Catholic spirituality does, in fact, encourage us to not just visit, but live in a mindful state of being as much as humanly possible.  Why?  Because it is in this mindful state–as opposed to a superficial, busy, mindless state– where we will most likely be able to encounter God and God’s grace from moment to moment in our lives.  Will is correct that, in most popular uses, mindfulness is often associated with Buddhism, but that’s only because–as a spiritual system that is not necessarily theistic, secular therapists are more comfortable working within a Buddhist framework than a more overtly theistic spirituality like Christianity.  That said, mindfulness, as spiritual discipline, is actually an integral part of any spiritual system that values contemplative prayer–especially Catholicism.  I’ll come back to this in a moment, but first let’s take a little closer look at what mindfulness is.

Mindfulness Defined

“Mindfulness” is a quality psychologists define as the ability to be (1) present in the moment and (2) consciously able to choose the best response out of a number of emotional possibilities.  Mindfulness is the opposite of being reactive.  For instance, if my kid was getting on my nerves and I was being reactive, I would feel angry and yell at him  But if my kid was getting on my nerves and I was being mindful, I would feel angry, be aware of that anger, and be able to decide whether this was a time that was better served by yelling (there are times…) or by doing something else (e.g., redirecting, gently correcting, etc.)  Where reactivity is emotion that is automatically and thoughtlessly translated into action, mindfulness is the active observation of my emotions that leads to a greater awareness of possible, conscious responses I can make to my emotions.

The opposite of mindfulness is a sort of superficial, reactive, busy approach to life that doesn’t consider the deeper, spiritual significance of this moment.

Mindfulness has been associated with better emotional, relational, and spiritual health and an important source of a healthy self-image (because it facilitates self-control and peacefulness).

But is it Kosher? I Mean, um,…Catholic?

As I note above, some Catholics who are aware of mindfulness as a psychological technique have concerns about it because most psychological writing on mindfulness draws from a more Buddhist tradition. This, however, is more by accident than by necessity.  Buddhism is attractive to secular psychologists because it is an a-theistic religion; that is to say, the belief in God is optional for Buddhists, who are chiefly concerned with personal enlightenment.  Be that as it may, while Christians are right to be cautious about any approaches drawn exclusively from Eastern mystical traditions,  Catholics have been practicing our own form of mindfulness for 2000 years, only we call it, “active contemplation.”

Mindfulness = Active Contemplation

In general “contemplation” is a kind of Christian prayer that helps us achieve greater intimacy with God, greater awareness of what God is saying to us, and greater clarity of how God wants us to respond.   More specifically, “active contemplation” is the ability to use the mundane tasks of everyday life to this end. To be actively contemplative allows me to see the guy cutting me off in traffic as a metaphor for God’s patience with me when I cross him and a call to greater develop greater patience with others in return.  To be actively contemplative allows me to hear God giving me advice about a situation I’ve been praying about–through the mouth of my 7 year old who is talking about some completely unrelated thing.  to be actively contemplative means having the self-possession to feel one way, but be able to choose the better way despite those feelings.  To be actively contemplative means to be able to feel depressed, or anxious, or angry and see that acting on those feelings is not in my best interest and be able to choose to do something else.  Or, to use Will’s example of mindfulness as it relates to weight loss, it means being able to objectively observe my hunger and see that it is not necessarily food I am hungry for in this moment, but greater balance in my life, healthier engagement with the people around me, or a deeper connection with God.

Cultivating mindfulness is, for the Catholic, an important skill for spiritual, emotional, and relational well-being.  To learn more about how healthy Christian approaches to mindfulness/active contemplation can help you create change in your life, check out my latest book, Broken Gods:  Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart.

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