Mindfulness. You’ve heard of it right? It’s suddenly everywhere we turn. Videos, courses, talk shows, retreat themes, school programs, even little gadgets to wear … all promising to help people be more “mindful.”
But what does that mean? Is it just another pop fad or the latest tentacle of New Age to make its way into the mainstream?
Actually, it’s more Catholic than anything else, though it was popularized for our day by a Buddhist doctor.
The premise for mindfulness is that we are actually safe in the present moment. That’s where Christian spirituality can come in.
We can only really know we are safe if we believe there is a God who loves us and takes care of us. This truth is also the premise to a spiritual practice called “Abandonment to Divine Providence,” explained in a book with the same title. Abandonment is classic Catholic spirituality, and is also found in Br. Lawrence’s “Practice of the Presence of God.” Awareness of the present moment is central to the mystical life and many saints have written about it.
The deeper we go into learning about mindfulness, the more it becomes clear that it is not a new fad. Mindfulness, in fact, is simply a rebranding of a classically Catholic spirituality that has been around since Jesus told his disciples, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Look at the birds of the air: They do not sow or reap or gather into barns—and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
Catholic mindfulness is a way to practically trust God more in our lives. Instead of separating faith from the day-to-day of life, mindfulness helps bridge the gap so that we can feel the peace in our lives that should come from having a Father we can trust.
Mindfulness helps us to be more present to everything in our lives — from a trip to the grocery store, to relaxing with friends, to listening more attentively to a homily or meditating on the mysteries of the rosary. It is simply a new way to understand age-old truth.
So what’s all the hype about?
We’ve all had the experience of not really listening to someone talking to us. Or finding that we’ve arrived to a destination with only a vague recollection of how we got there. All of us turn away from the present moment sometimes, and some of us do it a lot.
Researchers tell us that at a very deep level, our brains are constantly scanning our reality to figure out where potential dangers might be in order to prepare for them. We tend to overuse this tendency by interpreting being late to the dentist, or having a messy laundry room as a “danger.” Or, we replay situations that might have not gone our way to figure out how things could have gone better in order to avoid future “dangers.”
When we present these “dangerous” situations to our brain by way of the imagination, our brains can react to some degree with the sympathetic nervous response, otherwise known as the fight-or-flight response. Even if the response is subtle and barely felt, there are physiological reactions that occur as a result of where our minds are. Our heart rates and blood pressure increase slightly and muscles tense up. We might feel flush, or tingly, and our minds become super-focused on the problem at hand.
Mindfulness, then, is a practice that helps us become more aware of this tendency, and helps us learn how to focus our mind where we want it to go. Focus is like a muscle, and mindfulness is how we exercise it.
The effects of strengthening this muscle are far-reaching. Many disorders are connected to the mind – not just psychological disorders but physical and spiritual disorders as well. Exercising the mind’s focus muscle can help heal all of these. This is why the research has been so surprisingly positive regarding treatment outcomes, and why mindfulness has become so popular.
So what then, precisely, is mindfulness?
It is essentially “awareness of the present moment with acceptance.” With mindfulness practice, we learn how to focus with greater strength on what is actually happening around us right now.
At any moment our five senses are communicating reality to our brains, but it is up to us to choose to pay attention to this, rather than ideas coming through our imagination, some of which could trigger our sympathetic nervous response, even if we are actually totally safe in reality.
How did this become popular today?
Mindfulness started off as something called the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program developed by a researcher named Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979.
As a student of Buddhist teaching, Kabat-Zinn realized that some aspects of his spiritual practice offered a great opportunity for his patients suffering from chronic pain. However he wanted to make this program available to anyone, without the stigma of religious practice, and so he purposefully created it in such a way as to avoid any philosophical input from Buddhist teaching.
Many people have tried to bring Buddhist ideology back into mindfulness practice, but it didn’t begin this way, and it isn’t appropriately practiced in this way. In fact, many actual Buddhists protest the existence of mindfulness as a practice itself, because they feel that it takes part of their spirituality and distorts it of its spiritual significance.
In fact, not only is mindfulness not Buddhist, but, as we’ve seen, it is actually more Christian than anything else.
I teach a course on this practice that can be found at www.catholicmindfulness.com.