Blog Post

Do We Need Mindfulness to be Mindful?

MS writes: “Is all mindfulness related to the Buddhist practice that is so popular today? I am a Catholic and I have been devoted to the practice of the presence of God and the sacrament of the present moment – which is also a kind of mindfulness. Are these Catholic versions related in any way to the Buddhist version?”

Great question!  And the short answer to all of your questions is "no!"

MS, I hope you pick up a copy of my new book, A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness, because I devote a whole chapter to explaining how these Catholic practices are excellent alternatives to the Buddhist mindfulness so popular today. Although some proponents of the Buddhist try to blend this with the Catholic version, this is impossible because the Catholic practice of mindfulness is focused on God while the Buddhist practice is focused on the self.

Let me explain.

The Buddhist version is the kind of mindfulness that “arises when you pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, and as if your life depended on it.” It is described by mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn as a “state of active, open attention on the present” by which you observe your thoughts and feelings as if from a distance, without judging them to be good or bad. “Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.” It is primarily practiced via a variety of meditation techniques such as Body Scan Meditation, Breathing Space Meditation, Movement Meditation, and others.

The purpose of this kind of mindfulness is to learn how to “inhabit another domain of mind . . . what you might call the being mode of mind,” Zinn explains, because we’ve become more a human doing than a human being, and thereby forget who is doing all the doing and why.

“Mindfulness reminds us that it is possible to shift from a doing mode to a being mode through the application of attention and awareness. Then our doing can come out of our being and be much more integrated and effective,” Zinn explains.

As you can see, the Buddhist practice is entirely centered on the self in order to become “more integrated and effective.”

On the other hand, the Practice of the Presence of God was put forth by a humble Carmelite brother named Brother Lawrence, to help us develop a “simple attentiveness and a general loving awareness of God” that is more like a quiet and secret conversation of the soul with God. We train ourselves to be continually aware of His presence within us, and we strive to live constantly in that awareness, even though it is usually something that lingers only at the back of our mind, like background music playing in the lobby of our lives. Regardless of what we’re doing - working, resting, eating, sleeping – we feel “accompanied” by a powerful and yet loving Presence which in turn fosters a deep and abiding sense of security.

The sacrament of the present moment, which is put forth in the book, The Sacrament of the Present Moment by Father Jacques Pierre de Caussade, complements the practice of the presence of God by instructing us on how Christ comes to us in a new and living way every day, and in every moment of every day. For this reason, our attention must remain focused on all of the events that occur, minute-by-minute, from the trivial to the sublime, because this is how God speaks to us.

Now that you understand what each version teaches, it's easy to see how impossible it is to merge them.

For example, in the sacrament of the present moment, we dwell in the present not to enter into a state of awareness which is the aim of the Buddhist version, but to enter into a state of abandonment to the will of God. 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. These are two entirely different aims!

In my book, I use drinking a cup of tea as an example of the vast difference between these kinds of mindfulness.

“In the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, if you’re drinking a cup of tea, you take note of how it tastes, the feel of the cup against your lips, the scent of the tea, the warmth of the liquid as it enters your mouth and courses down your throat, the thoughts that cross your mind as you swallow, etc. If you begin to think that perhaps the tea should be a bit sweeter or the noise of a truck on the road outside is a bit too loud, you simply return your thoughts to what is – a sip of tea that is a tad too bitter and a noisy truck passing by.”

Here's what happens with the same cup of tea when we practice the Catholic version, which means you’re not drinking this cup of tea alone.

“You are sharing it with Someone who loves you beyond measure with a sure, unwavering and ever-faithful love. An awareness of being in the hands of such an omnipotent and yet loving God inspires a profound security and contentment within you, as warm and gratifying as the tea that courses down your throat and splashes into your stomach. What is there to worry about when you are in the hands of Someone so powerful, Someone who is here in this moment as surely as He will be here in the next? What the day might bring doesn’t matter. Right now, it’s all about the tea, the quiet, the warmth, even the sudden disruptive sound of a noisy truck rattling down the road outside. It has all been willed for this moment, just for your benefit. And for this reason, it’s all good, the pleasant and the annoying. Every time your mind tries to wander ahead into the day, your heart gently tugs you back to this moment as you sit at the kitchen table and drink a cup of tea with the One who holds your very life in His tender hands. You are content to sit with Him, for as long as this moment lasts, until the next one comes bearing another gift from Him, another revelation, another chance to love and be loved.”

There’s really no contest between the two. The Buddhist version, which is focused entirely on what you are feeling, seems almost empty compared to the Christian version. One is noticeably sterile while the other throbs with life.

The moral of this story is that if a person wants to be mindful, they don’t need to adopt a Buddhist practice – or a Catholic one for that matter. You can take a moment to “regroup” during the day and refocus yourself. This isn’t Buddhist or Catholic. It’s just normal behavior that all of us have employed at one time or another.

But if you really want to get into making mindfulness a way of life, the Christian version is the way to go.

This is because, as I write in my book, “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. One is a quick fix, the other is a long-term opportunity for exponential personal growth toward the ultimate goal of our existence here on earth – union with God.”

The bottom line is that you don’t need the Buddhist practice of mindfulness to be mindful any more than you need yoga to get a good isometric workout.

These are just some of the ingenious ways that Satan employs to deceive us into venturing away from the Truth.

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