Blog Post

Don't Substitute Eastern Meditation Techniques For Christian Prayer!

KB writes: "My husband practices this mindfulness type of meditation, including a body scan meditation. He does a shorter one in the morning, about 15 or 20 minutes, and the body scan in the afternoon, which takes about 45 minutes, for stress reduction and as a way of dealing with anxiety. The other day he chose to skip family prayer time in favor of this meditation . . . " 

" . . . and when I told him that it was better to come and pray with us, that prayer is more restful, he said this was not his experience and told me to leave him alone. I'm concerned about the Buddhist roots of this and how it may be impacting him, not to mention what he is missing out on in terms of his prayer life, and wonder what I can tell him about this."

The fact that your husband would substitute such a practice for authentic prayer is indeed disturbing. Rather than connecting with the God who can ease all of his anxieties,  he's substituting a relaxation technique based on eastern-style "meditation" which is a mere concentration exercise. It is not prayer.

For those who do not know what mindfulness and body scan meditation is all about, let's start with the former.

Mindfulness meditation was developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a biomedical scientist and founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), it combines meditation and Hatha yoga to help patients cope with stress, pain, and illness through moment-to-moment awareness. It is very similar to transcendental meditation in that it is practiced for about 20 minutes twice a day and relies on certain postures, breathing techniques and concentration to bring about an altered state of consciousness.

According to an article on mindfulness meditation by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and appearing in Shambhala Sun magazine, the goal of each meditation session is to go on a “journey of discovery to understand the basic truth of who we are.” “This is based on the Buddhist concept that the mind and body are connected. "The energy flows better when the body is erect, and when it’s bent, the flow is changed and that directly affects your thought process. So there is a yoga of how to work with this,” Rinpoche explains.

Even though proponents of mindfulness meditation like to say it isn't associated with any religion, this is far from the truth. The very concept and practice of mindfulness is the 7th step in the Buddhist Noble Eight-fold Path.

Body scan meditation is one of the meditation techniques taught by MBSR instructors, such as Trish Magyari, who explains in this article that the purpose of the body scan is "to bring awareness to each part of our body sequentially, to see how it is today — not to check in to change or judge the body, which we're apt to do, but just to experience it and see what's there."

One starts the scan by noticing all parts of the body that are in contact with the floor or mat and to use this as an opportunity to identify areas of tension such as in the jaw, neck, shoulders, etc. Before beginning, the practitioner states their intention for the meditation and agrees to let go of the past and future and not to be judgmental about anything they feel in their body.

"Usually, when people find something in their body they don't like, they meet it with judgment; the body that's in pain is your enemy," Magyari says. "It's a very radical concept to meet the body with friendliness."

You then begin by taking a tour of the body - mentally - by noticing and experiencing each member one by one. Once a part is scanned, one allows awareness of that part to fade away as they move to the next area. This is done throughout the body, including the head. After scanning the head, the practitioner connects the entire body together, such as feeling the connection of the head to the neck, of the neck to the torso, etc. The final step is to feel the skin around the whole body.

"At the very end, we're lying with the awareness of our wholeness in that moment. We're not thinking about what's right or wrong with us, our state of health, but just that sense of physical wholeness," Magyari says.

This is an incredibly self-centered practice that bears no resemblance at all to Christian prayer.  Christians don’t meditate to become aware of themselves and how they feel. They meditate to make contact with the Living God and to dialogue with Him. This is why techniques such as mindfulness meditation and body scan meditation are so radically at odds with the purpose and goal of authentic Christian meditation. The kind of mind-emptying techniques employed by these types of meditation are not designed to bring about an ever-deepening love of God and neighbor, but to create a kind of mental void which is described in the Catechism as “an erroneous notion of prayer.”

Now there is certainly nothing wrong with taking a few moments to quiet down and relax, but by opting out of prayer to practice these techniques instead, I suspect your husband may be confusing these concentration exercises with prayer, which they are not. Obviously, this could have a deleterious effect on his faith because, as every spiritual master will tell you, without prayer, faith withers up and dies.

This phenomenon was addressed by the Spanish bishops in a statement issued three years ago regarding mindfulness and why this type of self-centered prayer does not lead to God.

"Our pace of life, marked by activism, competitiveness and consumerism, generates emptiness, stress and anguish. In this situation, many people are resorting to methods of meditation and prayer that originate in religious traditions outside Christianity in response to a growing demand for emotional well-being. However, a spirituality understood as cultivation of one's interiority and self-discovery does not lead to God."

If we persist in the practice of using mindfulness methods such as body scan meditation "as a complement to the faith or to achieve a more intense experience of it," what happens is that we may suddenly realize that we have "effectively abandoned the Catholic faith even without realizing it.”

A really great book to read about authentic Catholic prayer is the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, who describes the four stages of prayer that a person can expect to go through in their journey to God. A sequel to this, which describes growth in the interior life leading to union with God, is The Interior Castle. Maybe your hubby has grown bored with his prayer life and is looking for more. When he discovers the heights he can reach with authentic Catholic prayer, he may no longer want to waste his time on mere mental exercises.

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