Avila Institute, 2017
Susan Brinkmann, once a New Age feminist, is now a Catholic apologist, award-winning author, Third Order Carmelite, and a staff writer and radio and TV host with Living His Life Abundantly and Women of Grace. She knows what it’s like to seek happiness in all the wrong places and has dedicated her life to sharing the good news of the Catholic faith. Her latest book, A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness, warns of the dangers of the latest Eastern meditation fad and offers Catholics a deeper, holier path rooted in the wisdom of the saints and doctors of the Church.
First things first: What is this growing practice 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.
Why did you write this book?
My main concern is the attempt by many Catholics to integrate mindfulness meditation practices into their prayer or spiritual lives. They are being led into this by believing that it’s not a “Buddhist practice,” [but a way] to just focus on the “here and now.”
But when we do that via one of several mindfulness meditation techniques – such as “Breathing Space Meditation,” “Body Scan Meditation” and others that are commonly taught – then we are venturing into the realm of Buddhist practices.
Many Catholics may start out trying to keep these practices separate, but there is a common confusion in the West regarding Eastern meditation and how it differs from Western meditation (one is a mental exercise; the other is a method of dialoguing with God), which is why many are inadvertently combining the two – and this can often result in spiritual disaster, even to the point of requiring exorcism in some cases.
Why would combining practices be a problem?
As the book explains, I have personal experience with this. Our “New Age Q&A” blog at Women of Grace recently received an email from a woman whose husband stopped praying the Rosary with his family because he found this kind of meditation to be more relaxing. Although none of us should come to prayer just for relaxation, but to converse with God, this shows how easily people, in varying stages of their spiritual lives, can be confused – without even realizing it – and thus be led away from God rather than towards him.
Are there studies on the effect of mindfulness?
There is mounting scientific concern regarding the mainstream media only touting studies that found benefits of mindfulness and not reporting on studies that found negative results from the practice. Some studies have shown that practicing mindfulness can actually backfire on people as they focus intently on the moment and leave their thoughts behind, including the positive ones. It can also lead people to disconnect rather than focus and engage in critical thinking on problems that require more thinking and not less.
In addition, a meta-analysis of 18,000 mindfulness studies conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in 2014 found only 47 that were considered methodologically sound – that’s only .0026%. And of those 47 found to be acceptable, the research found only “moderate evidence” of decreased anxiety, depression and pain and “low evidence” of improved mental health-related quality of life. This research led to more alarming findings about the negative effects of mindfulness, which then led me to put this information into a book in order to provide a more complete picture of this practice than what people are getting from proponents.
Why is mindfulness appealing to people?
There are several reasons why people are being drawn to it. Firstly, the increasing secularization of our society has relegated Judeo-Christian values to the “nobody cares anymore” dustbin.
As a result, many people are abandoning mainstream religion and are feeding the resulting spiritual hunger with other practices, which range anywhere from a variety of non-Christian and/or New Age philosophies to the occult.
Secondly, I see the need to escape from the pressures of modern life as another reason why people are so drawn to Eastern meditation practices. 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!
In Christian prayer, they may have to confront their problems, but they are doing so with Someone who can actually solve those problems. In Eastern meditation, the only option is momentary escape. Afterward, you’re still stuck with the same problems.
Thirdly, with respect to psychologists and others promoting the practice, there is much money to be made through psychospiritual fads like mindfulness.
We have seen the same pattern in the past with Reiki and “Centering Prayer.” Once these fads become common interest, many seek to exploit them for financial gain.
Why are the Catholic alternatives superior?
If one is living in the present moment in the presence of God, there is no need for a Buddhist practice like mindfulness. These Christian practices far surpass these merely human-based methods and actually draw us into the presence of God, where we can find authentic peace and healing.
Instead of a momentary escape from anxiety, the Christian alternative offers a real solution to anxiety and a permanent transformation. One practice 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.
By the time we reach this summit of union with him here on Earth, we will have been completely transformed into a totally new creation – not just an improvement of the old. When we are united with our Creator, we will finally become who we were meant to be from the beginning of time. This is a grace that surpasses all understanding.
Can a person be a good Catholic and still practice mindfulness?
It depends on what you mean by “good.” Good people are deceived all the time. Well-intentioned people pursue means that make them feel good all the time, but these means can be deeply spiritually damaging.
If you are just refocusing yourself for a few minutes on the task at hand, that is not a problem.
But if you’re engaging in the typical methods of practicing mindfulness, all of which involve some kind of meditation, then you risk inducing an altered state, which renders one vulnerable to psychological damage or to the influence of spiritual entities.
Catholics should not be involved in this, even when it is recommended by a doctor, because too many studies have shown it to be harmful, which is why more and more researchers are speaking out about it.
If a Catholic wants to practice being mindful of the present moment, my book recommends that they begin to employ The Practice of the Presence of God, which was introduced in the sixteenth century by a humble Carmelite brother named Brother Lawrence. It not only teaches a person to stay grounded in the present, but to do so in order to live in continual awareness of the presence of God within.
We’re taught to live in the present moment at all times in order to respond to the will of God as it plays out in each and every moment of our lives.
There is a vast difference between a state of sterile “awareness” and the much deeper realms of bliss to be found while basking in the presence of the Creator of the universe.
Tell me about retreats and conferences you have begun offering titled, “The Catholic Alternative to Mindfulness.”
My retreats are designed to teach people how to incorporate the practice of the presence of God and the sacrament of the present moment into their lives and are scheduled at Fatima House in Bedminster, Pennsylvania, Feb. 16-17 and March 23-24, and at the Malvern Retreat House in Malvern, Pennsylvania, June 9-10, 2018. And more are in the works.