Catholic Schools and the Values of Mindfulness

Since the onset of the COVID pandemic institutions of all kinds have endorsed the practice of “mindfulness” as the antidote to the uncertainty and insecurity it has engendered. Former Governor Andrew Cuomo partnered with the popular meditation app Headspace to provide online resources for New Yorkers; Amazon set up mindfulness booths for its warehouse employees; universities have offered their students free mindfulness app subscriptions and training programs. The widespread institutional endorsement of mindfulness finds its justification in numerous empirical studies demonstrating that it can alleviate psychological stress and reduce the subjective perception of pain.

Critically, mindfulness also presents itself as value-neutral, as free from any ideological claims and therefore compatible with any faith tradition or none at all; in the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of the contemporary Western mindfulness movement, it is “a universal human capacity [that] requires no particular religious or cultural belief system.” A recent flyer for a mindfulness intervention I received from my own university went further, advertising it as an “entirely secular” method of helping “happier and calmer feelings come to the forefront.” In a society in which imposing normative beliefs on another person ranks among the worst possible sins, the purported ideological neutrality of mindfulness is an essential stamp of approval.

But the underlying ideological assumptions of the mindfulness movement are decidedly not neutral, and indeed contradict the Christian view of the human person. For institutions that endorse belief in Jesus Christ—particularly schools, which bear the responsibility of forming the minds and souls of young people—these conflicts are serious. Catholic schools that choose to uphold mindfulness as the solution to the anxieties of their students are undermining their own mission and risk failing in their highest duty.

To understand what is at stake, it is useful to begin with the definition of mindfulness. Most scholars understand mindfulness to consist of non-judgemental and accepting awareness of the present moment. The roots of mindfulness lie in the teachings of the Buddha, and in particular, the Three Marks of Existence: anatta (or non-self), the doctrine that living beings lack any enduring metaphysical essence; anicca (or impermanence), the doctrine that all things are in a constant state of decay; and dukkha (frustration or dissatisfaction), the doctrine that existence is characterized by ever-present suffering. In the Buddhist worldview, to believe in the existence of a separate self or an enduring reality is to fall prey to an illusion that exacerbates human suffering. Mindfulness meditations aim to foster acceptance of the marks of existence, and so free the mind from this deception.

Toward this end, mindfulness meditations typically involve sitting calmly and attending to the breath—not fighting one’s thoughts, but simply drawing one’s attention back to the present moment. Studies have shown that this practice can alter the structure and function of the brain in various ways, including strengthening the connectivity of neural regions involved in executive control, that may account for the attendant decreases in pain and stress. In light of its effects on the brain and mind, the empirically-driven West has largely concluded that, in the words of Kabat-Zinn, “mindfulness is so powerful that the fact that it comes out of Buddhism is irrelevant.”

The ideological roots of mindfulness might indeed be irrelevant if only explicit claims and articulated doctrines had the power to form a person. But as human wisdom has long known and recent neuropsychological studies have confirmed, we often learn unconsciously, acquiring implicit knowledge through action and imitation. According to philosopher Michael Polanyi, students are often unaware of the tacit judgments they form through practice, or the “rules of the art” they adopt—rules that may even be unknown to the authority they imitate.[1] But every practice can have an educational imprint on students, orienting their persons more or less toward the end for which they are made.[2] The choice of an authority—and the tradition to which the authority belongs—is therefore an essential determinant of students’ capacity to attain their destiny.

Catholic schools, whose highest task is to open the souls of their students to the life of God, have an urgent responsibility to offer a positive and coherent account of reality, as well as the means to learn it. When this is absent, the young person is vulnerable to implicit formation in the metaphysical worldviews that underlie the popular practices of the time. Such is the case with the mindfulness movement, whose uncritical embrace can produce three devastating losses in the life of a student.

The first loss incurred by the uncritical practice of mindfulness is the weakening of judgment. The baseline cognitive state of most human beings is a mental chatter that includes not just observations but conclusions about the meaning and value of what one thinks and observes. The practice of mindfulness aims to suppress this capacity for judgement, which Kabat-Zinn describes as a “filter” of likes and dislikes that biases our experience, or a “cloud” that obscures our pure awareness of reality. To eliminate this filter and remove this cloud, mindfulness mediations train an individual to observe whatever arises in the mind and let it pass without judging either the thought or its object.

Suspending judgment may attenuate the discomfort of negative emotions and quiet excessively critical thoughts, but it comes at a cost. As psychologist Susan David emphasizes, all emotions and thoughts (even those that are not enjoyable) communicate useful information. For instance, anger could signal that another person has committed an injustice, or fear that one is in danger; even false thoughts convey information, such as a pervasive sense of shame signaling that one stands in need of an experience of unconditional love.

To receive the information and act on it appropriately, one first needs to evaluate the truth and goodness of the thoughts, considering their content and rejecting what is false or worthless. Detached awareness may be a helpful first step toward that end, especially for those whose internal life is agitated or chaotic. But if this awareness remains non-judgemental, the mind and heart are abandoned to the anarchy of the instincts and hampered in their pursuit of the good. For instance, a warehouse worker laboring in conditions that violate his human rights will likely experience mental and physical distress; encouraging him to mindfully “let these thoughts go,” rather than judge the moral evil he is experiencing, could serve to anesthetize his desire for justice and thereby to maintain high corporate profits. So, too, can non-judgemental awareness perpetuate cognitive distortions. Indeed, one of the most effective therapies for mental illness achieves psychological healing precisely by training patients to reject false beliefs and to align their thoughts with the truth of reality.

The habitual suppression of judgement is particularly perilous in the path of Christian life, which the New Testament describes as one of metanoia, from the Greek for a “change of mind.” Conversion requires a systematic work of correcting our false judgements. Instinctively, we may understand freedom as the absence of bonds; dependence as a cause for shame; sacrifice a meaningless burden rather than the path to our fulfillment. Adopting non-judgemental awareness leaves us powerless against these lies of our fallen nature. This danger can even be demonstrated empirically: a recent study showed that mindfulness meditation decreases the degree of empathy displayed by those who score highly on a scale of narcissism, perhaps because it weakens their rejection of self-aggrandizing thoughts.

The journey of Christian maturity requires an education in judgement. It is a path of learning to adopt the gaze that God Himself has on reality by exercising the divine prerogative that He has conferred upon us: “Test everything and retain what is good.” (1 Thess 5:21) Without judgement and the path of conversion that it animates, a second loss soon follows: loss of the depth and truth of the self. I will call this the “I”, which is akin to what Christian tradition has referred to as the soul.

Mindfulness meditation aims at exposing all that exists as impermanent impressions and sensations – including the notion of an “I”. Some leaders of the contemporary mindfulness do indeed explicitly profess anatta, the Buddhist doctrine of no-self. But the practice of mindfulness in the context of the West, with its deep roots in the individualistic pursuit of personal gratification, more often leads to the adoption of a kind of New Age solipsism. In a transitory reality, all that can be known with certainty are my subjective thoughts and preferences; in a decaying one, my sole interest is freeing that psychological self from suffering. In the words of Kabat-Zinn, “happiness is an inside job.”[3]

By sundering the essential unity of spirit, mind, and matter, the practice of mindfulness alienates the human person from what the heart truly desires, which is not merely a life without psychological affliction but the presence of God, even if amid suffering. When all that remains of the self is the mind, the human person is defenseless against nihilism, as the character of Mathieu in Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason experiences in his circular descent into “thoughts, thoughts about thoughts, thoughts about thoughts of thoughts.”

The path of mindfulness can therefore produce an existential nausea that ironically generates psychological distress. Indeed, as many of 1 in 4 practitioners of meditation report adverse consequence such as the exacerbation of mental health symptoms or dissociation from their thoughts. While various causes may contribute to such events, this finding appears to validate Viktor Frankl’s prophetic concern in the middle of the twentieth century that “the existential vacuum” of a perceived lack of meaning was sparking a crisis of anxiety.

Of course, there is a certain truth to the impermanence of reality, for by itself, the present moment is merely a transient instant of time. As the Letter of St. James says, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (4:14). Yet precisely this transience points to a greater truth: that human life does not create itself but is willed and loved by Another. The promise of the present moment thus emerges not as the discovery of its ultimate emptiness, but as the possibility of an encounter with the Mystery of Being.

In Christ, this Mystery has emptied himself and taken a human face, so that we can now address him as “You.” By imitating his own unreserved self-emptying, the soul makes room to receive his love, a movement that, unlike the path of mindfulness, aims not at the dissolution of the self but its fulfilment. For the Lord Himself explains, the recognition of his face is already a taste of eternal life (John 17:3). Thus, no matter the circumstance—anxiety about illness, uncertainty before the future, loneliness amid self-isolation—the Christian can live each moment with joy as a doorway to eternity, rediscovering her own existence, dignity, and destiny by echoing the words that Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận wrote in the first year of his long imprisonment: “In the darkness of this night . . . every minute I want to say: Jesus, I love you . . . Every minute I want to sing with your Church: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.”

Such Christian hope is personal without being individualistic, for through adhering to the love of the Father the human person is conformed to the image of the Son, who gives his being for the life of the world.[4] The practice of mindfulness, on the other hand, acts directly against this movement toward communion. By narrowing the scope of attention, it incurs a third and final critical loss: the loss of the other.

Etymologically, attention derives from ad (towards) and tendere (to stretch). During mindfulness meditations, the mind stretches toward itself, or rather, toward a reduced version of itself stripped of any identity or context beyond sensory impressions. This self-referential turn undermines the ability of the heart to discover the answer to its ultimate needs for justice, truth, and beauty, an answer that emerges only by comparing these needs with the events of daily life. As such, mindfulness fails to generate an experience of reality that fellow human persons can encounter—nor does it teach one to stretch towards the experience of friends, colleagues, or family members in turn. Instead, it fosters the condition of the protagonist of Albert Camus’s The Stranger: one entirely cut off from the rest of reality.

This narrowing of the horizon of reality can have a devastating effect on relationships. Attending only to the self devalues any goods that that are inaccessible to the isolated mind, desensitizing one to the needs of others and deadening the will to sacrifice for their good. As Martin Buber astutely described, one who has lost his “I” can address others only as objects of his own thoughts and feelings, as “It” and not “Thou.” This objectification can threaten psychological well-being, which research has tied time and again to strong and loving relationships. So, too, is it a threat to the path of a Christian to her eternal destiny, which she attains by learning, through belonging to the Mystical Body of Christ, to recognize his Incarnate presence in her neighbors—and particularly the poor (Matt 22:37-39; 25:21-46).

Formation in the metaphysics that undergirds the mindfulness movement therefore threatens to impoverish the life of Christians by impeding their journey of conversion, stifling their awareness of God, and weakening their bond of communion. As such, it is decidedly not a tool that Christian schools should offer to their students as the solution for the anxieties of life.

Fortunately, the Christian tradition has long proposed an alternative to mindfulness, a practice equally long in its history but drastically more correspondent to the truth and needs of the human heart: contemplative prayer. On the surface, contemplative prayer bears a passing resemblance to mindfulness meditation. It requires awareness of the contents of one’s inner life and entails a work of reigning in the restless churning of one’s thoughts; at times, it may involve similar practices of attending to breathing, posture, or a single repeated word. But contemplative prayer rests upon radically different assumptions—and therefore bears radically different fruits. While comprehensive account of contemplative prayer lies far beyond the scope of this essay, a simple comparison of its effects to those of mindfulness meditation is enough to illuminate its human relevance.

First, prayer does not suspend but rather heightens the capacity for judgement. Through offering her mind, will, and heart to Christ and begging that they might be conformed to his own, the Christian begins to see reality rightly, and so is strengthened to reject what is bad and retain what is true. To use the words of the Philokalia, the foundational text of hesychastic prayer, “If you really wish to cover over your evil thoughts . . . to be still and calm, and to watch over your heart without hindrance, let the Jesus Prayer cleave to your breath.”

Secondly, prayer restores Christians to the truth of their “I” by teaching them to address the Mystery as “You.” For prayer reveals the silence of the present moment not as emptiness but as the manifestation of the presence of God, a God who became flesh so that we might find in him the eternal fulfillment of our desires. Prayer thus recalls the Christian to the truth of reality, teaching him to say to God, together with St. Augustine: “You were within me, and I was outside myself.” This habitual recognition both strengthens the Christian’s awareness of his life in Christ, first achieved at Baptism and renewed in each sacramental encounter, and nourishes his desire to grow in this life, allowing him to welcome even uncertainty and suffering as a path to union with God.

Finally, prayer generates communion. Because God has come in the flesh, begging to see his face does not narrow but rather expands the horizons of reality, transforming every experience into an opportunity to recognize, as Dante puts it in the Paradiso, “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Prayer thus teaches Christians to gaze upon their brothers and sisters with the awareness that they, too, find their origin and destiny in the eternal embrace of God; this is a gaze that begets encounter. Furthermore, by practicing loving self-donation to God in prayer, Christians discover that their true joy is found in the loving service of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters on earth.

All this certainly does not proscribe the practice of mindfulness. Indeed, for some people, mindfulness meditations may be a useful tool for learning to pay attention to the contents of the mind and thereby growing in self-knowledge—which St. Teresa of Avila (among others) exhorts as an important prerequisite to knowledge of God. For others, it could offer a helpful first step toward the self-emptying required to receive the love of God. Thus, there is no reason for scandal at Christians who practice mindfulness; its tradition contains a fragment of the truth, and those who are certain of their encounter with Truth Itself can perceive and affirm any echo of it without fear.

However, Catholic institutions possess not a fragment but the fullness of the truth and should not settle for proposing anything less to their students. Prayer is the activity that most corresponds to the reality of human life, which may be transient and fraught with suffering, but which God has united to himself in Christ. Through prayer, we have a path to answering the incessant needs of our hearts and a sure defense against the power of anxiety. Why are we abashed of this great spiritual treasure?

If teachers and administrators are to give this great treasure to their students, they must first discover it for themselves; they must first cultivate their own relationship with the Mystery. No one can fulfill the lofty responsibility of an educator who does not begin by begging, in the silence of his or her own heart, to receive the life of God. Only then can one speak to others of the love that Christ has for us, overflowing with peace.

[1] Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 206, 53

[2] See Edith Stein, “Problems of Women’s Education.”

[3] Quoted in Ronald Purser’s McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitality Spirituality, p. 11.

[4] See Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi.

Featured Image: Photo by Charanjeet Dhiman on Unsplash.


Sofia Carozza

Sofia Carozza is a developmental neuroscientist currently working in research. She co-hosts The Pilgrim Soul podcast.

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