A few months ago, I was doing mindfulness exercises in K-8 classrooms at a local Catholic school. My favorite part was doing deep breathing with the Kindergarteners just because their collective inhale through their noses was so cute and noisy. I also got some great feedback in second grade – “I feel like I’m on a cloud,” and in third grade - “How did you make me feel this good?” One student said I was her “favorite teacher,” which was a bit silly to me considering we simply closed our eyes and breathed together for 15 minutes. There was no multiplication or cursive writing or memorization of capital cities. They essentially learned nothing.
Then again, “nothing” might not be such a bad thing to learn. Practicing mindfulness is an age-old tradition that teaches us to be comfortable with the nothingness, and it is therefore quite revolutionary in busy, modern-day America. It seems the students, at least, were grateful for a pause in the middle of their day. I know I was!
Before I go more into what mindfulness actually is and why Catholicism can be gloriously married to it, I want to address the elephant in the metaphorical room: Mindfulness is founded in Zen Buddhism, which is obviously not the same as Christianity. It is probably no surprise that I received a call from a worried parent a few days after my mindfulness tour of his son’s Catholic school. He wanted to know why I was having his boy focus on the sounds of the air conditioner rather than the sacred art in the classroom. The father told me mindfulness is just a way for people to feel good spiritually without Jesus.
Our conversation gave me pause, because I think this father might be right. He helped me to understand why I incorporate an essential piece into my mindfulness training with Christians. The dad didn’t know about this essential piece, and so I think we ended on the same page when I explained what I did with the kids beyond just mindfulness. I’ll explain this in more detail later on.
First, I’d like to share that mindfulness is probably the simplest and most difficult exercise you will ever do. It’s the art of doing nothing. It’s focusing one’s thoughts on what is happening in the here and now. It’s stopping what you’re doing for a bit and just listening to the sound of your own breathing. This might seem easy enough, but I promise you, ceasing your worries and laments is challenging. Not to mention practicing mindfulness is insanely boring when you first start out.
Think about it, 85% of American adults own a smartphone, which is essentially our personalized portal into the entirety of human knowledge. Each of these handheld devices have algorithms that meticulously calculate our every move so that the phone knows us more than we might know ourselves. They know what to advertise to us before we even know we want to buy it! It’s pretty wild (and freaky). With that being said, smartphones are the archnemesis of mindfulness. Smartphones are the epitome of *mindless* distraction. They’re addicting and fun! Mindfulness is neither of these things. Instead, mindfulness is all about being free of addictions, needs, and wants. It’s to be content with just being alive this very second. Mindfulness removes the battery from the Energizer Bunnies that bounce around in our brains all day and late into the night. That’s a huge gift, especially to those of us who can’t sleep at night or who can’t focus during the day.
So, if Buddhism has brought this gift of mindfulness to our busy world, what does Christianity bring to the table? Everything, actually. Because mindfulness is just the first step into what can be so much more. Mindfulness helps to declutter our brains, which decreases worry and distress, but mindfulness is stagnant beyond that. While God doesn’t want us to be self-absorbed, worried, shallow, and distracted, He also doesn’t want us to be immobile.
Once we slow down and strip ourselves away from the mindless distractions of our everyday lives, we have a greater mental capacity to know Christ. Mindfulness is a salve for our anxious brains, which gives us energy to see Jesus as the light guiding us toward our destiny - to know God. “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for…” I love this quote and the sections that follow because they outline our capacity and desire for God that is written on all of our hearts. The quote, which is the first line of the Catechism, indicates the raw truth that we are spiritual beings by nature, and we will not have peace until we are bonded with God, the cause and the completion of all things.
So, practically speaking, what is Catholic mindfulness? The mindfulness exercise I did with the schoolchildren followed a simple two-part formula outlined below. It essentially begins with a mindfulness exercise to calm our bodies and our minds. This prepares us to encounter God in an undistracted way, as described in part two:
- Close your eyes and sit comfortably.
- Practice square breathing – Breathe deeply with four seconds to inhale through your nose, four seconds to pause, four seconds to exhale through your mouth, and four seconds pause. Repeat.
- Perform a body scan – Notice what different parts of your body feel like such as your toes in your shoes or the feeling of your back against the chair or your hair against your ears or the taste in your mouth.
- Identify the layers of sound in your environment.
- Imagine your stress sinking out of you into your chair and into the ground away from your body.
- Will your body to relax while continuing to slowly breathe in and out.
- Options for Christian prayer:
- Invoke the Holy Spirit with a simple statement such as, “Come, Holy Spirit.”
- Meditate on the Holy Spirit as “breath” and imagine you are filling your lungs with God’s presence.
- Reflect on God’s infinite love for you. Bring to mind a person who loves you and consider how they have showed that to you. Remember that God loves you even more than they do. Meditate on the ways God has shown this to you.
- Practice stating, “I love you, God” as you exhale, and imagine God stating, “I love you” as you inhale.
- Try exhaling any unhealthy thoughts or desires (e.g., negative self-talk or jealousy of what others have) and practice inhaling God’s grace, wisdom, and mercy.
- Do Lectio Divina with your favorite Scripture. I would argue that mindfulness is an excellent way to get your brain ready for Lectio Divina. For more information on Lectio Divina, follow this link: https://www.loyolapress.com/catholic-resources/prayer/personal-prayer-li...
- Do a spiritual communion and reflect on each word of the prayer. Invite Christ to “…come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there...”
- Go outside and bask in God’s creation. As St. Augustine says, “Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky. . . question all these realities. All respond: ‘See, we are beautiful.’ Their beauty is a profession. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One who is not subject to change?”
I should note that you certainly do not *need* to use mindfulness to deepen your prayer life. In fact, I implore Christians to go straight to God with their worries and fears. Crying out to one’s Creator and uniting ourselves to the suffering of Christ in the midst of our distress can be incredibly edifying. We are “heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). And also, “…as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:5). And finally, “Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: ‘Follow me!’. Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my Cross. Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him” (Apostolic Letter, Salvifici Doloris, 26, by Pope John Paul II).
So, all that to say, we don’t need to be clearheaded and free of suffering to talk to God. Catholic mindfulness is simply another tool in the toolbox, and it might be more effective for some than others. But I can tell you it’s certainly an effective way to feel calm and rejuvenated. God does not want us to be steeped in worry and fear, and mindfulness is a great way to live out our call to feel good about ourselves and to be a gift in our communities.