After years of positive studies about the alleged benefits of mindfulness, the latest science is revealing a darker side. Some Catholic therapists, however, such as the one we interviewed last week, discovered on their own that this therapy is not nearly as successful as people think – and it’s definitely not Catholic.
Anne (not her real name), a 37 year-old mother of three and convert to the Faith, was working as a therapist in a practice which included mindfulness as part of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). DBT is a therapy used to treat people suffering from borderline personality disorders and mindfulness is part of its protocol.
As I explain in my book, A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness, the practice of mindfulness is derived from Buddhism and is specific to the seventh step in the Buddha’s Eight-Fold Path to enlightenment. Called Samma Sati, or Right Mindfulness, it means controlling thoughts by maintaining awareness and focus on the present moment. The way one is trained in mindfulness is through a variety of Buddhist meditation techniques such as Breathing Space Meditation, Movement Meditation, Body Scan Meditation, and Expanding Awareness Meditation, all of which involve intense focus on the self in the present moment.
“I would use it for people who had depression,” Anne said. “The premise that I liked was focusing on one thing so that your mind doesn’t wander off into troubles and problems. You could focus on one inanimate thing, such as your jeans. I would focus just on what they look like, what they feel like and keep directing my mind back to them when I would start to think of something else. I would continually try to find something new about them. It would settle the mind down and stop racing thoughts. That’s what I liked about it.”
But, as a Catholic therapist, Anne began to see how this intense focus on “self” could be problematic, especially for the Christian patient. Where was Christ in all of this?
She found herself becoming increasingly conflicted over the practice in spite of all the so-called positive results from study after study. In the back of her mind, she couldn’t forget the warning a professor once gave her in college.
“ . . . When in my Empirical methods course, the professor told us that any data can be cooked, shifted. Any statistic can be manipulated to prove the point you want to prove. Because of this, you must be careful and critical of each study to which you may refer.”
Her instincts were spot on. In the book, The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You, Dr. Miquel Farias and Catherine Wikolm report on the same phenomenon, only they referred to it as “sexing up the data.”
In one example, they were looking at statistical results that didn’t quite fit their initial hypothesis and were told that they could “sex it up” by selecting the best results and reporting only these. Or, if there were secondary results that were less appealing, to “frame them in a more appealing way and publish them separately from the sexiest results.”
But isn’t this “Hollywood science?” the authors asked.
“Don’t be stupid,” they were told. “Everyone does it.”
This could account for the very “unsexy” results of the 2009 study that found a long list of psychological and physical side effects of mindfulness meditation such as depersonalization, psychosis, feelings of anxiety, disorganized speech and insomnia, to name a few.
The results of research done on inmates in seven prisons in the British Midlands were even less sexy. They found that while prisoners’ moods improved and their stress and psychological distress reduced, they were just as aggressive before the mindfulness treatment.
A report by the British Psychological Society also didn’t fit the popular talking points about mindfulness because it found that the practice does not foster empathy and can even make narcissists worse.
This explains why 15 prominent psychologists and cognitive scientists recently called for caution about mindfulness due to the pervasive methodological problems with scientific research to date.
But these facts are still being ignored, except by therapists such as Anne who have come face-to-face with the mental and spiritual dark side of mindfulness.
“I did see people who bought into it hard because they got the quick fix. After about a year they were back in their despair because it doesn’t really fix their problems,” Anne said.
“I found people who really tried mindfulness for depression who would get a ‘placebo effect’ boost in their mood, but it would drop again after time. They never got that peace that I saw in people who used prayer and focused on Christ for their healing. This is because with mindfulness, they always maintain that control and never really give it up to God. You, being the center, are always the one who is the focus. God is going to let you do it if you insist on doing it, but you will continue to struggle until you let go of ‘the reigns’ and let God help you with your healing path.”
Many Christian therapists argue that the way they use mindfulness in clinical practice isn’t spiritual, even though the pioneer of modern mindfulness in medicine, Jon Kabat-Zinn, was unable to say the same. His only answer to the question of whether or not mindfulness was spiritual was, “it all depends on what one means by spiritual.”
Anne completely dismissed this response. “I remember a politician denying he had sex with ‘that woman’ and later saying ‘well it depends on what you mean by sex’. He engaged in a sexual act. It was indeed, exactly what he was denying. If you do a little bit of research on what spirituality is, there is no way you can deny that mindfulness is a spiritual act because it is a direct engagement of one’s inner being. Consequently, it is spiritual.”
She’s not the only mental health professional to scoff at the assertion that mindfulness is not related to Buddhist spirituality.
As Farias and Wikholm explain in their book, “ . . . [W]ith mindfulness-based interventions, the aim is not to change your thoughts, but your global beliefs about thoughts – essentially, you’re expected to stop believing that your thoughts are necessarily true or important. This is where the Buddhist philosophy really kicks in: your thoughts are mere ‘mental events’ – just thoughts, nothing more – and they don’t necessarily warrant any action. All you’re aiming to do is be aware.”
The Christian, on the other hand, is taught not to dismiss their thoughts as mere “mental events” but to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). In this way they “put on the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16) and make their thoughts holy and Christ-like.
Anne began to grow disenchanted with mindfulness at about the same time that she started listening to Women of Grace Live on EWTN radio. She would often hear me and Johnnette Benkovic talking about New Age and occult movements, such as yoga, and warning Catholics to stay away.
“At first I ignored the warnings, but eventually, I realized I needed to listen to this,” Anne said. “I considered what they were saying and prayed about it. That’s when I started to get this strong message that I should not be teaching mindfulness, that I was leading people down a road where I could potentially be leading them away from God. My intent was not to do that!”
It was very hard because she was making good money, but she knew she had to stop this method of treatment.
“If I was to continue, I would be selling out why I became a therapist, selling out God, and selling out my own soul, because I knew what I was teaching was not biblical spirituality. I had to chose my soul over my career path.”
Her advice to other Christian therapists is to look at other coping mechanisms for patients.
“This is easy to do. You need to have continuing education anyway. Every state has requirements for continuing education and that’s why we have it – so we can learn new ways of treating people. There are plenty of other very effective types of treatment out there.”
She is particularly excited about a new method using prayerful thanksgiving instead of mindfulness.
“There’s new independent research coming about gratitude and its positive effects on the body. God tells us to be thankful and the word ‘Eucharist’ itself comes from the Greek term ‘eurkharistia’ which means ‘thanksgiving’. So, we have direct orders to ‘give thanks’ in all we do, what we have and how we think.”
She added: “How easy it would be to help your clients work on giving thanks to God and move away from aimless mindfulness!”
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