Mindfulness Meditation

ST asks: “What do you know about ‘mindfulness meditation.’™ Is it okay for hospitals to be using it on patients?”

Hospitals are employing a lot of alternative healing techniques these days, even those with overtly religious roots such as Reiki and various eastern “meditation” techniques such as mindfulness meditation.

I put the word “meditation” in quotes for good reason. The kind of mind-empyting techniques indicative of eastern forms of meditation such as mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation, centering prayer, etc. are not prayer so much as practices of deep concentration.

Specifically, mindfulness meditation is the brainchild of 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.

In1979, he developed something called “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR) which is an 8-week course combining 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 effect an altered state of consciousness.

According to an article on mindfulness meditation 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.”

The author, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, a member of the Shamhala community who was later accused of sexually assaulting female students, goes on to explain that “the Buddhist approach is 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 then reassures practitioners that “just by sitting and doing nothing, we are doing a tremendous amount.”

Let’s stop here for a moment to contrast this type of eastern meditation technique to Christian meditation.

In the 1989 document “Some Aspects of Christian Meditation,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith defines Christian meditation as “a personal, intimate and profound dialogue between man and God . . . . It flees from impersonal techniques or from concentrating on oneself, which can create a kind of rut, imprisoning the person praying in a spiritual privatism . . .”

Christians don’t meditate to find out who they are, or to sit and do nothing. The goal of Christian meditation is to make contact with God and dialogue with Him, which means techniques such as this one are radically at odds with the purpose and goal of authentic Christian meditation.

The mind-emptying techniques prescribed by these forms 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.”

“Naturally we want to forget the world in order to concentrate solely on God, but the various emptying techniques don’t go this far,” Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote. “They stop at the ’emptying.’ The emptying becomes the goal.”

Now there is certainly nothing wrong with hospitals and other institutions (including schools) employing these meditation methods to teach patients how to calm down and cope better with stress. The problem is that these techniques are rooted in religious practices and yet practitioners in health care settings rarely mention this – which I don’t believe is fair to patients.

For instance, this is how the Stanford Hospitals website describes its mindfulness meditation program: “The Mindfulness Program in the Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine Clinic is designed to teach mind and body awareness techniques for coping with physical or psychological symptoms from stress and stress-related illnesses. By learning relaxation and awareness techniques, including mindful yoga and body movement, participants are taught to use their inner resources to relieve stress and manage pain more effectively. The Mindfulness Program was initiated 20 years ago at the University of Massachusetts by John Kabat-Zinn, PhD, who was featured on Bill Moyer’s PBS series and book, Healing and the Mind.”

Do you see any mention of Buddhism in this description?

To his credit, Kabat-Zinn doesn’t hide this. He is a board member of the Mind and Life Institute, an organization dedicated to “exploring the relationship of science and Buddhism as ways to better understand the nature of reality.”

His medical background makes it easy to see how the practice got into hospitals. But most people who practice mindfulness meditation in clinical settings don’t broadcast its Eastern roots any more than those healthcare workers who practice Reiki, Therapeutic Touch and Yoga on patients, most of whom do so without providing sufficient explanation to patients.

For more in depth information on mindfulness, see A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness which is available here.

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