One of the best things about the Women of Grace® New Age Q&A Blog, which has been answering questions for nearly a decade from people all around the world, is that it keeps our “finger” on the pulse of what’s happening in the realm of spiritual movements. And one of those “happenings” is a course called Catholic Mindfulness by Dr. Gregory Bottaro which has now been made into a book. What is this all about? Is it really Catholic? And why are so many people concerned about it?
Until recently, our research on mindfulness has been about the practice in general – what it is, how it got started, who are the main players in the modern mindfulness movement, etc. However, Dr. Bottaro recently inserted himself into our work, accusing us of being “anti-Catholic mindfulness” in our writings and television shows, even though we have yet to address his work in any publication or broadcast.
On April 2, Dr. Bottaro took this a step further and published a blog entitled, “The Catholic Guide to Mindfulness, or Coffee – Satan’s Drink.” In this publication, he misrepresents our position on the subject of mindfulness, then insinuates that this invented position makes us akin to the bumbling advisors of Pope Clement VIII who wanted him to ban coffee as an invention of Satan because it tasted too good. Even though the insinuation was based on a fabrication, it did make for an interesting lead!
For the first time, we will address his published work as well as the inaccuracies in his April 2 blog.
Having taken his course and read the book, entitled The Mindful Catholic, I must admit that on the surface, the program sounds wonderful. The way Dr. Bottaro presents it is that it’s a method aimed at helping people to learn how to focus so that they can better focus on God. Like the subtitle says, “Finding God One Moment at a Time.” For this reason, those who are not well-versed in today’s popular practice of mindfulness would have little reason to suspect anything wrong with it.
But those who do understand mindfulness see a lot wrong with Dr. Bottaro’s material. To the trained eye, the problem is not about what is in the book, it’s what is not in the book.
Here are the five main criticisms that we share along with the many people who have written to us about this program.
1. Dismissal of the Buddhist Roots of Mindfulness
For the most part, this criticism lies in Dr. Bottaro’s insistence that what he’s teaching isn’t based in Buddhism. In the appendix of his book, he states his belief that the Buddhist practice of mindfulness “is simply the ability to stay focused on the present moment.”
He expounds upon this idea in the April 2 blog where he asserts that Buddhist practices and the ideas upon which they are founded are two separate things and can be separated. EWTN and Women of Grace® were accused of believing that “because it is a Buddhist practice, it must constitute Buddhist ideas.” Yes, we do believe this because religious practices do indeed originate in religious beliefs/ideas, much like the practice of making the sign-of-the-cross originates from our belief in the Trinity and the saving work of Jesus Christ. He goes on to claim that we can separate the practice from the belief that it was founded upon. In other words, it can be secularized.
Some of his own peers have disagreed with him on this point. In the book, The Buddha Pill, Dr. Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm sum it up this way: “In principle, it’s perfectly possible to meditate and be uninterested in meditation’s spiritual background. However, research shows that meditation leads us to become more spiritual and that this increase in spirituality is partly responsible for the practice’s positive effects. So, even if we set out to ignore the meditation’s spiritual roots, those roots may nonetheless envelope us, to a greater or lesser degree. Overall, it is unclear whether secular models of mindfulness are fully secular” (pg. 218)
In his book, Bottaro also asserts that we can use these “secularized” methods because they are derived from Buddhist knowledge of the psychological process of paying attention to the present moment that we Christians never developed. However, to say that Buddhists had a better handle on the psychological process of paying attention than Christians such as St. Paul who advised the faithful to “put on the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16) and “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5) is a matter of opinion, not fact. Buddhism may have been in existence before Christianity, but that doesn’t mean the teachings of Christ are any less effective in helping us to control our thoughts. Nor is it a reason to lightly set aside Christian methods, which is something St. John Paul II specifically warned about in his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (pg 88-90).
Regardless of how artfully proponents present “secularized” mindfulness, the bottom line is that the practice of mindfulness that is so popular today, particularly in the mental health field, is not about a secular idea of “just learning how to focus.” It’s about learning how to focus according to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness.
This is because the practice that made its way into the mainstream did so via a program known as the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which was designed by a devout Buddhist and biomedical scientist named Jon Kabat-Zinn.
As Dr. Bottaro clearly states on page 11 of his book, his Catholic mindfulness program is based on the MBSR, which is not about “just learning how to focus.” It’s about learning how to focus the way Kabat-Zinn and the MBSR prescribe, which is the Buddhist way.
2. Failure to Disclose the Use of Buddhist Meditation Techniques
This dismissal of the Buddhist roots of mindfulness could explain why Dr. Bottaro freely introduces his students to Buddhist meditation practices without telling them this fact. For example, on page 58 of The Mindful Catholic, he suggests an exercise which he describes simply as “Body Scan.” What he doesn’t explain is that the Body Scan meditation used in the MBSR program is a form of the Buddhist practice of vipassana meditation that is intended to help expand mind/body awareness as well as ease tension and quiet the mind. When confronted by this fact, Bottaro dismisses it by claiming there’s nothing exclusively Buddhist about focusing on your body parts. No, but his Christian clients aren’t just learning how to focus on their body parts – they’re learning how to focus on their body parts via a method that originates in a non-Christian religion. They deserve to be told this so that they can decide for themselves how relevant this may be for them.
Otherwise, Dr. Bottaro risks what the late clinical psychologist Margaret Thaler Singer warned about when clients “are led to adopt religious or spiritual concepts in which they previously had no interest and which may run counter to their personal belief system. Although the clients thought they were seeking psychotherapy, they were in effect put through a religious conversion . . . Unexpectedly taking on this belief during the course of therapy can cause certain clients to experience upsetting internal conflict, and they may not recognize the source of their difficulty.” (pg. 19 of Crazy Therapies: What Are They? Do They Work?)
Granted, not everyone will be put off by Catholic programs that incorporate Eastern practices, but there are many who will and are afraid of being inadvertently led into a non-Christian spirituality. This is a perfectly valid concern and one that has been around since Biblical times. In fact, St. Paul wrote about it in Romans 14, telling us to “never put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” Even if we don’t agree that it’s a stumbling block, we are called to respect these concerns, not dismiss them as the rantings of “fanatics.”
3. Failure to Disclose the Relevance of the MBSR Program
To his credit, Dr. Bottaro does admit his association with the MBSR; but that’s all he does – mention it. Only people who know the history of the MBSR would know that Kabat-Zinn’s life goal was to integrate the Buddhadharma into his professional work – and the MBSR was how he accomplished this.
Bottaro offers none of this information to his readers or students, saying only that Kabat-Zinn “studied” Zen meditation and Buddhist practice and wanted to bring the peace he found in these practices into the secular clinical population.
This is an understatement akin to describing Mother Teresa as an Albanian nun who loved Jesus. There’s a whole lot more to her story – and his.
Kabat-Zinn wasn’t just enjoying Zen and the adventures of the Eightfold Path when he came up with the MBSR. He was on a serious quest to find his “karmic assignment” at the time and was particularly interested in finding a way to integrate the Buddhadharma into his scientific work. One day, while on a vipassana retreat, he had a vision in which he “saw” what would become the MBSR program which incorporated his love for yoga and Buddhist meditation with individual and group dialogue.
But Kabat-Zinn is an intelligent man and, at the time, knew that any mention of Buddhism would find him branded as some kind of New Age kook. And so, in his own words, he “bent over backward” to hide this aspect of the program. He deliberately developed an “American vocabulary” that hid any mention of the dharma (Buddhist doctrine) lest it cause “unnecessary impediments.”
Those who don’t know the full story incorrectly assume that Kabat-Zinn’s program is divorced from its Buddhist roots but this is simply not true. Kabat-Zinn would never do this. How could he? The whole purpose of the program, and his life goal, is to help people find the peace he found in the dharma he loved so much. In fact, to this day he tells MBSR instructors that it would be “hugely helpful” for them to have a strong personal grounding in the Buddhadharma before teaching the program, an instruction that would hardly be necessary if the Buddhism was excised from the program.
While it’s safe to say that not everyone will be concerned about this, a practicing psychologist – especially a Catholic one – has a moral and ethical responsibility to inform his Christian patients about all of these facts – not just the ones he thinks they ought to know.
4. Adding Christian Prayer to Eastern Meditation
Dr. Bottaro not only fails to do so, he takes it a step further. While introducing Buddhist meditation techniques (which he doesn’t identify as such) as part of their weekly exercises, he specifically warns patients that these techniques are not prayer. This would be fine, except that he begins the exercise with a prayer. Students are asked to put themselves into the presence of God and see themselves as awesome creatures of God before beginning the meditation.
Perhaps Dr. Bottaro is not aware of this, but anyone who has taught Christian mysticism to the general Catholic audience would know that many Catholics don’t understand the parameters of Christian prayer and are already prone to blending eastern meditation techniques with western prayer even though these two types of prayer are not compatible. This is a serious pastoral problem in the Church today and there are several reasons for it.
First, most Catholics don’t understand the vast difference between non-Christian Eastern and Western Meditation. Christian meditation is about prayer that consists of dialogue with God. Eastern meditation is a mental exercise designed to induce an altered state of consciousness in order to facilitate personal enlightenment.
Second, erroneous interpretations of Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) have led many to believe they can indiscriminately adopt bits and pieces from other religious because they all contain a “ray” of the Truth. However, the document says nothing of the kind. It merely states that the Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions” (No. 2); it says nothing about adopting their practices.
Third, they aren’t aware of the warning in Cardinal Ratzinger’s document, Letter to the Bishops on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, about the dangers of adopting techniques from non-Christian forms of meditation that obscure the Christian purpose of prayer which is to dialogue with God.
Dr. Bottaro’s failure to fully disclose the Buddhist roots of the Body Scan meditation (and the Breathing Space and Movement Meditation he also uses in his program), coupled with his addition of Catholic prayer to the exercise, only compounds the confusion that is already so prevalent among the Catholic population.
As a result, a student is liable to see nothing wrong with employing some Eastern mindfulness techniques in their prayer life, which is why introducing these methods to the general public has resulted in some Catholics losing interest in Christian prayer and, consequently, the Catholic faith.
If you live in the land of Facebook, you might call this fear-mongering. But in the real world, it’s a fact, and one that we cannot escape here at Women of Grace®.
For example, we have received mail from people who describe family members who gave up praying the Rosary or going to Mass or reading Scripture after partaking in mindfulness meditation such as Body Scan as part of MBSR therapy for a stress-related problem. For that matter, we recently interviewed a Catholic therapist who quit her practice because she was so tired of seeing people abandon prayer for the meditation techniques they were learning in mindfulness therapy.
Dr. Bottaro’s program of introducing the general Catholic public to Eastern spiritual practices (which he doesn’t identify as such) is problematic for several reasons.
First, he’s not doing so solely within the practice of psychology. He is also introducing it to the Catholic population as a way to better practice their own faith. This is troublesome, especially because Buddhist doctrine is not being presented accurately.
For example, in his April 2 blog, he furthers a popular misconception that various steps in the Eightfold Path – right action, right speech, right intention, right mindfulness, etc. – are “pretty healthy directives to follow” and suggests that they may be practiced by Christians.
In reality, the “right” actions he’s referring to are deeply imbedded in the teachings of the Buddha which are known as the Four Noble Truths. The fourth of these Noble Truths, known as the Eightfold Path, is the path that leads to awakening. All of the “right” action, speech, intention, mindfulness, concentration, etc. in this path are aimed at achieving enlightenment. They each “sit in mutual relationship to one other and are each essential elements in an integrated approach to the Dharma.” It is only by accepting the Four Noble Truths that a person can have the “Right View” or “Right Speech” or “Right Action.” In other words, these “rights” can never fit into a Christian worldview. And should we attempt to detach them from their Buddhist worldview, it would render them useless because Christianity already has its own dictates about what constitutes right action, right speech, etc. Unfortunately, the average Catholic of today is not able to make these distinctions which is why erroneous interpretations of Buddhism such as this can be so damaging to the faithful Catholic.
Second, Dr. Bottaro’s efforts to introduce his teachings en masse means he is doing so without knowing where people are in their spiritual life. This is a serious concern. In addition to causing confusion about prayer, it also preys upon those Catholics who have not yet advanced beyond the stage where they come to prayer because it “feels good.” Eastern meditation techniques such as yoga, mindfulness, and transcendental meditation, are designed to induce altered states, bliss states, etc., all of which can feel very good. This makes the inexperienced Catholic even more likely to adopt these techniques.
Cardinal Ratzinger specifically warned about this in his Letter to the Bishops. “Some physical exercises automatically produce a feeling of quiet and relaxation, pleasing sensations, perhaps even phenomena of light and of warmth, which resemble spiritual well-being,” the document states. “To take such feelings for the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit would be a totally erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual life.”
And yet when I took Dr. Bottaro’s course, there was no screening of applicants, no questions asked. Just enter a credit card number and get started.
5. Dismissal of Warnings About the Lack of Sound Science Behind Mindfulness
Dr. Bottaro recently used his Facebook page to critique a live show on mindfulness which was being broadcast by EWTN’s Women of Grace. After introducing the show to his viewers under the erroneous title of “an anti-Catholic mindfulness show” (the show was not about Catholic mindfulness) he scoffed at the mention of rising concerns in the scientific community about the shoddy science behind today’s practice of mindfulness.
For example, our show cited a 2014 meta-analysis of nearly 19,000 mindfulness and mantra-based meditation studies conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University which found only 47 to be methodologically sound.
Dr. Bottaro dismissed this finding because the study was based on both mindfulness and mantra-based meditation. However, as the analysis shows, mindfulness and mantra-based meditation were studied separately, and of the 47 acceptable studies, those involving mindfulness found nothing more than “moderate evidence” that mindfulness improves anxiety, depression, pain, etc. And none of the studies proved that mindfulness was any more effective than other treatments for stress and anxiety.
The fact that these results are significant is borne out by the paper published in October of 2017 in Perspectives in Psychological Science by 15 experts from some of the world’s leading universities. These experts specifically cite the 2014 meta-analysis by Johns Hopkins among the evidence that mindfulness studies do not support the widespread use of this practice. They assert that “misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled and disappointed.”
Psychologists with far more experience than Dr. Bottaro believe this is a young field and one that is seriously lacking in quality research. This is why they feel that much better scientific studies are needed in order to determine if mindfulness is helpful for all or just for particular people in specific circumstances.
They also cite the worrisome lack of research into the negative effects of mindfulness meditation – such as depersonalization, psychosis, hallucinations, disorganized speech, feelings of anxiety, increased risk of seizures, insomnia, and loss of appetite. Lest we think these are rare, a 2017 study found that UEs (unwanted effects) of mindfulness are prevalent.
Although The Mindful Catholic may seem like a successful venture on Facebook, once you step back into the real world, you quickly discover that it’s a lot more controversial than it appears on social media. Particularly among those Christians who are educated on the roots of today’s mindfulness movement, many are finding the Catholic Mindfulness program to be more risky than they find comfortable.
Which begs the question, if Catholic Mindfulness is just about using a method of thought control to help us focus, why bother with the mindfulness part at all? Why not use the methods our Church has been using for centuries? We’re taught to think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil 4:8).
Dr. Bottaro mocks us for suggesting that these Catholic teachings are enough and makes the erroneous claim that people should embrace mindfulness as an adjunct to their spiritual lives because “mindfulness itself is not spiritual.” Again, his own peers have been known to disagree with him, including Jon Kabat-Zinn himself. In a recent interview, when asked if he believed mindfulness was spiritual, Kabat-Zinn artfully dodged the question: “That depends on what you mean by spiritual,” he said.
But let’s be honest about all this. The reason Christian methods of thought control aren’t popular today is because mindfulness is all the rage and Christianity isn’t. This won’t be the first time that Americans have eagerly embraced the habit of culturally appropriating Eastern religions while telling themselves that they’re “respecting the beliefs of others.” Are we really respecting other religions by picking and choosing whatever we need from them in order to turn our latest spiritual craze into a billion-dollar industry? Outside of the land of Facebook, there are plenty of very upset Hindus and Buddhists who aren’t impressed by how we’re demeaning their belief systems in order to sell more yoga mats and make our therapy sessions more avant garde.
Finally, for those folks who have written to express their disappointment that Dr. Bottaro’s new book has a foreword from Dr. Peter Kreeft, I can assure them that there are plenty of equally prominent Catholic scholars who disagree with the marketing of mindfulness, such as the renowned East Asian scholar, Dr. Anthony E. Clark.
To those who complained that a bishop endorsed the book, you may want to consider this – after more than 14 years in the business of investigating the New Age, I have spoken with numerous priests, nuns and bishops who were the first to admit that they don’t know nearly what they should about the New Age and the many spiritual movements of our day. If they only read what Dr. Bottaro wrote in the book, and never bothered to look further into the subject matter, they will see absolutely nothing wrong with this program.
The Mindful Catholic book and the Catholic Mindfulness course are missing important information about the origins of the course and the relevance of those origins upon the material being presented.
For the sake of Catholic souls, we can and must do better.
© All Rights Reserved, Living His Life Abundantly®/Women of Grace® http://www.womenofgrace.com
For a deeper understanding of mindfulness, its origins, its compatibility with Catholicism, and Catholic alternatives to mindfulness, be sure to tune into EWTN’s Women of Grace beginning May 28 for a week-long series with East Asian scholar Dr. Anthony E. Clark and Susan Brinkmann, author of A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness.