The following blog was contributed by Sofia Carozza, a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, England.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, students of all ages have reported high rates of loneliness and anxiety. These concerns were already on the rise in recent years, but they have been exacerbated by the financial difficulties, social isolation, and illness brought on by the pandemic.
In response, some schools have introduced the practice of classroom-based mindfulness interventions as a support for their students’ mental health needs. When practicing mindfulness, a person strives to cultivate non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. This mental work is often accompanied by attention to breathing and posture. Although researchers have not yet done rigorous studies on the efficacy of school-based mindfulness programs, preliminary research shows that mindfulness meditation can alleviate stress and reduce pain. It would seem, therefore, that mindfulness could help young people who experience distinct challenges in their mental or physical health.
Although it is positive that mindfulness promises these benefits, and it would make sense that Catholic schools would follow their public-school counterparts in providing support for the social and emotional needs of their students, Catholic schools should be cautious about introducing mindfulness as a solution to the anxieties of life. Catholic schools are distinct in that they aim to open the souls of students to the life of God. This means that they must offer students an account of reality that is rooted in the Gospel and also equip them with the means by which to live it. Without this, young people are vulnerable to prevalent ideologies of our time, which are not always compatible with the Christian view of the world and the human person.
When considering the incorporation of mindfulness, educators at Catholic schools will want to keep this mission in mind and weigh the proposed benefits of mindfulness against its associated costs. These costs include a suspension of judgment, a separation of the mind from the heart, and a withdrawal from communion with God and others. Contemplative prayer, long known to the Christian tradition, is a better option. Its practice offers expanded, widely recognized benefits with none of the associated drawbacks of mindfulness.
The role of judgment
Mindfulness meditation aims to help a person cultivate a ‘non-judgmental’ awareness of reality. This involves their observing whatever thought or emotion arises in their mind without passing judgment on its meaning or value. Ideally, suspending judgment in this way lessens the discomfort of negative emotions and quiets painful critical thoughts. However, their elimination may come with a psychological cost.
As psychologist Susan David emphasizes, emotions and thoughts, including uncomfortable ones, communicate useful information. For instance, feeling anger is often a sign a person has witnessed an injustice, an experience of shame may indicate a person’s need for acceptance and love. In routinely suspending judgment (as is encouraged in the practice of mindfulness), a person becomes less able to evaluate the truth of their experiences and becomes vulnerable to distorted beliefs and instincts. This is problematic because psychological and mental healing relies on correcting false ideas and aligning one’s thoughts with the truth of reality–a process that is central to the most effective therapy for mental illness.
The suspension of judgment may also have a spiritual cost. This is because a person’s capacity for judgment aids their progress on the path of Christian life, which is one of conversion. Following Christ requires the constant work of correcting the false judgments attributed to our fallen nature. When striving for increasing holiness, a person must learn to “put on the mind of Christ”: to esteem humility and poverty, to hope amid suffering, and to accept dependence on God with joy. The practice of ignoring one’s judgment, as occurs in mindfulness meditation, can put up obstacles to this conversion by weakening a person’s ability to accurately evaluate emotions, intentions, and actions. For instance, a recent study showed that practicing mindfulness meditation decreases the empathy narcissistic people show others, perhaps because it interferes with the rejection of self-aggrandizing thoughts.
Contemplative prayer, on the other hand, heightens a person’s capacity for judgment. Through encountering Christ in the silence of her heart, a person can offer Him her intellect, will, and emotions, and ask Him to make them like His own. Prayer thus strengthens a person’s capacity to reject evil thoughts and cultivate the life of Christ, which alone can bring us peace.
The needs of the heart
Mindfulness, as an extension of Buddhism, aims to expose all of reality as impermanent and unsubstantial, including the notion of an eternal soul. If none of reality is ‘real’, a person can only be certain of what is going on in his own mind–his thoughts, perceptions, and emotions. Mindfulness thus teaches those who practice it, whether they realize it or not, that their ultimate desire is for a life free of psychological suffering.
But this is not enough to satisfy the human heart. What the human person truly desires is not a life free of suffering, but the awareness of the beauty and meaning of life at every moment, even in the midst of suffering. This is the thirst of the soul for the divine. Without recognizing this thirst, and God’s answer to it, a person has no defense against despair. This might explain why some people who practice meditation report that their mental health and well-being actually decline.
In contrast with mindfulness, prayer teaches us to listen to the desires of our hearts for justice, beauty, truth, and love. It allows us to discover that these desires can be fulfilled. Because in the silence of the present moment, it is possible to recognize that we are being created at every instant by God, a God who became a man so that we can now encounter Him in our lives. A habit of prayer strengthens a person’s awareness that they live in Christ because of their Baptism, and nourishes their desire to follow Him, even through suffering, to the embrace of the Father.
The call to communion
During mindfulness meditation, a person strives to overcome suffering by focusing only on thoughts and sensations. Establishing this very limited psychological horizon can have detrimental effects on a person’s relationships. This is because it turns one’s focus inward and away from the joys to be found in encountering others. Practicing mindfulness may thus lead a person to forget that she is created to give and receive care in loving relationships—a truth that psychological research has verified. The self-absorption promoted by mindfulness can also impede the path toward God, a journey traveled by learning to recognize Christ’s presence in one’s neighbors—particularly the poor (Matt 22:37-39; 25:21-46).
Prayer, on the other hand, expands the horizon of a person’s reality and thereby fosters communion with God and others. This is because “begging to see God’s face” in prayer leads a person to seek and find His presence in ordinary experiences of daily life, including encounters with others. Prayer teaches one to gaze on all people with the awareness that they, too, belong to God and that one’s true joy is found in serving Him in them.
Life under a pandemic may be filled with stress and suffering, but that is not the final word, because God has taken our burdens on Himself in Christ. Catholic schools have the fullness of this truth and should not settle for proposing anything less to their students. By teaching them to pray, Catholic school educators can offer their students a remedy that satisfies the needs of their hearts and functions as a powerful defense against anxiety.
In this age of digital media, incorporating prayer is easier than ever. There are numerous online resources for teachers who want to help their students learn to pray – and some, like the Catholic prayer app Hallow, even have special offers for schools.
However, if teachers and administrators are to give the treasure of prayer to their students, they must first discover it for themselves. By fostering their own relationship with God in the silence of their hearts, teachers will be able to speak to their students of the love that Christ has for us, which is our source of peace. For it is God who gives Catholic educators the strength and grace to fulfill their lofty responsibility toward their students.
The original, longer version of this article can be found on the Church Life Journal website.