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What Is Catholic Mindfulness?

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Photo: Dr. Greg Bottaro, founder of the CatholicPsych Institute

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By Marc Massery (Jul 13, 2018)
Dr. Greg Bottaro is the founder of the CatholicPsych Institute and author of the Mindful Catholic: Finding God One Moment at a Time (forward written by Peter Kreeft). He teaches an online course called Introduction to Catholic Mindfulness. In this interview, he speaks about how being mindful opens one up to living in God's presence and experiencing the full power of Divine Mercy.

What is mindfulness and what does it have to do with Divine Mercy?

Mindfulness is part of a robust, accepted, and validated treatment protocol. In strict secular terms, it involves present awareness of the moment and how to focus on the five senses. For our purposes, "mindfulness" is just contemporary language that helps us address the question, "What would life be like if we really did receive God's mercy and knew truly how much He loves us?" We would be without anxiety. We would be totally free to live in the present moment and peaceful, trustingly at ease, without worrying about the future or ruminating on the past.

Why does our culture have so much anxiety and depression?

Many don't know that we have a God who loves us and takes care of us. It goes right back to Matthew 6:25, where Jesus has to instruct us not to be worried about the things of your life. He's trying to convince us that the Father takes care of us. That's the deepest root. We have a crisis in families, a crisis in marriage, many kids are growing up without any kind of strong structural foundation. We're searching for meaning and identity because we're not given it from the beginning.

What's been the response from your course and your book on mindfulness?

I get so many stories of people whose lives are being affected profoundly by understanding God's love through mindfulness. I have hundreds of emails from people just writing to tell me about it, to thank me for it, and to ask for more. They're realizing that the faith life is more than just church and prayer — it ought to affect our emotional lives as well.

How did you discover mindfulness from a Catholic perspective?

I studied philosophy and mental health at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Then I spent three and a half years with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. I had the grace and pleasure to spend a lot of time with Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR. I learned a lot from him while I was there. It was through his example that I learned what mindfulness looks like, spiritually speaking, and it really opened me up to what the practice of the presence of God looks like. You know, just seeing how grounded he was — that was a profound experience.

What initially drew you to study psychology and mental health?

I had a reversion to my faith in college, and I knew I was going to work with people through the lens of John Paul II's Love and Responsibility. I see my work when I was a Friar and my work now as a psychologist very similarly. I felt the call to do this.

Ultimately, Love and Responsibility was a justification for the encyclical on contraception, Humanae Vitae, but in terms of what resonates with the human heart. It's not just an objective, abstract teaching, but it explains what it's actually like to be a woman or a man in love and desiring each other and how that is actually fulfilled.

Mindfulness is very effective when it's applied to relationships, and it's amazing how long people can live in each other's orbit without ever really paying attention to each other in a mindful way. Mindfulness helps us avoid becoming egocentric and helps us see other people for who they are instead of how we filter them to be. You learn to really love the person for their sake and not your own. To really be present with somebody else as in "other" takes a lot of work.

Where did the practice of mindfulness originate?

It's a practice which is developed very specifically by somebody named Jon Kabat-Zinn, who was a medical researcher and clinician at the University of Massachusetts. As a Buddhist, he recognized the calm peace that he felt when he was practicing meditation. He wanted to help his patients find relief from their suffering, so he had this insight to package the mental practice of what he was doing in meditation in a way that was very secular and not Buddhist.

He created this mindfulness-based stress-reduction protocol, which is backed by thousands of research studies over the last 40 years. The results are overwhelmingly positive, in terms of its effect in the brain and in the person. Through this protocol, in many cases, patients are actually able to find the same or greater relief without using medication like opioids for chronic pain or medications for depression and anxiety. Mindfulness is a non-medicinal alternative, backed by sound, validated science.

How did you connect secular mindfulness to your Catholic spirituality?
Through the practice of the presence of God. We have our faith, which we proclaim, we live by, and we believe in. But we need to incorporate our spiritual life into our emotional lives. We might be the most faithful Catholic out there, but maybe we're still walking around all day like the world is going to end, or there's a big problem, or somehow, we're not taken care of. If we really believe what we say we believe, then we should not be depressed or anxious. Of course, there are other, biological factors that come into play.

But not everybody has the chance to spend 3 and a half years in front of the Blessed Sacrament with Fr. Benedict Groeschel. So in my course and in my book, I teach a manualized approach living in the presence of God, trying to answer the question: What do you do with your mind to put into practice a reality that everything's going to be okay?

Did the great contemplative saints practice mindfulness?

Absolutely. But for a totally different reason. Mindfulness is just looking at what's happening in the mind at the moment. Or more so, what's not happening in the mind at the moment. There's no worrying, there's no anxiety, there's no ruminating "Oh, did I say the right thing? Oh, is she going to like me? Or, oh what happens if this doesn't work out well?" Or all those kinds of thoughts that we have very often in our lives, they're not in, at least, the fully developed saints.

As recorded in her Diary, Jesus tells St. Faustina that the graces of mercy are "drawn by means of one vessel only, and that is — trust" (1578). What does mindfulness have to do with trust?

This work certainly helps us to develop trust. Trust is the foundation of surrender and abandonment to Divine Providence. Trust is the foundation of truly receiving God's love. This is what's modeled to us, this is what the family is supposed to be. This is the foundation of what the family is supposed to be in "the school of love." That was John Paul II's favorite phrase for the family. If we're supposed to be educated in this environment of love, really what that means is learning how to trust those who are taking care of us. Ultimately that translates into spiritual trust, so we can really abandon ourselves to our Father and then that opens us up to receiving all of His graces.

What are some examples of how we live unmindfully?

Boy, there're a lot. Lying in bed and ruminating before sleep at night, having lots of thoughts going through your mind, losing your place in a conversation with somebody, not remembering somebody's name or, often times, traveling, driving, and not realizing how or when you got to a certain place. They can be simple, but it can be really devastating if we're not mindful.

One thing I always tell people is to pick up your phone and turn it around and look at the back of your phone. Look at it from the side and notice the color of your phone. Notice the scratches that might be on it or the light that reflects off of it.

And ask yourself, "How many hours do you spend on your phone and how much time have you actually noticed your phone itself?" And that's usually enough to jolt somebody into this reality that "Well, there's this object in my presence all day every day. But I've never actually looked at it like this." That's a prime example of what not being mindful looks like.

What is one thing we can do right now to put mindfulness into practice?

For a Catholic who is trying to figure out what this has to do with their interior life, I usually tell people — when you go to Mass or you go to Adoration, before praying, start off spending five minutes just being present in your body, and just feel with your senses your own breath. Pay attention to what's actually happening right now in this moment. That will prepare you to be present with God's Body — the Eucharist — or whatever is specifically happening in the prayer.

We often just try to go right into our prayers, as life goes on in the background of our mind. But we can stop that process by refocusing on the senses in the present moment.

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