An Imaginary Conversation About Mindfulness
Editor’s Note: The events depicted below are fictitious. Direct quotes are represented in italics and come from The Mindful Catholic by Dr. Gregory Bottaro and the writings of St. Thérèse de Lisieux.
A therapist, a nun, and a millennial walk into a bar.
They take a seat at the counter and order a drink. On the television, a talk show host shares about her newfound love of mindfulness. “It’s a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment…”
The millennial, 25-year old Skyler who owns a start-up company that makes jewelry in the shape of single-cell organisms, watches intently. Dr. Gregory Bottaro, a Catholic therapist nods his head along with the description.
The host continues, “…with the goal of emptying our mind and, ultimately, becoming one with the universe.”
Sr. Thérèse, a Catholic nun, nearly chokes on her mouthful of milk. “What?!”
Right Track, Wrong Goal
Bottaro shakes his head. “They were on the right track, but the goal is in the wrong place.”
Skylar objects, “No, I’ve heard of this, my friends are way into it. They take some time every day and it’s like magic for them. I tried the whole ‘raisin’ thing, but with my work and website and family, I can’t seem to do the whole ‘empty the mind’ business. There is too much on my mind.”
“Mindfulness, in its best practice,” Bottaro explains, turning about 30 degrees towards Skyler, “is a practice of non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, but not to find emptiness. As I wrote in my book, The Mindful Catholic, ‘If mindfulness is awareness of the present moment, God is the present moment. He defined himself as “I am who am.” God sees all as a present moment, and it is our goal to see as he sees.’ It isn’t about emptying our mind, but filling it.”
Sr. Thérèse shared from her own writing, “If I did not simply live from one moment to another, it would be impossible for me to be patient, but I only look at the present, I forget the past, and I take good care not to forestall the future.”
“That’s a mouthful. But how do you manage it?” Skyler inquired of Bottaro.
Mindfulness to Discover Something
“If you don’t schedule it, it doesn’t get done,” Bottaro quipped. “There are exercises, and the raisin exercise is helpful. Mindfulness is about discovering more about something, not disappearing into it. It actually has a long Christian tradition.”
“It sounds like contemplation,” said Sr. Thérèse.
“That’s right,” Bottaro agreed. “One of the first steps is to become more self-aware. We are so often focused on doing versus being. In our stressful lives, the sympathetic nervous response puts on edge, like we must survive an unperceived threat in the situation. It heightens our breathing and heart rate and makes it impossible to just ‘be’ in the present moment. I must ‘do,’ I must fix, I must ‘go.’ Self-awareness can help us shift gears to ‘being’ and that is where mindfulness takes place.”
“But I thought Christians say we should be more focused on others than ourselves,” Skyler puffed.
Bottaro answered calmly, “Self-awareness is a good thing because it will lead you to become more of who God made you to be.”
Sr. Thérèse, having not spent too many hours focused on her psyche considered the matter pensively. Bottaro continued, “Self-awareness can help us set aside a reactive response to the events around us, help us identify destructive habits of thoughts and the negative feedback loop that sometimes occurs between body and brain, and show us how our perceptions alter how we interpret the situation. Awareness helps us to choose a better way, which leads to an internal freedom. While that host talked about mindfulness as the self-disappearing really, ‘The solitude of interior silence then becomes the gateway to meeting God.’”
Open to What God Has to Offer in the Moment
Sr. Thérèse’s eyes brightened. “Yes, I see now what you are saying. I remember when I was working in the laundry, and the Sister opposite, while washing handkerchiefs, repeatedly splashed me with dirty water. My first impulse was to draw back and wipe my face, to show the offender I should be glad if she would behave more quietly; but the next minute I thought how foolish it was to refuse the treasures God offered me so generously, and I refrained from betraying my annoyance. I was aware of my annoyance and chose to be open to what God had to offer me in that moment.”
“Exactly!” Bottaro said.
She continued, “’I have tried to ‘miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.’ Is that part of what you’re talking about?”
“Yes,” he replied, “Because when we lean into the present moment, we can truly live it, offer it up, see what it has to offer us. In that is peace, not the alleviation of our suffering, but acceptance of it. And it can be transformed into something great.”
“I wonder…” Skyler began, “my grandma was like a mom to me. When she died, I wanted to do something to honor her memory. I couldn’t just sit around and cry. I had to do something. Most days I ran around busy as hell but going in circles. I found when I made jewelry, a peace came to me. I might think about her or not, it didn’t matter. Often I did, though, and it felt so good like she was with me. So when I feel trapped in those feelings, I get out my metal working tools and go to town. All that energy, ‘doing’ I guess you called it, I poured into my work. The business is growing fast —STEM, you know— but I actually feel calmer when I’m working on it than anything else.”
“Sounds right to me,” Bottaro responded. He added, “The key, then, is to take what you’ve gained in jewelry making it, and applying it to other areas of your life, driving in traffic, relationships, even just getting ready in the morning.”
“Yeah, because I wouldn’t want life to be meaningless…” Skyler said, a little more quietly than before.
Mindfulness as Jumping Point for Transformation in Christ
Sr. Thérèse, putting her hand on Skyler’s hand, said “Offer to God the littlest moments of your day. Learn those ways you hinder yourself, as this gentleman explains. Then do all things with love. “Without love, deeds, even the most brilliant, count as nothing.”
“Mindfulness is the jumping off point,” Bottaro added. “It makes it possible for you to transform all the rest because you are really open to what the moment has to offer.”
“That’s cool. But how to do I learn to do it?”
“It’s a habit, like many things in life. Here, in my book, I go through 8-weeks of exercises to teach you how to become mindful. It starts with some standard exercises but we go deeper, they take on a uniquely Christian approach, to God’s fullness rather than self-emptiness.”
“That sounds good,” Skyler said, picking up her phone at the sound of the chime. “I can never get away from this thing,” Skyler said.
Bottaro smiled, “You’ll have some opportunities too if you go through these exercises.”
Skyler and Thérèse laughed. They finished their organic goat milk and left the bar around the same time. Bottaro stayed on to enjoy a second glass of bourbon.
For a more in-depth exploration of the Christian approach to mindfulness, read this article by Dr. Bottaro.