Definition of Natural Meditation: Meditation that takes place in reference to the first order of knowledge, nature, rather than the Word of God in Sacred Scripture and Holy Tradition.
The ancient Greeks (esp. Plato and Aristotle) and Romans (e.g. Cicero), Buddhists (Buddha and followers, e.g. Thich Nhat Hahn), Hindus (followers of yogic meditative traditions of India), Jains (similar to Buddhism and Hinduism in approach to meditation), contemporary mindfulness (e.g. MBSR), Vipassana, Transcendental Meditation, Sufism, etc., are all forms of natural meditation.
There are many virtues and good qualities to those followers of all these traditions, and they wouldn’t have withstood the test of time if they were not, in particular ways, helpful to man and society.
However, these forms of natural meditation, from a Catholic perspective, can be misleading insofar as they may propose an object of meditation that otherwise may be misconceived.
So, without having an extreme position, either of total fear and disdain of the commitments of another tradition, or of complete naivete and idealism, discretion is advised for Catholics when approaching teachers and practices of pre-Christian natural meditation. It is the rare person who is well trained enough both in one of these traditions and in the Catholic faith that one could be set in relationship to the other in a way that achieved a genuine synthesis that didn’t do damage to the Catholic understanding of nature, the human person, and God, and also didn’t reduce the other tradition to something that it isn’t.
Some examples of pre-Christian objects of Natural Meditation that would be incompatible with Catholic faith:
- A Buddhist meditation upon emptiness, or their belief in the lack of inherent existence of the self, the soul, and the denial of an eternal reality.
- Dualism in all Indian philosophy sees the World and embodiment as an illusion, rather than as Creation.
- Meditations upon the doctrine of karma and reincarnation, which are incompatible with Catholic faith.
- Meditations upon a Buddhist concept of impermanence, which is not compatible with Catholic faith. Impermanence is often taught through contemporary mindfulness. Catholics do meditate on the fleeting nature of this life but it is different than the doctrine of impermanence which tends to denigrate materiality, i.e. Creation.
- The new age belief, held by many practitioners of modern Yoga, that a person should seek to feel good without doing good, i.e. without following the moral law as communicated in sources like the Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. Many practitioners of contemporary forms of meditation isolate them from the moral life. Pre-Christian philosophers, the good ones, all understood there was an intrinsic connection between being making right actions and being happy.
Because so few Westerners are educated in philosophy and theology anymore, and primarily pursue practical knowledge rather than contemplative, they often Romanticize Asian forms of meditation when they first encounter their contemplative dimension. They are right to recognize, as did Aristotle and Plato, that there is no higher human act than contemplation of ultimate reality. However, Westerners often do this from a position of ignorance, without recognizing that both meditation and contemplation are Western concepts, primarily Greek and Latin, that have been used in the translation of Indian concepts that seem similar.
The romanticism that takes place is often maintained while (perhaps unintentionally) denigrating Western religion and monotheism, and especially the Christian religion, viewing it as bereft of a contemplative tradition and ascetical virtue. And indeed even most Catholics don’t know that their own religion is a Sacred Tradition based in the contemplation of the Summum Bonum, God the Most Holy Trinity! Yes, most Catholics go to the East to learn how to contemplate, as if there weren’t a highly developed and systematic tradition of spiritual discipline and theology in their own Holy Church (that has all but disappeared in practice, no doubt).
Most leading teachers of Buddhistic meditation and authors of related books in the West are people who have scant knowledge of the best philosophical work of the Western World, from the insights of philosophers like Solomon, Plato, Aristotle, Philo, Maimonides, Augustine, Dionysius, Avicenna, Albert the Great, Averroes and Thomas Aquinas. And they definitely are not aware of the authentic Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis that is central to the Catholic philosophical tradition nor have they ever been asked to form a coherent response to it. Many Catholics believe, and I am one of them, that this philosophical tradition offers the only coherent foundation for the possibility of both science and faith, being based in moderate realism. It avoids extremes of fideism, rationalism, and a radical skepticism that undermines the possibility of any knowledge. There is a reason that science, uniquely, in the Western World in a context where the reason of the Greeks and the faith of the Jews made a genuine synthesis.
So, while we must assume that teachers of pre-Christian forms of meditation approach this work with the greatest charity and earnestness we must also regard discernment as essential and develop criteria to assess what is right and good about a proposal for a type of meditation and what may be confusing or short-sighted, or, just incorrect from a Catholic perspective. Without doing this a person may unwittingly end up reinforcing positions that lack coherence, despite the fact that some associated practices may no doubt assist a person in the cultivation of certain ascetical and mental virtues.
One of the main purposes of the Apostolate for Catholic Meditation is to overcome this trend by offering a Catholic form of natural meditation that is consistent with the preambula fidei, or preambles of Catholic faith. This can all be done from the perspective of natural reason, however, it is not easy to attain on one’s own by virtue of reason alone. But we don’t have to do that because many wise men and women have gone before us, guided by their desire for truth in their confrontation with the wonder of reality.
And further, by faith, Catholics believe that we are adopted children of our Creator, we have chosen to live as disciples of Jesus Christ, and as temples of the Holy Spirit. We are united through the Sacraments of Initiation as the Body of Christ and have the resources of both faith and reason, in an authentic synthesis, to guide us. May this wisdom be for us a map to union with God, and offer a way of life by which we are saved in love as we too become a means of reparation for a World sorely in need.