Mindfulness: Buddhism without the spiritual bits

After 10 years in Asia, where I was introduced to Buddhism, yoga and meditation, I’m delighted to return home to a mindful Ireland – a place of acceptance and expansive thinking


My mother has been saying this for years. But things are changing, and a warm tingle filled my chest watching her prepare pitted olives and a selection of cheeses to take on her day of mindful eating. Not only that, but at 62 she’s a spring chicken; many of her fellow mindfulness course attendees pay for the meditation classes out of their pensions.

Recently I returned from a 10-year stint in Asia. There I learned yoga and studied some meditation techniques before settling on a form of Japanese Buddhism that involves chanting a mantra, a practice I now do for an hour every day.

I arrived home and my sister was eager to sign us up for the Mindfulness Ireland May Retreat. Last year’s retreat, themed Friendship in Oneself and the World, was “only the job”, she told me. And every day after work, my ex-scrumhalf brother heads out on his bike in hail or rain to attend evening yoga.

I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s when meditation was a dirty word, yoga for men carried the same social prejudice as hairdressing, and chanting was right out.

I’m delighted to return home to a mindful Ireland – a place of acceptance and expansive thinking, where I’m not a freak.

My sister is a big fan of Wake Up Ireland, whose tagline is “young Buddhists and non-Buddhists for a healthy and compassionate society”. She is keen to have me join her at weekly sangha, or group mediation. My mother veers towards Mindfulness Ireland, the biggest mindfulness organisation in the country, with 21 registered practice groups, which are self-organised and free to attend.

According to Aware, Ireland has 300,000 people suffering from clinical depression. However, as we are presented with a problem, we are also given the solution, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) could be the answer. It is rapidly gaining the support of the established medical profession, and we are seeing centres opening up and down the country. Mindfulness is here, and we’re likely to see much more of it.

Many pioneers in the late-1970s and early 1980s helped to raise awareness of these meditation practices in the West. But mindfulness was first advocated by Shakyamuni Buddha as one of the seven necessary factors required in order to reach enlightenment. It is often said that mindfulness is Buddhism without the spiritual bits.

Buddhist network
I was relieved to see that my own Buddhist network, the Soka Gakkai International or SGI, also enjoys a solid base in Ireland.

Described as “the world’s largest Buddhist lay group”, it has more than 12 million members in 192 countries. The name literally means “value creation society”, and we believe we do not need to shave our heads or wear orange robes and we can still reach enlightenment in this lifetime.

We only have to do our daily practice. There are a host of other Buddhist organisations thriving in Ireland. The Tibetans are represented by the likes of Rigpa, Shambhala and Bodhicharya, as well as many groups hailing from the Burmese and Thai Buddhist lineages.

The streets were packed to welcome the Dalai Lama on his 2011 visit. There’s not just the 8,703 confirmed Buddhists who live in the country, according to a census conducted in the same year, but many thousands more who observe Buddhist practices and thought without calling themselves Buddhist.

A budding of Buddhists
“What’s the story with all these Buddhists, all of a sudden?” my sister asked.

My first response was that Christianity to Buddhism seems like a natural development. The former gives all power and responsibility to an external figure like a child does to a parent. And the latter reclaims that power and responsibility, putting it on the shoulders of the practitioner, just as we do as we develop into adulthood. This may help explain the unprecedented growth of Buddhism in countries with a strong Christian tradition.

Carlo Barone, of the University of Milano Bicocca, says: “Since almost half of Soka Gakkai European members live in Italy, this country figures among the western nations where this new religious movement has been most successful.

“It is estimated that even the fastest-growing religious movements usually take at least one generation to reach 20,000 members: in Italy, the SGI was close to 30,000 members within 20-25 years.” And these figures have risen significantly since this paper was published in 2005. But there’s much more to it.

When one human has a breakthrough, every human is automatically influenced by that development. This is most noteworthy in “multiple independent discoveries”, where scientists seem to independently make the same discoveries at about the same time.

British physicist and author Peter Russell says: “The internet is linking humanity into one, worldwide community – a ‘global brain’. This, combined with a rapidly growing spiritual awakening, is creating a collective consciousness that is humanity’s only hope of saving itself from itself.”

Others would say the internet is only a cruder version of the invisible network that already connects every human mind – our brains are like antennae and we automatically share all information and new ideas – we must only tune into the correct frequency to access it.

And how do we tune in? The most effective way is to meditate. And so it goes.

Josephine Lynch and Helen Byrne of mindfulness.ie will host a mindfulness retreat at Coolbawn Quay, Co Tipperary, June 13-15. coolbawnquay.com


I begin by balancing my breath, the conduit between the spiritual and physical. Then I start softly chanting my mantra. My brain easily slips into an alpha state: a slower brainwave frequency.

My tongue beats its message against the roof of my mouth, triggering a release of an amber fluid in my pineal gland, known as the mind’s eye; this is where dreams are made and the possible is accessed. Now the relaxing rhythm gears my brain down to a theta state, slower in frequency and greater in amplitude than alpha waves, the state of the brain in light sleep, where insight occurs.

One by one the faces of my family, sharp, vivid and in full colour, float to the front of my mind. A tingling begins in my chest as if my heart is opening, generating a strong feeling of gratitude. In my practice this is called bringing my Buddhahood – my highest self – forth from within. The combination of my positive emotion, my mind’s intention, and the vibration of the mantra, sends a powerful message to the universe, thanking it for bringing peace to my family’s lives and happiness to their hearts.

Soka Gakkai International Buddhists believe the universe responds to this message in the material world. Then I move on to my next intention, peace and happiness for every human being, brought about through dedicated Buddhist practice. And all of a sudden it dawns on me: it’s working.

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