In Bishop Cullinane’s letter to schools in his parish, the Christian methods of prayer and meditation on Christ are offered as paths to freedom, but all others are dismissed, by referencing a homily by the Pope. This is problematic; an authority figure’s words no longer impress like they used to, when we have easy access to higher education and almost all information sitting on a device in our pockets.
Also, by using the term “Christ” the church’s representatives seem to claim that realisation of the divine can only be achieved by Christians; God won’t help you if you were born in Syria or Thailand or anywhere else outside of their reach, let alone our ancestors who lived before Christ.
However, his question, “will they bring us closer to Christ or replace him?”, is an important one, if we assume that by “Christ” he means our inner divinity; most traditions argue that realisation of our inner divinity is the greatest purpose of life, and it does seem to be a good target to aim for, whether real or ideal.
Yoga and mindfulness meditation are ancient spiritual practices derived from cultures that believe in multiple gods and no god, that does indeed aim towards the realisation of the divine, and so their current ubiquity should be of concern.
Regarding yoga, practitioners who have completed short teacher training courses can become self-proclaimed gurus, and people like Bikram Choudhury have demonstrated how power gained through yoga can be misused. For most, yoga is merely an exercise and relaxation technique, and when approached with this intention the returns are generally very positive.
I agree with Bishop Cullinane that it shouldn’t be taught during religious education time; when dealing with the spiritual dimension it is important that the yoga teacher understands the arena well, and in the absence of a strong governing body we have no guarantee that the teacher does.
Mindfulness meditation (MM) is different than yoga in this regard. Fundamentally, MM is the practice of non-judgmental observation of the thoughts and sensations in our minds and bodies.
There is no religious iconography attached — ie, it does not conflict with any belief; you can be a practising Catholic and practice observation of thoughts and sensations. By maintaining a daily practise you begin to see the root cause of many of what Christians would call sins — pride, greed, lust, envy, etc — thought patterns and unconscious reactions to sensations in our bodies.
Sensations are, after all, the fundamental signals we receive for the outside world, prior to interpretation. By observing them we bring them into awareness and so can act based on these sensations, rather than react; we can sit and be ourselves, unperturbed by any external influences. “Awareness of the presence and love of Christ” can be felt in this state, regardless of whether we’ve heard of Jesus or not.
MM requires guidance, but nowhere near as much as some yoga practices, and in combination with the simplicity of the method and lack of iconography, there is no real scope for becoming a guru of mindfulness.
However, the intention towards inner realisation is important, meditation is spreading quickly across the world and it will be an opportunity missed if it is taught merely as another relaxation technique. If we use it with the intention to “bring us closer to Christ” it will indeed do so, but if we’re taught that deep inner relaxation is the best we can aim for, then it replaces him, and more is the pity.
This is why it is so important that mindfulness meditation is taught in religious education time, and should be welcomed by the church as another medium of the good news.
Dr Colm Fallon
Founder, Project One Sky
This reader's opinion was first published in the print edition of the Irish Examiner on 24 October 2019