03 June 2024

Meditation in a Time of Personal Crisis – What is Needed? What works?

Whether to write this post or not; that is the first question. Having been through an intense medical crisis, is it useful to share something of the experience? 

Many meditation teachers, particularly traditional ones, rarely divulge their personal experiences. They tend to teach as if their audiences are “well”, and in a good state to practice. Yet many come to meditation exactly because of a personal crisis. 

Certainly in years gone by, my own work centred around helping people who often came to meditation in response to a major health crisis such as cancer or MS; or other major life-changing events.

So why the reserve in sharing personal meditation experiences? 

All teachers – of meditation or anything else – teach in one of two ways. 

The first is driven by ego – look at me, how wonderful I know all this stuff I can teach, how good am I, etc, etc. 

\The second is where the teacher aspires to teach in a largely ego-less way. 

Few teachers are at either extreme.

Most of us are somewhere along that spectrum.

This is one of many reasons I enjoy offering myself as a teacher – it provides another domain in which to address the ego and attempt to tame it; an ongoing challenge! 

And no doubt this is why so many meditation teachers traditionally did not share their experiences – to avoid the ego trap.

But here we are in current times where the need for guidance is high. So pardon me while I attempt to contain the ego, and together we go Out on a Limb once more while I share what I did when faced with my own recent major health challenge; but first

 Thought for the Day

      To bring peace to my mind and my own experience 

      There is nothing else. 

      Just to reduce these negative emotions 

      And create more kindness and compassion, 

      Because that is best for me, 

      That is best for everybody.

      It is nothing mysterious, 

      It is nothing religious, 

      It is nothing spiritual, 

      It is just very simple.


                                          Ringu Tulku Rinpoche  (now there is an ego-less teacher!)

Another reason for deep reflection before sharing these experiences is that in truth, I did not do all that much when it comes to using particular techniques! This is another part of the reservation in writing about this; we need to observe there may well be differences in what works for someone who has been meditating for almost 50 years, when compared to what might help a rank beginner. Even acknowledging this is another potential ego trap…

As a beginner, techniques are very useful – essential for most. However, as our practice develops, it can become more direct.

As a beginner faced with a crisis, the first thing is to seek some respite and some balance. In my experience, this is best accomplished by concentrating on the feeling in the body as we go through the Progressive Muscle Relaxation. This exercise is easy to learn and simple to practice. It works well when led by the voice of a friend or via an App like Allevi8. 

Yet the PMR reliably leads to deep physical relaxation, which then flows on to relax the mind. Deep relaxation of body and mind brings an immediate sense of relief, clears the mind to make good decisions and brings the body and mind into balance; which creates an ideal environment for healing. I have witnessed many people transform a crisis from this starting point. More details are in Blue Sky Mind.

However, speaking personally…  recently, following a second bout of COVID, I developed a weird functional bowel obstruction. 

This landed me in the Emergency Ward in acute shock.

Then ten days on a drip unable to eat or drink.

A total of 16 days in hospital before released... 

Absolutely zero energy, high levels of discomfort; dancing on the edge…

                                 The hospital room view :)


On reflection, what I drew upon most was a long body of study and practice. It felt like the “credit” from years of regular meditation flowed into this acute situation. There was a stability and inner calm despite the extreme circumstances. There was openness, an acknowledgement of what was happening, its potential severity, and yet, almost remarkably, no hope or fear. 

Fear we can relate to easily in difficult situations – and we can understand how more than just leaving us feeling miserable, it can obscure us from thinking clearly, and worse, give rise to panic. The danger is of becoming overwhelmed; of freaking out, then making poor decisions that result in bad outcomes for us and for those around us. Worst case scenario – we die leaving a mess behind.

Yet hope too takes us out of current time, out of the moment. Hope actually is another agitated state. While hope is touted as being so important, and it genuinely is for those feeling hopeless, it is an important starting point; hope is the flip side of fear, and both can be problematic.

This is one of the reasons I love sport, for while sport easily reveals itself as a game, hope and fear can easily creep in. 

Sport provides a great practice ground in which to be engaged, to be present, yet almost like an impartial observer, free of hope and fear. 

Who will win this year’s premiership???

Back to the illness; and accompanying all this, a quiet confidence. 

A confidence based on years of experience with the Mind-Body connection. 

Knowing that healing comes from balance – and the mind is in balance when free of hope and fear, when it is open, at ease and at peace. 

Next - a heightened awareness. Not so much mindfulness – that is where the mind goes out to concentrate on something. Awareness – where, like the impartial observer, we are fully present and allowing whatever is going on around us, to come to us. Open awareness. Awareness takes little to no effort; – which matched my capacity – but also is a powerful practice. Simply be aware. Be present. Leave it as it is, and be aware.

So this is the practice that flowed through the toughness of the experience. Open awareness. Not blocking, not disassociating, not fearing outcome, not hoping for anything in

particular except trusting in the best outcome. A baseline of confidence it would be OK – either I recover or I die, and either would be OK. 

But perhaps most importantly, a deeper connection with that all pervasive stillness. That presence some call God, others inner truth, our inner essence, the true nature of our mind; that presence that is beyond words, beyond description yet a presence we can experience in the depth of our meditation. A presence that then comes to pervade all of our life and provides this inner certitude, inner confidence, inner warmth. That direct experience of the all pervasive quality of unconditional love and its expression in this life we live. The real “credit” from years of regular meditation.

Plus a real sense of gratitude for all the staff and facilities that carried me through; and for the love of those around me

 – especially Ruth, the friend who made time amidst their own personal busyness to come into the hospital and quietly meditate with me, (I was too exhausted to interact in any “normal” way) and all those who prayed for me and sent well wishes.

Occasionally some focused relaxation in an attempt at relief; and yes some pain medication as I became so physically debilitated and worn down by the obstruction. 

I did also regularly invoke spiritual support in a way similar to the White Light guided imagery practice, and had the recognition all of I was going through, me included, is inherently empty and will pass. 

And maybe we talk more of the role of positive thinking another time…

                                                         Taken in hospital, closer to release time; starting to feel a little better

So… a long post, and  not sure how helpful this is. It is not so easy to put into words and maybe it might come across better in a conversation, however, there it is – a shared experience of meditation in a time of crisis; told by one who survived… 

What next?!

The good news is, and thanks to all who have cared about me through all this, I am feeling better slowly but steadily and actually woke up feeling comfortable in my body this morning - it has been a while...

Should be fit and well for the meditation retreat in 3 weeks time...

:)


18 May 2024

A Tribute to My Wife

An unusual topic for a blog, but Ruth’s story of recent years is one of overcoming severe adversity and going on to flourish. Her timing was impeccable as I have been severely ill myself lately, and while providing me with exceptional care, Ruth also led the recent Meditation Teacher Training for which I was incapacitated. 

So this week, another great story of transforming obstacles and suffering into strength and service, but first

         Thought for the Day

   So I encourage you - bow eagerly to love. 

   Follow its humble stirrings in your heart. 

   Let it guide you in this life 

   And it will bring you safely to eternal bliss in the next. 

   Love is the essence of all goodness. 

   Without it, no kind work is ever begun or finished. 

   Simply put, love is a good will in harmony with God.

                            The Cloud of Unknowing



Many of you will have read Ruth’s blog posts recounting her extreme health issues over the past 3 years. (links below) First severe chronic back pain, then totally debilitating long COVID. It is important to recount the long COVID not only depleted all her energy and created multiple tough physical symptoms, it also induced what is called organic brain syndrome. It was like the virus created an autoimmune reaction which meant her body attacked itself, and even worse, her mind attacked itself.

This left Ruth extremely anxious, hyper-reactive, fearful of everything; feeling paranoid and remote from all around her – including me much of the time. To make matters even more difficult, being trained in psychological medicine and a dedicated student of the mind all her life, Ruth was aware of these changes in her mind, but remained unable to override or significantly change them.

The long COVID lasted well over a year, and not surprisingly took a toll. While for me it was actually a pleasure to be able to care for Ruth and help her to stay out of institutionalised care – as was recommended to her by 3 different psychiatrists, unfortunately some others around her found the mental illness challenging.

Here we need to observe the difference between how our community tends to relate to physical illness or injury, compared to mental illness. 

When someone breaks a leg for example, pretty well everyone finds it easy to accept the injury.

We take it on face value and treat the person affected with compassion.



Mental illness can be tough. 

Often there is the sense the person affected is “weak”; if not their mind would be working OK. 

People with mental illness can behave and say things that can be outright confronting, yet often we fail to see through their words or actions and instead of responding to the person with the compassion and consideration they warrant, we take what they say or do both seriously and personally.

For me, while some people were exceptionally caring and supportive, the reactions of some around Ruth during this time were quite disappointing, and it happened again as she went through another turbulent time coming off the medication taken during the latter stages of her illness. 

Anyway, Ruth is now medication free, and really well both physically and mentally. What a delight. 

My turn! 

Early this April we both developed COVID for the second time while staying on the NSW Central Coast. Ruth had a very minor episode; I was completely flattened and slept for two days. Soon after we needed to travel home by car back from which further debilitated me and triggered a weird functional bowel obstruction. Acutely ill, from April 16th, the next 16 days were spent in hospital. Did not eat or drink for around 10 days; sustained on a drip. Lost a lot of weight, totally debilitated and generally danced close to the edge once again.

Now amidst all this, Ruth and I, along with our dear colleague Murray Paterson, were scheduled to lead the first of our scheduled Meditation Teacher Training programs for this year from May 6th – 10th; a couple of weeks away. 

I had spent many months previously compiling a comprehensive, 180 page new manual for this program, but as it was just completed, was yet to share it with Ruth and Murray. 

So we needed to decide. 

Cancel the program and disappoint those booked, or rely on Ruth and Murray to learn and deliver the program in short time. 

Ruth did not hesitate, and Murray was keen. So we advised those planning to come off the changes and the training went ahead with one drop out and one new person joining. Ruth was confident with her regained energy and newfound inner strength and confidence, she and Murray could do it.

And so they did! 

Remarkably, and as a tribute to their previous study and practice, the two of them delivered the program and received rave reviews from all those participating. Ruth and Murray’s capacity to accomplish this with such a short lead time, was very heartening to the course participants. Quite amazing really. Happily, the detail in the manual made it possible for them to understand, learn and deliver the material to a high level in a short space of time. The trainees found this very encouraging for their own aspirations to teach.                        

                                                                                           Participants practicing guiding meditation 

We will be presenting Module 2 of this year’s Meditation Teacher Training in November when the focus will be on teaching a Meditation and Contemplation course. I may even be fit to help by then :). Also, the plan is to repeat the basic Meditation Teacher Training next year, as well as delivering another module where the focus will be on Meditation and Guided Imagery - see the website for details.

But now for a bit more context. I was released from hospital the day before this recent training began at our old Yarra Valley Living Centre. So I was still severely debilitated and barely able to get out of bed. Great place for convalescing, and the Brahma Kumaris who are now running the Centre were very kind and attentive to me, but Ruth carried the bulk of my care, along with presenting the program. How amazing was that!

I did manage to put in a cameo appearance on the last day but was still deeply exhausted by the time we made it home. Now, happily, a week later, steady but slow progress is being made and this is the first day without a real down time.

So this recent illness has been very tough, but so heartening to be with Ruth as she comes fully back into herself; in fact, quite clearly she has emerged from her own tough times with a new strength and inner confidence. 

What a delight! 

What a joy! 

The power of love in action…

 




RELATED BLOGS

1.     The Gawler Meditation Teacher training – May and November 2024

2.     Ruth’s Back Pain, Long COVID and Recovery – Part 1 – Back Pain

3.     Ruth’s Back Pain, Long COVID and Recovery – Part 2 Long COVID begins

4.     Ruth’s Back Pain, Long COVID and Recovery – Part 3 – The Nightmare and the Recovery


WEBSITE:  LINK 

 


15 April 2024

Minor Blog Changes

 Greetings all, this is a brief post simply to advise you the host that forwards this blog to you has been changed and so you may notice a small variation in the formatting. Rest assured all else is the same and we are maintaining the same strict care with your email details and confidentiality as before.

A new blog post is just around the corner

With love

Ian

04 March 2024

Mindfulness and Awareness – the differences and why they matter

We hear a lot these days about mindfulness and awareness; especially in meditation circles. Confused about what each one really means? Knowing the difference, and knowing how to apply each of them, can significantly inform our meditation and our lives for the better? So this is a post to clarify the differences along with an appeal for more consistent and clear usage, plus details of the coming Meditation Teacher Training, and Meditation Retreat, but first

     Thought for the Day

The realization of pure Presence and spontaneous luminosity 

May take many forms. 

A simple one is something like this: 

You might be looking at a mountain, 

And you have relaxed into the effortlessness 

Of your own present awareness, 

And then suddenly the mountain is all, you are nothing. 

Your separate-self sense is suddenly and totally gone, 

And there is simply everything that is arising moment to moment. 

You are perfectly aware, perfectly conscious, 

Everything seems completely normal, 

Except you are nowhere to be found. 

You are not on this side of your face looking at the mountain, 

You are the sky, you are the clouds, 

You are everything that is arising moment to moment, 

Very simply, very clearly, 

Just so. 

                   Ken Wilbur

My favourite secular definition of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn and his team: mindfulness is paying attention to our present moment experience, deliberately and non-judgementally. Yet look up Google and the often quoted version is mindfulness is awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally. Mindfulness is awareness??? So are they the same? Now I love Jon and his work, but you would have to say this is a bit confusing…

You do not need to read much meditation related literature – whether academic, secular or traditional, to realise the words mindfulness and awareness are used almost interchangeably. Most of the time, the reader is being asked to apply context and sort out what is being meant when.

So mindfulness first. Mindfulness is a function of the mind. It is something the mind does. 

Wherever you are right now, simply look away from your screen and focus your attention upon the adjacent photo. 

That is concentration – holding your attention deliberately on one thing. 

Now notice how your mind tends to react quite quickly to a chosen object like you are watching, and engage in judgement and commentary. 

What is going on here? Is that guy crazy?… 

I really do not like this, or maybe I do???

So now, continue to hold your attention on the object and drop the judgement and any commentary. That is mindfulness. To be clear, mindfulness is a particular type of concentration. Mindfulness is paying attention to our present moment experience, deliberately and non-judgementally.

If you take a moment, you may be able to notice how in mindfulness, it is almost like your mind goes out to the object, fixes upon it and engages with it. 

Now awareness. Whereas mindfulness involves the mind going out to the world, awareness involves the world coming to the mind. Awareness is passive. 

This is like being at a movie theatre. 

When you first sit in a movie theatre, you are aware you are in the theatre with a screen in front of you. 

Then the movie begins, and it is like your attention goes up and into the movie. 

Your mindfulness is in the movie, and it is easy for it to get “lost” in the movie. 

You forget you are in a theatre watching a movie; it is like you are a part of the movie; lost in its projections. 

You tend to lose much of your awareness when you are lost in the movie. 


Fuller awareness comes when you snap out of it as it were, and remember you are observing a movie.

There is another important difference between mindfulness and awareness. Mindfulness is a function of the mind; therefore it has no knowledge or wisdom; it is something the mind can do – be mindful. Awareness on the other hand can hold both knowledge and wisdom. 

So how does this difference apply to our meditation practice, and our lives?
Almost all meditation techniques benefit from three primary ingredients – mindfulness, awareness and spaciousness.

The mindfulness helps to focus our mind and prevent it from becoming distracted. This helps the mind to settle, to become clear – with all the benefits that will bring.

Awareness is necessary because without it we would not know whether we were paying attention, being mindful, or not.

Spaciousness is also necessary so we do not concentrate too hard and give ourselves a headache, not relax or become so indifferent we go to sleep.

So when we begin our meditation, and commonly at that point our mind is likely to be somewhat wild; we need a good deal of mindfulness and awareness to settle the mind – we need to pay attention. As the mind does settle, we can relax more, and steadily move towards being like an impartial observer; to rest in open awareness like an impartial observer; to rest in a state that will be approaching what the essence of meditation is really like.

In our daily life, mindfulness helps us to hold our attention on whatever we chose. But more, it enables us to be open, curious, in the present moment. Why? Or how? Because we have let go of judgement and commentary and can react to things and people with a fresh, open and curious mind. Maybe even with compassion flowing through.

Awareness is just taking this further. Imagine an old person watching a child play. They know the games, there is a gentle humour about it, they are vigilant in an easy, caring sort of way; life seems good.

Finally, you might like to reflect on what this means for your practice and for your life:


You cannot have mindfulness without awareness, but you can have awareness without mindfulness. 

Enjoy…

If you are interested to delve into this more deeply – and clearly there is more to it and it warrants discussion; two residential opportunities are coming soon where topics like this will be explored and where we can practice related techniques:

MEDITATION TEACHER TRAINING - Mindfulness-based Stillness Meditation

With myself, Ruth and Murray Paterson

TIMES: 11am Monday 6th to 3.30pm Friday 10th May, 2024

VENUE: The Yarra Valley Living Centre, 55 Rayner Crt, Yarra Junction, Victoria, Australia

FULL DETAILS: Iangawler.com or Sandy@insighthealth.com.au

MEDITATION RETREAT – Meditation in the Forest

Relaxation, mindfulness, stillness and awareness. 

With myself, Ruth and Melissa Borich.

Relax. Immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the Yarra Valley with its big trees, fresh air, beautiful grounds, the Little Yarra River, and sublime meditation sanctuary.

You can simply let go, and let be…

TIMES: Saturday 22nd June starting at 11am to 2pm Friday 28th June (after lunch) 2024

VENUE: The Yarra Valley Living Centre, 55 Rayner Crt, Yarra Junction, Victoria, Australia

DETAILS and BOOKINGS: Iangawler.com or Sandy@insighthealth.com.au

 


12 February 2024

Why is Donald Trump so popular?

Love him or hate him, there is no doubting Trump is extremely popular with many. Speaking personally, this is something I have struggled to understand. Trump is subject to 91 criminal charges, has consistently displayed erratic behaviour (is that a polite way of putting it?) and most recently has advocated for the Russians to attack more European countries.

Finally, an insight that makes sense, courtesy of Guardian columnist George Monbiot. It has to do with extrinsics and intrinsics. Never before have I posted a blog featuring just one quoted article, however, I found this one so insightful, not just in explaining Trump but many other seemingly weird relationships, that here it is, plus details of the coming meditation retreat and meditation teacher trainings, but first

 
   Thought for the day

        There is someone smarter than any of us 

        And that is all of us.  

            Michael Nolan



Guardian columnist George Monbiot has explored the psychology of Trump’s seeming unbendable appeal to a large section of the American electorate. Below is an edited extract. 

The Guardian depends on the generosity of readers like you to fund their fearless, independent journalism. If you can, please do support them : The Guardian 

Many explanations are proposed for the continued rise of Donald Trump, and the steadfastness of his support, even as the outrages and criminal charges pile up. 

Some of these explanations are powerful. 

But there is one I have seen mentioned nowhere, which could, I believe, be the most important: Trump is king of the extrinsics. 


Some psychologists believe our values tend to cluster around certain poles, described as “intrinsic” and “extrinsic”. 

People with a strong set of intrinsic values are inclined towards empathy, intimacy and self-acceptance. 

They tend to be open to challenge and change, interested in universal rights and equality, and protective of other people and the living world. 


People at the extrinsic end of the spectrum are more attracted to prestige, status, image, fame, power and wealth. 

They are strongly motivated by the prospect of individual reward and praise. 

They are more likely to objectify and exploit other people, to behave rudely and aggressively and to dismiss social and environmental impacts. 

They have little interest in co-operation or community. 

People with a strong set of extrinsic values are more likely to suffer from frustration, dissatisfaction, stress, anxiety, anger and compulsive behaviour. 
Trump exemplifies extrinsic values. From the tower bearing his name in gold letters to his gross overstatements of his wealth; from his endless ranting about “winners” and “losers” to his reported habit of cheating at golf. Trump, perhaps more than any other public figure in recent history, is a walking, talking monument to extrinsic values. 


We are not born with our values. They are shaped by the cues and responses we receive from other people and the prevailing mores of our society. They are also moulded by the political environment we inhabit. If people live under a cruel and grasping political system, they tend to normalise and internalise it. This, in turn, permits an even crueller and more grasping political system to develop. 


If, by contrast, people live in a country in which no one becomes destitute, in which social norms are characterised by kindness, empathy, community and freedom from want and fear, their values are likely to shift towards the intrinsic end. 

This process is known as policy feedback, or the “values ratchet”. 

The values ratchet operates at the societal and the individual level: a strong set of extrinsic values often develops as a result of insecurity and unfulfilled needs. 

These extrinsic values then generate further insecurity and unfulfilled needs.

This goes deeper than politics. 

For well over a century, the US, more than most nations, has worshipped extrinsic values: the American dream is a dream of acquiring wealth, spending it conspicuously and escaping the constraints of other people’s needs and demands. It is accompanied, in politics and in popular culture, by toxic myths about failure and success: wealth is the goal, regardless of how it is acquired. The ubiquity of advertising, the commercialisation of society and the rise of consumerism, alongside the media’s obsession with fame and fashion, reinforce this story. 


We talk about society’s rightward journey. 

We talk about polarisation and division. 

We talk about isolation and the mental health crisis. 

But what underlies these trends is a shift in values. 

This is the cause of many of our dysfunctions; the rest are symptoms. 


When a society valorises status, money, power and dominance, it is bound to generate frustration. It is mathematically impossible for everyone to be number one. The more the economic elites grab, the more everyone else must lose. Someone must be blamed for the ensuing disappointment. 

In a culture that worships winners, it can’t be them. 

It must be those evil people pursuing a kinder world, in which wealth is distributed, no one is forgotten and communities and the living planet are protected. 

Those who have developed a strong set of extrinsic values will vote for the person who represents them, the person who has what they want. Trump. 

And where the US goes, the rest of us follow. 


Trump might well win again – God help us if he does. 


If so, his victory will be due not only to the racial resentment of ageing white men, or to his weaponisation of culture wars or to algorithms and echo chambers, important as these factors are. It will also be the result of values embedded so deeply that we forget they are there. 

COMING EVENTS

Meditation Teacher Training

Module 1: Mindfulness-based Stillness Meditation

11am Monday 6th to 3.30pm Friday 10th May, 2024

Module 2: Contemplation

11am Saturday 2nd to 3.30pm Wednesday 6th November, 2024 (inc Melbourne Cup holiday on the 5th for Victorians)

Full details: Iangawler.com or Sandy@insighthealth.com.au

Meditation Retreat – Meditation in the Forest

Relaxation, mindfulness, stillness and awareness. 

Relax. Immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the Yarra Valley with its big trees, fresh air, beautiful grounds, the Little Yarra River, and sublime meditation sanctuary.

You can simply let go, and let be…

TIMES: Saturday 22nd June starting at 11am to 2pm Friday 28th June (after lunch) 2024

VENUE: The Yarra Valley Living Centre, 55 Rayner Crt, Yarra Junction, Victoria, Australia

DETAILS and BOOKINGS: Iangawler.com or Sandy@insighthealth.com.au