29 November 2010

Big Mac or a salad?

Is it better to eat a Big Mac and enjoy it, or a garden fresh salad and loath it? Is what you eat more important or the state of mind you eat it in? Is it better to do what is good for you regardless of whether you enjoy it or not; or is it better to do what you enjoy whether it is good for you or not?

Have you read Yogananda’s mind-blowing “Autobiography of a Yogi”? It recounts his years as a young spiritual seeker searching through mystical India for his teacher, his guru. In ancient times, before the days of calling cards and websites, spiritual leaders needed to demonstrate their prowess to validate their capacities and to attract followers. There were different ways to do this, but commonly they developed siddhis or signs of spiritual accomplishment. Yogananda describes many amazing feats he witnessed including “the poison eating saint”. This fellow’s demonstration was to eat poison and broken glass and remain unaffected; that is, as the story goes, until he repeated his siddhi on a day when he was in an agitated state of mind and unceremoniously died.

My experience of these matters is that there is a spectrum like in most things. Some people do have strong minds and strong constitutions and can manage on a wider range and quality of foods. However, it is a high level of accomplishment to be able to eat any old rubbish and be unaffected by it – especially long term.

For most of us mere mortals our health and our capacity to heal is dramatically affected by what we eat. Unhealthy eating is linked to six of the ten major things that kill people, as well as MS and rheumatoid arthritis. Healthy eating leads to long term good health and assists recovery from illness powerfully.

The trick with food therefore is twofold. How are you sure of what is good for you, and how do you enjoy eating it so you keep on eating it?!

Easy. You need good information and the right state of mind.

Everything starts with the mind. It is our mind that decides what food to buy, how to store and prepare it, how much to eat and what state of mind we are in when we eat it.

How then to use the mind to good effect? We need to use our mind, our wits, to gather good information; then we need to train our mind to serve us – to follow through on our good choices and lead the way in deciding what we eat and how much we enjoy eating it.

Here is the kicker. Here is the real secret so many people I met in the past were not aware of, but who on learning of it changed their lives dramatically for the better. Here is the secret to enjoying what the theory says is good for us:

Anything you do often enough you get used to. Nothing is difficult once you get used to it. Anything you choose to, you can put your mind to and enjoy doing it. It is not such a great accomplishment to decide upon the state of mind you will do something in. With just a modicum of willpower, most people can do it.

So use your intelligence. Choose the salad and choose to enjoy it!

Happy, enjoyable, healthy eating.


Click on "Comments" below


Previous Blogs:

Mind Training 2 CD set by Ian

Cancer nutritional information from Ian:


Lifestyle-based programs and counselling for cancer, MS disease prevention and wellbeing:

22 November 2010

It only has to be done once

This weeks blog is written in two parts. The first part is my weekly blog and the second is an article that I wrote and was published in Australian Doctor this week that is referred to in the blog.

Part A

There has been some discussion recently in the medical press regarding my case history; its accuracy and its relevance to others with cancer. It seemed to me that the matters raised had been satisfactorily answered but then Linda Calabresi, medical editor for Australian Doctor (the journal that goes weekly to all Australian GPs) suggested the record needed to be set straight, so my response has been published in AusDoc and is reproduced below.

The issues of contention revolved around the timelines for my illness and the dates on photos taken of my cancer, as reported my Dr Ainslie Meares way back in 1978, and the 30 year follow-up of my case in 2008; as well as me being described as having followed a vegan diet during my recovery.

The reality is that I was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma in January 1975, had metastases confirmed in December 1975 and was found to be cancer free in June 1978. What happened in between was quite complex. I tried most things you could think of and probably a few you would not!

When I recovered Ainslie Meares, who had introduced me to meditation, reported my case in the Medical Journal of Australia. While he acknowledged many of the things I had done, he felt the most significant factor may well have been intense meditation.

It is true he reported I had more severe disease when we first met than I did, however, he had not shown me his article before submitting it and this error seemed to me to be of no material significance. If a woman has a pregnancy confirmed, but the dates are wrong; unless there is major intervention, she will still have a baby. I certainly had a very poor prognosis when I went to Dr Meares; if there had been no major intervention, all the experts were sure I would have died within a few months. As it was, I did recover and I too felt the meditation was crucial.

The main photo in contention was of the rather large mass of cancer on my chest that was enlarged many years ago and then mis-labelled as being taken in July 1977. In fact it was taken before I began chemotherapy in October 1976. This again seemed of minor importance but I do have the complete series of photos taken once each month from then until the chest had cleared completely towards the end of 1977.

Because my history is so complex, when it came to having it told in book form, I decided not to do it myself as an autobiography, but to agree to a journalist, Guy Allenby writing it. Guy had full access to my medical records, the meticulous diaries I kept, and he interviewed my medical staff, family, friends and colleagues. In my opinion, the timelines in The Dragon’s Blessing are accurate, so anyone interested will find them there.

Regarding what I ate during my recovery, it was mostly vegan. If you eat meat once a week, you are not strictly a vegetarian but you certainly are not a rabid carnivore. It is hard to characterise diets in a few words, and anyway, I do not recommend people do exactly what I did. What I do recommend has been readily available since “You Can Conquer Cancer” first came out in 1984. Anyone really interested could come to the residential or non-residential programs I established, come to a workshop or listen to my CDs on food. I have also written some blogs on food and will do more soon, particularly on why it makes good sense to avoid dairy and adopt a relatively low protein diet.

The good thing about all this discussion is that it has provided another opportunity to present the merits of a therapeutic lifestyle for people with cancer in a medical forum.

Cancer is a lifestyle disease and the value of a therapeutic lifestyle needs to be discussed early for people diagnosed with cancer just as it is for people when they are first diagnosed with heart disease or diabetes.

If we really want to treat cancer best, we need to prevent it and the soundest way to prevent it is through a healthy lifestyle.

Part B - Taken from Australian Doctor 17th Nov, 2010

The case for lifestyle

Well-known cancer survivor Dr Ian Gawler presents his side of the story.

One of the good things about being described as a high profile alternative treatment story is that you are alive to engage in the discussion.

In referring to my recovery from metastatic osteogenic sarcoma and my work over 30 years with lifestyle-based self-help programs, Linda Calabresi’s editorial [i] “Providing hope comes with a duty of truth” (27 October) suggests “the record be set straight”.

First then, the term “alternative”, as used in some reports of the case, is misleading. Cancer management falls into three broad categories: conventional medicine, complementary and alternative medicine, and lifestyle medicine. My personal recovery involved all three, while my work focuses on lifestyle.

The facts of my case were thoroughly documented in 2008 by Guy Allenby [ii] in “The Dragon’s Blessing”. So while back in 1978 (psychiatrist) Dr Ainslie Meares [iii] reported that I had more severe disease when I first saw him than I actually did, and these timeline errors were carried over into the 2008 follow-up [iv], this has little material relevance to the important facts. On meeting Dr Meares, I did have metastatic disease. I did have a prognosis of 3 to 6 months. I am alive more than 30 years later.

My personal story has direct relevance to people with osteogenic sarcoma. It changes the landscape of that disease. The fact is at least one person has survived metastatic disease for over 30 years. It only has to be done once to show that it is possible, so my story offers real hope.

However, it is my work that has the most relevance to the wider body of people affected by cancer. The lifestyle I teach now goes well beyond what I did 35 years ago. Research and experience leads to ongoing development. While my story may inspire, I have never recommended others do exactly as I did. This was clearly documented in my book “You Can Conquer Cancer”[v],first published in 1984.

The evidence for lifestyle factors enhancing quality of life and cancer outcomes is growing steadily. Compelling examples are Dean Ornish et al’s [vi] randomised lifestyle intervention for prostate cancer and the evidence suggesting regular exercise halves the risk of dying for women with primary breast cancer [vii]

And consider that spontaneous remissions - improvement or recovery without clear medical cause [viii] - are thought to occur once in every 60,000 to 100,000 people [ix]

During a period when 8,400 cancer patients attended Gawler Foundation’s lifestyle programs, 43 people who fit the description of “spontaneous remissions”[x][xi] have been recorded. This equates to one in 195, which is 300 times more than the average.

While this data may be crude, it points to why the public is so interested in lifestyle programs, and surely warrants more research.

Lowenthal [xii] says “the speciality of psycho-oncology and the more recent development of 'integrative oncology' arose to some extent out of the work of Gawler and his followers.”

The next step is lifestyle medicine needs to have the same prominence for cancer as it does for heart disease and diabetes.

Dr Gawler OAM, BVSc, MCounsHS is retired founder of the Gawler Foundation.


  1. Calabresi L. Providing hope comes with a duty of truth. Aust Doct 2010: Oct 27:
  2. Allenby G. Ian Gawler - The dragon’s blessing. Melbourne: Allen & Unwin, 2008.
  3. Meares A. Regression of osteogenic sarcoma metastases associated with intensive meditation. Med J Aust 1978; 2:43.
  4. Jelinek GA, Gawler RH. Thirty-year follow-up at pneumonectomy of a 58-year-old survivor of disseminated osteosarcoma. Med J Aust 2008; 189: 663-665.
  5. Gawler IJ. You can conquer cancer. Melbourne: Hill of Content, 1984. Revised edition: Melbourne: Michelle Anderson 2001.
  6. Ornish D, et al. Intensive lifestyle changes may affect the progression of prostate cancer. J Urol 2005; 174:1065-70
  7. Irwin ML, et al. Influence of pre- and post-diagnosis physical activity on mortality in breast cancer survivors: the health, eating, activity and lifestyle study. J Clin Oncol 2008: 26(24): 3958-64.
  8. Bakal. DA Minding the body: clinical uses of somatic awareness. New York: Guilford 2001.
  9. Jerry LM, Challis EB. Oncology. In Rakel ED (Ed) Textbook of Family Practice, (3rd ed., 1061-1081). Philadelphia: Saunders 1984.
  10. Gawler IJ ( Ed). Inspiring people – stories of remarkable  recovery and hope from the Gawler Foundation. Melbourne: The Gawler Foundation, 1995.
  11. Kraus P. Surviving cancer – inspiring stories of hope and healing. Melbourne: Michelle Anderson Publishing 2008
  12. Lowenthal RM. Snake oil, coffee enemas and other famous nostrums for cancer – a recent history of cancer quackery in Australia. Cancer Forum 2005; 29: Issue 3.

16 November 2010

Ian Gawler Blog: Go with the Flow or Intervene?

As meditators are we being asked to learn to go with the flow in our lives, to allow whatever happens around us to happen, to not react and to make the best of it; or do we intervene, make choices and discriminate?

Aine was afflicted with difficult Multiple Sclerosis symptoms and a poor prognosis 15yrs ago. We met as she was embarking on the Gawler Foundation’s lifestyle program and she has been well for many years now. Meditation became a mainstay of her recovery and her life.

Through a Comment on my Blog: The Brain, The Mind and Relationships, Aine raised this great question that I imagine many meditators will relate to and I summarise as “go with the flow or intervene?” Aine was asking specifically are we wise to cocoon ourselves from some things and some people, or if we really have “got it”, do we open ourselves to all and sundry, and expect to be able to transform even the most challenging situations into peaceful bliss?

This question has certainly caused me a great deal of reflection in years gone. A need for some insight was prompted further through giving a talk recently for ATMA (The Australian Teachers of Meditation Association) on the topic: “What is all this about mindfulness?”

Let me go “Out on a Limb” and offer the insight that came. It will be useful if this provokes some reflection and comment as this to me is an important life issue.
The confusion in what to do; the uncertainty I believe is actually the product of how two words are used and the concepts they convey; the solution rests with clarifying the definition of those two words. Mindfulness and meditation.

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines Mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally”. Taken literally, mindfulness is non-reactive, non-discriminatory. It is a way of training your mind into a way of noticing, a way of being aware of what is going on around you, a way that takes the reactive stress out of things.

Mindfulness is how to be with the given, how to be with what is. It is non-judgemental. Mindfulness prescribes how to observe what is going on, not what to do about it. Without doubt it is a wonderful practice as it does bring our attention to the present moment, cuts through the reactive anxiety we call stress, and leads to a peaceful way of being. Mindfulness is easy to teach, easy to learn, easy to research. It has a lot going for it. A big part of its appeal is its simplicity. It has a standard answer for everything – be mindful!

However, of itself and in its pure form, mindfulness has nothing to say about wisdom, particularly the wisdom of discernment, the wisdom that helps us sort out what to do. This fact is covered in all the great traditions because mindfulness is taught within a context of other teachings that add the wisdom component.

In my understanding, mindfulness as a word is being used increasingly loosely and in a way that implies or covers all the other teachings. This is OK, but it can lead to confusion. If in modern times we fixate on the literal definition of mindfulness, and aim to only apply that way of training our minds, we may miss a vital point.

In our book “Meditation – an In-depth Guide”, Paul Bedson and I included an appendix of definitions of meditation from all traditions. We spent years with great colleagues working on our own modern definition:

 “Meditation in its simplest and most general sense is a mental discipline involving attention regulation. More specifically, the broad act of meditation can be sub-classified according to the processes it involves or the outcomes it leads to.”

Check out the book if you want all the details!

From this definition, meditation is a process and a state. It is something you do, and something you experience.

So what do you do, and what do you experience? You start by learning to relax your body and settle your mind; arriving at a state of inner peace. With this peace, you have the experience of your mind clearing. You begin to see more clearly what is going on around you and within you.

The most common Tibetan word for meditation is “gom”. This translates as “getting used to”. To what? Getting used to your own mind. Getting to know what its contents are, how it works, what it is capable of, how to use it and what its true nature is really like.

Here then is the key difference. Mindfulness is a way of using the mind. Meditation is a way of getting to know the mind. And for many of us, this “getting to know” is not necessarily plain sailing! The mind can be a pretty tricky beast – good, bad and indifferent. And the aim in meditation is to tame it. By definition, meditation is an intervention.

Meditation leads to clear seeing and with this clear seeing comes the natural wisdom of discernment. It becomes increasingly obvious that the task is to get to know ourselves. Wisdom suggests we get to know who we are, acknowledge where we are at, become comfortable with our limitations and capacities, and act accordingly. Yes, act!

So as a beginner on the meditation path it can make great sense to develop mindful awareness. To learn to be present, attentive and non-judgemental. But to do even this we may need to intervene, use some common sense (or is that wisdom?) and select what we expose ourselves to; what we do and who we hang out with.

As beginners, even for the more advanced, there are bound to be some people, some situations, some thoughts, even some feelings that we find so difficult, so challenging that we need to intervene and cocoon ourselves away from them. It is perfectly sensible to accept that some things require this active intervention and prompt us to find the best way to protect, avoid, change or maybe even transform.

Many of us will have heard of the great Tibetan practitioners who spent years being tortured in Chinese prisons. On release they smile, thank their persecutors for teaching them about compassion, demonstrate no post traumatic stress and calmly go about their lives of service.

Chogyam Trungpa had something to say along these lines: “The general idea is that you open yourself to what the given situation is, then you see its completely naked quality. You don’t have to put up a defence mechanism anymore, because you see through it and you know exactly what to do. You just deal with things rather than defending yourself.”

This is no casual accomplishment! The great practitioners may make it look easy, as if it is just a matter of going with the flow; but what they are really demonstrating is the fruit of serious intervention –a great deal of very deliberate and well thought out mind training.

Progressing from being a beginner to an accomplished practitioner is quite a piece of work. It can be arduous, demanding, confusing, delightful, joyous, frustrating, wonderful and nearly always challenging. Once you awaken to how precious life is and how short it is, then there is little choice but to plunge on in and make the best progress you can.

As clear seeing and the wisdom of discernment do begin to dawn, what they lead to is flexibility. There are bound to be situations in life where accepting things as they are makes sense; others where putting huge effort into intervening makes sense.

The answer then is not to mindlessly go with the flow, the answer is to go with the flow accompanied by the wisdom of discernment. The wisdom that comes from getting to know yourself, and particularly your mind, through meditation.

Practice CDs:


08 November 2010


Meditation is perhaps the best self-help technique there is. Not only does it have so many immediate benefits, but with the clarity of mind it produces, you are likely to make good choices in all aspects of your life.

Its one drawback? You have to do it. It requires a personal discipline. Now while the discipline we speak of here is the discipline of kindness; you are being kind to yourself when you meditate, there is still the question, how much is enough?

In workshops all around the world, I have asked thousands of meditators if they are doing as much meditation as they would like to be doing. The answer – way over 95% say no!

What then is a realistic expectation? Firstly the evidence, and then particular situations.

While meditation has been practised in all cultures for thousands of years, it is only in the last 30-40 years that science has begun to study it. There is still a glaring omission in that field of study. There is no reliable way of calibrating the quantity and depth of meditation that is reported in the literature, and there have been almost no studies quantifying how much meditation is ideal.

Therefore to answer “how much?” we need to consider what comes from the accumulated experience of those meditators who have meditated for particular reasons, and in particular situations.

1. For general health, disease prevention and wellbeing
It seems clear that what works best for this purpose is to establish a regular formal practice that succeeds in impacting on your daily life. Meditation aims to help you to become more calm, more clear and more content. The best way to assess this type of meditation is to ask your friends. If they find you nicer to be around, it is working! If they notice you going back to being more irritable, then do more!

In practical terms, some practice daily is the aim- even 5 -10 minutes is a good start. What the research does show consistently is 10-20mins once or twice daily prevents and/or treats a vast array of physical and psychological health problems.

2. Treating illness
Yes I did say treating, not just managing…. Over 4000 research studies support the notion of “treatment” and while it is true that meditation has the capacity to improve the management of any illness and lead to enhanced quality of life.

What is important to realise is that based on my 30 years of experience teaching others to meditate, once people do meditate more intensively, they get an inner knowing of whether more is better, or less is enough.

In the cancer field most people who do this come to the conclusion that intensive meditation is best and this means 3 long sessions per day of 40-60 mins each.

3. The Spiritual Path
Here different traditions vary in what they recommend. What is common is the understanding that retreats are of great benefit. A retreat is where you take yourself away from the busyness of everyday life, have good instruction from an authentic teacher and immerse yourself in meditation for a while.

With the pace of modern life, I recommend at least one retreat each year as being the minimum to maintain perspective and equilibrium.

I heard about meditation at an early age, was deeply curious, but put off doing it until I was diagnosed with cancer in January 1975. During that year I meditated about 20mins daily following what advice I had picked up from Chogyam Trungpa’s “Meditation in Action”.

When the cancer reappeared late in 1975, I went to Ainslie Meares and began intensive meditation along the lines he set out in “Relief Without Drugs”. While I stopped consulting with him personally about 2 month later, I continued to do 5 hrs per day for some months and then most days I did 3 long sessions, still in the Meares’ manner, of about an hour each until I recovered.

Since then, my main teacher has been the great Tibetan Dzogchen master Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

In a year now I do about 500hrs of formal meditation practice. This includes retreat times and the fact I very rarely miss a day.

Perhaps more importantly, I feel like the meditation has become a part of my life. While the formal practice reinforces it, and helps me to relax, be balanced and at peace; more and more the distinction between meditation and life is seamless. There is a deep inner contentment that is present all the time.

I have been blessed to have great teachers, to have had an illness that provoked me to practise and established me in the habit, and to have Ruth who meditates with me and supports our joint interest in living and working with meditation.

RESOURCES:   See the blog: Meditation and Satisfaction 5th October.
See Aine’s great question in Comments - as one meditates more, how is it best to respond to life?

01 November 2010


The Brain, The Mind and Relationships: Why Presence and Mindfulness is Good for all Three!

Dan Siegel is a psychiatrist, neuroscientist and author. His internationally acclaimed bestseller The Developing Mind has been used by educational programs all around the world. He also wrote the highly recommended The Mindful Brain and co-authored the exceptional parenting manual Parenting from the Inside Out.

So what was this illustrious neuroscientist recently doing up a tree in a Melbourne park? Well of course he was speaking to hundreds of people, mostly health professionals about his favourite subject Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB). The Hotel we had been in caught fire; 1500 people were evacuated and Dan shinned up a huge Moreton Bay fig to make the most of the circumstances.

IPNB is the term Dan uses to bring together a wide range of factors to do with relationships and biological systems. He links them through the use of concilliance. Concilliance is the capacity to find the commonality from within a wide range of different disciplines.

This is akin to the traditional story of the blind people who were all asked to investigate an elephant and report. One swears to have found a leg, another a tail, then a big stomach and even a huge stomach and a trunk. All true, but not the full story. Concilliance is taking all the pieces and developing a unifying framework or paradigm. It is seeing the whole elephant rather than each of the separate parts.

This principle is directly relevant to holistic or Integrative Medicine which has the aim of considering the health, the healing and the wellbeing of a person’s body, emotions, mind and spirit; and works in a co-operative, interdisciplinary field.

Dan Siegel spent many years applying these same principles to the study of attachment and resilience in children. His work has shown that the best predictor of how children will end up, is their relationships. And when it comes to developmental trauma that impairs a child’s development, relationships have more impact than physical realities.

Scientist Dan said that relationships involve sharing energy flow and information. (Now there is a sentence worth contemplating! Really. Sit down and dwell on it; it says a lot).

He then went on to question the audience, most of whom were mental health professionals. Like over 90,000 others he has asked, 95% of our audience admitted that in all their training, whether as psychiatrists, counsellors, psychologists, nurses etc, they had had not one lecture on “the mind.” They all studied it for years. Yet, no one even defined it for them. So what is it?

In 1992, Dan began a 4 and a half year discussion group with 40 scientists from a wide range of disciplines, Their aim? To define the mind. Nearly 20 years later, Dan still regards his definition as a work in progress. But with all he has asked over the years, no one has improved upon this:

THE MIND IS DEFINED AS an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.

With this definition, the mind is a verb; not a noun. (Now contemplate that one). Also, Dan like most other neuroscientists these days, is firmly of the view that the mind is not confined to the brain, but involves the whole body.

He then explained that in broad terms, the mind experiences three states: Chaos, Integration and Rigidity. In his fairly logical view, mental health involves a mind that is integrated. Integration is the heart of health. Whatever leaves you feeling or acting in a more integrated way is good for you, it is healing.

What happens when integration is impaired? There is the opportunity for healing the chaos or the rigidity through utilising the brain, the mind and relationships.

Dan explained the principles of neuroplasticity, that exciting new field of neuroscience that validates how our brain changes its structure and function according to how we use it. The key point? Neurones that fire together, wire together. The more we do something, the more it develops our “mind’s muscles” and the better we become at doing it the next time.

In the mind, integration is best facilitated by focussing our attention. To be more specific, according to recent research, mindfulness seems to lead to integration better than most.

So for a parent, a teacher, a therapist, a friend, a lover, a therapist; the most useful thing you can do in this sense is to give your full attention. Attention is the mechanism that drives the energy flow that carries information via the neurones to stimulate activity and growth, and in so doing, leads to integration.

Attention, used in this context, is another word for presence, and presence promotes integration. So how to develop presence? Mindfulness is one reliable way of becoming more present with one’s self. With that comes the heightened possibility of being more present with others.

The practice of mindfulness may well be a way of integrating the functions of the brain and the mind, along with enhancing relationships.

  1. Dan Siegel’s excellent website:  www.drdansiegel.com
  2. The Miracle of Mindfulness: Thich Nhat Hanh.  Practical, profound yet accessible guide to mindfulness practice.
  3. Wherever You Go, There You Are (link to Borders online store): Jon Kabat-Zinn. One of Jon’s excellent books on mindfulness.
  4. Meditation - An In-Depth Guide: Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson – our guide to Mindfulness Based Stillness Meditation. Has accompanying CDs to support your practice.
  5. Residential and non-residential mindfulness and meditation programs : The Gawler Foundation: www.gawler.org

THANKS to all who have been commenting on the blogs. Remember to click on comments if you have experiences to share, questions or observations.

Meditation- how much is enough? And what meditation I did during my recovery, what I do know and what experience says is recommended for others at different times in your life.