20 December 2010

Ian Gawler Blog – Love and its Conditions

Christmas is the time when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Christ quite literally represents the embodiment of pure love, unconditional love.

Now there are many forms of love in this world of ours. There is love for a parent, for a child, for a lover, an animal, a thing, a cause etc.

These worldly loves often have an element of the relative about them. Relative in the sense that there are conditions: I will love you if… (you love me back, make me laugh, look after me...etc). I will love you when… ( you have a better job, loose some weight, do not get so angry…etc). I will love you if…etc, etc.

It is easy to observe many people are confused by these different aspects of love. This was often apparent after people came to any of the Foundation programs, particularly the residential ones.
The fact is that these programs reliably bring out the best in people. Participants quickly come to really care for each other. The staff consistently put their own issues aside and really care for the participants, People begin to feel something of that unconditional love.

As an aside, it is my sense that it is just this, the experience of unconditional love, that often explains the wonderful, positive and often profound transformations that occur during the programs in the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health and wellbeing of participants.

But then, as these people  head home, often they experience the confusion that many others feel independently of attending such a program. If pure love is unconditional, and I want to love all, how do I manage the difficult people in my life?

The key resides in understanding the difference between relative and absolute. This is one of the great gifts of examining our minds. When we do so, we realise there is relative and there is absolute. On the absolute level we all have an intrinsic goodness, an intrinsic purity. In Christianity we say we are made in God’s image. Cannot get much purer than that. In Buddhism we say that in their essence, everyone has Buddha nature – again that notion of fundamental goodness and purity.

Yet on the relative, worldly level it is clear peoples’ actions, emotions and thoughts can be complex and often problematic. The fact is some relationships can be very difficult, even quite toxic and there may well be a need to discriminate about whom we hang out with!

Now it is true that difficult relationships can teach us so much about ourselves, about patience, tolerance, compassion etc. And enduring some relationships can lead to healthy outcomes for all. However, in some situations it can be clear that to remain in a relationship will only create more problems and it may well be the loving thing to avoid such a relationship.

Personal awareness requires discrimination. It is not about suffering endlessly, it is not about neglecting the treatment of illness or the working on difficulties. It is about right action. Working as much as possible from a position of unconditional love, recognising the fundamental goodness in all and so having a deep respect and real compassion for all, while at the same time recognising the limitations of others and ourselves. Doing the best we can and making every effort to continue to learn and to be a better person. To be increasingly comfortable with our own capacities and those of others.

Christmas then is a perfect time to contemplate the place of love in your life. To consider when for you love is unconditional, when it is more like a deal with its conditions, and when it is better avoided. Christmas often brings families together in a way that these issues are brought to the fore, so be gentle on yourself and others, take time to contemplate and meditate and may you experience something of the true meaning of Christmas – unconditional love.

Next Blog: I had pre-empted writing something about 2011 for this post, but love just took over! So there will be a short break until the New Year and then, all being well, some thoughts on the year to come.

May you have a joyful Christmas and a meaningful 2011.

06 December 2010


This week we have two guest contributors – Dr Craig Hassed and Paul Bedson. Both are friends and colleagues; Craig lectures at Monash Medical School and has regularly presented at Gawler Foundation cancer programs for around 10yrs. Paul and I worked together for many years and co-authored "Meditation an In-depth Guide". Both are experienced authorities on mindfulness and meditation and have responded to my blog: “Go with the flow or intervene”(see the blog below of 16/11/10), where I suggested there was potential confusion in the way mindfulness was being currently defined and used as a word.

But first some practicalities. Next week we are upgrading the database for my blog and website so it becomes easier for you and more efficient for us. You will receive email notification of this. If you choose to be removed from the database do nothing. However, importantly, if you choose to continue to be on it, you will need to confirm by simply clicking on the link provided.

Here then is Dr Craig Hassed on mindfulness and meditation:

"In regard to the question and answer, there is a lot in what you say but it would be my view that you have not accurately portrayed mindfulness and have drawn a false distinction. The reason for saying that is because all of what you say about discernment and getting to know our minds ('selves') better is exactly what mindfulness teaches us.
The short and apparently one dimensional definition from Jon that keeps getting cited does not provide a full account of all that mindfulness offers. That is probably why Jon's books on the subject are 500 pages long and not just one line.
Mindfulness meditation is the cornerstone in how to live mindfully - i.e. consciously and with discernment. It is exactly because it teaches us much about ourselves that it helps so much with conditions like depression, and fosters things like emotional regulation and self-awareness.
To say that mindfulness is just paying attention is true on one level - like saying that an elephant is a big animal with four legs and a trunk. It doesn't tell us anything about its functions - i.e. what the elephant can do.
The'non-judgmental' attitude, I believe, nearly always gets misrepresented. The judgments of the ego - e.g. deeply personal, biased and reactive - and seeing the dream-world we tend to live in within our own imaginations, are just the kinds of thought processes that one begins to see more clearly and objectively through the practice of mindfulness meditation. The judgment of inner wisdom, which is impersonal, objective and arises from equanimity, and which we could call discernment (or buddhi in Sanskrit),
and the capacity to be more in touch with the reality of the present moment, are strengthened and stabilised through mindfulness meditation and mindful living. One cannot make rational decisions without it.
The point you make about cocooning oneself from major challenges that one is not yet strong enough to deal with is a valid point. Like weight lifting, leave the heavy weights alone until you are trained to lift them.
So, sorry Ian, I can't really agree with the main theme of your blog. There are, I believe, similar false distinctions made between 'mindfulness meditation' and 'stillness meditation' - as if mindfulness does not help to bring one to stillness - which I have often heard mentioned by various people."

And here is what Paul Bedson has to say:

"In places I have some different emphasis to you:
I don't distinguish mindfulness from meditation, after all we have written a book on meditation using mindfulness. Nor do I distinguish meditation from living in the world ("coming out of the cocoon").
Mindfulness into Stillness meditation connects us with the inner cocoon of awareness, stillness and spaciousness that are our true nature. Connecting with this cocoon actually liberates the mind from some of the distinctions between self and other, inner and outer. The inner cocoon then opens us to the outer world, it travels with us to remind us that we are not separate, it provides us with resources of wisdom and compassion to be in the world.
Formal meditation helps to reconnect us with the inner cocoon which opens into life. The distinction between inner and outer is misleading and can be healed through meditation .
When you say "meditation is a way of getting to know the mind" it sounds a bit like a cognitive process.....I think of meditation as a way of abiding in our true nature. Out of that abiding insight comes as some illusions start to dissolve (healing comes out of the abiding as well). The Masters did not need to learn the wisdom teachings, or to learn discrimination. Their teachings are tools to guide us to the experience of our true nature (not tools for understanding)".

The issue for me remains as one of definition. Words are used to convey concepts. There is no doubt that the word for mindfulness, the concept of mindfulness, falls short of the experience. The best way to know mindfulness, as with meditation, is to practice it. Yet words are important and as linguists know, they change with time and usage. Linguists know that if a word is used incorrectly long enough its new and inaccurate meaning becomes correct through usage.
There is nothing wrong with this; this is how language progresses. The point again is that it does seem to me that mindfulness is being used increasingly as a generic word to cover a whole lot of things that its traditional definition and the commonly quoted one of Jon Kabat-Zinn does not include.
What more traditionally was called meditation, these days is commonly being called mindfulness. While this may be politically useful in arenas where mindfulness is a more acceptable word than meditation, in my view it creates more than just a language problem; it helps to foster a misguided conception of what mindfulness is, and potentially generates confusion in beginners and the experienced alike.
Because words do have power, I believe there may be the need to come up with a new modern definition of mindfulness, or else a new word to describe all this other stuff that goes with it.

Your comments are most welcome.

Next week, some personal reflections on the year as 2010 draw to a close, and some thoughts and plans for 2011.