31 January 2011

Ian Gawler blog – A big mystery addressed.

 If there was one question you could have answered that was at the heart of life and which when answered would affect every part of your life, what would it be?

That question was the focus of the annual Australian retreat Ruth and I recently attended with Sogyal Rinpoche. The title was "Compassionate Living and Fearless Dying", although Rinpoche chose to concentrate on the big question: what happens when we die and how may it be possible to die well?

A summer holiday or a retreat based on dying? Which would you choose?

For us it was to do with our work, but personally, this is the topic that so many of us really do yearn to have the answers to but usually avoid. The truth is, many people allow their fear of dying to block out anything to do with this subject and in so doing, inhibited their freedom to live really well.

Here then is a constructive challenge. If your inclination is to stop reading, it is probably important to persevere!

Here we go:

We all know the two big truths of life:

1. We are all going to die.
2. We do not know when.

Faced with all the uncertainty and fear these truths commonly hold for us, there seem to be two ways of responding:

1. Deny death.

Pretend death is not a reality; attempt to construct a life around the premise that things can be permanent and if they are, I can be okay. Good plan if it works! But it never can completely because the fact is things just are not permanent. Everything changes sooner or later, even if it is only at the moment of death.

Also, this strategy easily leads to putting things off and potentially missing what is really important for us.

And what of when we really do die? How will we be? Will we be ready? Those who come upon death suddenly, unexpectedly and in an unprepared state, frequently find it unduly traumatic. And so do their families. So what is the second option?

2. Acknowledge death. 

Face reality before it is forced upon you. Given we will all die one day, then the real questions are what sort of death will we have and how does death inform our lives?

In a practical sense, contemplating death and impermanence powerfully cuts through the lazy busyness we talked of in the last blog, and helps to focus meaningful priorities.

And when it comes to the truth of our lives, in death, all will be revealed.  We will find out the answers to our deepest questions. Clearly when we die, there will either be something or nothing, and if it is something, it is likely to be extraordinary.

Now, the Tibetans have been studying death and dying for centuries. Re-reading Sogyal Rinpoche's book, "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" yet again, it strikes me how detailed and precise his knowledge is in this field; and how compassionate, practical and accessible the advice is.

You do not need to be a Buddhist to benefit from this knowledge. It has informed the support I have been able to offer to people of all faiths and no faith over many years. Also, I hear of many people whose death or death of a loved one was transformed for the better by applying these teachings and techniques. Here are a few suggestions:

Helping someone you love approaching death:

There is no greater gift of charity than to help a person to die well.

Those close to death tend to be vulnerable to regret, depression, guilt etc. Listen to what they say and aim to create an atmosphere where they can express their inner-most thoughts and feelings, concerns and fears. At the same time, in conversation, dwell on what they accomplished and did well; on their virtues and what they loved.

Encourage them to clear their heart of any hatred or resentment. Not everyone believes in religion, but nearly everyone believes in forgiveness.

Encourage them to let go of attachments and approach death as unencumbered as possible. Dwell on love with them.

Helping yourself:

Remember that at the time of death two things will be most important - the life you lived and your state of your mind.

Approach death with anger and resentment in your heart and my guess is it will be quite difficult. Approach death with gratitude for the life and lives you have known, with love in your heart; and logically it is bound to be easier.

Moreover, if you have gained some direct experience of your inner essence, your true nature through meditation, then perhaps that is the best preparation of all. Why? At the moment of death, our body dies and our emotions and normal thinking processes cease. The Tibetans say that in that instant, as all else falls away, our inner essence is revealed and we are left with the truth of who we really are. For the Tibetans, the moment of death is actually the best chance we have for enlightenment.

Who knows, death may be the best moment of our lives!

COMMENTS? This is the first blog on death and dying, your questions or feedback are always welcome, let me know via the comments section.


Books: The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying - Sogyal Rinpoche
            You Can Conquer Cancer - Ian Gawler
            Who Dies? - Stephen and Ondrea Levine
            Coping With Grief - Mal and Dianne McKissock

CD:     Understanding death, helping the dying - Ian Gawler

Programs: Sogyal Rinpoche: Rigpa
                 The Gawler Foundation

Counselling, groups: The Gawler Foundation


             Retreat and go forward
             On enlightenment.
            How to cook really healthy food, really quickly. I will share my fast food secrets!

24 January 2011

Ian Gawler blog: Retreat and go forward

Need a break? Want to review your priorities, maybe transform your life? This blog focuses on the busyness of modern life and the value of personal retreats.

Met an old friend recently. How are you I enquired? "Really busy thanks" came the common response, accompanied by a satisfied smile.

It seems that for many people these days being busy has become something of a badge of honour. Certainly there can be great value in being productive and useful, but what of balance? What if the busyness leaves no time for peace, no time for reflection, no time to reassess, reaffirm or redirect our priorities?

For some it seems busyness is actually a modern variation on old-fashioned laziness. These days, the more we have to do, the less we have to think! At least, the less we have time to think about what may be challenging, difficult or even just really important in our lives.

So amidst this busyness, there has never been more need to consider going on retreat. Retreats offer more than a holiday. They are best when they do combine the elements of some R and R along with time for learning, reflection, review and preferably meditation. Simple food, time to be on your own and ideally a spiritual theme or atmosphere. Time to spend time with your self. Time to get to know your self a little better. Time to reappraise priorities and to go forward in life.

So, do you need a break? Feeling stressed? Feeling like the busyness is a bit much and you have lost the plot a little? Feeling like you need to give some time to your self - to regain the balance, to refocus your priorities?

In my view, amidst this busy lifestyle so many of us seem to be caught up in, at least one retreat a year is mandatory.

Now I know it is easy to justify why you do not have the time or space to go on a retreat. You are so busy aren’t you? And how will everyone else cope? But if not now, when? If not now, maybe 20 years go by and you wake up one day wondering what was that all about?
Maybe going on retreat is not only good for us, but good for our family, our friends and our work. When we are in balance and have some inner peace and contentment, not only is our physical and psychological health sure to be better, our capacity to work and be helpful will be greatly enhanced.  Maybe a retreat helps us to rebalance financial preoccupations with the rest of our lives. Maybe parents being away for a while is actually good for children and helps them with independence and appreciation. Now there is a radical notion.

There are a wide variety of retreats available. Many spiritually focused groups offer them, but so do more commercially orientated places. The Gawler Foundation has a range of excellent retreats where the focus is meditation, a healthy lifestyle and time for personal development and reflection. Over the years I did see many people transform their lives for the better at these programs.

And while going on retreats with like-minded people is wonderful and has many benefits, some people I know simply take the phone of the hook, do not answer the door and arrange their own home retreat. Or go to a place of their own choosing and create their own retreat atmosphere and conditions.
Given it is the start of another new year, why not make a plan? Give yourself a real treat and go on a retreat! It all starts with the intention.

Ruth and I have recently completed Sogyal Rinpoche's annual retreat. It was marvellous. Rinpoche taught directly for 2 hrs or more each day. Then there were videos of his best recent teachings, study and discussion groups along with time for meditation and other practices. 600 people including 120 children with their own specific program. Great company! Very beneficial.

This year's theme was "Compassionate Living and Fearless Dying", so next week a little on what that was all about.

Retreats: Sogyal Rinpoche: Rigpa
               The Gawler Foundation

               On enlightenment.

16 January 2011

On Enlightenment

Well, here we are at the start of 2011, so why not really go for it! There are many things worthy of becoming active New Year’s Resolutions, but why not go for broke and focus on the source of real happiness – enlightenment.

What is this thing called enlightenment and how do we experience it?

All human beings have some things in common. For example, we all want happiness. But what sort of happiness?

It seems to me many of us have been misled and have come to believe pleasure is the source of happiness. By pleasure we usually mean that which makes us feel good and comfortable in the short term. A good meal, a good entertainment, a good…

But most sources of this type of pleasure tend to be transitory. They come and go quite quickly. Now this is not to say we cannot enjoy them just because they come and go. There is no need to feel guilty getting off on temporary delights. Just do not be confused. Short-term pleasure is not the same thing as long-term happiness.

No doubt many have worked this much out; but then we think maybe happiness will come with a bit more complexity. A good job, a nice car, the right relationship; maybe that will do it? You only need to reflect a little to realise the bad news. All these things come and go too – they just usually take a little longer than a good meal!

In seeking long-term happiness, we are seeking something constant and enduring. We will not find this outside of ourselves amidst people, things and events. True happiness, lasting happiness comes from our inner state of mind.

If that is what we are seeking, we need to turn our mind inwardly. By doing so we can begin to experience inner peace, inner contentment, inner happiness. As we do this, the true nature of our mind becomes more obvious. We come to realise an inner truth – our minds have two aspects. We all have an active thinking/ feeling mind that is intimately involved with our outer world, along with its pleasures and pains.

But then we all have a deeper aspect of mind that is more enduring, more stable and more constantly happy. When we come to experience something of these two aspects of our mind, this truth of the nature of our mind, we come to experience something of enlightenment.

Enlightenment then is the direct experience of a fundamental truth. The truth of who we really are. The truth of the nature of our mind.

Now to dispel some myths. In my youth, enlightenment loomed as some distant and mystical goal.  Something that probably could only be found in some far away exotic land, a prize to be attained after all sorts of trials and tribulations, disciplines and sacrifices.

But what if it were simpler than this? Closer than this? What if we all carried the seed of enlightenment within us? All of us? What if your potential to become enlightened was just as good as anyone else’s? What if enlightenment was less of an external struggle and more of an internal revelation? And if this were so, how could we come to experience this inner realisation?

Maybe it is as if this inner truth of who we are is like a precious diamond within us. It is there all right, but it is covered by layers of dirt – by layers of ordinary thoughts and feelings that prevent us from seeing it real nature, its real beauty.

Try to imagine you had never eaten a banana before and you became interested in the truth of what a banana tastes like. Then imagine some wonderful friend produced a banana and offered to share it with you. Some of us might gratefully take a few bites and say “Wow! So that’s it. That’s what a banana tastes like!”

But many might say “Are you really sure this is a banana? Even if this is a banana, are you sure there is not a tastier one, a bigger one, a different one, a better one?”

Our mind could so easily, so readily form concepts around the banana that we could get caught up in the thinking and miss the experience altogether. While thinking has many benefits, enlightenment is an experience, not a thinking.

How then do we experience our mind without thinking? Easy isn’t it – the answer is meditation. Meditation teaches us how to go beyond the thinking mind and to experience the nature of our mind.

But again, all too easily, as our meditation matures and we do begin to experience glimpses of this inner truth, the analytical mind can still come in causing us to loose clarity and confidence.

This is where a true teacher is so valuable. A true teacher offers the banana, confirms it is a banana, and after you have eaten it, tasted it, realised it, they confirm your experience.

And how does a teacher acquire the authority to do this? By being authentic. It is just like a Professor at University. How do we know they are authentic? They need to have been authentically taught by authentic teachers following authentic teachings (eg they need the right qualifications), and then they need to teach authentically according to the teachings they received.

So when it comes to ourselves, maybe we are lucky. Maybe we meet a teacher at a time in our lives when we are ready. All is right, auspicious as they say; we are introduced to this inner reality, and we get it in one go.

For many of us, however, even with a good teacher, I suspect it is more like eating lots of bananas. Having little tastes, little glimpses of this inner truth and building up to the point where we can say “Yep, I have tasted lots of bananas; I reckon I know bananas”.

The trick is to be patient, determined and to keep your sense of humour; to avoid guilt and shame and to be OK with your state of mind and your progress.

For most of us, our lives seem to vacillate between moments of confusion and moments of clarity. Meditation eases the confusion and strengthens the clarity. Meditation can lead to the dawning of wisdom, the experience of enlightenment.

So why wait? Maybe this is the year to really go for it. To meditate regularly. To seek a teacher. To actually follow their advice. To take your own enlightenment seriously.

Happy meditating!


The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying;  Sogyal Rinpoche
Meditation -an In-depth Guide;  Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson

Related Posts:

Meditation and satisfaction;  5/10/10
The brain, the mind and relationships;  1/11/10
Go with the flow or intervene;  16/11/10

10 January 2011

2011 - Ideas and treats

2011 was the year I turned 60 and stood back from my usual activities to review and reflect. The blog of 13/12/10 summarises something of this ongoing process. Now for some personal thoughts on the future; and in this blog a few modest suggestions.

The question is, how to be most helpful? How to help the most people possible? My own focus for helping people is through healing – healing the body, healing the emotions, mind and spirit.

There would seem to be three primary avenues for healing – conventional medicine, complementary and alternative medicine, and lifestyle medicine.

Over my 30 yrs in this field, I have observed some real progress. Meditation, for example has gone from alternative, to complementary, to mainstream. Great progress. But some aspects of things like nutrition still seem more on the alternative end of the spectrum, and lifestyle medicine itself seems under-recognised and under-valued. There is much to do.

My focus for the years ahead will be on working in this arena of lifestyle medicine and hopefully contributing to its ongoing development. The appeal is that lifestyle medicine focuses on what a person can do for themselves – diet, exercise, meditation etc, etc. It complements all else. It is cheap to teach, easy to learn. You can take it anywhere, do it any time. It has very few side-effects except chronic good health and its research base is strong. Perhaps its big downside is that financial support for it is limited. Currently this is a non-corporate venture – with no pills or products to sell, just techniques that empower all who learn them to better manage their own health.

For myself, lifestyle medicine neatly divides into 3 broad areas:

  1. Healing – and I remain committed primarily to working within the cancer field; although lifestyle medicine has direct relevance to all illnesses and to disease prevention.
  2. Wellness – and I wish to continue my long-term passion in this field too.
  3. Spirituality – which is really about finding long-term, sustainable happiness – the area that underscores all that I am interested in.

For the immediate future, writing is a commitment. The blog will continue. I have just completed a major rewrite of my old “Imagery” book that will be released in May as “The Mind that Changes Everything”. Next comes an extensive rewrite and update of “You Can Conquer Cancer”. Along with this, I continue to explore avenues for using the new technologies usefully, and I will begin to present workshops again later in the year. More on this later.

I welcome feedback or suggestions for “You Can Conquer Cancer” – elements you feel need more or less coverage along with feedback and stories you can offer.

Also, if anyone has interest or energy for these plans and share in the vision of taking personal health empowerment to more people through a lifestyle-based approach, please do contact me, either through the comments section below or writing to PO Box 575, Yarra Junction, Victoria 3797, Australia. (I still prefer letters to emails although I seem to be doing more of the latter these days!)

Three suggestions for 2011:

  1. New Year’s Resolutions are just that – resolutions! Definitions are so useful: “resolution: determination, firmness or steadfastness of purpose. The act or an act of making up one’s mind, a positive intention”. (The Oxford). Most New Year’s Resolutions fail because they lack most or all of the above. On the surface there can be all sorts of excuses, reasons, evasions; but in essence we change habits and we begin things anew when we put our mind to it and make a firm inner commitment. Think about it. It really is all in the mind.
  2. A Suggestion: Adopt the habit of gratitude. Research shows it to be a powerful antidote to depression. Experience proves it to build inner peace and wellness – a positive, healthy state of mind. Each evening as you get into bed, dwell on three things from your day you can be grateful for. And if during the day you find yourself lapsing into feelings of gratitude for even the most ordinary of things, that would be OK too.
  3. Treat yourself:

As there is a steady influx of new people reading the blog, it may be helpful to point out a couple of related posts from earlier times, so here goes:

  1. 2010 in Review - 13/12/10
  2. Meditation and Satisfaction – 5/10/10
  3. In the Beginning – 4/10/10