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!


  1. I guess I didn't give a great deal of thought to death until early 2009 when I was diagnaosed with two types of breast cancer. It then really hit me that I was mortal and I was in a state of shock from all of it for sometime. However even though I have not given as much time as maybe I should to the subject of death I have a definate mind shift and my faith and the Wellness course I attended at the CSA in Cottesloe WA have contributed greatly to my recovery. I do find your Blogs very interesting and the length of them is just right to retain and contemplate on. Thank you Ian.

  2. Hi Ian.
    I am very much enjoying your insights into Life & Death. I hear what you are saying, I know what you are saying, I feel what you are saying.
    I first read your book "You Can Conquer Cancer" in Jan 2007, after it jumped out at me from a bookshelf soon after my Husband was diagnosed with Cancer, and subsequently we attended your retreat in Sept 2007.
    A little later The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying jumped out at me and since then I have read this on numerous occasions(Initially just after my husband was diagnosed with Cancer, during our life with Cancer and leading up to his Death).
    After reading The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying for the first time I affectionately renamed it "If you only ever read one book in this lifetime this is the one".
    This book has continued to be a very valuable source of information and help; and especially helpful as a reference book to guide us during the last few weeks of my Husband's life - to assist him to have a 'good death'.
    For me, having read this book along with reading various other sources of similar topics, attending your retreat, 'religiously' practicing meditation and maintaining a balanced life means that I am living a 'good life' - peaceful and contented.
    Notwithstanding the fact that my life has been very challenging, with a lot of hard work and good support and a healthy thirst for 'knowing more', my life has certainly been transformed for the better.


    I look forward to your future posts.
    With much gratitude

  3. I never thought about dying until I was diagnosed with cancer. Suddenly all my priorities changed and all the things I had been putting off until things were easier or more convenient or I had more energy came to be important and started to get done. Now, looking back, I wonder how I could have got this benefit in my life without all the problems the cancer caused as well.
    Thanks for this reminder about the benefit of contemplating death - and not forgetting it. I have been slipping back into old unhelpful habits a bit now I am fairly well and this is a timely reminder of how uncertain the future is and how important it is to remember the important things.