26 March 2012

Jim Stynes, acceptance and commitment

Jim Stynes, that delightful mountain of inspiration has died of cancer. His death has touched us all and deeply affected many of the people I have been talking to who currently are living with cancer.

Many of the media reports announced Jim had “lost his battle with cancer”. Some commentators have strongly challenged the usefulness of the war like metaphors that are so often used around “the fight against cancer”.

Yet most would find it difficult to deny that Jim Stynes was a warrior. Look at his exploits on the football field where he led from the front, demonstrating toughness, fairness, stoicism and fearlessness. It would be fair to say he fought for the disadvantaged youth of our time though his eminently practical and effective Reach Foundation. And then clearly, he approached his cancer diagnosis and all it brought to him with a resolute vigour that any warrior would have been proud of.

Let us not forget that Jim was faced with a very aggressive cancer. Following an initial prognosis of 9 months, he lived over 3 years, and in that time accomplished so much. He had extra time with his family, and his children will know how hard and how thoroughly he tried to survive and to be there for them. He resurrected the Melbourne Football Club (of which I am a proud member) and he inspired many, many people.

In my experience, cancer does not respond kindly to passivity. For those who sit idly by, the future with cancer is predictable enough. For those who seek to turn the odds in their favour as Jim did, the warrior spirit is helpful indeed.

But what sort of warrior?

There are two choices, the Rambo variety and the martial artist.

Rambo typified the aggressive, willfully driven, deeply insecure and unsettled warrior class. The martial artist brings almost a paradox. There is the unwavering and fearless commitment, yet there is an inner peace along with a sense of acceptance and contentment. Both make for formidable warriors, but both represent vastly different states of mind.

The key difference would seem to be the martial arts warrior’s acceptance of their situation. They accept death is a real possibility and are at peace with it. That acceptance seems to free them from fear; leaving them free to think clearly and act appropriately.

So with a major illness, these metaphors can be really useful. The martial arts approach begins with acceptance of the very real threats and challenges of the illness. There is no denial of the risks, there is no suppression of emotion. It is a great mistake to characterize positive thinking as some imposed state of superficial and fabricated joy and delight. Real positive thinking goes into the truth of the matter, acknowledges the possibilities, encourages feeling the attendant emotions, and then moves on to what can be done about it.

There is a big difference between wishful thinking and positive thinking. Wishful thinking is where you hope for the best and do nothing about it. Positive thinking is where you hope for the best and do a lot about it.

Jim Stynes did a lot. He knew what he was up against. He demonstrated his capacity to express his emotions. He displayed his preparedness to do whatever it took as he did all he could to recover.

Amongst many other things, Jim came to the Gawler Foundation’s 12 week program and I saw him privately, so it is not appropriate for me to comment on the relative merits of anything he did. But I think it fair to say from his very public story that he may well have come to cancer a bit like a Rambo warrior and steadily morphed into the martial arts type.

Certainly he is on the public record towards the end of his illness saying with great dignity, clarity and even humour that he had accepted he might well die of his illness. But that did nothing to stop him putting so much energy into his on-going efforts to recover.

Clearly too, Jim said that he had no intention to die wondering. He did everything he valued. He tried an incredible range of things, some of which have confronted others, particularly some of the more conservative types! Maybe at another more appropriate time I can discuss some of those things without referring to Jim.

So there was acceptance, and there was commitment. Acceptance of the situation as it was. Acceptance of the emotions that naturally flowed. Acceptance that death was a real possibility.

And then there was commitment. Commitment to life. A joyful, light-hearted, passionate commitment to life, and a willingness to do whatever seemed reasonable and possible to fight for that life.

My own sense of this is that Jim Stynes was more than a warrior. He was a crusader, that noblest of warrior that fights for good cause; who fights to preserve his own life, knowing how capable he is of helping others and how committed he is to that end.

Jim - you will be sadly missed. We are all the better for your life and smile.


1. One quarter of all cancers could be prevented by a healthy diet and exercise.

A major new piece of Australian research suggests that there will be about 170 000 Australians diagnosed with cancer in 2025. This represents an increase of about 60% on the 2007 incidence. Almost 43 000 of these cancers could be prevented through improvements to diet and physical activity levels, including through their impact on obesity. It is likely that this is an underestimate of the true figure. The most preventable cancer types in 2025 were estimated to be bowel cancer and female breast cancer (10,049 and 7,273 preventable cases, respectively).

The researchers concluded that is imperative that governments, clinicians and researchers act now if we are to reduce the significant future human and financial burden of cancer.

While the theoretical impact of primary prevention is substantial, motivating populations to improve their health status is difficult. Therefore, unless a concerted and significant effort is made to invest in and implement powerful preventive measures, the impact of primary prevention on reducing total cancer incidence over the coming decades will probably be relatively small.

Reference: Baade P D et al, Med J Aust 2012; 196 (5): 337-340.

Click here for full article

2. Blog format changes

You may have noticed some upgrades to the blog. Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, we now have the top ten most popular posts listed on the right hand side. Well, at least according to Blogger. Somehow their stats do not include all of the true top ten, so we have added a couple of those that missed out.

Now that the blog has been going a while, there is a great deal of stuff in the archive that may be of interest. Finding whatever else does interest you is best done via checking the categories that are used such as meditation, nutrition, healing etc. Happy hunting!

3. Is Roundup safe? Maybe not as much as we thought.

Glyphosate (G) is the largest selling herbicide worldwide; the most common formulation being Roundup (R). It is a herbicide that has been around for many years, been well tested in the past and many organic farmers consider it safe to use. That is what I used to tell people. I am not so sure any more for those who actually use it (this study did not examine its after effects, just the implications for those exposed to it via spraying).

Recent research findings indicate that G exposure may cause DNA damage and cancer in humans. This latest study examined the cytotoxic and genotoxic properties of G and R (UltraMax) in a buccal epithelial cell line (TR146), as workers are exposed via inhalation to the herbicide.

The researchers concluded “since we found genotoxic effects after short exposure to concentrations that correspond to a 450-fold dilution of spraying used in agriculture, our findings indicate that inhalation may cause DNA damage in exposed individuals”.

Reference: Koller VJ, et al: Arch Toxicol. 2012 Feb 14. [Epub ahead of print]

LINK the Archives of Toxicology.

19 March 2012

MS – can you believe this?

This is truly amazing and very important news for people with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). New research shows MS can be reversed by lifestyle changes. Everyone needs to know this.

Over the 5 years following diagnosis, the average person with MS who is having the best of current medical care is expected to deteriorate by an average of 10%. Research has just been published showing that people who attended a lifestyle program that  was based upon the cancer programs I established, actually improved by 20%. Instead of the expected deterioration after 5 years, these people were markedly better!

Can you believe it? This is really wonderful news and warrants being passed on to all you know. 

How did it happen?

In 2002, Prof George Jelinek (a Professor of Emergency Medicine) and I, along with my wife Dr Ruth Gawler and other staff at the Gawler Foundation, established a new concept for people with MS. Attend a residential program, change your lifestyle and improve your health. 

Having seen quite a few people with MS regain their mobility and improve their state of mind dramatically after attending similar groups I had been conducting for people with cancer since 1981, I was fairly confident. 

George was a little more circumspect. Having been diagnosed with MS himself a couple of years earlier and having thoroughly researched the medical literature on the subject, George had written the groundbreaking and wonderfully useful book with the relatively conservative title “Taking Control of MS”.

In fairness to George he started those early groups convinced participants could stabilize their MS at the level they began, but he baulked a bit when I told the groups that I believed if they were diligent with the lifestyle changes, they could reverse it and get better as their years went on.

To George’s credit, when he did a major rewrite of that great book in 2009, he had seen enough direct evidence to rename it “Overcoming MS”.

Now the really exciting news. MS as a disease is a lot easier to research than cancer and Prof Jelinek is a world-class researcher. Happily, right at the beginning, we established a research program to monitor any changes in our participants. The results are truly stunning.

Here I hand over to Professor George Jelinek and thank him for contributing to “Out on a Limb”:

The news is so positive and so affirming, we really need to blow the trumpets! 

Where else in all the MS literature will you find an intervention that is shown to result in improvements in mental and physical health and overall quality of life that continue to grow over at least five years? 

Surely this would be a new wonder drug that would be heading every TV station’s evening news? Or some new surgical procedure, like stem cell transplantation, where the great outcomes outweighed the serious risk of the procedure? Isn’t it remarkable that our new research, published in the international journal Neurological Sciences (download the paper below), shows that actually, such an outcome comes from a one-week live-in retreat where people with MS (PwMS) learn how to live well? No drug, no surgery, no risk. Just mainstream good health from an optimal diet free of saturated fat, optimal vitamin D levels, exercise and meditation. 

This research outlines our follow up of the longitudinal cohort of PwMS attending Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis (OMS) residential retreats at the Gawler Foundation since 2002. We started these retreats keen to observe the outcomes of people adopting the OMS lifestyle based approach, by asking them to complete a standard, well-validated 54-item questionnaire, the MSQOL-54. We then asked them to complete the questionnaire again at the 1 and 5 year marks after the retreat. 

The only intervention provided was the 5 day retreat. Nothing else. No other follow up or ongoing care, although each group had group support, as they kept in touch by regular email after the retreat. 

At the retreat, a good deal of detail was provided so that PwMS could judge for themselves the science behind the recommendations and whether they were prepared to commit to these changes for life.

As reported in the paper, the results were remarkable! Not only did this group of PwMS stop deteriorating, they rapidly began to get better! And the improvement continued to the five year mark, the last time point for which we have data. The study is ongoing of course, and it will be very interesting to see how this group is going at the ten year mark and beyond. 

But for now we know that the group had highly significant (p<0.001) improvements at one year in mental health of about 12%, physical health 19%, and quality of life 11%. At five years the benefits continued to accrue, with highly significant (p<0.001) improvements in mental health of about 23%, physical health 18%, and quality of life 20%.

The graph below (Figure 1 in the paper) shows this well.

This result is quite staggering! We do not know of any other study of any other intervention in MS that shows such improvements; nor has any other study using the MSQOL-54 in a comparable cohort shown any improvement at all, let alone such a large benefit. 

For those who have had doubts about embarking on the OMS program, or those who have had trouble sticking with it, this research should provide the necessary impetus to seriously get involved with this lifestyle. 

There is much to celebrate for the nearly 300 people overcoming MS in this study, and in general for people committed to this lifestyle approach. If someone said to you at diagnosis that you would be roughly 20% better overall in five years time, most people would be overjoyed. After the publication of this research we now know that this is what you can expect on average. Some people may not do as well; others will do correspondingly better. But on average, you can expect very significant improvement. 

Now that is something to blow the trumpets about!

Link to Prof George Jelinek’s very useful MS website: www.overcomingmultiplesclerosis.org

Access the full research paper: click here


1. Webinar open to all Tuesday 20th March 2012 at 8pm

One of the features of the Mindbody Mastery program is the extensive support package that accompanies it. Along with daily emails, weekly SMS, FAQs and research on the website, a key feature is the monthly webinar.

Having successfully presented the first webinar last month, we have decided to open the broadcast to everyone, even if you are not participating directly in the Mindbody mastery program.

So on Tuesday, I will be the presenter. I will talk directly for about 20 minutes about the four steps that make meditation easy and reliable, before focusing more particularly on relaxation in daily life. Then I will lead a meditation before taking your questions which can be sent in by email.
You need to register to be included and to do so, click on http://www.anymeeting.com/mindbodymastery, and then click on the Register button next to the 21st March 2012 webinar.
The webinars will continue each month on the 3rd Tuesday of each month and you will be able to join in via the website: 

2. Cancer on the increase

The number of cases of cancer diagnosed in Australia is projected to rise over the next decade for both males and females and is expected to reach about 150,000 in 2020—an increase of almost 40% from 2007. Increases in the number of cases diagnosed are due primarily to the ageing and increasing population and are expected to be most evident in older populations.

Cancer incidence in males is highly influenced by prostate cancer, which accounts for about 30% of all cases. Assuming incidence of prostate cancer stabilises in the future, it is projected that the overall age-standardised rate of cancer in males will fall from 595 to about 568 cases per 100,000 males between 2007 and 2020. 

Conversely, the overall age-standardised rate of cancer incidence in females is projected to rise from 394 to about 408 cases per 100,000 females between 2007 and 2020.

3. Breast cancer – The right fats decrease fatigue
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are well known for reducing inflammation. A recent, comprehensive study has shown these good oils may help reduce inflammation-related fatigue in breast cancer survivors.
Consistent with observational data in healthy populations, increased intake of omega-3 was associated with reduced inflammation in a cohort of 633 survivors, with an average age of 56.
Reporting in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, researchers found those with the lowest intake of omega-3 relative to omega-6 PUFAs were over four times more likely to have a high-risk C-reactive protein level – a marker for inflammation – than those with the highest.
Inflammation has been previously related to a higher incidence of medical problems in cancer survivors and a reduced risk of survival in women with breast cancer.
Because fatigue was such a common condition among cancer survivors, effective treatment “could have a significant health impact”, the researchers concluded.
Reference: Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2012; doi:10.1200/ JCO.2011.36.4109



Downloadable meditation program: Mindbody Mastery

12 March 2012

Ian Gawler Blog: Between a rock and a miracle

Thought for the day

‘I do not know the facts about everything
But I do know quite a lot’!

Three year old grandson – very keen to learn!

A couple of years ago I took part in something that was impossible. Absolutely impossible if you believe in physics. Absolutely impossible, but I was there, I was part of it.

In the foothills of the Himalayas, I joined a circle of eight other men, we placed one finger each under the edge of a huge oval stone, we chanted and the stone rose into the air!

I was visiting a remarkable Indian friend, a woman whom I met on my first visit to India in 1977. Piki as my friend is known, had lost her own husband to the same cancer I was trying to recover from at the time. She had us stay in her house, looked after us well and we became very good friends.

Piki went on to raise her two girls and see them both go on to study at Harvard. When they had both left home, she did what had been in her mind for many years; she left her high paying job in Mumbai and literally headed for the hills – the Himalayan hills. She settled in a remote district and quietly set about effecting major community development in a very thorough but unassuming way.

When Ruth and I visited, she took us to visit a famous local temple - the Baijnath temple of Parvati.  As far as Piki knows it was built in the 7th century by the then Raja of the Chand dynasty, who belonged to Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh. The Parvati statue is considered so valuable that there is a round the clock guard  - particularly since there was an attempt to rob it some years ago.

As far as the stone is concerned the history seems to be a little fuzzy. It would seem that a holy seer during the Chand dynasty said that the stone could only be lifted when 9 people touched it and the origins of the chant are equally unclear.

What I do know is that we managed to find eight other men. Two were Scandinavian tourists (that is true too!), three we recruited from a scratch game of cricket that was going on nearby, and the other two were locals somewhat taken in by my appearance and the prospect of something to do!

The rock was simply lying in the sand outside the temple. It looked innocuous enough, but very heavy. It was so big I doubt if two strong people could have lifted it in the conventional manner.

We gathered our crew and formed a circle around it. There was no preamble. The three cricketers had done it before and they told us the chant. The nine of us each placed one finger under it and we began to chant.

The first time we tried, the rock wobbled a bit and we all fell about laughing. The second time, I got the sense we all concentrated a little harder and the rock definitely lift a few centimeters off the sand.  The third time, we chanted with intent, we all seemed focused and balanced on our nine fingers, the thing just kept going up in the air. It had no right to, but it rose about 50 cms before wobbling back to earth again. This time we all cheered, but for those new to it, there was a profound sense of incredulity.

Now I have seen a few “miraculous “ things in my time, but this was right out there. The skeptics would have a field day with it, but I not only saw it, I took part in this one.

So what happened next? Well, we all talked about it. The Scandinavians reckoned this alone made their trip worthwhile. But I suspect that like me, they went home and life went on as usual.

So here is the challenge. If and when we do see something that is completely foreign to how we think things should be or how they should happen, what do we do? I know when I did see and take part in the miraculous healing in the Philippines it did open my mind and help me to realize more was possible than my veterinary training and western way of thinking believed to be so.

But I came home from the rock trip and some months later lifted some really heavy timber in the conventional way. It took about six months before my strained hip was back to its normal self. Was there another way? Could I have focused my mind, chanted and made it easy? Who knows? Fact is I did not. I have no trouble accepting the miracle of the rising stone, but I cannot comprehend it, I cannot find a way to employ what I experienced.

So I sometimes think of these skeptic doctors who have been trained so thoroughly to think in a particular way. They just love science and “the evidence”. It may seem to some people they have a rather limited way of thinking, that they only accept the evidence that comes out of a peer reviewed journal and tend to ignore the evidence of life as it unfolds before them in the form of what they tend to dismiss as “anecdotes”.

But when someone has an unexpected recovery, it has all the hallmarks of a miracle; given that a good definition of a miracle is something we have no known explanation for. So when some doctors are confronted by a “miraculous” recovery, it is not surprising they have trouble believing it.

Now it would seem that to some of those skeptics I appear to commit the “heresy” of saying I understand something of the "miracle" of remarkable cancer recoveries. In fact, this particular miracle I understand quite well, just as many other people do. I, along with many colleagues have been teaching people how to repeat it for over thirty years. Now I cannot tell you how many people who came to my groups, recovered, went back to their doctors and were told they must have been misdiagnosed!

To me, given the rock experience, that response is understandable to a degree, but on another level, it smacks of intellectual laziness. To have something new and unexpected occur in front of your eyes, and to deny it or to attack it rather than investigate it is profoundly unscientific.

So maybe I need to go back to the rock. I have never denied it or attacked it, but maybe there is more for us to understand, more that we can do! Human potential is an amazing thing.


1. As a matter of interest, Piki Chatterji’s second book "The JamunTree" has just been published - it is a story about the development work she has been involved with the past 25 years and more. And as the World Bank is involved in one of the projects she has written about, they organized a launch for the book back in January.

2. New study shows chemotherapies adverse cognitive effects lasts twice as long.

(Comment: This study reinforces the need to attend to your lifestyle while undergoing chemotherapy. There is the obvious need to maximise the benefits and minimise potential side effects.)

The cognitive effects of chemotherapy may last more than twice as long as previously thought, a new study of breast cancer survivors suggests.

Previous research indicated chemotherapy was related to poorer cognitive performance up to ten years after treatment. The new study expands this period, showing cognitive effects can last more than twenty years.

The paper, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, tested almost 300 women between the ages of 50 and 80 who had been treated with adjuvant cyclo- phosmamide, methotrexate, and fluoroacil (CMF) chemotherapy an average of 21 years earlier.

Researchers found their processing speed, executive functioning, psychomotor speed, and immediate and delayed verbal memory were all “significantly worse” than a control group of women who had never had cancer.

The authors cautioned that the impact of their study was tempered by the fact that CMF was “no longer the most optimal adjuvant therapy for early-stage breast cancer,” and admitted it was impossible to glean if they were applicable to other forms of chemotherapy.

Given advances in treatment are increasing the number of long-term breast cancer survivors, their research into long-term cognitive effects was “highly relevant”, they said.

Reference: Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2012; 10.1200/JCO.2011.37.0189

3. Study finds Vitamin A reduces melanoma but experts doubtful.

(Comment: This is an interesting finding given some of the adverse publicity Vit A has received in recent times.)

Vitamin A intake may be associated with a significant reduction in melanoma risk among women, a new US study shows, but Australian experts are dubious.

After analysing the melanoma risk in about 70,000 people who took vitamin A supplements the California-based researchers concluded high-dose (41,200 mg per day) supplemental retinol was associated with reduced melanoma risk, particularly in women.
Reference: Journal of Investigative Dermatology doi:10.1038/jid.2012.21


BOOKS: The Mind that Changes Everything

               Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda - a great story of direct experiences with the Indian holy men and miracle workers.

05 March 2012

Ian Gawler Blog: The paradox of helplessness – let go and find your self

Thought for the day

“Mathematics is the inner sensitivity to beautiful mental sculptures”

                          Stefan Banach, a self-taught mathematics prodigy who is widely considered to have been one of the 20th century's most important and influential mathematicians.

How would you imagine you might feel if you had a stroke that left your mind clear, your body paralysed and it took nearly 8 hours before anyone found you?

Speaking at the Happiness and its Causes conference recently, I had the good fortune to speak to a Tibetan Buddhist lama who was in just this situation about 6 months ago. I asked him how he felt.

“I really enjoyed the feeling of helplessness” came his rather remarkable response. I asked him to explain.

“Well, I have done a good deal of meditation and other practices throughout my life. But lying there on the floor, not sure if I would live or die; not sure when someone might find me, what I did find was that it intensified my practice in a way I have not known before. It gave me a much more profound glimpse of who I really am and how I can really be.”

The lama’s observations match those of the great English Christian mystic and scholar, Father Bede Griffiths. I remember talking with him in his Inter-faith ashram in India not long after he had recovered from a massive stroke. His eyes ablaze with the delight of the experience, Fr Bede told me how he really thought he was going to die.

“In that moment, it was as if all my doubts fell away. All my attachments to this body, my ego - all gone. I was left with the profound experience of my true essence – in a way that previous experiences in meditation had hinted at, but nothing compared to this. It was marvellous! I would recommend it to anyone!”

Now, there is a secret in all this. You may think these experiences are only for great lamas and monks, or only to be had at the cost of a near death experience. The truth of the matter is the inner essence of which they speak is within each and everyone of us. To experience it more directly, we do not need to “make it happen” or seek it in some exotic place. What we do need to do is go beyond that which obscures it from our view - our normal confusions of the mind and our attachments.  What will help us to do this is to go forward with what Fr Bede described as “crazy abandon”. In doing so maybe we can let go profoundly, surrender completely, and in doing so, we may well find what we are really looking for.

So how to do this? As Fr Bede said, meditation begins to bring familiarity with all of this. As we do learn to relax more deeply, to settle the mind, often we do have those deeper moments when we go beyond the thinking mind into the deeper stillness where the experience of our fundamental nature is more direct.

For the adventurous ones there is a radical approach; simply imagine you are dying! This takes a little mental stability to even consider, but think about it. If we breathe out and do not breathing in again; that is all it takes to die. So if in meditation, we breathe out and abandon any hope of breathing in, we can somewhat duplicate the experience.

Now at this point I probably need to emphasize that having lead many people in this type of meditative exercise, I have not lost anyone yet!

But to take it further, some people have found extra poignancy and great benefit in actually imagining themselves on their deathbed, in the process of dying.

At the conference, I had been asked to speak on “Living well, Dying well”. My basic premise is that there are two ways to live. One is in fear and denial of death, the other way to live is informed by death. While the first is very common and has a certain logical appeal, when we acknowledge the reality of death, and go into understanding it; when we live a life informed by death, fear drops away and we realize the facts of life. We realize how precious life is, how uncertain the length of our life is and this focuses our attention on living each moment to the fullest of our capacity.

Here then is the paradox. While life is so precious and we tend to cling so strongly to it, by letting go profoundly, not only is there the possibility we will be more at ease with both our life and our death, but we may come to experience the truth of who we really are.


1. Workshop at Mt Macedon – Saturday 24th March. 

Duneira is one of the premier gardens at Mt Macedon and will be the venue for my day workshop: “The Mind that Changes Everything”. I love the format of this workshop; we explore how the mind functions, the recent amazing research to do with brain function, and then we will explore and practise the key mind training techniques of meditation, affirmations and imagery. Not withstanding the content, just being in these wonderful gardens for a day is worth the trip! (The workshop itself is held within the beautiful old homestead). Click here for details.

2. Meditation retreat - March 30 - April 5th

There is nothing like attending a retreat to learn more about meditation and to deepen your practice. Ruth and I will only lead the one retreat this year – at the Foundation’s glorious Yarra Valley centre. Still a few places available. Click here for details.



Meditation and its experiences

Slow down and go faster

BOOKS Meditation – an In-depth Guide

The Mind that Changes Everything

CDs  Meditation – a complete path

Understanding death, helping the dying