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


  1. I like the idea of being able to let go when needed, especially when the need to surrender is unavoidable, but wonder how I would go in a real situation. What I am noticing is that meditation does give me the chance to practice letting go and I am not so attached to as many things as I used to be. This is a challenging blog. I need to think about it more. Thanks Ian

  2. I definitely agree that anxiety, fear and frustration comes from not letting the ego die.

    When we accept death and we are prepared to die anywhere at any moment, our ego starts up by saying 'no way', but then if we can get past that, the ego goes quiet and in doing so we have no worries, identity issues or other negative baggage.

    It's all ego and how the ego makes us feel like we are precious and different from every other living thing on the planet. By quietening the ego and not using it to make decisions, we are quite perfect, except that we still do not listen enough to our native people who could teach us how to live in the cycle of life.... but that's another discussion.

  3. Perhaps we could have a practice session at the upcoming meditation retreat? Only 23 more sleeps! Soooo looking forward to it.

  4. http://www.theage.com.au/national/miracle-in-our-midst-says-vatican-20101005-1664k.html

    re you recent blog - see above for article about the ruuner up as evidence for the sainthood of Mary Mckillop - what struck me is the mother saying to God "take him" the next day Mary Mckillop appears and the boy starts to heal - if you saw australian story recently - the woman who was used as an example of mary mckillop's sainthood said exactly the same thing to god - "take me" and then she started to heal - another similarity was both were being prayed for by members of their church - strikes me there are some parallels here with the subject of your blog - the process of abandonment to death and perhaps faith
    Julia Huck

  5. From a slightly different angle, I can say that having had two beautiful, natural, drug-free births I am no longer afraid of dying, as the birth experiences were definitely some kind of a "portal" as I anticipate death may be. My busy head got out of the way and I could just get on with it - I was definitely in a different zone...