07 October 2013

An open heart

Sitting to meditate at home a few days ago, I found tears pouring down my face. Pouring. Flowing freely. Yet no distress. Just lots of tears.

I had just learnt that Mark, a delightful young doctor from Hong Kong had succumbed to the same cancer I used to have. So what were the tears? Common grief? Sadness? Despair? Self identification?

Maybe. But actually most came courtesy of a profound insight. An insight you may well also value.

This week then, let’s go Out on a Limb in a real sense, be brave, and consider how a realistic and healthy understanding of death can actually have a positive effect on our lives and particularly our relationships.

And a reminder – less than 2 weeks to go before my day workshop in Melbourne with Dr Nimrod Sheinman – a world authority on Mind-Body Medicine, mindfulness and the application of guided imagery. For details, CLICK HERE. But first

Thought for the day
Of all the sad things I see
The worst of it 
Is the fear of death
            Sogyal Rinpoche

It had been my good fortune to come to know Mark a little. It was easy to appreciate his many fine qualities; particularly his love of life and his commitment to staying alive.

My response to his death was echoed eloquently by a woman in one of my groups a few days later when she commented on the death of one of our much loved members recently:

“Death sucks!”

Our friend had lived for many years with a vibrancy that belied the severity of her illness. All she was doing to look after herself kept her feeling well right up to the time of her death. According to her family, she also died well.

Maybe as a result of all this, her death came as more of a surprise. Some people were shocked. Like that of Mark, her love of life, her enthusiasm, her energy – her vibrancy…..

Yet death does come to us all. Clearly some do die of cancer. Some die of other things. One thing is for sure. We will all die one day.

One day.

We do not know when.

So here is the point. Faced with the reality of death, faced with the grief of loss, even just the anticipatory thought of loss, it is so easy to become fearful and defensive. And to close our hearts.

It seems clear that for many of us, in an attempt to defend our emotions and to protect our selves from emotional pain, we attempt to build barriers, to wall off the heart.

Yet if we do close our hearts, one thing is certain. Relationships will always suffer. Always be compromised. Always be filtered through those barriers. Always be closed to some degree. Close the heart and we may well miss the most important parts – the closeness, the intimacy of relationships.

In my view, it is exactly because we do not know how long we may have with those we know, those we love, that it makes sense to do all we can to keep our hearts open and to get the best from whatever time we do have with them.

However, it takes a brave heart to be open. There are bound to be times when the tears flow. But then, there is the chance for open relationships. Real engagement. Real sharing. Real intimacy.

People often ask me how I have sustained working amidst the emotional intensity of cancer for so many years. So many have died. The answer is simple. Learning to keep an open heart.

For those working with people with major illness this means not hiding behind some fey clinical detachment. Some cool professional persona.

For myself, after over 30 years in this field, it is because of the reality of death that I remain keen and open to make friends with as many of the people I work with as I can.

Now I am not sure how this would be possible without the practical support offered by some profound and direct inner experience.

Maybe some gain a sense of these possibilities courtesy of working with, being with someone of stature. Being inspired by, or modelling themselves upon someone like Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, The Dalai Lama or even someone on a more local, personal scale.

But speaking personally, this is what I have found as a real blessing through the deeper experience of meditation. When we do manage to meditate more deeply, the heart does open and we can come to experience the direct knowing that there is a part of each one of us that is beyond the pain of loss, a part of us that is pure and enduring. A part that is capable of remaining open and in a real sense, not being hurt.

Even so, it is a brave choice to aim for an open heart. But this is a choice that offers the possibility of deep contentment, deep satisfaction.

This insight came courtesy of the truth that life is so fragile, but at the same time so precious, so wonderful, so valuable. This insight, that came as a result of contemplating death, is that rather than closing our hearts, it makes much more sense to actually open the heart.

So death reminds me to open my heart. And sometimes tears flow quite naturally.

So what is your experience? Any comments? Anything to share? This may be a good blog to share and discuss with family and friends. Or add a comment below.

Non-meditation; A personal account

Day seminar with Ian Gawler and Dr Nimrod Sheinman 
Be inspired, be informed, deepen your experience of mindfulness, creative imagery and meditation.

IN MELBOURNE     Sunday October 20th

Nimrod is a world authority in Mind-Body medicine and an expert with creative imagery and mindfulness. A healthy lunch is included in the modest fee for the day.

For details and to book, CLICK HERE


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Dr Lawler. My father, who died of cancer in 1989, introduced me to your work, which has been a source of inspiration since.
    As for death: well, isn't it a bit like some of those fears we have as children - of being left alone, of swimming in the deep end or paddling out through the breakers, of climbing out on a limb, later, of talking with girls - that we outgrow through experience? It appears that all who have experienced the early processes of 'death' - near-death experiences - report a loss of fear of death, and the open embracing of life you discuss here.
    Bradley Smith

  2. Ian, I do not normally write posts but your blog this week really resonated with me. Too often we put on a 'brave face' to make it easier for both others and ourselves. So it is a beautiful reminder that it is ok to open up and let others in to see our vulnerability.....and we will be so much better for have done so.

  3. This is easier said than done. In fact hearts are like sea anenomes in the water they open when it is safe and tranquil, and close up when the going gets tough to protect their vulnerable hearts, it is really impossible not to close up even just a little when you feel attacked or abandoned....... unless you are already enlightened. What about recognising that when our hearts are closing we need to meditate, feel the sensations, the feelings, the emotions and then if we allow the natural processing of what is usually grief the heart opens again spontaneously.....

    1. It seems worth adding that the part of us that feels the hurt when we grieve is the very part we are trying to protect - our ordinary mind and its attendant emotions. Of course it makes intuitive sense to attempt this protection; of course it is the societal norm; but it is a recipe for more and more pain. The pain free zone is beyond the thinking mind, beyond our ordinary emotions. To enter this zone, to be in this zone, is not to be callous or indifferent, it is to know that we can open our hearts, trust there is this deeper aspect of our self that cannot be hurt, and in so doing, become really caring, really open.

  4. Funny, this came along as synchronicity - I thought I'd worked through the sorrow of losing my lovely husband 10 months ago, suddenly a couple of weeks ago to find it all came crashing down on me - I sat and thought, and realised that although my brain had worked through it, my heart hadn't accepted the whole thing. I'm going to have to go back to meditation, as I feel it may be the way to 'open my heart' as you so beautifully put it.

  5. Here are the top five regrets of the dying, as witnessed by palliative care nurse of 12 years Bronnie Ware
    1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
    "This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it."
    2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
    "This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."
    3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
    "Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result."
    4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
    "Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying."
    5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
    "This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again."

  6. Thank you Ian for your heartfelt words of wisdom. They were just what I needed to hear. Every time I struggle with fear - whether its trusting my 12 year old son when he rides his motorbike, or worrying about my health or my husband's health or breaking down my barriers with intimacy, I will remind myself to open my heart and not to go to fear or anger to protect myself or my loved ones. I can't control life - or death. I will make it my "cue" from now on. Feeling fear? Time to open my heart to love, to life in this moment, and to the people around me. Yvette

  7. Ian, for me this is your "best" blog ever - I consider it to be profoundly wise. Thank you so much

  8. Thank you. To stay open to our own deep pain and also to others hurt, loss and grief can sometimes feel like 'too much', especially when the person who has died suddenly is younger or we are with grieving families after a suicide. Death is always a shock, as we know it intellectually, but not emotionally. i often think if we emotionally realized that we are all going to die, we would live our lives quite differently! One thing is for sure though. None of us are getting out of this alive!

  9. There is no death.