18 May 2020

An Open Heart – what meditation has to offer on death, grief and COVID-19

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

I recently learnt a delightful young man had succumbed to the same cancer that once came into my own life.

So what were the tears?

Common grief? Self-identification? Sadness? Despair? The expression of the accumulated grief of years spilling over? Something natural? Well maybe…

But actually, on this occasion those tears flowed courtesy of a major insight, so this week let us go Out on a Limb in a real sense, be brave and consider how a realistic and healthy understanding of death can have a positive impact on our lives. Also, new details and dates for the meditation teacher trainings (mindfulness and meditation; then contemplation) and meditation retreat postponed due to the pandemic, but first

           Thought for the Day
To work with changes now. 
In life. 
That is the real way to prepare for death. 
Life may be full of pain, suffering, and difficulty, 
But all of these are opportunities 
Handed to us to help us move 

Toward an emotional acceptance of death. 
It is only when we believe things to be permanent 
That we shut off the possibility of learning from change.

                          Sogyal Rinpoche

It had been my good fortune to come to know this young man for whom I grieved quite well. It was easy to recognise his many fine qualities and appreciate his passion for life and thorough commitment to staying alive.

Faced with the grief of loss, especially when it comes early in life through the agency of accident or sickness, it is so easy to close our hearts.

Speaking candidly, I have come to know many people over the years who have died “early”.

So my insight as I sat meditating was how rather than closing the heart, how much more sense it makes to open the heart in the face of the reality of death.

This young man’s death reminded me to open my heart.

And sometimes, tears flow quite naturally.

Now for the spoiler alert… Look away if you are not ready to face what we all know, yet so often disregard.

Life is so precious and yet so fragile. Of course we will all die one day. We all know this. Currently, many are fearful of dying of COVID-19. Yet on any given day, far more people die of cancer or heart disease. This is not to make light or diminish any aspect of the pandemic, but we all know this too is a fact.

So how does this fact of death inform our life.

How do we live given we know one day we will die?
Do we attempt to close off?

Do our best to block out the thought of death, distract ourselves as much as possible and attempt to live in the hope of being immortal?

Reality is, for those who do attempt to live in denial of death, underneath there will always be the knowing of the truth and with that truth comes an inescapable low-level, chronic fear.

And with the fear, it is natural to close the heart somewhat. Natural to attempt to create a wall of emotional defence. And with this defence comes a new certainty. Relationships will always suffer. Always be compromised. Always filtered through barriers.

In closing our hearts to almost any degree, we run the risk of diminishing some of the best parts in life – the closeness, the intimacy of relationships.

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

People often have asked me how has it been possible to work for so many years with those dealing with major illness? For while many are alive and very well; reality is many have died.

The answer may seem counter-intuitive, yet has proven real for me.

Attempting to keep an open heart has actually protected me from real hurt.

Rather than hiding behind some form of clinical detachment I attempted to be more open.

I chose to make friends with people I worked with and invited them to share their experiences and feelings.

We all aspired to be a little more open.

How is this helpful? Easy really. Reflect on this… A fully open heart cannot be hurt. An open heart is one that is full of pure love. Unconditional love. Unconditional. Un-hurt-able.

Now I certainly do not profess to work in a state of unending unconditional love. And my sense for all of us is that if ever, we will probably only experience this state in the depths of profound meditation. Or maybe we can gain a glimpse of it in the lives of luminaries and models like Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. Or maybe when we die…

However, simply aspiring to this state while we are alive, being prepared to take the risk and aiming to be as open as possible, makes for great possibilities.

It frees one to cry in the company of someone telling a deeply personal and tough story – and to not have someone else’s voice in your head saying it is not OK to cry in such circumstances; especially if you are meant to be the therapist, or the oldest sibling, or the one who “has it all together”, or a man – or whatever….

It frees one to cry in one’s own company when touched by the death of a fine young man; and it frees one to dare to be more open in relationships generally.

So how to gain this daring? Well, first comes the idea… The recognition that to aim for a more open heart is worthwhile. Then intention takes us a long way. The trick is to remember what we are aiming for, and to be prepared to face our own pain as we feel the pain of our self and of others.

A good lead-in is learning to meditate in less comfortable circumstances. Being able to sit with discomfort and not react - one of the many great skills we can gift ourselves through meditation.

Then in the practice of meditation, maybe we do start to sense, or to access that part of ourselves that is beyond the fears and the barriers; to come closer to a direct experience of the unconditional love that resides in the heart of all of us.

And once we do touch that pure love, to aspire to live a life more fully informed by that. To live with a more open heart...

Blue Sky Mind

Relaxation, mindfulness and meditation downloads available in both Ruth and my own voices –



7 day Residential Meditation Retreat with Ruth and Ian Gawler and Melissa Borich 

Modern culture has taught us to look externally for solutions to feeling better… substances we can take, new and exciting experiences, the acquiring of new ‘things.

However, to regain balance and cultivate reliable, sustainable joy, we learn to go within.

Meditation provides real answers.

And all of this amidst the nurture and beauty of the Yarra Valley Living Centre…

Dates     Saturday 14th to Friday 20th November

Venue   The Yarra Valley Living Centre, 55 Rayner Crt, Yarra Junction, Victoria

More details   CLICK HERE

Inquiries and Bookings    Call 1300 651 211   or  www.gawler.org

MEDITATION TEACHER TRAINING   with Drs Ruth and Ian Gawler

Ian and Ruth have been teaching teachers of meditation for decades. This is a unique opportunity to learn from them directly in two 5 day residential trainings – Module 1 on meditation, Module 2 – contemplation. Attending both modules will meet the requirements for provisional membership of the Meditation Association of Australia. Both trainings will be highly experiential and be based upon comprehensive manuals.

Venue     The Yarra Valley Living Centre,  55 Rayner Crt, Yarra Junction, Victoria

Dates     Meditation Teacher Training 3 - 7 Octomber 2020 : Full details  : Click here

          Contemplation 7-11 September, 2020  ;  Full details :  Click here

Inquiries  and Bookings   Call 1300 651 211 or www.gawler.org


  1. A lovely read, Ian. One of my favorite meditations is a short one on Insight Timer, by Ram Dass in his later years. He whispers in my ear over and over,'Be Love', stretching the two words out. It's a reminder to me that an open heart is our natural state.

    1. Ram Dass - what a gem :). Anything that takes us closer to the heart has to be good...

  2. I have had a chronic illness for over 20 years, which has changed my life completely, and
    my relationship with friends and family. I am now in the latter years of my life, and, although knowing I could die at any moment, like anyone, I know I will surely die within a certain time.
    It makes me so sad to leave, and I live with that on a daily basis. Also, I am so anxious as
    because of my illness, my "affairs" are not in place, complicated story, and I fear I won't have the strength to tidy up. Reading your words today has helped me, and I will be aware
    more of aspiring to having an Open Heart about these feelings.. I live with someone who can't cope with emotions and tears, and I have closed up a lot. I will now always aspire to let those tears flow, in the hope it will help that person as well. Thankyou for your kind, wise and open words from the heart. Billie

  3. Touching story Billie. By the way, my mother's name was Billie :). It is hard enough to change anything within ourselves, let alone within someone else; however, sometimes when we change, it gives a new space to those around us, a new experience, and maybe they begin to change as well. Bets wishes...

  4. Lovely to know your mother's name is Billie..... just hoping I can change from fear, anxiety,
    and a closed hear, to an open heart. Thankyou