25 January 2022

Thich Nhat Hahn – Pirates, Boatpeople and a Meeting in Melbourne – A Tribute

Some rare beings embody what it is to live a life completely devoted to the spiritual path and the betterment of others. 

Thich Nhat Hahn, a humble yet extra-ordinarily influential Vietnamese monk, was once such exemplar. 

Global spiritual leader, poet, and peace activist, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh was renowned for his powerful teachings and bestselling writings on mindfulness and peace.

Having experienced a stroke in 2014 and having been unable to speak since, it is no real consolation to say we knew he might die soon. 

His death leaves a gap that will be hard to fill by any one person and a sadness that will be felt for some time. 

His direct influence, his smile, his presence, his radiant inner peace is no more in present time. 

True, he leaves a wonderful legacy, largely through his advocacy for peace and mindfulness, but there is something about the finality of the loss when death arrives. 

The International Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism has announced 

Our beloved teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has passed away peacefully at Từ Hiếu Temple in Huế, Vietnam on 22nd January, 2022, at the age of 95.

We invite our global spiritual family to take a few moments to be still, to come back to our mindful breathing, as we together hold Thay (the Vietnamese word for teacher by which he is affectionately known) in our hearts in peace and loving gratitude for all he has offered the world.

In tribute to a man held in great respect by people of all traditions, the next 2 blogs will recount 2 remarkable meetings but first,

    Thought for the day

         His demeanour, light as a butterfly. 

         His steps, solid as a water buffalo. 

         His joy at being alive 

         As palpable as the awakening morning. 

         Fully present. 

         His life, a teaching.

              Gary Gach on Thich Nhat Hahn


A Caution

This true story does contain graphic details and may distress some people

The Context

i) The boatpeople

Following the Vietnam war around 800,000 boatpeople braved over-crowded boats, thirst and starvation, storms and pirates to flee to other countries. Many made it to Australia, yet the UN estimates 200,000 to 400,000 people died at sea. 

In 1981, 452 boats carrying Vietnamese boat people arrived in Thailand carrying 15,479 refugees; 349 of the boats had been attacked by pirates an average of three times each. 228 women had been abducted, many who survived had been raped and 881 people were dead or missing. 

ii) The teacher

While recovering from my leg amputation in 1975, I had the good fortune to come across Thich Nhat Hahn’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness, first published in that same year. Thay as he is known, writes so eloquently, so simply, so directly. 

The book informed my own practice and recovery. 

Washing the dishes has never been the same since. 

I love doing them. 

They remind me of Thay and they remind us that each moment holds within it an opportunity to work toward greater self-understanding and peacefulness – or anger and frustration if you prefer!

Then in 1987, Thich Nhat Hahn – a serious Buddhist scholar, published his seminal biography of the Buddha, Old Path, White Clouds. With its lyrical language and accessible Buddhist teachings, it became a mega-bestseller and has been published in over twenty languages.

Both books became standard recommendations when our cancer groups and meditation retreats began. 

Thay has definitely been one of my spiritual heroes.

The Meeting

Travelling as this is being written I cannot be sure of the date. My guess is it was late 80’s. But I sure do remember the meeting! One does not expect a teaching from a spiritual hero to be so explosive that physical violence seemed a real possibility.

My invitation came courtesy of someone who knew of my work with mindfulness and meditation and I was one of only a handful of non-Vietnamese in an audience of around 100, all gathered for an afternoon with Thich Nhat Hahn. I was excited! 

It turned out the audience was primarily Vietnamese refugee boatpeople. 

Thay was introduced by an incredibly beautiful and self-assured woman. 

Thay himself is a very small, very quiet person with a huge presence. 

The crowd was restless, even agitated from the beginning.

The agitation built rather quickly as Thay first spoke of the benefits of mindfulness and then moved on to address the elephant in the room – the pirates. 

At the time, the mayhem created by the pirates was well known and it transpired later Thay was travelling to countries where refugees had settled with the intention of helping relieve their suffering. 

This was the Melbourne leg of the tour!

The message was simple. Stay with the anger, the blame, the rage and continue to suffer personally, or learn to forgive and possibly move on a little and be free to live again. 

Simple message. Incendiary effect.

As the forgiveness message was developed, a corresponding agitation grew and rippled through the audience. I was sitting in the middle of the small hall in which the crowd was rapidly becoming electric. Men were rising in their seats muttering and cursing, women were calling out, and the very real threat of violence was building. Never been in a meeting like it…

The offended 

Finally, a man just in front of me exploded, jumped to his feet and hurled Vietnamese abuse at Thay. The moderator – the beautiful woman – calmly asked him to speak in English! The man switched without missing a beat and I suspect backed up a little to start again…

“How dare you suggest we forgive! 

What gives you the right to speak in such a way to those of us who lost so much.”

The man was screaming and the man beside him was holding him as if to prevent him lunging forward at Thay.

“My family was attacked by pirates. 

They bound me then went to rape one of my daughters. My wife tried to intervene. They shot her and threw her overboard. Then they raped my daughter, shot her and threw her overboard. My younger daughter they raped but let her live. 

How dare you talk to me of forgiveness!”

I had never seen a good idea – that of forgiveness – so powerfully challenged in real life. 

The force of this heart-broken man, the anguish and pain in his voice combined with a rage that was palpable physical. The force of his words; if he had hit Thay, it would not have been much different. And he was not alone; pretty well everyone in the room was at breaking point. 

I waited with some apprehension to see how Thay would respond. Was it possible to turn this around? To transform the energy that was so angry? Was he even going to get out of the hall in one piece?

The Response

I was close enough to observe. Thay was visibly moved and in my own impure observation, a little taken aback. But he was seated as he spoke and he paused. He very deliberately sat back in his chair– just a little – and consciously breathed. I could see it and it left an indelible impression. He returned to his breath; took a few almost imperceptibly deliberate, steading breaths, held his silence for just a few moments and the began to speak in the same calm and steady voice he had been using before the tirade.

These were the days before talks were routinely recorded and it was no time to be taking notes, so I am not quite sure exactly how he did it. He did begin by acknowledging the man’s pain… of course anyone in his situation would be devastated and suffering deeply. He did this with such open sincerity and for long enough that the man began to listen.

Then somehow he skilfully shifted to the pirates and speculated on what sort of life they had led to get to where they could perpetrate such horrors on others. 

As the enraged man settled a little more and the conversation could advance, Thay pointed out how these pirates started as fisherman who lived simple subsistence lives, totally dependent on the sea for food. 

When overfishing from outsiders depleted their food sources and their own families faced starvation, they turned to progressively more aggressive ways of making a living.

There was no pretence that what the pirates did was OK, just an invitation to be a little understanding. An invitation to rethink the context of the trauma they created. An invitation to compassion.

Then Thay moved on to ask the man about how it felt for him personally to suffer so much. At this point the man moved from rage to tears. Between sobs, he spoke fitfully of how much he loved his wife and daughters and of all that had been lost. The mood in the hall by now was also swinging as the audience was also caught in the feeling of collective pain.

Finally – why not forgive? Maybe it is possible? It will not change the fact of what you have been through, but maybe it will free you to live and love more fully once again???

The Aftermath

I do not know how the man’s life unfolded from there; I do hope he found some peace amidst what were extra-ordinarily difficult times.

But for myself, I had witnessed an incredible example of how to be with someone in full on rage; how staying calm and centred made it possible to engage empathetically and compassionately in the face of what seemed initially to be an overwhelming challenge.

While never having a similar confrontation, my work with people impacted by major illness and loss created many highly emotional situations. So I am pleased to be able to retell this story and to acknowledge that Thich Nhat Hahn provided a template for how to be with someone in extreme circumstances.

Thich Nhat Hahn’s list of accomplishments 

is almost unbelievable and well worth reading – LINK HERE. Staggering actually. What a man! What a pleasure to have had some small connection.

In the next blog, visiting Plum Village, listening to Thay in person, walking mindfully and presenting retreats with his monks…

17 January 2022

The essentials for radical healing – hope, belief and technique

During my decades of working with people affected by cancer, we observed many issues that were regarded as difficult or impossible to manage which actually resolved in large part or even completely disappeared. Chronic pain, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, PTSD; the list actually does go on… And this is not being immodest – our groups were presented by an excellent team and involved a multi-layered, fully integrated approach that seemed to work for many people. You could describe this as radical healing.

Every now and then a new research article comes along that provides an explanation, an insight into something that has been observed like this over time, and in doing so, points to a whole range of new possibilities.

The research in question addresses chronic pain. It demonstrates how a combination of mindfulness and instruction in how underlying stressors and psychological contributors to persistent pain as well as conditioned pain responses and fear avoidant behaviours outperform other forms of treatment for chronic pain.

So this week we examine the insights this specific research provides, and then examine the more general question – what is the potential for this combination to work for other conditions? But first

          Thought for the day

Even in the greatest yogi, 

Sorrow and joy still arise just as before. 

The difference between an ordinary person and the yogi 

Is how they view their emotions and react to them.

An ordinary person will instinctively accept or reject them, 

And so arouse the attachment or aversion 

That will result in the accumulation of negative karma.

A yogi, however, perceives everything that rises 

In its natural, pristine state, 

Without allowing grasping to enter their perception.

                                               Sogyal Rinpoche


64% pain free six months after new treatment

Chronic back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide. In the United States, patients spend up to $300 billion each year to treat the condition. However, common therapies such as surgery and steroid injections intended to address the physical origins of back pain have not been clearly proven to work in randomized clinical trials.

Researcher Dr. Michael Donnino : “The current paradigm of pain management focuses mostly on treatment of a physical origin of pain, however, in many cases of chronic back pain a physical source of pain cannot be identified. Our group focused on the hypothesis that non-specific back pain is the symptomatic manifestation of a psychological process, substantively driven by stress, repressed emotions and other psychological processes. The exact mechanism remains unclear, but an analogy could be made to other known effects of acute emotional states, such as how the emotion of embarrassment may result in the capillary vasodilation we know as blushing.”

Donnino and colleagues’ experimental 12 week program, termed Psychophysiologic Symptom Relief
Therapy (PSRT), is designed to address the psychological aspects of chronic pain. 

Treatment strategies include educating patients about the links between stressors and pain. 

Armed with this knowledge, participants learn healthier ways to process stress and express emotions. 

The program also focuses on desensitization or reverse conditioning to help patients break the associations that often are formed with triggers of pain such as bending or sitting.

“Often these triggers are assumed to be the cause of pain, but they are perhaps better described as associations that can be unknowingly conditioned in a way similar to how Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate to a bell by pairing the bell with food,” Donnino noted. “Our program works to reverse these conditioned responses and thus improve pain and pain disability.”

Eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction training, or MBSR, is included in the program.

Participants in the study were randomly assigned to receive either the novel 12-week PSRT intervention, eight weeks of MBSR only, or usual care under the guidance of their physicians without influence from the study team. 

After just 4 weeks, researchers saw an astonishing 83% decrease in reported pain disability in the PSRT group compared to 22% and 11% in the MBSR and usual care groups respectively. With regard to pain bothersomeness over the same time period, the PSRT group had a 60% drop compared to 8% and 18% decreases in pain bothersomeness for the mindfulness and usual care groups, respectively.

The PSRT group was superior to both usual care and MBSR for the primary endpoint of pain disability at
every time interval. 

Moreover, at the end of 6-months, 64% of patients with chronic back pain in the PSRT group were completely pain free (reporting 0 out 10 on a pain scale) whereas only 25% and 17% reported being pain free in the mindfulness and usual care arms, respectively.

Donnino said “When patients recognize the relationship between the mind and their physical pain, this orientation sheds new light and provides them a basis to engage with the multifaceted program that works interchangeably to improve pain and disability. This study shows that our program has the potential to be highly beneficial when compared to both usual care as well as usual care plus additional treatments such as MBSR.”

The research details - with link to the original paper:

Donnino, M W et al: Psychophysiologic symptom relief therapy for chronic back pain: a pilot randomized controlled trial, PAIN Reports: Sept/Oct 2021 - Volume 6 - Issue 3 - p e959 


People often came to our cancer groups feeling hopeless, having the belief there was nothing that could be done for them or that they could do for themselves; plus they knew no self-help techniques with the potential to effect change. The groups first provided a paradigm – a way of thinking about or understanding their situation that made sense of how their problems had arisen, what was going on at a physiological, psychological and spiritual level, and provided real hope based on the experience of others that they could recover. Then we taught them a range of self-help techniques, along with ways to evaluate and get the best out of conventional medical treatments and appropriate natural therapies. 

My contention is this study helps explain why people in our cancer groups reported a wide cross section of excellent results. The health education we provide helped make sense of what they were experiencing – where their issues came from, what had been perpetuating them, and how they might diminish or drop them altogether.

Then we taught them a range of self-help techniques, along with ways to evaluate and get the best out of conventional medical treatments and appropriate natural therapies.

This new piece of research triggered the insight : the essential elements required for major self-healing are hope, belief and technique.

The contention is this study helps explain why the people in our cancer groups did report such a wide cross section of excellent results. As in the study, the health education we provided helped make sense of what our people were experiencing and what could be done about it. This provided belief. 

Armed with this knowledge and the belief it created, they still needed tools (things to do) to break old, unhealthy patterns and to create new healthy ones that heal. So we encouraged good nutrition, affirmations, imagery, deep relaxation, mindfulness, contemplation on the beliefs, the meaning and the purpose of their illness, and of course, meditation as the mainstay.

Their belief opened the way to hope, and once they began to engage with the techniques and personally felt the benefit, their hope became solid. 

With hope, belief and technique all actively engaged, radical healing flows.


The programs the team and I offered at the Foundation for decades are to my knowledge, no longer available in their entirety. Happily, individual elements of them are widely available – as in the freshly researched and excellent pain management approach that combines a good paradigm with mindfulness – but I wonder when it might be that rather than testing just 2 things, the whole gamut of possibilities is investigated? 

We were unable to obtain funding for such research back in the day; what will the future bring? 


What we are discussing here is the basis of self healing. These 3 elements of hope, belief and technique apply to a wide range of disease conditions and symptoms that accompany those diseases. This is why we observed people turning around sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, PTSD and so on. 

My own hope is we will see more research in these other areas, and a wider uptake of the principles at a mainstream level. The potential is vast… 


i) The books

The program we used is detailed in my book You Can Conquer Cancer. There is a specific chapter on pain management and all the other techniques are clearly set out.

The audiobook is available for downloading  HERE. Many people tell me they worked it out for themselves from this book.

You might find extra help with meditation from my book Blue Sky Mind

Also, The Mind that Changes Everything examines how the mind works and how we can use it to best advantage. It includes details of 50 Mind-Body Medicine techniques.

ii) The downloads

Downloads are available detailing every aspect of the program and can be obtained HERE

iii) The App – Allevi8

Allevi8 is a mindfulness and meditation based practice app where you can access specific healing techniques to address the symptoms associated with significant physical and mental illness. Deep relaxation, mindfulness, contemplation, guided imagery and meditation are all featured. 

With options to listen to the voice of my wife Ruth or myself, it has short video introductions setting out the paradigm for each of the symptoms and many other features including access to one-to-one online teaching from excellent meditation teachers.

Download from your app store – Allevi8.

 Bon Chance!


If you are interested in my rather radical way of treating my own back pain, here it is…

Something I would not recommend