Each year, Drs Ian and Ruth Gawler lead a 7 day retreat in the week before Easter at the Gawler Cancer Foundation’s Yarra Valley Living Centre. It’s called Meditation in the Forest. An apt name given most of the meditation happens in the Sanctuary, a purpose built meditation room that sits up amongst the mighty manna gums along the Little Yarra River.
I’m a bit of a retreat junkie – over the last 10 years, I’ve done 4 of the Vipassana 10 day silent retreats and I did Meditation in the Forest last year. This year Beloved came with me. Boy, was that a game changer! But that was his journey. I distanced myself as best I could.
Why be on retreat?
A retreat is time to be. To let go of all the daily distractions of the outside world. To disconnect and let go … of everything.
And in the letting go, to find the inner stillness. To connect with what is important. To remind yourself who you really are. To remember that part of you is intrinsically good and never changes. To deepen your meditation practice. To find the inspiration to take the stillness out into the world with you.
There is nothing to do. No decisions to make. Meals are prepared for you. A daily structure is set. You just turn up when and where you are meant to.
All of man’s difficulties are caused by his inability to sit quietly in a room by himself – Blaise Pascal
That’s not to say it’s easy. Sitting with yourself can be extremely difficult. If it was easy, more people would do it. But it’s worth it.
Here’s a snap shot of what went on and some photos. Taking photos is a mindfulness practice for me. It allows me to see the world as it is, without judgment or criticism. It also allows me to see the beauty and colour that the world so generously shares with us.
Day 1: Preparation
We settle in. Remarkably, without any government funding, the standard of accommodation at the Living Centre is very comfortable. There are double rooms with ensuites and dormitories, a dining room, a large conference room where Ian did most of his teaching and of course the Sanctuary. All of this set on 40 acres of land in the bush.
When the conditions are conducive, meditation occurs spontaneously – Ancient Zen saying.
The Living Centre has been designed to create the right conditions for people of all levels of health to be cared for and to learn to care for themselves. And of course, it is very conducive to meditation. Access to phone signals is limited and there are very few of the noises we associate with modern day life.
It’s lovely to see some familiar faces and meet new ones. There are 30 or so of us.
We are prepared for meditation in a short talk. More importantly we are prepared for change. Check our motivation for being there. As we meditate, we will get to know our own minds. And we should not take anything we are told for granted. The Buddha said not to accept things just because he said them. He said to investigate them for yourself. We prepare to have our own experiences.
The meditation begins. I’ve taken my cushion. I sit cross legged. Shortly into the retreat, I move to kneeling with the cushion on its side under me. And then to a stool for kneeling. But still it doesn’t save me from discomfort. There is always discomfort. The quest is not to let it distract you.
We are introduced to the two aspects of mind: the thinking mind and the still mind. Stillness is the theme for the retreat. There are a few steps between us and stillness.
Dinner is the first of many plant-based meals prepared mostly from the fresh organic produce grown on site. I’ve never seen such crisp lettuce leaves. Straight from the garden to our plates.
Day 2: Relaxation and Deep Peace
Up at 6.30. A bit of yoga on my own and the bell goes at 7.15. 45 minutes of meditation and breakfast. This is the routine each morning.
Our body’s level of comfort and ease is a direct gauge of what is going on in the mind. Stress causes tension and is usually a symptom of overthinking. But the body is designed to live in balance. So conscious and mindful relaxation leads to a stilling of the mind. And helps the body to restore balance. Enough of it can accelerate healing. Learn to relax at will. The mind will follow.
To maintain our equilibrium, our balance, our health, we should aim to maintain
as relaxed a state as possible – Dr Ian Gawler, Peace of Mind
At 11 am and 5 pm daily, we meditate for 1.5 hours. 40 minutes of sitting, 10 minutes of walking meditation and another 40 minutes of sitting.
Walking around the path of the property. Greeted by nearly 100 kangaroos. The bucks watch closely in case we are a threat. They bound away.
Day 3: Concentration
The traditional way of settling the mind. When we focus on one thing and one thing only, there is no room for other thoughts.
What one thing you ask? Anything really: a mantra, an object with open eyes, sounds, thoughts, emotions or the good old reliable breath. The best way to improve the concentration is an old Zen technique – counting each out breath in cycles of 1 to 10. And then start again.
I multitask even in meditation. One part of the mind actively counts. Another wanders off into thoughts and projections. I become sleepy. My restless legs arrive – I bounce around. A difficult day. I am reminded of how difficult this can be. Like childbirth, I had forgotten the pain of retreat, even when deeply relaxed. The monkey mind fights hard to distract me, often winning.
For the first time in my life I pick an apple off the tree (just outside our room) and eat it. I swear it’s so fresh it’s alive. Sweet, juicy, crisp. Followed by yoga in the garden led by Ruth.
Day 4: Focussed Mindfulness
Silence begins. We start the day in silence and carry it through to after lunch each day.
Each moment is unique. It hasn’t happened before. Just notice it with curiosity, but without judgment. Give everything your full attention. Keep an open-mind. Remain focussed on one thing, but be interested. Even when you think you know it, it is still new, this time. So take time to appreciate it. It’s extraordinary.
Mindfulness is preliminary to meditation in the traditions. Pay attention deliberately and non-judgmentally (Jon Kabat-Zin). There are two types – focussed mindfulness and open mindfulness.
I count my breath in cycles of 10. I focus on the stillness between the eyebrows. A breakthrough. I manage not to lose count for 40 minutes. Can’t say there weren’t other thoughts but interesting. Will I be able to do that again? Something to try at home. See, I’m starting to think about taking what I’m learning into daily life. I realise just how wild and untamed my mind is, but there is something I can do about it.
We learn about taking responsibility for what we eat. That through meditation and getting to know ourselves, we can have the confidence to act in our own best interests. Ian reminds us that food becomes part of us. Shopping for it can be an exercise in mindfulness. Do I really want to put that in my body?
Day 5: Open Mindfulness
We really begin to explore our present moment experience. Being aware of it just as it is. This is the way to learn how to direct our attention at will and not be distracted.
We listen to the sounds around us. Let them come and let them go. No judgment or criticism. Just sitting spaciously and noticing when the mind wanders. Bringing it back gently to the present moment. Thoughts are only ever about the past and the future. There are no thoughts in the present moment. Allow the impartial observer to monitor when you become caught up in them. Anything other than stillness will simply come and go.
My body begins its rebellion. Severe pain arises in my shoulder and arm, radiating from the centre of my back. I give it my attention and consciously relax it to the extent possible. I do what I can and then accept it. I manage not to move, not to allow it to overwhelm me. I remain still and present to the experience.
My body tries another angle. In the afternoon session, my restless legs return. I jump around on my stool as the energy builds up and explodes from my knees and through my body. I jerk. I decide not to stretch my legs. It’s excruciating. I want to move so badly. But there must be a way through. I focus on my breath and start counting. It works. Although there are still involuntary spasms, I remain calm and undistracted. Out breath 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and again, and again, and again … for 40 minutes.
A rare privilege to listen to a recording of one of Ian’s teachers, Ainslie Meares, speaking at a conference in 1985. An extraordinary doctor and psychiatrist who learnt about meditation from a 134 year old yogi in Kathmandu in the early ’60s. This yogi, Shivapuri Baba, was a travelling hermit, the first to travel the world, who even ended up in the court of Queen Victoria in the 1890s.
Shivapuri Baba told Ainslie Meares that you can’t tell people about meditation. It’s like a banana. You have to taste it for yourself. About pain, he said “I feel pain. But there is no hurt in it.” Dr Meares practised what he learned in 3 short days form Shivapuri Baba and managed to have a number of dental surgeries without anaesthetic. And thus, his book Pain Without Drugs was born.
He came to believe that through meditation, it was possible to influence the psychological factors associated with cancer. At first he taught so that patients might develop better morale. They lived longer with their cancer. And then some had spontaneous remissions as the apparent result of profound and prolonged meditation. He knew that stress, anxiety and tension increase the amount of cortisone in the body which in turn inhibits the immune system. Through meditation, these factors were able to be reduced. Meditation required nothing but “simplicity and utter naturalness”, the natural stillness within.
What he saw was that people who first came to him in great distress, in pain and with a fear of death, gradually became more concerned with the new experiences life had to offer. It was nothing more than a bonus to live longer. The length of life was no longer important. And then, perhaps because of their real religious, spiritual or psychological experiences, their cancer shrank.
Dr Meares kept data about his patients. Over 100 patients had seen him at least 20 times. Of those patients, by 1985, 10% had clear evidence of tumour regression, 10% had marked slowing of tumour growth while another 10% had less marked but still significant slowing. And then 90% had a very significant reduction in pain and the use of drugs to relieve it. 91% reported a remarkable change in the quality of their life.
Day 6: Stillness
The essence of meditation. Finding and resting in the still mind gives us profound peace, natural simplicity and natural balance and the View – a greater perspective that comes from experiencing and understanding the absolute and non-dualistic truths. That we are all one. That we are connected and interdependent. That we are good and compassionate. Not like the thinking mind that concerns itself only with self-preservation and pleasure.
If we are aware of the stillness, we are calm and peaceful. If some movement arises – if a
thought comes into our awareness – just the same, we are calm and peaceful
Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson, Meditation: An In-Depth Guide
It can be elusive. It can be difficult to find when we try too hard. The only way to go there is to let go. To fall into it. We can do this directly or if that is too hard, we can use other methods to focus and concentrate our mind until it is so undistracted, it takes us there effortlessly. I get tastes. I know I’ve been there in the past. It comes when I least strive for it. If I try too hard, the thinking mind resists. But when I can fall, it’s vivid and exciting. And then my excited thinking mind calls me back.
The still mind is like the blue sky. It’s always there. The thinking mind is like the clouds. Some days they are thicker than others. Some days they just dissolve. But they never change the fact that the blue sky is permanent and enduring.
Day 7: Integration
It’s time to go home. How will we continue our practice? Commitment and creating the right conditions. Find a space that you use only for meditation. Create it simply by placing a photo there or lighting a candle. But go there every day. Soon the meditation will just come as you sit in that place.
Choose a time of day. Perhaps if you are busy, the morning is the best time. It will set you up for the day ahead. But also take time during the day to refresh yourself. A 5 minute break can reset everything.
Put it all together: relax, concentrate, focus mindfully and fall into the stillness.
The stillness is known as God’s domain. Many have powerful mystical experiences. What if I don’t believe in God? A belief is just a thought. Experience it for yourself, just as the Buddha said. The deeper your experiences, the more they reveal what is always there. And who you really are.
And so home to a blood moon and Easter, the crucifixion and the resurrection. Metaphorically speaking, the crucifixion is the chaos the thinking mind can create for us, under the guise of having our best interests at heart. The resurrection is the transcendence of stillness, and its qualities of love and eternity, over the ever-changing and impermanent thinking mind.
Beloved wasn’t so keen when we were there. But since we came home, he’s been waking me up before sunrise. Time to meditate! Off we go to our space, light a candle, sound the singing bowl and look for the stillness, separately but together. And soon it will be time to plan for next year’s retreat.
Be happy. Be well. Be STILL. Just be.
And so be it.
Ian has also written a blog about the retreat and included some of the insights of participants. You can find it here.
Gawler Cancer Foundation here.
Drs Ian and Ruth Gawler here.
Dr Ainslie Meares here.
Shivapuri Baba here.
For more about meditation and in particular, Mindfulness-Based Stillness Meditation, read Meditation: An In-Depth Guide by Dr Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson