Spirit of Place
by Elizabeth Melican
In October this year, I attended my ninth retreat program at the Yarra Valley Living Centre – the new Meditation Teacher Training, Module 3 immersion – and, as always, I felt my heart expand with gratitude as I entered the grounds. There is a special energy, or spirit, about the place – the land, the trees, the river, and the deep peace that has been found by so many people who have visited there – which is palpable to me even before I reach the centre itself.
Having completed Module 1 and Module 2 of the Meditation Teacher Training last year, with Paul and Maia Bedson, and Ian and Ruth Gawler, respectively, I was especially grateful to attend the Foundation’s very first Module 3 offering, and to be able to gain a deeper personal and therapeutic understanding of Mindfulness-based Stillness Meditation. Although I have explored many forms of meditation over the years, there is something very potent about this type of practice, in that it’s accessible to everybody regardless of experience or social background.
Having first studied meditation teaching under Ian Gawler in 1988, it was a very precious experience for me to be able to learn from him again last year – some 29 years later – and in the lead-up to his pending retirement. I have such fond memories of my first training with Ian… in the final session, we travelled to the Foundation’s newly purchased property at Yarra Junction (now known as the Yarra Valley Living Centre) and we sat on bales of hay to meditate. It’s amazing to revisit the purpose-built centre now and to see the results of Ian’s vision and the hard work of so many extraordinary people.
I first met Ian in the late 1980’s. I had left the Catholic Church, and had discovered the teachings of Indian Holy Man, Sri Sathya Sai Baba, who I later adopted as my Guru. When I learned that Ian had visited Baba and had had a significant experience, I felt this was a sign that I was in safe hands with Ian’s leadership.
I completed my first meditation course in 1980, at the Melbourne Transcendental Meditation (TM) centre. I was immediately drawn to the gentle ritual of TM. I enjoyed the use of the mantra, which revealed a life-long affinity with sacred words, mantras and eventually chanting. These teachings are still very much part of my life today, in my practice of Bhakti Yoga.
That year, my last year of high school, a close friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He had a leg amputated and underwent several years of grueling chemotherapy. His illness and death were painful and confronting, but his search for healing led me to explore many styles of meditation with him, and what was considered back then to be ‘whacky’ alternatives, such as natural medicine, energy balancing, yoga, and “healthfood” (basically a vegetarian diet which featured an awful lot of brown rice and Sanitarium nut-meat).
It was during this time, I came across Ian Gawler and the Melbourne Cancer Patients’ Support group. I had some understanding of Ian’s teachings as my mother had found great benefit in Dr. Ainslie Meares’ Relief Without Drugs, and so my friend and I attend several of Ian’s meditation lectures. Meditation was very much a radical concept back then – practised by hippies, anarchists and ‘New Age kooks’ – so it’s quite surreal now, to see smart-phone apps offering daily meditations linked in with personal schedules and bio-rhythms.
I read all of Ian’s resources that I could get my hands on, and attended many of his meditation lectures and seminars. I was particularly drawn to Ian’s use of imagery, and found his early Quiet Place healing meditations very accessible and effective for creating a peaceful body and mind. These deep practices have often revealed insights and self-discoveries.
In 1987 I broke my arm, shattering the head of the radius. The emergency room doctors showed me the x-ray, and pointed out several floating bits of bone as evidence that surgery would be required. Because the arm was swollen like a football, they immobilised it and told me to return in a week for another x-ray to confirm where the hardware would be placed.
During that week, I meditated twice a day on my broken arm, using some of Ian’s healing visualisation techniques – particularly the white light imagery meditation – where I visualised a fine, silver laser beam erasing the bone fragments and welding the fracture back together. I gently but firmly insisted that my body was healing itself.
The following week, the new x-ray showed no trace of the bone fragments and showed that the fracture was beginning to heal so well, that it didn’t even need a plaster. When I pointed to the first x-ray and asked the two doctors what had happened to the fracture and the bits of bone, they both casually dismissed the first x-ray as a mistake – some sort of optical illusion. I was so relieved that I didn’t need surgery or a cast that I wasn’t even offended when they dismissed my delight at the effectiveness of those healing meditations. Many years later, when a few medical professionals discredited Ian’s cancer diagnosis, I was dismayed and again surprised by how quickly and easily people will dismiss things they don’t understand.
The way my arm healed was profoundly significant to me, and the experience helped me accept that the body’s inherent capacity to heal itself is far beyond what is acknowledged and celebrated conventionally.
Having experienced the power of meditation, I was keen to share it with others, and jumped at the chance to learn from Ian Gawler. I was drawn to Ian’s quiet wisdom, his knowledge of the mind-body connection, and his compassion for those struggling with illness, fear, and confusion. He had a warm sense of humour and shared flashes of cheeky Buddhist teachings, such as: “What you do in your life, all your actions and your choices, they really matter… but, in the end, they don’t really matter”. He certainly gave me much food for thought – or contemplation – over the duration of that first training. My time with Ian and Ruth again last year was delightful, and proved that Ian’s cheeky, gentle humour still sits well with his wisdom and skill as a teacher.
In 1988 I was a high school teacher, so my first meditation teaching experience was running an after-school relaxation course for my own Year 12 students. I didn’t call it a meditation course, as this was not a term that was properly understood, and was unlikely to appeal to stressed-out teenagers. The dozen or so who came along, mainly because they had trouble sleeping, found great benefit from the simple ‘Progressive Body Relaxation’ and ‘Quiet Place’ sessions. After six weeks, they all reported and displayed good results from meditating.
Since then, I’ve taught meditation and relaxation classes to many different audiences, and individuals. I present meditation as a tool for wellbeing, rather than a spiritual quest, as I feel unqualified to speak about spiritual or religious doctrines. Even now in my 50’s, I am constantly refining my personal faith, but there are some beliefs which won’t change:
Deep healing on a physical, spiritual and emotional level, is possible through meditation, proper nutrition, good company and a simple, gentle lifestyle.
I am extremely grateful to the Foundation, for helping me to integrate these teachings into my everyday life. There are some places that have a special spirit… an energy that soothes and heals the body, mind, and spirit, and the sanctuary of the Yarra Valley Living Centre is such a place. Its spirit welcomes me every time I enter the gates, and I am always humbled by its warm embrace.