Review – Living Calm in a Busy World by Pauline McKinnon

Title: Living Calm in a Busy World: Stillness Meditation in the Meares Tradition
Author: Pauline McKinnon
Publisher: David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne, 237 pages
Reviewed by: Louise Gilmore

In the early 1980s a young wife and mother, who had been almost non-functional from the debilitating effects of severe anxiety for eight years, leading to agoraphobia, stumbled into the rooms of Melbourne psychiatrist and mystic, Dr Ainslie Meares.

Pauline McKinnon had exhausted all avenues of help then available and did not really have much faith that this doctor could come up with anything better.

To her surprise, Dr Meares began teaching her to meditate. The system he taught was his own, developed after years of exploring a wide range of therapies for anxiety, and finally triggered by his contact with a holy man in Nepal.

It was so simple that it took McKinnon and a group of fellow client/students at least 16 weeks of regular meetings to make sure that they were not trying too hard or complicating it with unnecessary assumptions about what meditation should be.

Meares learnt as he taught and eventually refined his technique to a system now called Stillness Meditation Therapy. In his later years he taught mostly by example, sitting silently with his clients and from time to time touching them reassuringly on shoulder or arm. Meares was opposed to explanation because he believed that it made people’s minds too alert – the opposite of what he was trying to achieve.

McKinnon gradually found herself entering a state of effortless calm and peace and her symptoms began to abate. In time and with his support, she not only recovered, she began to share the technique with others. She became his greatest ‘disciple’ and advocate.

Today she runs the Stillness Meditation Therapy Centre in Melbourne and works as a family therapist, incorporating this form of meditation with her own clients.

This book positively pulses with her fervent belief in the theraputic benefits of stillness meditation. She wrote it with the intention of making a timely contribution to the challenge of anxiety, acknowledged as one of the most pressing health problems in our society today.

She has resolved what I imagine was her major problem: how to write a whole book about a meditation system that is simple, natural and ultimately about doing nothing, by leading us gently through Ainslie Meares’ life and work, marking the 25th anniversary of his death and noting key research into the health benefits of meditation.

It’s not until a third into the book that we reach the description of the stillness meditation process itself. McKinnon is meticulous in explaining it, because, unlike some other teachers and systems, she believes that people can learn it themselves if there is no teacher available and she wants to give her readers all the tools to do so.

It is direct and specific, so that people who are new to meditation can take it step by step. For more experienced meditators, it requires what might be the more difficult task of unlearning their technique-based practices.

There is a chapter on the role of the teacher, which is one of the most heart-based I’ve ever read. Under headings such as ‘the teacher provides confidence’ or ‘the teacher takes care of the meditator’, McKinnon explains how and why good teachers hold their students in a space of shared profound rest while at the same time offering professional care and encouragement.

The rest of the book covers FAQs, difficulties and obstacles and describes what life could be like if lived with the peace and calm generated by stillness meditation. There’s a chapter on teaching it to children, followed by case histories and the reminiscences of people who were taught by Dr Meares himself.

This is a generous, sincere book, well worth reading and following for people who suffer from anxiety and its array of side effects and symptoms themselves, or who know people whose lives and relationships are affected.


REVIEW: Into the Heart of Life by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

Title: Into the Heart of Life
Author: Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, PO Box 8500, 83 Alexander St. NSW 2065, Australia.
Date: 30 May, 2011

Reviewed by Louise Gilmore

More than 20 people from around the world joined Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo last year for a pilgrimage to the cave in the Indian Himalayas where she had spent 12 years meditating.

Many of us were out of condition and some were ill or injured. The climb itself snaked across a system of nearly vertical goat tracks at over 4000 metres altitude and took four hours. The climb down required us to traverse a steep slope covered in scree – tiny loose pebbles – and lasted a leg-wobbling three hours.

Mysteriously, no one had even so much as a stiff muscle the next morning. Was it the simple exhilaration of the achievement, or, I wondered, could the powerful practice of Tonglen have been involved? After all we were travelling with a highly realised practitioner; some would say a living dakini, in an area known as the Land of the Dakinis (Dakinis are enlightened energy in female form). Also we were waved up the mountain by a tiny group of her fellow nuns; ancient women who have been practicing meditation in this remote area for many decades. (Tonglen is the energetically alchemical practice of taking on the pain and suffering of others and transmuting it to goodness and happiness).

I was reminded of this mystery when I read Tenzin Palmo’s new book, Into the Heart of Life. It contains one of the simplest and most beautiful descriptions of the practice of Tonglen that I have ever read.

Tenzin Palmo is an English woman who became a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition nearly 50 years ago. Her initial naivety about spiritual training was soon dispelled as she realised that she, along with all the other nuns, would not be receiving the same teachings in the science of the mind, leading to enlightenment, that the monks got. In fact they were expected to be little more than servants for the men. In the early days she had to fight for every teaching she was given.

This experience inspired her determination to reach enlightenment in the body of a woman, traditionally thought to be impossible. Has she done so? She’s not telling, any more than she would discuss whether she used Tonglen to help us climb the mountain. Her proviso on enlightenment is ‘no matter how many lifetimes it takes.’

She may not be enlightened – yet – but she has written a most enlightening book. Into the Heart of Life is a collection of teachings on Buddhist philosophy taken from her years of travelling and speaking around the world. Each chapter is a complete teaching, followed by a selection of questions and answers that tease out some of the main points.

And although this is absolutely a book of guidance on Buddhism, it contains such accessible descriptions, stories and examples, in such clear language, that it is really a simple guide to decent living for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.

Her lineage, the Drukpa Kagyu, values experience over philosophy. In line with this, she teaches from a deep and embodied personal knowledge. There are chapters on the meaning of Buddhist staples such as impermanence, karma, happiness, renunciation, ethics and more.

And for those of us who struggle with trying to balance a spiritual life with everyday and family responsibilities, it is instructive to have a celibate nun tell us in the context of loving kindness that: ‘Our family, our children, our partners, our parents – they are our practice. They are not the obstacles to our practice.’

She describes the teachings in language that we can all understand. The traditional dualities most of us face – our longing for pleasure, praise, acquisition and a ‘good name’ and our fear of pain, blame, losing what we have or being disgraced, become, in her language, the eight worldly ‘hang-ups’.

Go to Page 68 and there is a simple three-stage meditation to bring us into a sense of ease with ourselves and later, teachings on shamatha (calming the mind) and vipashyana (developing wisdom). She urges us to grow up, take responsibility and work towards becoming spiritually mature.

Underlying the book like a fine steel wire is her determination to change a tradition and belief system about the role of women that has held sway for more than 1000 years. Proceeds from the sale of the book go towards the nunnery she has built near Dharamshala in Northern India, where local and Tibetan refugee women now receive most of the trainings they were previously denied.

I also need to note that the Australian publishers have made an unfortunate decision to use an unusually small and light typeface, which is somewhat challenging to read.

Still, it is worth it. Get your glasses, sit under a strong light and prepare to enjoy.