How life as a Buddhist monk helps heal minds
AS A teenager in the southern suburbs of Sydney in the early 1980s, John Barter was faced with the same age-old quandary that besets us all: what to do with his life.
Instead of following the traditional pathway of most Australians - taking a trade or studying further - he set on a more spiritual path, turning to the Buddhist faith practised by his father.
Within months of leaving school in 1981, John, then 17 years old, was ordained as a Buddhist monk in the Theravada Tradition and still retains the mantle of being one of the youngest Westerners to do so.
After spending his first few years at a monastery north of Sydney, John (named "Javano” as a monk) moved to the jungles of north-east Thailand, wher he spent six years practising the art of meditation and survival against the elements.
"The whole practice there revolved around being mindful and aware -because if you weren't you'd die,” he said.
"There were cobras and scorpions and tarantulas and malaria there.”
Later he moved to England and then took on a leadership role at a monastery in the Swiss Alps, where the serene beauty of the mountains, tempered by the ever-present knowledge their home was in an avalanche danger zone, helped drive home the Buddhist belief that "everything is impermanent”.
After 11 years as a monk, and possessing a strong feeling of fulfilment, John decided to return home and disrobe. Qualifying as a psychologist at Sydney University, he ended up working in pain management at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney before setting up in private practice.
Since then he has helped teach meditation as a pain management tool at most of the hospitals in Sydney, specialising in cancer patients.
John is now settled at Farrants Hill in the Tweed, where he enjoys the peace of his garden when he is not working.
"It feels good to be here,” he said.
"The Tweed is a beautiful environment and I've been pleasantly surprised by people's receptiveness.”
He recently joined the Brain Mind and Memory Centre at Tweed Heads, where he will facilitate a series of workshops focused on the art of mindfulness, a strategy increasingly used to calm "mind chatter”.
"Most issues and illnesses relate to stress and if we can reduce stress through a conscious approach to life, then the whole person ... benefits,” he said.
"There is an increasing awareness and interest in mindfulness, primarily within the area of mind, body, health. Whilst this is great, it is really important for people to understand the context mindfulness has come out of and to see where it is best used.”
Referring to the foundation of Buddhist teaching, John said it was essential to maintain the integrity of the trinity of morality, meditation and wisdom when trying to live consciously.
"Morality, mediation and wisdom are all practised together as part of a whole approach to well-being and happiness,” he said.
"Just being moral is not enough, just having a calm mind and meditating is not enough, just being wise is not enough - it is about the whole lot being developed together into a path of conscious living. It benefits everything, it goes to the fundamentals of life.
"Mindfullness and meditation go hand in hand; if you get really good at doing mindfullness, it becomes a meditation in itself.
"Mindfulness is our cognitive ability to pay attention to what is happening either internally or externally. The exercise for developing mindfulness is meditation - it is the gym work to exercise the brain.”
The workshops will introduce people to mindfulness, meditation and developing wisdom to help deal with the choices and challenges of contemporary life, from life in the corporate world to life as a busy parent.
* A meeting on the workshops will be held at the Brain Mind and Memory Centre, 36 Beryl St, Tweed Heads, on February 23 from 6.30pm. Phone 07 5599 2220. All welcome. Visit http://www.wellawareness.com.au/ or http://mindmatters.com.au/