"Your mind is racing, you feel helpless. I did not know if I would live or die"

CHRIS DUNNE talks to John Douglas, who works at the Tibetan Buddhist retreat centre in West Cork, about his time in isolation while he was awaiting a bone marrow transplant
"Your mind is racing, you feel helpless. I did not know if I would live or die"
John Douglas who lives in West Cork and works as a senior meditation instructor counsellor and psychotherapist at Dzogchen Beara, the Tibetan Buddhist retreat centre on the Beara Peninsula.

BEING in isolation is a new situation for most of us. But when John Douglas was at his lowest ebb and very ill for two years in 2011, he found himself in an isolation room in Cork University Hospital.

“I was in isolation for three months,” says John Douglas, who is a senior meditation instructor counsellor and psychotherapist practising in Dzogchen Beara, the Tibetan Buddhist retreat centre on the Beara Peninsula near Allihies in West Cork, established by Sogyal Rinpoche.

“I was awaiting a bone marrow transplant that didn’t take place in the end, which was a wee miracle,” says John.

He had Aplastic Anemia, an auto-immune disease in which the blood cells fails to produce blood cells in sufficient number.

“Fortunately, I recovered without the transplant operation,” he adds.

How did he feel, so alone and so helpless in his hospital bed?

“I felt very weak and I felt very grateful to be in the care of the medical team in CUH,” says John.

He felt panic at times.

“Your mind is racing; you feel helpless. I did not know if I would live or die. Others in the same situation did not make it. It was 50/50 if I would make it or not.”

What did he find helpful to pull him through a very stressful time?

“Remembering that it wasn’t just me,” says John.

“That I was not alone.”

He felt safe in his surroundings.

“Knowing that I wasn’t in a Third World country where medical aid wasn’t readily available consoled me. I had the best of care in Cork.

Dzogchen Beara.
Dzogchen Beara.

“There are countries in the world where people and children don’t have enough to eat and no medical help. I thought wow! How lucky I am. If I had been this ill 10 years previously; I might have died.”

John says while he did survive, it is a given that he, like all humans, will die eventually.

“That gives you more space around the idea and more of a release.”

It seems we won’t be released from the isolation of our homes any time soon, during the COVID-19 crisis. What can we do to alleviate feelings of fear and anxiety?

“There is a story from The Buddha where a group of monks are sent into the forest to meditate,” says John.

“They were restless and they got scared and anxious. The monks were confronted with their own strong feelings. They returned to The Buddha and requested that he send them somewhere else. The Buddha said; ‘If you are to find happiness, contentment and peace, you can’t run away from your anxiety and your fear. You have to face them.’”

John says we should practice mindfulness and practice loving kindness meditation to settle inner turmoil during the pandemic.

“Carve out some quiet time for yourself, sit comfortably imagining yourself experiencing complete physical and emotional wellness and inner peace. Breathe deeply in and out. Breathe into the tension and accept it. When you release the breath you send yourself love and relaxation. Repeat four or five reassuring phrases to yourself; May I be happy. May I be safe. May I be healthy, peaceful and strong.

“You can mentally send messages of goodwill and warmth to loved ones by silently repeating a series of mantras,” says John.

We need to be present.

“We can recognise strong emotions by being present,” says John.

“So often we are distracted by our busy lives suppressing what’s going on in the inside. By being present we can soothe, calm and suppress feelings of fear and anxiety.

“The Buddhist path shows us how to slowly look inside and quell the forest of the mind. We can acknowledge that we can be afraid. We can be angry.”

What if we don’t want to be in the moment at this present time?

John laughs.

“Good point! Now we are not in the real world, we can explore going somewhere else, to a deeper meditation that can resolve sadness and grief. We can be more aware of what’s under the surface behind idle chitter-chat. We can practice self-compassion and kindness.”

John acknowledges that isolating on our own is a lot harder.

“We are social human beings. Isolation for us is hard. But when we are at sea we can try to find a sense of connection deep inside ourselves.”

John is happy in his own company.

“I’m not afraid of my own company and I’m happy in the company of others,” says John. “I’m happily married.”

Did Buddhism help him find inner peace and happiness in his life?

“Yes,” says John, who is originally from Bray, now living in Castletownbere.

Dan Linehan
Dan Linehan

“Back in 1990, 30 years ago, I was working on an oil rig off Scotland making lots of money and drinking too much. I felt unfulfilled,” says John.

“I experienced moderate clinical depression. I think back then mental health wasn’t discussed as openly as it is now. Self-medicating with alcohol doesn’t work. It only makes things worse.”

John changed tack and got interested in Buddhist meditation training within Rigpa Spiritual Care education programmes. Joining others in the Buddhist practice, he found that he was never alone.

“I had forgotten about the value of human connection and what was most valuable to me in my life. I developed compassion and empathy.

“Remember, in isolation, that you are not alone in this,” says John.

“You can feel lonely and abandoned by the world. There is 1/3 of the world in lockdown. It is not a case of me against the world. Knowing you are not alone in this situation can help ease the situation and provide us with a bigger picture. There are many people worse off than we are right now.”

We still say ‘poor me’ though because we are only human.

“We shouldn’t judge ourselves for that,” says John.

“Self-pity is a natural response, acknowledging our own fragility and vulnerability. Whatever you do every day, do it with kindness.”

We are all in this together.

“Yes we are,” says John.

“We tend to close down too much. Choosing to re-connect with ourselves, practising love and kindness in difficult times, can help our fear and anxiety.”

John has found a good place.

“I’m out painting the garden shed! I’m almost ashamed to say it!”

His beautiful surroundings in west Cork can only be improved by a fresh lick of paint!

Dzogchen Beara, Garranes, Allihes, Beara, Phone: 089-4218127. Dzogchen Beara is hosting online meditation workshops daily, during the pandemic. Email info@dzogchenbeara.org

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