John Preston was a Buddhist monk & cancer patient.
John attended our respite care centre, and offered his fellow patients a course in guided mindfulness meditation. The practice was very beneficial in helping cancer patients manage the emotional challenges of a life-threatening, or terminal diagnosis.
John graciously agreed to allow us to publish this wonderful four part course, and a short introductory interview, for everyone (not just palliative care patients!) to benefit from. John died peacefully at home a few months after this post was first published.
First of all can I ask how did you hear about Skanda Vale Hospice?
I visited Skanda Vale years ago – we live near Newcastle Emlyn – we literally came over for a visit and had a look around. We heard that they had a day hospice, and when I became ill a year ago, once I’d come out of hospital, and things were, you know, beginning to quieten down, we went over to have a look.
So we saw Sister Saskia and we saw the others, and were very, very impressed. And I decided to attend each Friday. I suffer from liver cancer, which is inoperable, and I don’t know how long I’ve got.
So then you offered to run a mindfulness meditation course?
Yes, I said if you’d like to have a course, then I’d be very happy to provide. It is based on the five years that I was a Buddhist monk.
Where were you a Buddhist monk?
Nowhere very exciting I’m afraid! It wasn’t Tibet or Thailand – it was Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire ! (laughs)
So what school of Buddhism did you study?
Theravada. It’s the Thai / Burmese / Sri Lankan – the Southern School.
And what’s their main practice?
The main practice would be Vipassana and Metta – loving kindness.
Can you explain what Vipassana meditation involves?
Vipassana is sitting in meditation, simply witnessing whatever comes up. We’re not trying to change anything, we’re not trying to improve, modify or sterilise… whatever comes up, be it pleasant or unpleasant – it’s all impermanent! We just watch! (laughs)
So you develop a kind of quiet, calm detachment then?
That’s right. One can see that the thoughts just arise – you can’t stop them – you never will. Vipassana allows you to concede that most thoughts are not worth taking seriously. The stress arises through taking inconsequential thoughts seriously.
OK. And do you have to be a particularly religious person for this?
No, no, no! People say to me “Are you a Buddhist?” I say “I don’t know!” I really don’t! Anyone can practice – you don’t need to believe anything. In fact that was one of the attractions to me – you didn’t have to believe it, you just had to go and see. It’s about personal experience. The Buddha described it as “A come and see Teachings”
So how long have you been practising this meditation?
I’ve been practising for 25 years.
Oh wow! You were one of the early uptakers then?
And five years practising as a monk.
Can you say something about the other meditation – Metta
Metta is consciously, deliberately developing warm, loving friendly feelings. Firstly toward ones self, because you can’t give something that you don’t already experience and understand.
So we always start with ourself. So then in the most straight forward method, we simply redirect loving feelings towards a series of other people; somebody that we respect – somebody we put on a pinnacle – for example a teacher. Then, somebody we love – a parent, child, relative or friend.
The next person would be neutral person – somebody we see around, but for whom we have no particular feelings for, one way or the other. You know, someone in the shop – you don’t know them, they’re just there.
And the last one, the most difficult one for most, is the person we don’t like. It may be too much to start with a person who you really find difficult. (laughs) Well we always suggest to people that they start with someone who’s a bit of pain. A bit of a problem, that’s all.
Like a difficult mother in law?
Yeah that’s right! Then you can develop it up a bit with practice.
So how do you see that these practices can benefit people specifically with cancer or a terminal illness?
I’m absolutely certain that it can benefit them, can help them significantly, because the biggest problem… and I know this from my own experience… is the mind getting in there and weaving it’s various dramas and fictions.
You know “Why me?” “What’s going to happen?” Blah blah… It’s totally unhelpful. Everybody’s slightly bonkers really! Otherwise we wouldn’t take any notice of it. Thoughts really don’t help. Thoughts are not real… they’re just pictures in the mind. They’re just something the mind comes up with.
So you’re effectively trying to create a separation between the physical symptoms – the physical ‘reality’, as it were, and then the pictures that the mind paints… the drama that the mind creates?
That’s right. To see things more objectively. Yeah OK, the mind is worried about something, but I don’t need to be concerned about that. The thoughts are actually fairly superficial, they skate on the rim of consciousness. They’re not me, mine or myself. They’re not real.
It’s often said that Vipassana meditation is like going to the cinema. We don’t really believe we’re in the middle of the drama, or whatever it is. There’s an objectivity there. Do you know what I mean?
Absolutely, yeah. And so then the effect that this practice can have is a feeling of calm detachment?
Yes, yes! One of my teachers said that… well she’d come to the end of the Buddhist path – enlightenment.
And I remember asking her in a teaching session had her thoughts changed, since her realisation? And she said no – the thoughts were exactly the same, the only difference was that she was not longer troubled by those thoughts, and then went on to say that if she ever was troubled, then she wasn’t troubled by that!
That was absolutely pivotal for me in my own training.
That’s really beautiful! And really reassuring for people.
Yes realistic – I think that’s the key word isn’t it? That you don’t have to be a silent hermit…
People make it complicated. The biggest misunderstanding people have is they think to meditate they have to clear the mind… well how the hell are you going to do that?!
Yes, it’s not about clearing the mind. It’s about beginning to see the thoughts in a different way. No matter what comes up – it will be a mix; the good, the bad and the ugly! The sad and the blissful… it doesn’t matter, it’s all transient. Over which we’ve got no control.
That’s really great. Thank you so much John.
You’re very welcome. It’s a wonderful place. I really cannot believe my fortune, living out here in the remote vastness of West Wales, and literally seven miles down the road there’s this wonderful place.
Funny isn’t it?!
It’s a lovely place.
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