Garry McDonald was preparing for his role as Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when the old, familiar thoughts started to invade his head. In the crowded rehearsal room, with poor acoustics, he had difficulty hearing the director and catching the lines of the other actors. He was also struggling with the iambic pentameter.
“I’m quite deaf now and I hadn’t done any Shakespeare since 1992,” says the veteran Australian actor. “You suddenly start thinking, ‘I’m not going to be able to do this’. [My guru] Shankarananda calls them ‘tearing thoughts’—they tear away at your psyche and you’ve got to keep on top of them. Geoffrey Rush had anxiety for years and it was quite debilitating. It is a bugger of a thing.”
It was in an ABC Radio program in 2000 that the man best known for creating the little Aussie bleeder, Norman Gunston, and the henpecked Arthur in ABC TV sitcom Mother and Son first revealed his spiritual side. Since the early 1980s, he has been practising Shiva Yoga with Victoria-based Swami Shankarananda.
“When I met Shankarananda I wasn’t actually a seeker. I wasn’t really interested in anything like that, I just wanted to learn to meditate, because the Beatles had done it,” McDonald told ABC Radio’s Rachael Kohn.
Like many of his generation, McDonald dabbled in yoga, meditation and marijuana. He read a book on kundalini by yoga pioneer and former British spy Sir Paul Dukes, but never expected to experience it. While the marijuana triggered anxiety attacks, his first experience with meditation—at a public talk given by Swami Shankarananda in Sydney—was more powerful than any drug.
“When the Swami came out, he was white and he was European, with a shaved head. I thought, ‘this guy’s a bit of a tosser’,” recalls McDonald. “Then he opened his mouth and he was American, which made it worse.”
But when the meditation began, McDonald’s response was immediate. “I got all excited and I immediately started seeing colours,” he says. “And that was just meditating for five minutes.”
Intrigued, he enrolled in a weekend intensive. His inner sceptic gnawed at him again when he found himself segregated, cross-legged on the floor, being “initiated” with the touch of a peacock-feather broom. “The women started going off like in When Harry Met Sally…,” he says, “and I thought I’d got involved with a terrible bunch of tossers. They were all having these fake orgasms and it was ridiculous.”
But McDonald had paid his money, so he stayed put. When the peacock feathers touched him, his heart started racing. “It was like my heart was going to come out of my chest—bang, bang, bang—and then I got kundalini,” he says. “It was like an electric shock through the eyes and an explosion of white light. Then I had a flash of Norman Gunston saying, ‘Kookaburras laugh because they say it’s all a big joke’, so I was laughing, but I was sobbing, too.”
The experience should, perhaps, have stopped the anxiety and depression that McDonald had suffered since his early twenties. He started meditating for half an hour twice a day and attended regular retreats at Swami Shankarananda’s Melbourne ashram. Over time, he and Swamiji became close personal friends. But he found himself avoiding the very things that meditation tossed up.
“I used meditation as a way of avoiding emotional issues,” he says. “When I was stressed, I would run and meditate and not deal with the problems. What happens with meditation is what happens when you go to a psychologist: it brings stuff up and you’ve got to deal with it.”
In 1994, the nervous breakdown came, and very publicly. A new series of The Norman Gunston Show was put on permanent hold. As he said to Rachael Kohn in 2000: “And the winner of the Best Nervous Breakdown of 1994 is…” In the wake of the breakdown, he stopped acting. He also stopped meditating. He had Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), which he credits with his recovery, and later joined the board of beyondblue to promote better public awareness of depression.
“It’s like an alcoholic, you never say you are cured, you just learn to manage it. You get stronger and stronger,” he says. “I had the odd setback, you get slack. But it’s vigilance that works, it’s not allowing the mind to start to run off on itself again.”
Today, a combination of CBT techniques and 20 minutes of daily meditation keeps him in tune. Indeed good, old-fashioned self-talk saw him play a finely nuanced Polonius that the critics described as “absurdly funny”.
“I started to say to myself, ‘don’t go down that path’,” he says of his rehearsal room internal monologue. “I said, ‘What are you telling yourself? How have you been in Shakespeare before? You’ve been great. How many times have you failed? Maybe once, every three or four years.’ You’ve got to keep watching it and not allowing your mind to run away.”
Behind the scenes, McDonald’s life is equally successful. He and wife Diane Craig have been married 40 years. They have two children, four grandchildren and five acres of pristine land at Berry, on the South Coast of NSW. When he is home, McDonald tends a vegetable garden, a small fruit tree orchard and a chook house, and has dreams of running a few cows or goats.
“I was away seven months of the year,” he moans. “I started to dream about Berry when I was doing a film in Sydney for four weeks. I went to a garden party a few weeks ago and I thought, I know that woman, but I couldn’t remember her name, because I haven’t been around so much.”
At the time of this interview, McDonald is in Sydney filming for the Network 10 series, Offspring. The past year has seen him in a series of successful Melbourne Theatre Company productions—including Hamlet, The Grenade and the David Williamson revival, Don Parties On. He has work scheduled a year ahead.
“Once upon a time I used to be like Woody Allen—whatever medium I’m not working in is the one I’d like to be working in,” he quips. “But I’m not like that anymore. Whatever I’m doing, I enjoy it. If I go to Melbourne to do a play, I’m not thinking I wish I was in Berry. I get involved in the lifestyle there, going to the markets and cooking. Whatever you’re doing you’ve got to be in the moment.”
In his downtime, McDonald is mad keen on crocheting. He has made a mohair wrap for singer Rhonda Burchmore, a prayer shawl for actress Tracy Mann, and an alpaca shawl for his granddaughter.
“I really like that lacy look,” he says. “I do shawls for all my female friends, or my daughter, or for Diane. I’ve just finished a really difficult shawl for my daughter-in-law that almost drove me mad.”
At 63, he has also discovered travel. He went to Europe for the first time two years ago and plans to return to Italy this year. “I’d like to do more meditation retreats but I feel my wife has a been a fishing widow, a yoga widow, a theatre widow,” he says. “It’s unfair and I don’t want her to find a life elsewhere. The reason we stay married is that we work at it. We have great moments of love.”