This blog theme came to me as I absorbed the heartfelt presentations at ‘Mindfulness Matters’ – Africa’s first ever conference on mindfulness. It took place last weekend in Stellenbosch (5-6 Sept 2014), organised through IMISA, and brought together academics and activists from South Africa and around the world. The panel of experts was drawn largely from the neuroscience field, and they described, with precision, their work showing correlations between mindfulness and compassion practices, and changes in brain functioning. Other presenters were from the social sciences, and described their own experiences of offering mindfulness to communities facing trauma and illness. We all contemplated how best to bring mindfulness into Africa, where the poverty, inequality and incidents of violence pose such a challenge to human flourishing.
Dr Simon Whitesman, chair of IMISA, opened the weekend with a poignant poem by David Whyte – Start Close In. The call was for us to “start with the first thing… the step you don’t want to take“. As humans, our self-protective mechanisms turn us away from difficulties, pain or sorrow, yet it is by facing these intense experiences head on, that we build our own capacity for healing: Healing ourselves primarily, and then providing the presence needed to help others heal.
The South African Stress and Health Study (Williams et al, 2008) reported that 30.3% of people in this country experience some type of mental illness. That shocked me. It feels a real privilege to be able to offer some very simple mindfulness practices that can support people in staying present to their difficulties, and possibly even building their resilience.
In our yoga practices this week, we have been ‘turning towards the discomfort’ and noticing, paradoxically, that this allows us the capacity to notice the release and lightness in our bodies as well. Moving with kindness and care towards our aches and tight spots, allows us somehow to recognise the wonder of our bodies at the same time.
Let’s see if we can stay present with difficulties in the weeks ahead, knowing that we are building our inner strength and our capacity to support others. And let’s take that first step – towards our yoga mat, the cushion, or a walk in nature – even if it is a step that we don’t feel we really want to take. By staying steady in the face of challenges and sorry, we also learn to savour the moments of joy and wonder that are part of every human life.