Anticipation of writing the mystery

Words of Introduction – Unchain the Mind, a weekend writing retreat with Bobby Marie


 Allowing thoughts to arise and flow, words on paper, creative ideas, powerful voices in a complex, contradictory, unjust and confusing world.  And when we let them go, we discover deep inside, a quiet, a field in which new and authentic thoughts are free to sprout.

That we struggle to turn our thoughts into powerful and original writing, is not simply about our grasp of the rules of grammar or vocabulary.  It is about the inner blocks and censors that have settled in our minds.

In this retreat we worked with writing and meditation within the natural and quiet beauty of Dharmagiri to see these inner blocks, oppressors and censors clearly, and to by-pass them in order to allow the flow of words on to the page with sincerity and honesty.  This was not a traditional “writing skills workshop”.  It was a space where we could explore the power of our own words in the form of writing.

Bobby  offered us a space, some ideas and support to assist us to design own writing practice that would allow our thoughts to flow freely as words into writing.  The retreat combined a process of meditation sitting, walking, or just being quiet, with writing – with filling blank pages with words.

The writing that emerged during the retreat follows in a compilation of our pieces put together by Bobby after the retreat together with a description of the processes that Bobby used to help us write freely and to offer each other our experiences as listeners when we read out some what we had written to each other.

The retreat was a fascinating journey into flowing with and through words with each other – learning of each others’ struggles – life struggles and writing struggles – reflecting on different viewpoints and  how we navigate our way through these differences – sharing moments of pathos with each others’ suffering, moments of joy in playing with each others’ words, and moments of surprise as we discovered what others hear from us – at times quite different from what we imagined we were conveying!

It was also a wonderful exploration of the interplay between form and formlessness: between letting words flow out as thought forms into word forms on paper, and then allowing all the words to dissolve back into the silence of meditation – going beyond the words and forms to merge into the background awareness where we watch it all appear and disappear back into stillness again.

So we wanted to share the experience which for each of us was so very rich – and here it is!

Day Zero – Our Words on arrival

Arriving, I was already here. As always. Never different no matter where. Flowers, keys, program, setting up, waiting and wondering, on my own. Anticipation of writing the mystery. Gentle, soft arrivals feeling their way into the unknown. Comparisons, doubts, concerns, fleeting like wisps of mind dust in the wind. To finally settle in the welcoming candlelit warmth of the promise of a journey into flow.


Friday arrival at Dharmagiri was rather nervous as I had never attended a Retreat before and had no idea of what the Writing portion of the time was going to comprise.  But I was determined to have an open mind and just let it happen, I have a tendency to get myself into a tizz over nothing and then feel silly afterwards.   I was there before anyone else but C welcomed me and showed me my room, we knew each other as I had gone to the Monday meditation classes she guides though I hadn’t been for some time.


Stigma and preconceptions causes us to label certain groups of people as rude and unhelpful.  But I arrived after yet another positive public transport experience.  I realised I was tired when I could not follow the programme for the retreat in the dining room.  Even positive days can be long and tiring.  I think my host saw this and assured me there is another in my room that I can peruse at my leisure.  There was chatter around the supper table, and we got to gain a small glimpse of each other.  Some more talkative, and myself, surprisingly, also participating.


In the week before arriving, there were changes, thoughts that we should not go ahead with the retreat. All my plans (written in matrix formation) wobbled.  I too. I’ve been to Dharmagiri, many times as a retreatant and I looked forward to it. But this was different. I was a “teacher”. Anxiety and doubt set it. So what was the plan. S advised. No plan. You have a few ideas, a few approaches, methods, pack it in your bag and keep walking. You will work out. So I arrived  attentive, listening, the plan will emerge. On the evening I arrived, the road was hidden in mist the mountain was not to be seen. In this uncertainty, M who fetched at the bus stop, drove carefully but kept driving with intention. So we reached Dharmagiri to start the retreat.


Day One – Our Words start to flow

We walked on the mountain side in the midday sunshine. Using our little note books as baskets, we gathered words, objects as we saw and heard, and smelt the fragrances in the air, soil, the mountain, the sky itself. We associated each word we collected with thoughts and feelings that arose from somewhere within.


In the afternoon, in the meditation hall, we spread them on the floor like fresh spring flowers, we let them go. We invited each other to pick words that asked to be picked and make a little sentence of meaning or even no meaning. Then link them all together. This we did in communication with each other through our silences but the voice of our words.

It was a good first day in our retreat and our poem brought smiles into our quietness.

And then night set in, clouds built up around us and the wind begin to howl.

Here is the poem we wrote


Reflections of the Mad Rooster in the Mud Hut

The ominous future reminds me of another time

When rotting memories became dry and normal

Threatening the earth with xenophobia

I smelt decay


My generation walked past the young

Exhausted leaders

The loss of rights and failed schooling

Left children caught in the awful

Mystery forest of sadness


Their call was heard only by the grass

And our future returned as a cloud


Smelling the rich night we called up to the sky

We were studying the rain on damp sticky fences.

Recognising the warm side

Took us to a time of blessing

And the primary beauty of the moist

Landscape without fences

This brought back a majestic smile


The mad rooster ran into the mud hut


It is me


Reflections on the day


The mad rooster exercise was a delight of fun and interest, surprise and play. Pulling words out of their context, muddling them up, and watching them reform into new meanings as other hands sentenced them out in multi-colours on the board. Struggling to allow words to lead the way into ideas instead of the other way around.  And yet still each mind finds its own way to express its own concerns, history, humour – how intriguing is that.


The Mad Rooster got thrown into the mix and was the real but welcome “disrupter” of the whole writing story.  I had to giggle because there we all were trying so hard to dig deep, be conscious of how words make a connection with our innermost secrets, introspect and haul out the deepest emotional thoughts even while we used everyone else’s mixed-up words, and suddenly there we had a Mad Rooster and a hut, like from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Brought us all into the real world like a ray of sunshine.


I become a participant, adding, words to a mad poem. I feel it has helped bring us together.


I started off on the poem writing process with some doubts.  Will this work?  But such concerns and questions soon left my mind.  The free writing process jumps all blocks.  The poem writing process worked wonderfully.  We laughed in (mostly) silence as the poem started to take shape.  There was a giddiness in the room.  I felt somewhat intimidated as Bobby read initial contributions, wondering if my inputs will measure up.  One person commented that they could see from the nature of the words from whom they came.  A person with a keen sense of awareness.  The poem had a wonderful mystique to it.  Serious and silly.


A Reflection on Words

We talked about words and their power. This discussion arose out of how randomly and how lightly  we  used the word “Mad”. Each of us came to this word differently. It was ok, we had created an environment where our differences enriched our perspectives. But what held us together, we did not conclude with agreement or disagreement?

Here is a reflection on our discussion:


words have power

Mad.  Crazy.  Insane.

Mental health is contested terrain.  Stigma.  Discrimination.  Professional power yielding.  Legal disempowerment of human beings.

Professional power.  Label power.  Word power.

What are the value of our words?  What do our words signify?  What are the implications of our words?

What is censorship?  If a person uses a word to describe themselves does it give another person the right to use the same label to describe the first person or is this a right reserved to the in-group?  If many out-group people use a label does it make it acceptable or is it a form of out-group power domination?  Should certain words be off-limits to those not part of the group they describe or is that too politically correct?

What is political correctness?  It has become a swear phrase.  Does labelling labels as politically correct close debate or does it facilitate deeper discussion?  Does it contribute to understanding or to indifference?  Does the changing nature of labels mean it is a waste and that anything goes or is it an indication of striving for a better world?

Should we consider dignity?   Should we consider empowerment?  Do out-group people have any right to determine which labels we may use?

Words have power.  Words can give dignity and words can take away dignity.  Words can inspire and words can disempower.  Words expose how we see the world.  Words expose our deepest inner beings.  Words influence our actions in the world.  Words give meaning to shared worlds.  Shared words can nurture understanding in shared worlds.  Or our words can foster divisions in contested worlds.

Our words influence our actions.  Our actions can contribute towards building a better world.  Words have power in building a compassionate world.  We should choose carefully when picking our words.


Day Two – Words and the snow fall softly


It is Sunday the second day of our writing retreat, the first week in September, the month, when the rich dark hills, break in fresh green shoots, first for the new year. It is our planting time, when the blanket of cold falls away and we stretch our limbs and prepare for endless sunshine that will last months on end.


But it snowed last night in Dharmagiri,


Gentle piles of fresh flakes covered the grounds, a feather light eiderdown. Will this make us warm, bring us together, as we learn new skills to difficult often insoluble questions of our lives. How mysteriously opposites combine.


We gathered again in the meditation hall. Began the special writing approach we learnt yesterday. Put your pen on the blank page, keep your hand moving, don’t stop, for correctness, the rules of grammar, just let your thoughts flow, spill over the page in create their own meaning or no meaning.


We broke for meals, sitting meditation, walking meditation and returned again to our writing. In the afternoon, we invited each other to read, if they wished, their thoughts on paper. We listened to the words, received the message, we felt the message as it appeared as pictures in our minds and touched our body.

Then we spoke each in turn

  • What words stood out
  • What message did you get
  • What did you feel as you listened
  • What pictures did you see in your mind as your listened
  • Where in your body did it touch you.

This was our feedback gentle hands, caring hearts.

With this feedback we reflected our writing and adjusted if we wish.


Our  thoughts , feelings , words on paper


Last night it snowed at Dharmagiri . We were given first signs early in the evening but never expected snow, the rain was freezing, a howling wind, curled around the mountain, and swept  across the Underberg  valley, turning water into ice. The morning awoke in a blanket of fresh snow, crickley crackely layers that so nicely carried the patterns of our shoes.

The excitement of snow, to one whose life and previous life was the sweltering heat of the tropical sun, where all is dry and brittle, wet and green. White?  All this a cause for excitement, the novelty of an air that is crisp with frozen moisture, the recolouring of green and gold to white and black, surprising the senses. For a while as little children we danced in the fresh flakes but then the biting cold that we are not used to set in.

Today, I will begin the morning with a free write that would begin with a word or phrase from which to begin our walk with our words. What words should I suggest, I looked outside it was first light on the eastern hills blanketed with snow

“Last night it snowed at Dharmagiri….”


It snowed last night at Dharmagiri – no surprise to those of us who live locally, and experience it often, we could smell it coming.  But there is always everything magical about waking to that hush, the ethereal light, and the loveliness of a wonderland of white.  There is a sadness, and a profound spirituality, about a snowfall.  I wonder if it is because of the transformation it brings – before the snow there is one landscape, and in the space of a few hours a completely different one, a pure, untouched, mystical, almost unrecognisable world.   That touches us, makes us introspective, perhaps we hope that could happen to us, a transformation to something new in a few hours?

And there are happy memories for some of us, of a loved one rushing out into it playfully and excited like a big kid, building snow goblins, throwing snowballs, acting dilly.  And it reawakens the long and difficult process of dealing with loss, of coming to terms with what “gone” means, and of how high a price we pay for love.


Last night it snowed at Dharmagiri. It was cold – it was super cold. I was not turning on my heater because I was worried that the power might trip. Comforting my girlfriend over the phone while bandaging up my finger, I thought “wow it’s my ring finger on my left hand – the marriage finger”. It seems somehow significant that I would hurt this finger so badly. That it would rot, and that my girlfriend put up with me all that time, yet I treated her so badly on this day. It seemed that in the moment that she forgave me after I had apologized, just then had the snow started to fall, almost as if the snowfall was a sign of my absolution.

Isn’t it up to the individual to ultimately collect him or her-self and find their own meaning in life? I wrestle and challenge myself with this question.  Just when I think I have everything figured out, something hectic happens and rocks my world. Why can I not collect myself? Am I meant to fall apart all the time and rebuild myself – build myself back up again. E (my GF) started a 1000 piece puzzle to distract herself from the pain I had been putting her through with my silence that day (yesterday) she told me over the phone.  She told me over the phone how much she loves puzzles, the only puzzle she didn’t like was mine. Am I a puzzle? A puzzle to others and a puzzle to myself? My book is titled An Indigo Puzzle. I feel blocked to write it but I know ultimately it is me who is blocking myself. Am I bound to make the same mistake over and over again?

This morning the snow outside was thick. I first observed it outside my window. Without electricity I would die… or would I? Sitting in a meditation posture could save me. My feet are always freezing, but tucked away in a half lotus they warm up. Is my body telling me to sit? It seems I have too many questions but no answers. Perhaps I should just sit and let go of the thoughts. Enjoy the present silence, that the white blanket outside blesses us with.


Last night it snowed at Dharmagiri.  The mountain was covered in a magical coat by the time the sun slowly emerged from the east.  Far removed from home.  Flowers covered in white snow.  Birds drinking sweet nectar.  Where is home?  Where am I going?  How I am going to get there?  I hear the chatter of the birds as they drink the nectar from the flowers covered in snow.  Talking, we need to continuously talk.  Through talking we create meaning.  Through sharing we create understanding.  The icy wind bites at my face.  What does it mean to live in the present?  Does it mean letting go of guilt?  What does it mean for the future?  The snow-covered landscape makes us see with new eyes.  Listening to people makes us see our lives with new eyes.  I’ve come this far, why is the doubt still there?  The picture is so clear.  When the sun goes down behind the mountain most of the snow has disappeared below.  We see the land as we saw it yesterday.  For a moment in time we lived in an exquisite white wonderland.  Is that what living in the present is?  We have a choice to do, knowing that it will disappear, or not doing, knowing that it will never be.


It snowed last night at Dharmagiri and well aware of it we were searching through the early evening first mushy snow in the dark for the missing cat.  Looking with torches under bushes and in the sheltered spaces of doorways and passages finally coming face to face with her sheltering in the carport under a car.  Blinded by torchlight, out of reach, and definitely not wanting to move.  Hiding away and not wanting to be seen.  Really?  Or was she wanting to be found?

Images from a childhood movie of a family hiding from Nazi torches in the dark behind gravestones terrified of the toddler making a sound and giving them all away. Why do we ever need to hide? What is so terrifying? Why do I hide?  What is this fear of being revealed? How strong and powerful and painful could it really be? Well, I know how it can be and don’t want it again. Or do we have to walk through it like breaking through a wall of fear?

Reminds me of walking down European canal streets at night trudging through dirty mushy snow under foot passing gleaming black metal poles slushing along and talking of revolution and change, organization, strategy and tactics, words now foreign to me, foreign and dead.  How did I get so interested in all that? Walking beside a man pacing like a trapped lion, feeling his energy searching and searching, such striving, so much focus and concentration, me complaining but thinking it was good to be toughening up for the fight ahead. And all we were really doing is going to someone’s safe warm home for the night.



The mountain lays in front of me with blemished magnificence.  Magnificence divided into fenced territories.  Symbolised ownership.  Dividing the land.  Barriers built between your land and my land.  Walls between you and me.

The African continent lies scarred with fences.  Artificial boundaries imposed by people alien to the land.  Foreign people intent on ownership and wealth accumulation.  This is the legacy of my people.

The legacy continuous.  Keeping some people at the margins.  Children.  Children born stateless with no access to being legally human.  Children living within the fences of the land but banished to exist outside the fences of society.  Denied schooling.  Denied employment.  Denied legal existence.  Denied humanity.  Denied hope.

Children called udoti[1] by those who answered the calling of nurturing young human beings.  Children accused of stealing if they dare eat of food provided because they have no legal existence in a database maintained by those who chose to take responsibility for ensuring the constitutional right to free basic education and the constitutional right to dignity.  Failed leaders.

Children.  Human beings whose parents and grand parents and great grandparents have lived inside the fences that divide the continent but discarded outside the fences of society.  Children.  Human beings whose children and grandchildren will grow up inside the fences of the country but who will not be allowed entry into society.

Living inside visible colonial fences but outside invisible colonial borders.  Children caught up in fences not of their making.  Children caught up in fences that they are not permitted to dismantle.  Stigma and xenophobia infusing lives with hatred and pain.  This is the legacy of my people.  Fences that deny hope…


Reflections on the Day


The snowfall was like a gift from nature to bless us all, and it dominated a lot of what we did.  It was a focal point for words and the reaching into ourselves for meaning and deep feelings.   For me it raised quite deep feelings of sadness in missing my late husband, but also a light-hearted feeling of remembering his child-like joy as he enjoyed the snow.  But for me there was suddenly quite strange feelings of not being quite sure who I really am as if the snow had cast doubts, made things uncertain, and wondering at my stage in life if I ever would know who I am, a bit disconcerting.  Maybe that’s because as we discussed the snow completely alters the landscape.


Making words in the snow. I see someone writing outside with a stick in the snow literally making words in the snow. And didn’t I do that trying, for the first time, to form a little Buddha out of the snow on the table outside? A word, a form, a symbol. I thought it would be so easy but it was puzzlingly difficult. Falling apart, not sticking together, not yielding to my strokes – what?!  Like trying to patch bits of meaning together into something that will stand. But it all just keeps breaking apart and falling out of shape.


The snow that fell overnight created a sense of excitement in all of us.  Reading my writing to the group was uncomfortable.  It was raw and personal and had not been polished for public consumption.  Going in to the retreat my intention was not to write on personal issues.  But listening and participating in feedback to others, it would have created a power imbalance not to also share.  The feedback process worked very well.  Hearing how others received it helped to add more polish to our stories.  A different process would have created writing blockages in the future.


The snow fall was a surprise, a gift, beautiful in its quiet, a sense of sadness and loss. I’m not sure why , sunshine , happiness, dark clouds sadness , but it is.


 Day Three – Searching for words that are not there


So the instructions for the day were: Take your little basket (your note book) , walk meditatively, be aware of what you see, but look around it, behind beyond, look at the one who is looking. Then pick a few thoughts, words, phrases that emerge and free write.

A good facilitator would check, is the instruction clear and give participants time to clarify. But the method that had evolved over the past two days was, whatever, however your thoughts come to you, that is where you must be. The instructions were simply because somehow we feel comfortable when there are instructions.

A few hours later, we returned with basketful of wonderful words, phrases, sentences and a story that we all agreed should be published.


Following the Sound of Running Water

I follow the sound of running water.  A stream hidden behind the bushes.  Crouch lower I slip underneath low branches.  In front of me lies an empty, dry stream bed.  I am puzzled.  I hear the sound of running water.  There is a pool of water higher up, and a pool of water down below.  I hear the sound of running water.  In front of me is a streambed filled with dry rocks.

How much of life is hidden below the surface.  We are aware of things that have happened.  We are aware of our behaviour.  But the connection between the two is hidden.

I hear the sound of running water.  Insects are pirouetting on the water surface of the pool above.  They draw circles on the water’s surface that combine into intricate patterns.  A ballet.  The circles end where the dry, rocky streambed starts.  Then some distance below the stream re-emerges.  Do I need to know how the stream gets there?  Do I really need to understand?  What is the value of such understanding?  Preoccupation with understanding the invisible stream causes me to miss some acts in the ballet being performed on the pool above.  Is this what we do in life.  Analyse.  Over analyse.  Analysis paralysis.  Inaction.  Missing acts in our own lives.  Missing life.

I hear the chatter of the birds.  I feel the soothing rays of the sun on my skin.  What is the opposite of analysis?  Of analysis paralysis?  Doing?  Just doing?  Does doing mean not thinking?  What lies underneath the surface?

Doing inevitably leads down paths not otherwise ventured.  New worlds encountered.  New people enriching life.  Enriching our lives.  With the richness also goes other experiences.  Pain.  Humbling.  Awe.  Learning.  Understanding.  Growth.

The insects continue their ballet.  Drawing intricate circles on the water’s surface.  The water flows to the pool below, following a path invisible to the eye.


But could we live without our stories?

Looking out to the mountain, fresh green leaf shoots pushing out into space, soft cool breeze vuvving around my ears blurring the sharp melodious chirps of birdsong and the dull background rumbling humming of the odd passing car.

Mountain monkey sitting and mountain man resting, both gazing out in opposite directions of the sky.  What are they thinking? Are they spirits of the mountain? Maybe the mountain married the sky yesterday adorned in her sparkling white dress. Today she is green again with only a few jewels left glittering in the sunlight.

So different today she is. So different today I am.  Tired out of a restless night the morning greeting me with strange signs of new fences, sprung up who knows when? Gone the flurrying excitement of yesterday’s snow leaving the moist dryness of winter grass exposed.  The day-after effect following inevitably on some great movement of the heart, invariably besieging the soul.

Little things, little signs of change, flagrant and capricious, as an unexpected eddy swirling through my blood, sending a cold current tingling to my toes. Ominous change that dawns like darkness casting its shadow like a shroud over yesterday’s glorious mountain.  Can we disarm our shadows I wonder, or are we condemned to live the illusion of a world without them?


Forever playing games with meanings in words and sentences, paragraphs and pages, commas and full stops, and still more words on and on and on forever.  How long have we been telling each other stories? Do they ever really change? Is there a finite set of themes? And why do we eternally find them so fascinating?  What is the point of going through it again and again and again throughout the millennia of the ages.  Telling stories on and on and on.

But could we live without our stories?  How might our lives be different? Can we even imagine that? Or do we need our stories to make our lives feel important, significant?  Would it still be a search – this time for the meaning of meaninglessness, coming full circle but still caught in the same frustrating game.  Or might it be that we would flow through time, moment by moment, awestruck by the exquisite beauty of the kaleidoscopic panorama of momentary fragments falling into new patterns; ephemeral as sea sprays blown away by the wind?


An atmosphere of grey, brown, pink and orange, blend like the natural peace of a setting sun at the end of busyness. Just sitting and watching.  Soft flames reaching for the heavens of inner stillness. Searching for meaning among the dying embers of thoughts.  Sinking softly into silence.  Just being. Like looking into the eyes of an elephant and meeting with presence. No hurry. No agenda. No push or pull. How I would love to trust enough to play with the elephant, abandoning all fear of the powerful allure of the unknown, knowing that the elephant senses what I don’t know that I know about myself. And just how will he reveal it to me?

Dry bits of scattered broken grass lying on the earth. Reminder of Eliot’s Hollow Men and how it meant so much to me that poem about dry sterile brittle meaninglessness. Dry, broken, scorched and terrible earth; something happening beneath the surface.  Mind can’t see, can’t feel, don’t know. Living in happy land and our eyes are blank like death seeing nothing but pretence of life, love, devotion.  Why so poignant this expression of brokenness?  Is it just a reflection of my own brokenness that I see in the eyes around me?


Flapping wings of birds in flight – flap, flap; flap, flap – so rapid like a drum beating rhythmically passing by just overhead.  How beautiful are the birds. How deeply they touch the depths of longing for freedom, independence, movement, aliveness.  We have lost so much of our intuitive ability in the maze of modern urban life. Who are we becoming? What are we turning into, destroying the earth and making such an ugly mess of our home? Do we believe ourselves to be so invincible as to be able to force the whole of nature to bend to our will? Unrelenting human hubris.


Musty, mossy, fungal smell of soaked wood on soaked earth. And I am back in Chithurst monastery in the forest, green so green in grey-brown sticky, gluey mud smelling moist of rotting leaves and crumbling wood. The bridge over the stream – that smell, full and rich in my nostrils – leading to the special soft secluded spot – shaded cool peace in the still silence.


Conversation with a Rock

So – our writing Teacher has sent us out in Walking Meditation, armed with our little notebooks, to look and find some special object, to concentrate on the negative spaces involved with that object, and discover something that will resonate in our personal journey, and spark some inner, reflective thought that may result in a piece of writing that may rock the world.  I was making a very poor job of this effort, somehow my wellspring of deep and profound thought seemed to have dried up.

I did find a tiny plant that before the snowfall was looking very cheerful, and now was clearly frostbitten and tattered, but after consideration and a desperate search for some negative spaces, I decided that the theme of eventual triumph after struggle and adversity had been done to death by far more competent writers than myself.

Exasperated with my clear lack of insight and profundity, I leaned on a large convenient rock.  The Rock harrumphed quietly, and I moved away.   “I’m sorry”, I said, “I didn’t mean to disturb you, that was rude of me”.   “Not at all” he said graciously, you are very welcome to lean.  It’s just that so many people do that, but then they never stop to chat, just rush off looking scared, and that seems rather ill-mannered to me.   “Well” I replied, a little uncertainly, “it is rather strange you know, really I don’t think I have ever had a conversation with a Rock before”?  “Oh yes you have.  When you were a small child you chatted to rocks and flowers and trees and even hairy caterpillars.  But then the world got in the way, grown-ups you know.  And the South African Education system has a lot to answer for.  All that discipline and stifling of imagination.  And the rubbish they teach children these days; really it shouldn’t be allowed.  Then children forget all the good stuff, the important stuff, like being in touch with all of us natural people around here.

He paused, and as I was a little uncertain of how to continue this conversation, I said politely “It snowed at Dharmagiri last night, so it must have been pretty cold out here”.  He snorted.   Now that’s a thing you don’t forget quickly, a Rock snorting.  It’s pretty impressive.  “Don’t be daft, I’m used to that.   And he paused again.

Then he said with a rush “I suppose you think it’s really boring stuff, being stuck around here for millions of years and not a lot going on.   Let me tell you, life was not always so mundane.  There was a time when my existence was full of drama, and turbulence and really scary stuff.  Oh boy, there was a lot going on back in those days.   It was pitch dark, and there was din and racket, and terrifying violent shaking, explosions and blast after humungous blast.  Things were falling apart everywhere, the world heaving and groaning and roaring, with blood-red Magma and infernal rivers of blazing lava pouring in every direction, and it went on for many many years.  I just tried to keep a low profile.  It was hell I tell you.  Then suddenly there was a particularly horrendous shudder and contraction, and the next thing I was ejected from the earth’s womb, and was flung miles and miles up into the air”.

“Well, that was really nice you know. Lovely feeling it was.  It only ever happened to me the once, and it didn’t last long – but I do feel that I have something in common with the birds, though they just refuse to acknowledge that I can fly”.  He sniffed.   “They think they are so clever but there weren’t even any birds then, they came much later, even though they give themselves “airs” now”.  And he giggled.  A giggling Rock is very disconcerting, really it is.

He went on – “Then I landed here with a huge crash and a crunch and rolled for a bit, and I’ve been here ever since.  I’m lucky you know, the wind, the rain, snow and ice are all my special friends, they love me, and they have shaped me over time as all proper friends should do.  And all the local birds stop off for a chat from time to time.  I ask them not to leave calling cards, but as you can see sometimes they forget.  There are some birds any respectable Rock doesn’t bother about of course; the vultures are a really nasty stuck-up bunch, always circling about with no time for polite conversation.  The only time we see them down here is when there is something very dead and smelly around”.

“I have my favourites of course, there’s a lovely little rock-jumper feller calls regularly, keeps me up to date with everything that is going on around here, in the village and on the farms.  The only thing that troubles me is this lichen which grows all over me in spots, really I don’t think it’s aesthetically pleasing and I’m rather proud of the way I look, I’m a rather handsome Rock, aren’t I.   But there is nothing I can do about that, the wind and rain have tried but it’s very stubborn.  Never mind, it is what it is, and we are all called upon to accept our limitations”.

“Are you here on an escape”? he asked.  “It’s called a retreat” I said.  Alarmingly, he snorted again.  “Same thing, if you ask me, but folk seem to find them useful and healing and I have to say it’s nice to have people back and forth, it’s a peaceful placed this.  It’s been called all sorts of names since I arrived, but now it’s Dharmagiri”.

“Now – there’s your bell for your next Meditation.  Off you go – C, bless her, does try to keep everything running to schedule, though sometimes it’s like herding cats around here – she’s lovely C isn’t she?”    “Oh Yes” I replied she is lovely.  “I’ve got to go Rock” .

“Bye then – pop back and see me before you leave, ok”?  OK – Bye….


Reflections on the Day


The Mountain delivers the Stone and we look behind and beyond

What a day. To me it was like a sudden rebellion, a wish to no longer earnestly dig and strive for emotional stuff and find connecting words that linked to feelings and intellectual constructs, which is an exhausting business, and I felt I just couldn’t anymore, because my head was full of big-word stuff fighting for importance.  And a simple story rose up in my mind like a spring, filled it up and came spilling out.   I couldn’t write fast enough for my mind to translate the words into my fingers.  It was cathartic, soothing.  And I hope more of this happens I enjoyed it, it was so much fun.


The mountain, the river, the stones. We look behind and beyond. Going out and looking at the shapes of space – so strange – I never look at things like that. Unexpectedly difficult, but so interesting. Looking at the spaces between the leaves and branches of trees I could feel them pushing out into space. How amazing is space – so malleable – refusing nothing as Mandaza would say.  Allowing everything and anything to move into it. No disturbance.


Urging us to look at things differently.  It reminded me of something that I had observed on Saturday but did not think to write about.  There was a wonderful story of a conversation with a rock.  My piece again was personal and polishing it did not add enough shine.


Day Four –  Words of Departing


Departing, but actually staying, although departing too. Sadness and breathing out. The kindness of common history in worlds so far apart. Tears that long to be shed. What? Where? When? How? Why? The classic journalistic impulse leaping towards shared perspectives. But we go our separate ways leaving bits of ourselves in each other’s hearts.  A sunny day ending our exploration of the flow from the heart out into words all held in the space behind the words.


It was a good experience.  Monday supper was very chatty, and it was interesting to hear people’s stories.  The writing methods will definitely be of value in the future.  Both personal and professional.  It also felt good to be heading home.  Determined to use flow of consciousness writing.  Hopefully I will create opportunity to return to Dharmagiri in the near future.


We worked within the Dharmagiri structure of waking (to M’s  6.00 bell) siting, working, sharing in wonderful meals, sitting, resting and more siting. There was a writing process with guidelines, work that was built on over many years by so many people across the globe. But it was okay that we did we improvised as we went along. Perhaps what held us together more than the structure or the process was our intention. We had the intention to  be there for each other with respect and love. And the intention to be there for ourselves. to free our minds, our hearts, a task to be done by none but ourselves.

 Written By – all who attended the retreat

Photos By – Bobby Marie & Kobus Meyer

About Bobby Marie:

bobby marieI am an activist as a way of living. I participate in struggles to bring about change now, to protect the freedom of all people, to promote a sharing of the earth’s wealth, as well as the poverty, to oppose all forms of oppression, economic inequality and domination based on race, gender and sexual orientation. I am an activist so that people would live in harmony with our planet and the larger universe.

I have been part of the rebellion against race rule in South Africa, the black student and community movement of the 1970s and the trade union movement of the 1980-90’s. I am currently involved in movements who support communities living near mines resist the destructive actions of mining corporations in Southern Africa.

I try to be a reflective activist, I have a personal practice of contemplation, of being quiet and learning to listen to self, to connect with the energy flows of other people and our planet. All of this so that my activism arises from love and not fear and that my intentions do not slip into being another form of the destructive will to power and survival of self.

Reflections on Mandaza’s “Understanding Our True Connection with Nature” Retreat


The theme for this retreat was: understanding our true connection with nature.  What emerged from the experience for me was not so much ‘understanding’ as waking up to a living oneness with nature – of being gently reabsorbed into nature –  the sense of separation between ‘me’ and ‘nature’ softly fading away and being replaced by a vivid sense of oneness, of belonging, of being of the same fabric.  Something perhaps like Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘interbeing’ including all and everything.  Mandaza spoke of it as the great spider web of Spirit that interconnects everything in the universe.



On reflection it seems to me that this sense of separation is something that we unconsciously create when we withdraw from an active relationship with the abundance all around me – because it was through consciously engaging with this abundance that the vibrant sense of oneness sprang out of its dormancy and into life.

On the first day of the retreat we were awakened to the earth.  We sat outside on the rocks and grass in the beautiful spaces cleared by Martin, beside the stream flowing and babbling down from the mountain, and were asked to identify all the other communities present there with us: the grasses, mosses, flowers, trees, soils, minerals, insects, mammals, birds – in the earth, on the earth, above the earth.  Our group identified over 70 within a very short time.  We looked at just some of their roles and contributions to the web of life.  In simply bringing this to mind, an awareness of the abundance of interconnected support all around us arose together with an awareness of our forgetfulness as humans – of our dismissive disregard for all that gives and supports our life  when we imagine ourselves to be separate and superior.  We blindly blunder on in our arrogance, caring little for the source of our lives or for the wellbeing of future generations.


This led to a lot of discussion about how this way of conceiving ourselves leads to such flagrant abuse and destruction of that upon which we depend for our lives and wellbeing.  Mandaza spoke of all that we receive from the earth and how the earth receives all our waste, transforming it into fertile life-sustaining nutrients.  He asked how often we say ‘thank you’ to the earth, how often we give back to the earth by seeing, feeling, noticing, appreciating, tending and caring for the earth and all her communities?  Later in the day we were encouraged to take a handful of seeds and go out to the places on the land that we feel a special bond with and express our gratitude by giving some seeds back to the earth as a gesture of recognition and thanksgiving.  It is difficult to describe how powerfully meaningful and moving it felt to do this. And the earth took her rightful place as our mother.

On the second day of the retreat we were awakened to water.  We began by talking about water – its qualities, attributes, roles and contribution.  A rich dialogue followed about water – the beauty and functions of its various forms like ice, snow, rain, rivers, ocean, mist, steam; its volume and extent on the earth and in our bodies and all other bodies, its network of streams and rivers and oceans, its life-giving and sustaining role, its role in circulating carbon dioxide, cleaning the air and maintaining the atmosphere, its molecular structure and capacity to respond to sound and other forms of energy, the pleasure we feel in playing and bathing in water….and so much more.  And then Mandaza asked us, each one individually, instead of speaking about water as if it is something separate from us, to speak as water about water’s contribution to the web of life: “I am water, I ……”  And water came to life within us.


In the afternoon Mandaza took us each through a water ritual at the stream after which we spent time on our own outside contemplating our individual experience of the ritual.

In the evening we began to talk about dreams and listening to the messages that come through our dreams – both for ourselves individually and communally.  So began the process of integrating the dream world into the healing of our wholeness.  Each morning then began with a dream circle where we shared the dreams we could remember from the night before and shared what we saw in each others’ dreams.  And the messages lived among us.

Dialogues continued through the remaining days on our purpose as humans on earth, on our relationships with our partners, families, children, elders and ancestors, on race and gender, on what love is, on the languages that we use – of love and hate and gossip, on leadership, on service, on prayer, on healing, on forgiveness and justice in our personal and national lives, on living in peace. Interspersed among the dialogues were meditations, laughter, play, song, and drumming. And the birds and butterflies came to join us.


I was left feeling both immense joy and sadness.  Joy at the taste of fulfilment of a deep yearning from childhood for this immersed attunement with all that is – and sadness at the tragedy of what has been lost and devalued through the alienation and arrogance of human hubris. May we yet have the humility and courage to ask for the help we need from the wisdom keepers among us for the wellbeing and joy of present and future generations of all life on our planet.
by Chandasara



Afro-Dharma & Botho/Ubuntu: A Dialogue on Spirituality, Science and Humanity. A Mind and Life Dialogue with the Dalai Lama 17-19 August 2017

Team DG - Bots '17

Team Dharmagiri (L-R, back row, Thanissara, Kittisaro, Marlene, Garth, Jane, Martin, Chandasara, Jess, Ahmed. L-R, front row, Pip, Robyn, Peter, Moyra, Sr. Abe)

It was a long-awaited and wonderful opportunity for those of us from Dharmagiri to be able to attend this conference together immediately following our vision dialogue meeting and annual AGM. We were all very grateful to Kittisaro and Thanissara for making this possible and to friends in Botswana for making their home available for us to stay in during the conference. So when, a couple of days before the conference was due to begin, we heard that the Dalai Lama would not be coming to the conference due to his exhaustion and concerns about his health, we were all sorely disappointed, although naturally supportive of his taking care of his health. Questions about whether this was the result of Chinese pressure on the Botswana government came to mind.

A surprise awaited us when the conference opened with a videoed talk by the Dalai Lama. He encouraged us to go ahead with the conference without him, assuring us that his spirit and mind were very eager about this dialogue, even though his body did not agree! He emphasized his apology especially in light of the genuine interest shown by Botswana President Khama in his visit and despite some real difficulties, and added that he considered the situation to be merely a postponement of his visit. The following day an article appeared on the front page of the Botswana Guardian newspaper quoting President Khama as revealing that China had indeed pressured Botswana, threatening to recall their ambassador and to engage other African states to isolate Botswana. Botswana however, would welcome a visit from the Dalai Lama at any time.

“The oneness of 7 billion human beings.” the Dalai Lama.

In his talk, the Dalai Lama noted that he has been promoting the oneness of the world’s seven billion human beings and believes that the African philosophy of Botho/Ubuntu has great potential to contribute to realizing this oneness. The problems facing humanity currently are those of differences in nationality, religious faith, and race and the only remedy for these problems is a greater sense of oneness among human beings. He regards humanity as becoming more mature as indicated by an increased desire for harmony and peace than was the case in the early 20th century where violence and war were simply accepted as part of life. He attributed current violence to be the result of the past century’s outdated way of thinking about solving problems through force. He emphasized that peace has to come through inner peace, respect for others, and mutually agreed solutions. We are now moving towards solving problems of disagreement (that will always be there) in a human way through dialogue and referred to the 21st century as the ‘Century of Dialogue’. He encouraged our dialogue in Botswana by commenting that sometimes smaller nations have greater potential to create peace.

In these reflections about the conference, I would like to focus on three main areas of the dialogue: firstly, what is Botho/Ubuntu?; secondly, the ethical dimension: how do we rescue Botho/Ubuntu from extinction?; and thirdly, what does evidence from research in neuroscience tell us about Botho/Ubuntu in terms of how human groups form and how trauma impacts the brain and the biological processes that underlie empathy, compassion and recovery?

What is Botho/Ubuntu?

“I am because of you.” Prof. Michael Onyebuchi Eze

Botho is a Sotho-Tswana word meaning humanity, humaneness, kindness, compassion, sharing, humility, mutual respect and responsibility, interconnectedness, harmony – a universal bond that connects all of humanity. Ubuntu is a word in the Nguni languages which has the same meaning.

The philosophy of Botho/Ubuntu comes from indigenous African religious beliefs and practices where all of life, nature, spirit, and Creator, are inter-related, inter-connected, and inter-dependent. Botho/Ubuntu applies intergenerationally and also inter-species-ally. The self emerges from the relationship with others, other life forms, the natural environment, ancestors and the spirit world, and is healthy when this relationship is harmonious. This implies an ethic of reciprocity: all is one and what is done to one, is done to all. Perhaps Botho/Ubuntu is best expressed in English by the term coined by Thich Nhat Hanh: Interbeing.

Botho/Ubuntu has been adopted as one of Botswana’s five national principles (the others are democracy, development, self-reliance, and unity) and it also underlies the South African constitution and is seen in the country’s coat of arms which depicts two Khoisan rock art human figures facing each other and joined in unity. The Khoisan language motto means “people who are different coming together”. It is surely also reflected in the languages, national symbols and principles of other African countries as well.

At the conference, one of the key phrases expressing Botho/Ubuntu was discussed by many of the speakers at the conference: motho ke motho ka batho. Motho means a person (or, at a deeper level, one who has emerged from the great unknown). Ke means is; ka means by means of, with, or through, and batho means people (plural of motho). So – a person is a person by means of or with or through people. There is a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu that expresses this beautifully:

A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. (Tutu, 2004:25).


Prof. Michael Eze

Another version of this phrase that was discussed at the conference is: ‘I am because we are’. Questions that came up in relation to this phrase were: who is the ‘I’ and who is the ‘we’ here? What is the notion of personal subjectivity in the traditional African worldview? Michael Eze, who teaches African political theory at the University of Amsterdam, emphasized the performative aspect of this subjectivity summing this up as: “every encounter is a recreation of the self” and “we are each others’ creators” – “we are like small gods to each other”. Michael referred to the work of John Mbiti, teacher and writer on African philosophy and religion, who argues that this phrase should be translated as I am because you are rather than ‘we’ because ‘you’ is more inclusive and can refer to anyone, whereas ‘we’ tends to denote and amplify group identification. Michael also noted that Botho/Ubuntu implies a positive interpretation of the other’s condition and intention and that difference is seen as a gift rather than a threat. Through dialogue we come to understand each other and this understanding leads to a noble-mindedness.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who holds the Chair in Historical Trauma and


Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Transformation at Stellenbosch University, described Botho/Ubuntu as expressing a state of being in which there is awareness that my subjectivity depends on being recognized and witnessed by others – that my existence is confirmed through relationship with others. She brought in the Zulu greeting sawubona meaning ‘I see you’ or ‘I acknowledge your existence’ as an example of how Botho/Ubuntu is embodied in African languages. The reply ngikhona means ‘I am here’ – an affirmation of existence. A comparison with the English greetings ‘hello’ which conveys little meaning, or ‘good morning’ which conveys a good wish, reveals an absence of substance in common greetings in the English language.

Pumla pointed out that Botho/Ubuntu goes beyond mutual existential recognition to include putting oneself in the other’s shoes – sensing what is going on in the heart and mind of the other – and in this way illustrating the inextricable interwovenness between us. She encouraged us to explore the notion of Botho/Ubuntu through sayings and meanings that are embodied in African languages as well as through the processes of forgiveness that took place during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Forgiveness, she said, involves dropping our denials and justifications and opening ourselves to feel the pain of the other and the shame of having inflicted that pain. Remorse is the key that opens the door to forgiveness and healing. The web of our interconnectedness can be ripped apart through violence and trauma and only repaired through reconnection by means of acknowledging each others’ experience – bringing us back into harmony with each other.

Pumla however, also pointed out that many young people in South Africa find it difficult to connect with Botho/Ubuntu and don’t feel much intergenerational connection. Augustine, a young man from Kenya on the youth panel, commented that young people in modern Africa are encouraged to ‘get a good life for yourself’ and are seldom challenged to think about others. But some young people at the conference indicated that they were working on developing a Botho-quotient to raise awareness about the inadequacy of intelligence without Botho. Justine, on the youth panel from Namibia, said that Ubuntu is being able to see each other as human through all the layers of our various identities.

Several other speakers commented on the commercialization of the term ‘Ubuntu’ as seen in the name of bottled drinks, security company names, PC operating systems, restaurant names, etc. – where it is used as a feel-good term. While the term has become popularized, its real meaning is being lost in superficiality.


Mandaza Kandemwa

Mandaza Kandemwa, spirit medium and medicine man from Zimbabwe, gave a powerful and moving talk, saying that when he looks through the eyes of Ubuntu, he sees no hierarchies, no VIPs, and no “nobodies” – as required by the spirit of oneness. Ubuntu is not a concept to be studied but is a way of being: you become Ubuntu. We need to understand Ubuntu through our hearts. Humanity needs healing from conflicts, separation, and wanting to own and control everything. He asked: “where are the trees, birds, wild animals, waters, the children who are born as wisdom keepers, in this conference?”, recommending that future Ubuntu conferences be held in nature and include the children. He pointed us back to our own minds to find the source of war, conflict, and corruption, rather than accusing political and business leaders out there. In order to heal, our minds need to become like the ocean that refuses no river. We first need to get rid of the boundaries in our minds and heal the bleeding wounds there. Then we can dispense with passports and boundaries and live in one world on one earth. We need to be the temple of the great spirit that wants us to have Ubuntu. Instead we are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle scattered everywhere. There is no race or culture that has not been abused or controlled by another. Spirit is saying “don’t live in that yesteryear but make a new history. Don’t leave this world in chaos.”

With Africa modernizing rapidly, there is a sense of a loss of community, African identity and the relational richness of Botho/Ubuntu in traditional African ways of life. Concern was expressed about Botho/Ubuntu being reduced to a mere formality, upheld in public and civic forums but losing influence in daily social interactions and becoming less of a lived reality. Africa still remains deeply colonized – its philosophical ideas are marginalized and its own stories remain untaught at schools.

This reminded me of my own experience as a white child at school in SA studying English literature. While much inspired by it, it remained alien to my own lived experience of the seasons, colours, earth and skies, people, cultures and images around me. Afrikaans literature and poetry were for me much more intimate in reflecting my own experience. It is so important that children hear the stories of their own experience, environment and culture so that they can feel included and part of the way of life they are born into. As Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s interpreter, pointed out, there is a need for the building of a pan-African identity based on a shared philosophy and societal values that can transcend the impact and trauma of the colonial mentality. As he said: “if you don’t tell your story, someone else will. Africa needs to know and own its own story”.

Several speakers pointed out that Botho/Ubuntu implies inclusivity – that in traditional African communities, strangers were always welcomed. But the question was also raised about how many of these communities are in fact diverse, and whether these communities actively practice diversity beyond the welcoming of occasional strangers? A further question was raised about some of the more oppressive aspects of traditional culture and the fear of being different, or of exploring beyond the boundaries of traditions. The issue of wars and conflict between nations and groups in Africa was also raised – how do we reconcile these with the philosophy of Botho/Ubuntu?

The Ethical Dimension: How do we rescue Botho/Ubuntu from extinction?

“If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. Africa needs to know and own its own story”. — Thupten Jinpa

While Africa is rapidly modernizing and adopting the individualist values of the West, the individualism in Western societies is resulting in serious problems of atomization and alienation – from other humans, other life forms, and the earth itself. Family and community structures are breaking up, exploitation of other species, the earth and seas is rampant, communication between people is mediated through technology, and levels of anxiety, depression and other mental problems are unprecedented. Thupten Jinpa pointed out that there are hardly any communal values left in the current Eurocentric ethical understanding. It is as if we have become blind to our interdependence which, ironically, science is simultaneously revealing to be the fundamental nature of reality itself.


Thubten Jinpa

In his book A Fearless Heart, Thupten Jinpa comments: “To the naive eye of someone who grew up in a poorer part of the world, at first glance, people in the West seem more confident, more efficient, and better able to take care of themselves and enjoy life.” But he goes on to point out that all is not as it seems. People neglect “their basic needs for sleep, nutrition, and exercise, and drive themselves harder and harder at work because they don’t know how else to find validation as human beings. People lash out or shut down when they are criticized, because they are all too ready to believe anything bad about themselves, but at the same time they can’t stand to hear anything bad about themselves because they lack a sense of self-worth to balance it. …… People feel anxious and depressed and desperate and they don’t know what to do – and they blame and berate themselves for this too.”

The economic system of Western capitalism with its inexorable drive for increasing growth and profit is impacting the delicate balance of our ecosystem, littering the planet, oceans and atmosphere, and creating waves of alarm about our very survival. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that we have lost our way and return to consult with our elders.

Botho/Ubuntu may offer a philosophical and ethical model that could help us to reconnect with a sense of oneness and wholeness and lead us back to a feeling of belonging and caring for each other, our environment, and the great mystery of our existence. Pumla emphasized that Botho/Ubuntu needs to be placed in the context of large current global ethical dialogues and debates. She noted that it is important to start these dialogues without any specified goals or agendas, so that people can simply come together to listen to each other and meet each other at the soul level where we can re-establish the connection that we have lost with each other.

Many speakers at the conference advocated dialogue as a beginning to finding a way forward, in keeping with the spirit of the Dalai Lama naming the 21st century as the century of dialogue. Lily Mafela, professor of History and History Education at the University of Botswana, suggested that dialogue about Botho/Ubuntu is needed in small communities as well as at national and transnational levels. National leaders as well as leaders of the African Union need to be engaged to make these dialogues a priority and to budget for them with the goal of placing Botho/Ubuntu at the heart of government policy.

The question is: can we find the common ground where we can agree about common values? Thupten Jinpa suggested the question: “what do we want for our children?” as a way of revealing these universal values. How do we expand our tolerance and appreciation of differences among us so that our differences don’t trigger threat responses? Can we redefine “self-interest” to include our interdependence and communal values? How do we embody these values in institutions so that they become the norm and not remain only an aspiration?

What does evidence from neuroscience tell us about Botho/Ubuntu?

  • Uri Hasson, Professor at the Psychology Department and the Neuroscience Institute
    uri-hasson 2

    Uri Hasson

    at Princeton University, demonstrated very graphically with his slides how our brains become synchronized through sound when we are communicating: the same areas of our brains are activated as we speak and listen. We literally become physically interconnected in the sense that the activity of our brains becomes synchronized when we communicate.

  • All is well when we are on common ground and agree about values, but what about forces that polarize us? We can’t say that all values are equal while also preserving differences between us. For example, we may accept the value of freedom, but for some this may mean a society with guns while for others it may mean a society with no guns. These two can’t both be accepted as of equal value and reconciled.
  • How do we break down the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and open ourselves to new encounters beyond our in-group? This may involve a recreation of the self for a new humanity where the dynamic changes to accepting the other as different but also equal. This means finding a way to increase our capacity for empathy.
  • Two ways for Botho/Ubuntu to become a reality in society are 1) seeing the benefits of it as being in my self-interest and 2) that it becomes institutionalized in the basic structures of governance.


  • Carsten De Dreu, Professor of Psychology at Leiden University and also affiliated
    carsten 2

    Carsten de Dreu

    with the Center for Experimental Economics and Political Decision Making at the University of Amsterdam, provided three reasons that people live and function in groups: to cooperate, to care for each other; and to compete against other groups both to aggressively exploit them for resources, and to defend our group against such exploitation by other groups.

  • Experiments show that the neuropeptide oxytocin is involved in care and cooperation within groups, but not between groups. It is also involved in aggressive defence of our own group against outside threat but is not involved in aggressive exploitation of other groups. The two main conclusions of these experiments are: 1) we are biologically prepared to serve our own groups and 2) serving our own group creates deprivation and discrimination in out-groups so that they feel a sense of threat which leads to conflict.
  • Group formation is based on similarity, proximity, and common fate. Where all three apply, a tightly bonded group is formed. So can we achieve peaceful coexistence with other groups that are not similar, are not in proximity to us, and with whom we don’t share a common fate?
  • In modern life in the context of globalization we may be beginning to recognize all other humans as similar, to feel proximity in relation to our all occupying the same planet, and to perceive our common fate in terms of planetary conditions such as climate change. If so, our biology could support the development of a sense of oneness and unity among all human beings.


  • Rebecca Shansky, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University in

    Rebecca Shansky

    Boston, addressed the questions of how trauma impacts the brain and which biological processes underlie empathy, compassion and recovery in her presentation.

  • Stress and trauma impact two main areas of the brain: the more recently evolved prefrontal cortex (PFC), involved in the higher cognitive functions, personality, decision making, and regulation of social behaviour; and the older amygdala involved in emotional reactions such as fight, flight or freeze and emotional memory.
  • Stress and trauma affect the neuroplasticity of these two areas. PFC neurons shrink and synapses become more rigid, affecting cognition and decision-making and resulting in a loss of the ability to regulate emotion and social behaviour. In contrast, amygdala neurons grow resulting in stronger fight, flight, or freeze responses. The good news is that given recent findings in relation to neuroplasticity, it is possible to create new associations to override neural trauma patterns.
  • Experiments with rodents suggest that there are differences in male and female responses to fear, and in male and female comforting behaviours.
  • In further experiments designed to determine whether rats understand when others are distressed and whether they then help each other, it was found that rats only help others if they have lived with them previously, even if they are a different kind of rat. However, if given anti-depressants, there is no empathic response. Since anti-depressants suppress amygdala activity more than PFC activity, this suggests that empathy is a very basic, preconscious and prerational response.

What do these findings mean in relation to Botho/Ubuntu?

  • Through brain synchronization when we communicate, we are already demonstrably interconnected.
  • We need to find out what the values are that we hold in common, so that we can strengthen the sense of our interconnection and interdependence.
  • We need to clarify how these communally held values support our self-interest and how we can institutionalize these values in our structures of governance.
  • We seem to be biologically prepared to bond with and defend our in-group based on similarity, proximity and a common fate. If we are to achieve a greater sense of interconnection and oneness beyond our in-group, we need to find ways to break down the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and to develop our capacity for empathy and bonding beyond our own groups.
  • Empathic response appears to be more related to conditioning (previous living together) than physical similarity which suggests that greater familiarity with one another strengthens our empathy for each other.
  • We need to address the causes of increasing levels of depression in modern societies and find alternatives to anti-depressants as a remedy if we are to successfully cultivate our capacity for empathy.
  • Given neuroplasticity, the effects of stress and trauma suffered through colonial oppression may be alleviated through the creation of new associations. This highlights the importance of creating a new narrative for ourselves: defining who we are as Africans, what kind of society is it is that we want to create for ourselves, and what it is that we have to contribute to alleviating the current world predicament.


Let us begin these dialogues at all levels of our society: what is it in the Botho/Ubuntu way of being that we can bring into modern life and how do we do this in the contexts of our governance, education, economic, justice, and spiritual institutions? Can we motivate our governments and the African Union to support these dialogues?

Secular mindfulness-based training programs are being used in multiple contexts in society and are contributing not only to relieving the stresses of modern life but also to increasing awareness of the need for radical change to arrive at a more sustainable way of life.

A newer Stanford-based Compassion Cultivation Training has been developed by a team headed by Geshe Thupten Jinpa and began running trainings in January 2011. This could be a model that could be introduced and adapted to incorporate Botho/Ubuntu principles in offering this training at least initially in Africa. As part of Dharmagiri’s vision of exploring “Afro-Dharma”, it is our intention to develop a training program along these lines following dialogue-based retreats as encouraged by this Botho/Ubuntu conference. Anyone interested in participating in initial exploratory conversations about this, please do get in touch with us!!

Dharmagiri, August, 2017
Access the Conference Live Stream Here.


Thupten Jinpa (2015). A Fearless Heart. Why Compassion is the Key to Greater Wellbeing. London: Piatkus.
Tutu, Desmond (2004). God has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for our Times. New York: Doubleday.