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.










Quantum Theory & Self-Reflection

 Listen to a Taster on Quantum Theory  with Gavin & Thanissara

Born of attention are all things.
The Buddha

The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment. Bernard d’Espagnat

The atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts. Werner Heisenberg

Click Here for: Info for Retreats below Sept 16-19 & Sept 30-Oct 4

Sometimes we need to shift set; to take a quantum leap from the daily grind and a world seemingly falling apart. At Dharmagiri, we are set to enter the world of Quantum Theory, designed to collapse the regular mind! Seriously, this leading edge science is so extraordinary that even the most revered quantum theorists say things like, “Anyone not shocked by quantum mechanics has not yet understood it.” (Niels Bohr.)

Yet…. it tweaks a whoa wow feeling, indicating that a quantum leap is not from but into’ deep reality. A long forgotten dream whispering like distant temple bells heard while walking along a winter beach calling attention to something….. important. (Poetry, it seems, is a language of the infinite. “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections.” Niels Bohr.) We recognize something, even as we struggle to cognitively place its truths or compute its implications. We recognize the resonance of QT pointing to the primacy of consciousness, and there’s nothing more personally impersonal than that!


   Gavin Roberston

We are delighted to have a competent and excellent guide into this territory who will be leading a retreat at Dharmagiri from the 16-19 September. Gavin Robertson is currently engaging a Ph.D. exploring the relationship between Vedic concepts of consciousness and Quantum Theory. Gavin, a psychologist, has guided many people (including traumatized youth), through transformational journeys and rites of passage in the wilderness (including the Drakensberg). He brings to his work a profound yoga practice, including experience of facilitation of Yoga Teacher Training in Uganda, Mozambique, and South Africa, and a long interest in integrating Western and Eastern psychology.

In this interview Thanissara (Dharmagiri co-guiding teacher), asks Gavin about his understandings of QT. What unfolds is a fascinating journey into the nature of light and matter, that all possibilities exist simultaneously, the determining factor of attention, shifting consciousness, choice, freeing ourselves from old assumptions and patterings, quantum insight into death, and more! Reality, it seems, is not what we thought!

Gavin will also be co-leading another retreat from Sept 30 to Oct 3 with Chandasara on a closely related subject, which is death and dying. Perhaps if we approach death with the insights offered by QT, and ancient wisdom schools like Buddhism and the Vedas, then our understanding of our lives would positively change. Chandasara will also be exploring very human experiences like grief when dealing with loss.

We look forward to seeing you at Dharmagiri for the leap!

**************   ***************   ***************

In the beginning, there were only probabilities. The universe could only come into existence if someone observed it. It does not matter that the observers turned up several billion years later. The universe exists because we are aware of it. (WHOA WOW!)
Martin Rees

And… try these on for size:

We now know that the moon is demonstrably not there when nobody looks.
N. David Mermin

I can’t accept quantum mechanics because I like to think the moon is there
even if I am not looking at it.
Albert Einstein

let go

Beyond Identity: Exploring Race & Culture in South Africa

What remains with me from this retreat is both a sense of the immensity of the task of bringing about healing and reconciliation in the relationship among races in South Africa, and a sense of respect for the courage and resilience needed in working towards that healing and reconciliation. It seemed apparent to me that we are all in need of restoration of our basic human modesty, dignity, and relatedness out of our respective internalized conditionings of privilege and oppression.

Friends, please take a pause from the busyness of the day to read this. We would like to share with you reflections from our retreat “Beyond Identity, Into Experience: Exploring Race and Culture in South Africa” which took place in June 2016 at Dharmagiri Insight Meditation Centre, KwaZulu Natal. The comments below are from our group, who journeyed together into uncomfortable territory; there we expressed and learnt important things — for ourselves, society, and for our world. Thanks for taking time with us as you read this, we appreciate your open-mindedness and authentic hearts.

beyond identity

Our small retreat community

Retreat leaders, Nolitha Tsengiwe and Chandasara, lay out the context of the retreat: 

nolithaUsing Insight Dialogue and meditation enabled the participants to engage an in-depth inquiry into the impact of growing up through Apartheid South Africa.

What was it like for you growing up in South Africa as Black or White, Coloured or Indian and when did you first experience yourself in terms of this identity? How did you perceive yourself and others of your own race, and how did you perceive people of different races?  How did you feel about your life as a person of your own race?  What did you think about the lives of other people of different races?

Are we ready for this dialogue?  Can we share our perceptions and experiences related to our racial identities on a personal level?  Can we go beneath the political, economic and ideological debates to explore and share the underlying personal experiences?  Can this lead us towards greater understanding and help us to cultivate empathy in our relationships with each other?

These were some of the questions it was hoped that this retreat would address by using Insight Dialogue as a meditative container for this process. Insight Dialogue is an interpersonal meditation practice which helps to bring the meditative qualities of spaciousness, mindfulness and insight into our interactions with other people. Insight Dialogue involves dialogues mostly in pairs and occasionally in groups of three or four.[1]

Each day began and ended with a period of silent meditation as did each Insight Dialogue chandasarasession. Each session had a particular theme or focus for the dialogues during that session and each session closed with a brief group sharing about the experience. The focus of the first session was on bodily experience in the present moment as a way of grounding awareness in the body and as an experiential introduction to the practice of Insight Dialogue. In the second session, the focus for the dialogues was on attitudes, views, beliefs and values that we have learned or become aware of from our families and cultures about other races as well as our own race. In the third session, the dialogue was a reflection on the morning’s practice and dialogues – reflecting on the use of the Insight Dialogue guidelines (see footnote above) and on what had emerged and remained present from the dialogues. The last part of the session involved partners simply being together and breathing together silently and observing this process of non-verbal connectedness.

The fourth session focused firstly, on reflections on what remained with us from the previous evening’s group sharing, and secondly, on our own personal experiences currently as adults in relation to our racial identities and those of other racial identities. In the fifth session the focus was initially on exploring the essence of the impact on us of growing up under Apartheid or its legacy, and closed again with dialogue partners simply being together and breathing together silently and observing this process of non-verbal connectedness.

The focus of the sixth and last Insight Dialogue session was on dreams and visions: having voiced our stories about our experiences and perceptions, how would we want these stories to change – how would we like them to be different now? What possibilities do we see? What could we change or do in our lives or environments that would help to make these aspirations become our reality?

Some comments, themes, and subjects that were raised during the group sharing sessions included:

  • It felt like there was so much to say and not enough time to say it all – as if there is a mass of built up material waiting to find expression.
  • The problem is big – much bigger than SA – it is part of a global system of white western patriarchal capitalism whose values have become the standard by which all else is evaluated, whether consciously or unconsciously.
  • Reflection on which is better – black culture or white culture? What has manifested as racism in South Africa was described as part of the globalization of white western patriarchal capitalism which privileges mostly white wealthy male minority elites. The problem of addressing race in South Africa was seen to be massive considering this wider context. Two metaphors used to describe this process in South Africa were the cappuccino metaphor – a sprinkling of black on top of a thick layer of rich creamy white resting on a large body underneath of plain black coffee; and a big pot of white western capitalism into which blacks are gradually being thrown and stirred up in. This dominant culture was described as seriously damaging the planet, climate, and people. This was contrasted with a description of black culture as being based on ubuntu – a sense of community, relatedness, wholeness, closer to the earth and caring for people.
  • The consideration of which is better seemed also related to a need to assert, affirm and reclaim the positive humanist values in races, cultures, and genders which have been denigrated, dismissed and undermined to counter the enormously damaging effects of internalizing this kind of conditioning.
  • How do we de-condition ourselves from conditioned inferiority and superiority? Partly by expanding our awareness of our own racial conditioning through exposure to each other’s worlds and worldviews, being open to feedback about our behaviour, and being willing to “sit in the fire” of the powerful emotions that such exposure can evoke.
  • What is the role of whites in this process of de-conditioning? It was suggested that instead of “supporting” the black struggle, whites should work on changing whites because that is where the problem is. It is not the role of whites to support the black struggle because that is just stepping into a power position again and thinking whites know what to do and how best to do it.
  • Whites who oppose racism have a strong desire to be seen as “good” whites – not being racist and being helpful and supportive of black initiatives to counter racism. Actually facing and addressing racism in the white community seemed to feel overwhelming – easier to support blacks than to work to change white racist attitudes.
  • The topic of white “collective suicide” was put on the table defined as meaning the death of the mentality that underpins racism.
  • It became apparent that ignorance about each other is vast – brought about through separation and enculturation – we are ignorant about each other and our respective communities. There were some moments of surprise – ‘oh, they are actually just like us’ or ‘I had no idea that there were serious disagreements in the white community about race – I assumed all whites thought the same way’.
  • The theme of the strong tendency to blame, punish, and justify was examined – the pervasiveness of blaming each other and justifying ourselves – and the unhelpfulness of this. When did it start? Whose fault is it? Who is responsible?
  • A sense of futility and disenchantment was expressed with dialogue and trying to change the other, trying to get them to understand. Why are we doing this? Does it get us anywhere? Are we just simply in the end all just tribal?
  • The assertion that all whites are racist whether they want to be or not was discussed. Because racism is a system that is perpetrated against blacks and not whites, blacks by definition cannot be racist – they have not created a system of oppression against whites. Blacks may be and sometimes are racially prejudiced, but they are not racist.
  • Strong frustration was expressed about the argument often heard that since it is already twenty years since the end of Apartheid, it is time for people to stop blaming Apartheid for things that are still wrong as if it is possible to wipe out the effects of 360 years of colonialism followed by Apartheid in only twenty years.
  • Political freedom has had very little effect on alleviating inequality and poverty – how can this be? What about economic freedom? Does Malema have the solution?
  • Corruption – what underlies it – what are the causes? – why don’t we look more at that?
  • The roles of love, hate, anger, perseverance and patience in this process of change. ‘You have to meet hatred with love – it will eventually erode all obstacles away’. ‘I wish I could be like that but I am so tired and disillusioned’.
  • A white sense of uncertain belonging in Africa and of lack of acknowledgement of white victimization.
  • Privilege – layerings and degrees of relative privilege – isn’t it inevitable – what is the alternative – a uniform society of everyone being exactly the same and having exactly the same? In addition to race, other factors such as personality traits, physical characteristics, sexual orientation, gender, language, accent, and many others are also gateways in certain circumstances to privilege.
  • Is education the solution or is this a myth? Does education inevitably open doors to wealth and status? Are wealth and status the goals?
  • Acknowledgement of the toxicity of ignorance, prejudice, harshness, rudeness, dismissiveness that have become entrenched in our society.
  • Differences in the older and younger generations of blacks – the tendency of older generations to keep racial awareness alive in the younger generations who are less conscious of racial identities.
  • The tendency through internalized oppression of blacks to see blacks who are successful as becoming ‘white’ and the inclination to want to hold each other down or back as a means of maintaining ‘black’ unity and identity.
  • Racism and the value of life – the ANC government does not value black lives or black dignity – still they haven’t provided basic necessities like water to many black areas – and this seems not to matter to them. These ANC leaders have internalized oppression and don’t consider black lives to be of any more value than the government before them.
  • Acknowledgement of the demanding role of black women in upholding the whole nation: nurturing black men in their undermined masculinity, being the peacemakers trying to help people to understand each other, historically looking after white children and then suffering later alienation.
  • The absence of black men on the retreat – why aren’t they here? Frustration expressed with black men being messed up – and expressions of empathy with them for having had their masculinity undermined in the past – not being able to fulfil their roles as protectors and providers living with their families – black children growing up without present fathers – boys not having masculine role models – and being subjected to humiliations from whites – not being able to occupy and live out their social roles. The experience of one black man was conveyed to the group – of being brought up with unconditional love which has given him the capacity for patience and living at peace with uncertainty. Thus there was some balance of both criticism and appreciation of black males.

Reflections from facilitators and retreatants:

Nolitha:  My most present feeling post the race dialogue is the feeling of gratitude and hope. I am hopeful and excited about what I observed in this retreat as capacity and willingness to ‘sit in the fire’ , engage from a place of vulnerability and courage, on such a hot and complex topic. Most energizing were emerging insights shared by retreatants that allowed for depth of understanding and expanded views/perspectives on the subject of race and identity. This for me enabled clarity of intention in doing this work. That I do this work to create safety to engage in ways that allow for self awareness for an expanded identity. It’s clear for me that our work is to see our blind spots, these relate largely to blindness to our conditioning. For black people it’s seeing how our internalized oppression keeps us in self-hate and self doubt and for white people it’s the blindness on privilege of whiteness that comes with superiority thinking that seems to say “I have the right view”.   My own experience of the retreat says we need each other as a mirror for growing our self awareness and awareness of the impact we have on each. The mirror becomes a source of insights and healing.

Insight dialogue as a tool enabled a deep quality of listening. Most of the insights seemed to surface with the invitation to share your experience of your speaking and share your experience of listening to the other. What I noticed is that it’s at this point in the Insight Dialogue process that people gain self-awareness, which becomes a doorway for an expanded perspective. This happens in an intimate relational space that Insight Dialogue offers. In speaking about your experience of speaking you see through your blindness or unconsciousness. Often an unsatisfying moment of really “seeing’. The beauty is that nobody has to point out your unconscious bias, you see it yourself.

It was an eye opener for me to hear retreatants noticing the difference in how we show up differently in the intimate space of dyads and how we show up in the bigger circle. My sense is that we are more real and open to being vulnerable in the dyads , whereas in the circle we can show up as being in a role. I know for myself shifting from time to time from the role of facilitator to being a participant allowed for a much richer experience. In the facilitator role I am aware of the responsibility of maintaining safety for all, a desire that all voices get heard. As a participant I can just be me.

I left the retreat with a warm sense of belonging, over just 3 days we created a community.

Chandasara:  What remains with me from this retreat is both a sense of the immensity of the task of bringing about healing and reconciliation in the relationship among races in South Africa, and a sense of respect for the courage and resilience needed in working towards that healing and reconciliation. It seemed apparent to me that we are all in need of restoration of our basic human modesty, dignity, and relatedness out of our respective internalized conditionings of privilege and oppression.

The sense of the immensity of the task of healing and reconciliation came from seeing some of the effects of having been so profoundly separated from each other over such a long period of history – that we have been so insulated from each others’ realities that we don’t really know much about the complexities of each others’ lives or know how to even begin to find each other. The legislated separation under Apartheid was in a sense only the tip of an iceberg: under that surface lies the vast psychological separation from where we view each other across chasms of ignorance filled in by supposition, projection, stereotypes, isolated experiences and perceptions, opinions and ideologies. How to communicate now without triggering rigorous defences against powerful emotions of bitterness and fear is an enormous challenge.

The respect for the courage and resilience needed in working towards healing and reconciliation came through feeling deeply touched by sincere efforts to communicate feelings and perspectives that were difficult to express and to hear, and by the willingness to return to continued interaction after experiencing difficult challenges and painful interactions. I felt very moved by the depth of pain and trauma expressed at times, by admissions of ignorance and changed perspectives about the lives and experiences of the “other”, by some very beautiful, generous and loving expressions of appreciation and magnanimity that were offered into the group, and by some informal demonstrations of mutual affection and bonding despite the pain and alienation of our history. In this I sensed a deep desire for healing and reconciliation and felt the potential for community to develop.

Participating in some of the dialogues in dyads I experienced an expansion of my own awareness of some of the profoundly damaging effects of internalized oppression within families on self-esteem. This left me feeling intense sorrow for the extensive wounding and harm caused by racism. I also experienced discomfort, fear and shame around my own racial conditioning in the awareness that however deeply I don’t want this conditioning, having grown up in this society, traces of it remain, and it is difficult and sometimes excruciating to come face-to-face with it. When one of the participants commented that since it is so difficult for black people to free themselves of the effects of their racial conditioning, it must also be true that it is perhaps just as difficult for white people to free themselves of their own racial conditioning – I felt so grateful for this empathic understanding.

Lerato: As I was preparing for the retreat, I had a lot of reasons for wanting to be there and I decided to go as a blank canvass. I was going to allow myself to be guided whilst also doing what felt good in my soul.

It was an unbelievable experience and answered to my wishes – I had always toyed with the idea of a silent retreat (I talk too much sometimes – hehehe), I wanted to meditate daily, I wanted to hear from other races their true experiences and all of these were actually granted. I also wanted to be facilitated by Nolitha (yea I did).

The methodology was new, frustrating at some points when time was up and we were still deep in discussion. Even with that, the discussions were targeted and I had to learn to say what I needed to say in the allocated time. In my years of doing diversity facilitation I have never learnt as much as I did at this weekend, the authenticity was rich, the stories real, the debates were interesting, the view points enlightening and the sharing of personal stories was heartfelt.

I was challenged by other “Black” stories as sometimes we take these for granted and we forget in true “privilege” mentality that we are individuals and not a collective. I was brought to my knees by the other races in the room. I came out with the knowledge that I need to believe what people say as we also grew up not believing others’ stories believing they were always “comfortable”.

This experience was good for my overall being. The different diet, the physical environment and the setting added to the ambiance that led me to further growth. Both the facilitators were amazing and I would like to thank the managers of Dharmagiri. I am thankful for the scholarships for me and the other participants as without them the interactions would not have been as wealthy. I would like to volunteer at the centre when there is a need. Please let me know so more people can pass through the centre and get the same experience.

I wish this experience for everyone in South Africa.

Jolanna: Experiencing the richness and wisdom that can sprout from the intention to be truly present with kindness and attention, is what made this Insight Dialogue retreat so great.  Experiencing the raw emotions and pain the history and present life in South Africa inflicts is what makes this dialogue so important.  May I continue to learn from this experience, and may this be the start of true change.

BuyiswaThank you very much for the opportunity to join the Retreat. For me it was a good chance to learn a lot of things in my life, to have a good communication with myself and to meet with good caring people.  I am looking forward to joining the Retreat again next year and I would like to say a big thank you to Annika and her husband for giving me the opportunity to be part of the Retreat.

Zak: This retreat took me through the whole gamut of emotions and reflections. I came in comfort, descended into self-doubt, questioned my place and role in the country, experienced realization, doubt, acceptance, peace, determination, doubt, peace, doubt, peace, excitement, doubt, despair, hope, peace, and doubt, all at once some times.

The format of the dialogues, beautifully facilitated, provided the right structure to deal with some very emotional topics in a way that brought out the emotions without allowing them to get overheated to the point of no longer listening to each other. There is no question that I learnt more about race, South Africa, and my own space (not role!) in it during this weekend than I have in the last five years.

As with any deep change, it’s difficult to fully express what I learnt in a few short lines, and particularly since a lot of what I learnt was doubt. I think I understand better my privilege, and my subliminal prejudices, and certainly I better understand the internal prejudices that other people hold, and how all of our differing narratives about social standing in South Africa cause us to maintain the status quo, as unuseful as that may be.

I guess the biggest take-away for me was that, as a white male, I have a role to play in rebalancing South Africa, but that role is not a leadership one, recreating my own position of privilege by another name. Rather, through recognising it and the pure luck of my birth, my role is to support and allow that narrative to change into something I probably won’t be comfortable with, and almost certainly won’t even understand, but which will see South Africa find a space that works for all of her.

Tshepiso: The weekend I spent at Dharmagiri was an emotionally moving and reflective time for me. I was nervous for the dialogue around the difficult topic of culture, race and identity, the nervousness stemmed from my intolerance of ignorance which often comes up whenever race is discussed. I found that the approach that was taken using insight dialogue was an effective method for diffusing the heated reactions that often result when we discuss race. I found myself listening more, breathing and in turn responding and engaging in a more controlled manner.

Oftentimes during the discussion I was angry and as I said to the fellow retreatants I believe that anger is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact I feel that as black South Africans we have every right to be angry. It’s what we do with that anger that determines its benefit to us, this is the aspect I have always grappled with, harnessing and controlling my anger so that it promotes effective dialogue and that’s what I felt Nolitha and Chandasara were so incredible at guiding us (me specifically) on. I am also grateful to my fellow retreatants for being open and honest with their views, it allowed us to all engage honestly with each other and consider various perspectives. The biggest thing I took away from this weekend was the amount of power that lies in silence and the necessity of reflection and meditation in our daily lives. Thank you Dharmagiri.


White man

He pushes me away

He will not hold it

He wants all of this

But none of this

Big, strong, caring, kind

Protects by crushing, hushing, ties that bind

Sister AbeChandasara and Nolitha, I am failing to thank you enough for arranging this Retreat (Beyond  Identity). I learnt a lot about dealing with the challenges of racism during our growing up time. I felt that there was so much mental and Spiritual healing. The way the retreat was done it was so touching and deep. It was a  revelation for me or us!

JennyI had read about the Insight Dialogue on the Dharmagiri website and was immediately drawn to it but also very afraid. After making many excuses to myself about why I could not go, I found myself at Dharmagiri. It felt as if the dialogue started on the drive from the airport with 2 other participants. We had open, caring and interesting conversations which made me excited and less apprehensive. We shared intimate stories from our diverse backgrounds as we drove through the KwaZulu landscape of my childhood.

But my heart was in my mouth during the evening introductory session. I realised that I was very afraid of speaking. I am still trying to understand the depth of my fear but on the surface it was fear of saying something that may offend or that may cause people to judge me. So much of my recent reading and reflection had been around the need for white people to be quiet and to listen.

It soon became easy to let go of the written words and open my ears and heart to the people sitting in front of me. The process of the Insight Dialogue was gentle, inclusive and gave space for everyone to speak, which was part of the grace of the process.

We were a relatively diverse group of South Africans willing to talk about race, which is pretty special in our country right now and probably always has been. It was a place of stories and meeting across generations, races, privileges and locations. The intimacy of one-on-one dialogue, of watching our partners’ eyes and breathing, of deep listening and exploration of self, was both profoundly difficult and a joyful opening. I was carried by stories into new understandings of how others experience living in their skins, identities, families, communities and hearts. I was deeply unsettled by my ignorance, moved into a disrupted place, often battling to breathe and regulate my heart.

One of the suggestions made during the dialogue was that white people should engage in conversations around whiteness with other white people. To engage with that privilege and work out ways of responding to this in South Africa today. It is true and necessary but made me feel exhausted and resistant. I realised how much easier it is to talk with Black friends about whiteness and racism and privilege and that with white friends there is often defensiveness and a form  of guilt which I understand so keenly.

There was in the dialogue a generosity from Black women in the room. I particularly appreciated the young black women who gave me, a middle-aged woman, an insight into their lives and struggles. I was struck by the generosity and wisdom of each participant. We all had moments of being taught and of teaching. There was rage and anger and tiredness but the most precious of all, the personal stories of lived realities of South Africans.

One of the overwhelming feelings I had during and after the insight dialogue process was around guilt – white guilt. It is a multi-faceted, painful, complex and persistent ‘condition’. I want to let go of the guilt that comes with the awareness of being white in South Africa and in the wider world and to say that I have less guilt but that I embody the conditions I have been given in this life. And therein lies my responsibility. And I hope to find and create more opportunities for dialogue, for storytelling, for ritual, for action in order to live with more dignity and compassion. It was a very special time for me. We need so much more of these spaces in our country.

Dan: I described the retreat to one of my friends as ‘intense, challenging and rewarding’. I can’t deny I found it difficult at times. The one-on-one sessions using Insight Dialogue methods were great, even when I was hearing stuff that was disparaging about my own racial group or me personally. I found it useful to hear it, and the method of allowing us to share our beliefs and attitudes with regular pauses, quiet periods and feedback to each other was valuable.  My sense is that it enabled us to say things we wouldn’t normally say to one another, and to discuss the feelings that arise. This is where we need to be going as a nation, hopefully.

The group discussions had a slightly different dynamic: I found them really interesting and I learned a lot, but on the last night I wasn’t so happy with the way the discussion went. I guess I felt it was an affront to the way I saw myself, maybe a misunderstanding. Anyway, I got over it.

The assertion that all whites are racist is not helpful in my opinion.  It may well be true, but it’s not likely to encourage whites to reflect honestly about their attitudes, and to change them. I get the point about why black people can’t be racist (racism as institutionalised discrimination, inherent belief in superiority etc.) I have even argued this point with some of my friends recently, distinguishing between prejudice and racism. White people in SA probably have the capacity to change their attitudes, but are unlikely to do so if they are demonised. White people are scared, maybe a bit angry, resentful – perhaps they don’t deserve to have these feelings after all that has happened, but they do. Attitudes need to change amongst white people, but it has to be handled skilfully – by whom I’m not sure. I am reminded of the joke: how many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the lightbulb must want to change.

I have a better understanding into how people feel about many things – racism, identity, prejudice, humanity, forgiveness, love. There’s lots of work to be done amongst my lot, that’s for sure.

Thanks to everyone for their participation and warmth.

Keke: This Insight Dialogue experience arrived at a time when my soul was craving some form of nourishment. Working regularly with race dialogues had me spent and feeling exhausted and a little jaded.

The wisdom in the room, the shared experience of love and the desire for the healing of South Africa brought so much hope and a deep felt energy to carry on.

Although solutions or an ultimate solution is still something to work on, a spirit of endurance has been brought to life and that is something I’ve deeply embraced.

I’m so glad I went.


[1] The Insight Dialogue guidelines for both speaking and listening are:


Regular pausing interrupts the momentum of our involvement in what we are saying or listening to so we can be aware of our immediate experience – it invokes mindfulness



Helps bring about ease by releasing the tension we notice through pausing and helps us accept whatever it is we are experiencing



Helps us to extend this ease and acceptance to the external – to what is around us and to what we are in contact with


Trust Emergence

Helps us to allow for the complexity of our ever-changing experience as it arises spontaneously in the moment from underlying causes


Listen Deeply

Here we allow our own internal dialogue and reactivity to die down so that we can be still enough inside to listen deeply


Speak the Truth

Here we commit ourselves to ethical speech, truth, kindness and consideration




Growing Up Under Apartheid

You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.
― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Nolitha and Chandasara discuss “growing up under apartheid”
& their June 16 – 19 retreat at Dharmagiri. Details of the retreat are below.

How would you articulate the essence of the impact of growing up within the Apartheid system? And what stays with you now?


Reflecting on this question what stands out is a feeling of confusion and fear I felt as a child. I grew up in a Catholic community, mixed racially. The church had 3 separate sitting nolithasections, one for White, Coloured and Black people. There were two separate schools, one for Coloured kids and another for Black kids. Teachers for the Coloured kids were White and Black for us. What stood out about this for me as a child was the other side had better amenities, (Coloured kids had a playground with swings, jungle gym and more, we only had a netball and soccer field). I never asked why? All I know is that as kids we were always envious of White and Coloured kids, they had all different kinds of privileges we did not have. I remember my younger brother who became an activist saying he would like to be White.

I have carried fear for White males for the longest time in my life, this comes from growing up with white police brutality. The worse thing for a child is seeing your parents harassed by white policeman for no good reason , this was common experience when we were travelling from the former homelands (Transkei) to SA. You could feel the fear in the car as we approached the border gate. Nobody would say anything about this. You were always treated with contempt by white people. This had a negative impact on my self-esteem, I associated whiteness with good and blackness with not good. Self-esteem is an ongoing personal journey for me. As an adult now I have an opportunity to develop friendship across race. This has been helpful in having an identity that goes beyond race to also being just human. The ongoing personal work I do allows me not to hold so tightly to what I call self. More and more I am experiencing self as a process rather than a fixed entity with one fixed identity.


One impact was a heightened awareness of racial identity and its social implications – that if you were white, you were generally treated respectfully by authorities and had access to more and better quality resources and conversely, if you were black, you were generally treated with contempt and had access far fewer and poorer quality resources. This naturally led to subtle psychological effects of unconsciously assumed privileges and higher social standing among whites and something of the opposite among blacks – achandasara questioning of self-worth and a sense of victimization, rejection and exclusion. We were all subjected to a kind of racial indoctrination and however we may now consciously reject such ideas, when you have been conditioned in this way, it is not so easy to free yourself of their effects, however deeply you may desire to do so.

A second impact was confusion about why this was as it was because there were so many contradictions in the society. Although South Africa was a self-proclaimed Christian and democratic society, the society was not based on the Christian teachings of love and sharing, but rather on fear, separation, prejudice, and greed – and the government was not democratic. Behaviour in relations between people of different races was often very distorted – ranging from many whites at times being overly arrogant, hostile and harsh towards blacks and many blacks at times being overly submissive and passive and sometimes silently collected like a threatening storm towards whites. As a child, I found this all very confusing and painful.

A third impact for myself, of growing up under Apartheid as a white person, was a deep questioning of my own identity as a result of belonging to a “settler” population whose sense of belonging was somewhat uncertain. Although I was born here and knew no other country as my own, there was a sense of white people having had to fight historically to establish a kind of nationhood here. This was not something automatic and therefore did not feel particularly secure. At the same time, the right to citizenship in the European countries of origin had lapsed so that there can be a sense of not really belonging anywhere on the planet. This is quite a subtle effect and not necessarily very conscious just as one can take very for granted a sense of rooted belonging to a place where one’s family has lived for many, many generations.

Chandasara & Nolitha

Why do you think this retreat is important and what do you hope this retreat will be able to offer participants?

This retreat is important because the personal or psychological effects of apartheid have not really been so much addressed yet. While the legal foundations for democratic political institutions have been established and there is greater social, geographic and economic integration, and some of the more extreme trauma of Apartheid was aired through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the more subtle effects of apartheid on us as South Africans and on our daily relationships with each other hasn’t really been addressed – and we are therefore not necessarily aware of the effects of our conditionings and behaviours on each other.

So we are hoping that in this retreat we can begin to glimpse each others’ experiences of our conditioning in relation to our racial identities through simply sharing stories about our experiences in relation to race as children, as adolescents, and as adults and begin to explore the impact of the telling of these stories on each other so that we can become more aware of each others’ pain, fear, sorrow, hopes, aspirations, desires. We hope that this might provide a doorway into each others’ subjective worlds so that we can begin to have a deeper dialogue about our relationships with one another and how we can ease the pain we cause each other through the history of our conditioning. In this way, we hope to open up new ways of relating that take us beyond these conditioned identities.

Who might this retreat be suitable for?

Anyone who is interested in finding ways to move beyond this conditioning and freeing themselves of it. For people of all races who have an interest in exploring the question of identity from the lens of race. We hope in so doing individuals can find compassion for what still needs to heal in this experience of growing up in a divided society.

Will it be relevant to the younger generation?

Certainly. Although the younger generation who are growing up in a post-Apartheid society are not affected in the same way as those of us who grew up under Apartheid, the legacy of Apartheid remains evident everywhere in the society. This is not meant to diminish in any way all the effort and energy that has been and is being put into changing the society, but it is acknowledging that the effects of Apartheid and in fact the racial segregationist policies that preceded Apartheid have had and continue to have a profound effect on all of us and that we need to talk more openly about this particularly as it affects our daily personal relationships with each other.

How will you approach the retreat, what kind of processes, practices, spaces do you want to offer?

The focus of this retreat will be on sharing our perceptions and experiences in relation to race from different stages of our lives. We have called this storytelling because it will probably involve sharing memories of various incidents in our lives. We will then provide some space for a dialogue around these sharings and the dialogue will be contained within a meditative context so that we can really speak our truth and listen attentively to each other. We will also provide a safe space, to hear all voices, and for exploring new stories and new expanded identities. There will also be some space for sharing poems or other writing that expresses something of the impact that racism has had on us in our experience and our lives.


Beyond Identity: Exploring Race & Culture in S.Africa – June 16 – 19

Cost: R550 single, R500 – R450 shared per night + dana for teachers                                      Partial and Full Bursaries Available

Retreat Description – What was it like for you growing up in South Africa as Black or White, Coloured or Indian and when did you first experience yourself in terms of this identity? How did you perceive yourself and others of your own race, and how did you perceive people of different races? How did you feel about your life as a person of your own race? What did you think about the lives of other people of different races?

Are we ready for this dialogue? Can we share our perceptions and experiences related to our racial identities on a personal level? Can we go beneath the political, economic and ideological debates to explore and share the underlying personal experiences? Can this lead us towards greater understanding and help us to cultivate empathy in our relationships with each other?

We would like to offer this 3-day retreat as an opportunity to explore and share our own, and others, personal struggles, and experiences in relation to how our history and social conditioning defined us in terms of racial identities, and to provide an opportunity for cultivating empathy for individual and collective healing.

Using meditative dialogue as a means of providing a safe containing space for this exploration, this retreat will provide a structured format for dialogue based on the principles of mutual respect, mutual compassion, and a willingness to listen deeply and share truthfully. This form of dialogue is based on Insight Dialogue which is a structured and facilitated form that supports deepening awareness and change of habitual patterns of responding to and interacting with others.

Nolitha TsengiweCatholic by upbringing, has always been, even as a child, curious about “what truth is.” Her search for answers led her to become a practicing Buddhist. She is a Psychologist in private practice and an Executive Coach. In both roles, her primary task is to create a holding space for people who are also in search of truth as a doorway to freedom. Nolitha is a mother of a 15-year-old son, Singatha who is her teacher on how to be in the “here and now”. She is a facilitator in Biodanza ( Dance ) which is food for both heart and body, and a graduate of the Community Dharma Leader Program at Spirit Rock Meditation Centre, CA, USA.

Chandasaraspent her early adult life in political exile and later worked as a political analyst at the Centre for Policy Studies, Johannesburg. Chandasara trained as a Buddhist nun in the Forest School from 2003 to 2011 and after she left, completed an Honours degree in Psychology while residing at Emoyeni retreat centre. Since childhood, she has been deeply interested in all life and nature, intuitive sensitivity, spontaneity, play, creativity, and freedom. She currently resides at Dharmagiri Insight Meditation Centre where she enjoys exploring and sharing with others in the process of freeing ourselves.

“In this moment of meditation practice, you have the opportunity to observe yourself as you begin to speak. What self is speaking? At what point do you inhabit the role of “me”? What is it like to be that “me”? As you listen, are you listening through a filter of conditioning? Is that a self? I invite you to take the time in your practice to speak from silence and to listen deeply. What remains when you step out of roles, even for an instant?”
― Gregory Kramer, Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom

Simplicity and Joy – Katrin Offers A Retreat At Dharmagiri (Dec 16 – 20)

Meet Katrin, as she offers some thoughts about meditation, and her forthcoming retreat at Dharmagiri.

katrin 16 August

Katrin Auf der HeydeKatrin is a long time practitioner of yoga and meditation. She is particularly interested in exploring ‘practice’ as a skillful means whereby we respond to/engage with the world around us, and how this informs our day to day living. Trained as a physiotherapist Katrin works with a national child and youth care NGO providing services to children/youth with disabilities across the country and offering disability training to child and youth care worker.

When and where did you start meditation practice?

I began meditation many years ago in Cape Town, as part of my very first yoga training and also at the Zen Centre. While in India during the late 80’s, I practised with various teachers at a number of different meditation centres and ashrams.

You have meditated for many years, what have been the struggles, insights, benefits?

It seems to me that most of my struggles are related to the struggles of a mind that will find each and every excuse not to meditate and the myriad of forms that this can take.

What has been inspiring are those moments when I am aware of being more at ease with the way life is from day to day, occasionally experiencing myself being less “reactive” and more “responsive” and not taking myself too seriously.

What encouragement would you give to those starting out?

Mediation is a bit like learning any new skill, it requires practice, discipline and guidance.

Can you say something about the retreat you will be teaching at Dharmagiri in December?

In this retreat, we will explore what happens when we slow down, calm down, settle into our bodies and “simply” observe the movements of breath, thoughts and feelings in an unencumbered way. We will be guided by our direct experience from moment to moment rather than by external forms or rituals. There will be formal and informal practice, being alone and being with others, time for sitting in the meditation hall and walking on the land, and periods of both silence and talking. The emphasis will be on keeping our experience immediate and clear.

How can a retreat like this help us in our everyday lives as we negotiate a complex world, particularly here in South Africa?

I would say that any practice that consciously develops an attitude of questioning what it might mean to lead a life that is less determined by personal greed, fear and misperception is a useful “life skill”. The potential for change and transformation lies of course in the attitude we adopt in relation to the particular conditions we live in, be that in South Africa or anywhere else in the world. For me, retreats “in general” are vital in this process. They provide opportunities to reflect deeply on our lives and our relationship to the world we live in.

This particular retreat with its emphasis on “keeping things simple” may be useful in creating an increased awareness of those habits and tendencies that complicate our lives unnecessarily.

Details of the Retreat:

December 16 – December 20, 2015
Keeping it Simple. Meditation and the Practice of Joy

On this retreat, we will explore what happens when we keep our meditation practice simple and uncluttered, returning our attention again and again to our ordinary experience from one moment to the next. We will integrate sitting and walking meditation with some gentle movement throughout the day. By containing the impact of our habitual tendencies and usual distractions we open to the possibility of experiencing clarity and joyfulness.Katrin is a long time practitioner of yoga and

R1,900 – single ensuite
R1,470 – shared twin room
+ Dana for teachers and managers

To book, please contact Deborah at

The Value of Self-Retreat by Chandasara

From Dharmagiri AGM (annual general meeting), August, 2015

“Since I was a child at school I experienced life as over-organized and machine-like – a kind of treadmill that just kept goingTo Those Gone Before with machine-like regularity leaving little room for just being. I experienced this as a kind of suffocation of my intuitive sensibility and creative and spontaneous exploration that I enjoyed in the brief period before I went to school. I found it quite deadening. Self-retreat offers the opportunity to step out of pressures and demands from outside and this can be an enormous relief of tension that allows for one’s own heart to stir and open up.”

As one of the things that I would like to offer at Dharmagiri is supported self-retreats for individuals, I was asked to talk to you today briefly on the value of self-retreats.

My interest in self-retreats comes from my own experience. In 1997 I did a 6-week self-retreat at the BRC (Buddhist Retreat Centre), under the guidance of Kittisaro and Thanissara. During this retreat I did a lot of writing, recording memories from as early as I could recall. Whenever I came to a particularly painful or difficult memory, I would then use meditation to review the memory and to allow the related feelings to be fully felt and embodied. At times of anger I would punch a pillow or at times ofDarmagiri KwanyinWood sadness I would just cry, allowing the feelings to be felt. In the process of doing this many unresolved areas of my life’s experience came to light and I was then able to find ways of addressing these unresolved areas. For example, as a result of coming to an understanding through meditation of aspects of my relationship with my mother, I was able to talk these through with her and we were able to come to a place of mutual understanding, forgiveness, and love. I experienced this as an enormously healing process. This was just one aspect of the retreat. There were many others. At the end of the self-retreat I felt as if I had been thoroughly cleaned out on the inside and for a while afterwards I experienced everything around me as exquisitely beautiful and sparkling.

Also when I was in the monastery, we used to have two periods of self-retreat during the year. These were similarly times that experienced as immensely deepening, revealing, and replenishing. Having experienced this myself, I would like to offer the same kind of support to others who might wish to similarly review their lives or a particular facet of their lives or who might wish to deepen their insight into the nature of their experience or into spiritual teachings. I am very grateful to Dharmagiri for offering me this opportunity to offer others this kind of support.

In more general terms, I see the value of self-retreats to be in 3 main areas:

1) self-retreat can bring one back to one’s own inner being or bring one back into alignment with one’s own wisdom faculty; 2) self-retreat offers the opportunity to explore one’s own inner realms more fully; and 3) self-retreat offers the opportunity to deepen our spiritual insight.

Since I was a child at school I experienced life as over-organized and machine-like – a kind of treadmill that just kept going with machine-like regularity leaving little room for just being. I experienced this as a kind of suffocation of my intuitive sensibility and creative and spontaneous exploration that I enjoyed in the brief period before I went to school. I found of quiteopen sky deadening. Self-retreat offers the opportunity to step out of pressures and demands from outside and this can be an enormous relief of tension that allows for one’s own heart to stir and open up.

Self-retreat offers the possibility of finding and exercising one’s own inner sense of rhythm and balance without having to comply with externally-determined routines and timetables. As valuable as organized group retreats are, their rhythms don’t always suit everyone. Some people are morning people and find it easy to get up early in the morning but difficult to stay up late at night. Other people are night people and find it easy to stay up late into the night but difficult to get up early in the morning. On self-retreat, one can live according to one’s own natural energy levels and this can be very supportive of experiencing fully whatever it is that one needs to experience.

One can also create one’s own structures for the day – when to walk, when to eat, when to sleep, when to meditate, when to write or paint or draw, when to be in nature and how to commune with nature. One can begin to feel into one’s own natural energies and feel how they begin to flow again and reconnect one’s awareness with one’s own inner being. It is as if one’s compass becomes reset to follow one’s own inner guidance rather than following guidance provided from outside. This helps to develop trust in the wisdom which comes from within and this allows one’s creativity and enthusiasm for the journey of life to re-awaken.

This relaxation, opening, and re-awakening of one’s inner being provides the conditions in which suppressed and un-dealt with feelings and perceptions can rise into consciousness where they can be seen, understood, and integrated. This allows one to see more clearly what needs to be attended to: what one needs to do in one’s relationships, what one’s real values are, the way in which one want to live one’s life, what brings pain and what brings joy.

The way we tend to live our lives – being busy and scattered – tends to fragment us. Self-retreat can be a time of healing, of staircasewhole-making, of defragmentation. This gives a sense of clarity and stability in one’s foundations.

Self-retreat offers us the opportunity to explore our inner realms. We all have our own personal histories which are important as they have shaped the form of our lives – how we perceive and feel about things, and how we respond to things. In self-retreat we can begin to see patterns in this conditioning – the underlying matrices that give rise to these ways of thinking, feeling and responding. We may begin to see that we are acting on particular beliefs about ourselves by which we constellate the reality we perceive around us. This can be very revealing and very liberating as it brings with it the possibility of more flexibility and less rigidity in the way we relate to life.

Self-retreat also offers us the opportunity to explore and deepen our spiritual insight through study of scriptures, listening to talks, reading books, making notes and putting the pieces together, meditation and mindfulness practices, and through developing our intuitive awareness – sensing more deeply into what is present in our experience. This in turn increases our awareness of the connectedness and inter-relatedness of everything. We feel more in tune with everything and can enter into a deep sense of peace and fulfillment.

This experience has enormous power to be life-changing. We may completely reorient the direction of our lives.   This is why I want to offer this experience to others as I have experienced its value in my own life.

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To book your self retreat under the guidance of Chandasara, please contact her directly at:

Chandasara spent her early adult life in political exile in Europe and America where she was recruited into Okhela, an Oliver chandasaraTambo initiative to facilitate and expand white involvement in the ANC. Following this, she worked as a political analyst with the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg for 14 years. During this period she was also involved in an esoteric spiritual school. Wishing to deepen her meditation experience, she undertook a 6-week self-retreat guided by Kittisaro and Thanissara at the BRC in 1998.

Having discovered the revelatory power of sustained and focused meditation, she decided to enter monastic life. She resided at Amaravati and Chithurst Buddhist monasteries from 2002 to 2010. She put down the robes in 2011. Since then she has resided at Emoyeni Retreat Centre in the Magaliesberg during which time she completed an Honours degree in Psychology. She is moving to Dharmagiri in May this year where she intends to offer supported self-retreats for individuals wishing to explore and engage more deeply with particular aspects of their life experience.


Self-Retreat Fee Structure

Up to 13 nights: R390 per night (normal single ensuite charge)
From 14 to 29 nights: R335 per night (15% reduction on the normal single ensuite charge)
Longer than one month (for experienced meditators only): R235 per night (40% reduction on the normal single ensuite charge)

Please note, no one is turned away from Dharmagiri due to financial constraints. See below for possibilities regards an exchange of work for time on self retreat.

Work Retreat Fee Structure

Full work retreat (4 hours of work per day) – no charge – up to one month
Combined self and partial work retreat (2 hours of work per day) – half single ensuite charge (R195 per night)

Dana for the teacher – Please see here regards Dana (free will offering) in support of teachers at Dharmagiri

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(photo credit of solo meditator – open sky wilderness.)

Listening to the Heart @ Dharmagiri – Jennifer Radloff

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” Mary Oliver

It was not until I started listening to my heart and paying attention that my journey to Dharmagiri became possible. Here are some reflections on my journey and experience of a retreat at Dharmagiri, Calming the Mad Mind, Knowing the Luminous Heart: An Insight Meditation Retreat, with the wise and wonderful teachers, Kittisaro and Chandasara.

I read poetry daily. I go to poetry to be opened up, to find a balm, to be reminded that living means times of suffering, that there will always be hope. I read in order to be reminded of my connection to all things and to know that there is always a wide open sky of forgiveness and grace.

Recently, the poetry of Mary Oliver has been my refuge. Her words inspire such intense joy in me and help me direct my heart. I connect with the way she finds herself in nature, her belief in sacred silence, the praise of aloneness in order to connect meaningfully with others and what I read into her words of the non-separation between all living beings. She is my praise poet.

I carry volumes of poetry wherever I go. Hiking in the canyons or in the mountains, when I travel to other countries. I write lines of poetry in my diary which I carry with me all the time. But I forgot my diary and my books of poetry when I travelled to Dharmagiri for a retreat with Kittisaro and Chandasara.

It was a blessing as one of the many huge and beautiful lessons I learnt during the dharma talks was that I should give my full attention to “reading the book of the heart”. (attributed to Ajahn Chah). These words for me were profound.

I had come to the retreat to learn how to calm my loud and busy mind. to find my way back to a steady sitting practice and to respond to a deep and persistent longing to go deeper into the experiences of my heart. I was feeling overwhelmed with the mysteries, the suffering, the gratitude, the confusion, the tenderness, the wide-open joy and the pain of this one human life. I wanted quiet amidst the noise of my work and my world. I felt tired and as if I was not being of much service in my work any more.

I was not reflecting on my life, my heart or my path. I was not listening to myself and barely hearing others. I was meditating erratically. My Mom had passed and her death had stunned me as no other loss had. And yet she had given me the greatest gift. The grief I felt was huge but so was the joy. I was so proud of her life. She is everywhere now. She exists in me, in the sky, the wind, the rain. I wanted to honour this beautiful being by truly seeking to know myself better.

So, I went to the mountain. The symbolism of “going to the mountain” represents a pilgrimage of aspiration of moving towards consciousness, of closeness and contact with celestial bodies. Going to Dharmagiri sitting at the foot of the sacred Mvuleni mountain, in the province of my birth, felt right. I had spent the past few years seeking a place, a practice and teachers to guide me. I slowly found my way to Dharmagiri through friends, through much searching and through reading Kittisaro and Thanissara’s book “Listening to the Heart : A Contemplative Journey to Engaged Buddhism

The retreat was transformative for me. And I hope, over time, for others.

Our mornings started in the quiet pre-dawn when the stars are still visible and sometimes the wild sounds of jackals howling. To chant and bow in the dark of early, cold mornings with a warm fire and candles on the shrine with Kuan Yin’s sacred presence, alone but with an unspoken connection to the sangha, gave me deep comfort. Sitting on my cushion, wrapped in a blanket and in quietness as the sun rose and the mountain of Mvuleni in all her grace, power and steadfastness, became visible, I felt I had come home to myself.

Each day we went deeper into our practice, guided with such gentleness and wisdom. The profound and lived knowledge of both Kittisaro and Chandasara fed us during the dharma talks. We energised our bodies through chi kung and walking meditation. In Noble silence we ate delicious and carefully prepared food with each meal being blessed and each one of us expressing gratitude for the comfort of nourishment and shelter. During the daily question time with our teachers we all gained more insight into ourselves, each other and the practice through the thoughtful questions of the Sangha and the generous and deeply reflective responses from our teachers. Each of us contributed mindful work through washing dishes, cleaning spaces, chopping vegetables, all in silence. The silence was so welcomed as we could all turn inward but still be aware of our connectedness. As my friend who was also on retreat said to me: “I have known you for many years but through this seven days of silence I know you more deeply.” The silence woke me up to so much more and to a communication with self and others which goes beyond anything language can explain.

At night we gathered for chanting, meditation, a dharma talk and the sharing of blessings. The meditation room was full of quiet and of prayer as we let each thought dissolve and sought the silence between the thoughts. We rested together in the silence and the peace.

On our final day we spent time finding flowers, a stone, a branch – something from the environment which we could place on the alter and dedicate to a person, people, a cause – what we chose to honour and bring into the room. We each had time to place our offering and to reflect and to witness others. Nobel silence was suspended for a time as we gathered in small groups each with a few minutes to speak whilst others listened about our experience of the retreat. I love storytelling and listening to stories. So for me, it was an intimate storytelling circle and it reminded me of what Muriel Rukeyser said: “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” And from the stories what Rumi said :“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” From the stories of others, from their experiences and reflections, we learn, we breath in and are one with them and with all of creation. Through listening to others, we find parts of ourselves.

On the last day of the retreat, during the Dharma talk, we were given this from the Dhammapada

There are no footprints in the sky;
You won’t find the sage out there.
There are no eternal conditioned things.
Buddhas never waver.

I hold this in me with gratitude as I work towards an authentic practice and am reminded to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

Mary Oliver in her poem “The Old poets of China” tells of how because the world is so busy and often we need quiet to re-connect with our hearts, the poets went “so far and high into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.” Dharmagiri offers us all this place of quiet, this refuge and people of generosity and wisdom. I have such deep gratitude that I was there and that I can return.

And so as Mary Oliver tells in her poem and what Dharmagiri has reminded me:

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

So I wanted to tell this about my time at Dharmagiri.

Jennifer works as a feminist information activist, connecting people to
information in order tojennifer create their own change in the world. She spends a lot of time in nature, is drawn to nature-based Rites of Passage, enjoys running, poetry, clay, the ocean, life stories & believes that change can happen.

She is relatively new to Buddhist practice but has been meditating on and off for quite a few years. She is the proud Godmother to a tribe of 6 godchildren who are her main teachers. A recent retreat at Dharmagiri had inspired her deeply to regular practice.