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


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



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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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



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

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.