Symposia to foreground need for compassion in difficult times

As the world enters a new era marked by divisive politics and demagoguery, local practitioners of mindfulness are calling for a renewal of compassion and kindness to navigate this new terrain. 

The Institute for Mindfulness South Africa (IMISA) – a not-for-profit organisation that is committed to the development and application of mindfulness in South Africa – will be hosting two groundbreaking symposia early next year on the science and practice of mindfulness and compassion.

The first of their kind events – the three-day symposia will be held in Johannesburg and Cape Town and feature two veterans of mindfulness and compassion training: Dr Bob Stahl, from the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Jan Landry, who has worked in the field of hospice care for over 30 years.

According to Dr Simon Whitesman, Chair of IMISA and a long-time practitioner and teacher of mindfulness in South Africa, compassion is a much-needed commodity for modern life – which too often is missing in action.

“Despite the many documented benefits of practising compassion both for individuals and for society, it’s often lost in the hurly burly of daily life and in the preoccupation with our own self interest,” he comments.

According to Dr Whitesman, much conflict – internal, interpersonal or inter-national – is a reflection of corrosive internal judgement, lack of kindness and diminished awareness of others that wages within all of us, mostly unconsciously. There is growing evidence, however, that compassion can be cultivated and enhanced through intentional practice and training, and becomes an antidote to anger, distrust and fear.”    

“In the wake of Donald Trump’s unexpected and troubling sweep to victory in the US for example, we are seeing in addition to the anger and fear, many voices calling for a compassionate response – one where we resist the temptation of getting swept up in a vortex of negative and aggressive thinking and instead turn towards clarity, kindness and an openness to understanding.

“The world has seen what happens when the flames of hatred and anger are fanned. Now more than ever we need to hold the space of connection and reason. Such an approach had a decisive impact on South Africa’s democratic transition. And as this country wrestles with its own demons 22 years down the line – we need to recommit ourselves to this ideal.”

According to author and teacher Christina Feldman, compassion is evoked when we recognise suffering in another and are moved to help. Without it, the survival and flourishing of our species would have been unlikely. Humans it seems – literally thrive on compassion.

Research published in academic journals such as Science, show that compassion has significant benefits for the individual. Participants in one study who had spent money on others felt significantly happier than those who had spent money on themselves, for instance. The practice of compassion has also been shown in clinical studies to decreases depression.

The three-day symposia will immerse participants in the art and science of mindfulness and compassion both through sharing current scientific evidence from, neuroscience, psychology and medicine that underpins the field and through engaging in a variety of mindfulness and compassion practices aimed at illuminating emotional awareness, empathic listening equanimity and common humanity.

The three days have been designed to be accessible to both seasoned practitioners of mindfulness as well as those new to the field or the just plain curious.

Dr Whitesman says that the underlying theme of the event will be the tone of kindness. “Kindness dissolves judgement. Learning to hold ourselves with gentle compassion is the active ingredient in the change and healing process,” he says.

For more information on the Compassion Symposium titled Reconciling the Heart please call +27 (0)21 712 0571 or go to

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