Thanks to the pioneering efforts of Dr Simon Whitesman, an extraordinary senior lecturer in the Division of Family Medicine and Primary Care, students are able to learn how to practice mindfulness as well as how to lead mindfulness-based interventions in a two-year short course at Stellenbosch University.
Whitesman, a GP and medical psychotherapist, along with psychologist Linda Kantor, started the first Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course in Cape Town more than 20 years ago, and, in that time, has witnessed the powerful effect the programme on people.
Whitesman, noting that people around the world were increasingly “putting themselves out there and teaching mindfulness in a secular context”, believed the time was right for this to happen in SA. “I approached Stellenbosch University through Professor Bob Mash, the Head of the Division of Family Medicine and Primary Care, and also spoke to Prof Marietjie de Villiers, the former vice dean: Education.
“They were both open to housing the training. We looked at various structures and decided to offer a 60-credit training course over two years.”
The course consists of two 150-hour modules a year. The modules comprise an intensive residential retreat element, training at a retreat centre as well as a combination of distance learning and face-to-face learning with supervisors, learning partners and small study groups. We use a range of different learning modalities, combining experiential and theoretical learning.”
The mindfulness course was introduced at the university in 2013 and is open to the full range of health and allied health professionals, as well as theology and education students.
“Our overarching aim is to ground people in their own practise of mindfulness and understanding of the ethics and wisdom base of mindfulness and then to focus on how we offer this to others through mindfulness-based programmes.
“We are now into our fourth two-year cycle – and going from strength to strength,” said Whitesman. He believes strongly that people working in all disciplines can apply mindfulness techniques in whatever their area of work, with highly beneficial effects.
According to Whitesman, who is also the chairman of the Institute for Mindfulness in SA, the concept of mindfulness involves “finding joy in the little things. It sounds simple in principle, but in our fast-paced, success-driven world, it requires focus … to simply take a moment to breathe and be truly in the present without judgement or expectation.
“Developing mindfulness is like developing fitness,” said Whitesman. “We need to put in the effort to develop the muscle.
“One of the guiding principles of teaching and practising mindfulness is to develop what we call embodied awareness, so where your focus is ‘in yourself’, not ‘out of yourself’. Instead of being lost in thought, we need to tap into the sensations, feelings, emotions and – most importantly – the intuition we are feeling in the present.”
The benefits of the practise is said to include a greater ability to relax, heightened levels of energy and zest for life – as well as an increased self-esteem and ability to cope with the stressful situations that are an inevitable part of life.
At least twenty years of research has also shown that mindfulness also helps to reduce pain levels and increase the ability to cope with lasting pain. The practice is proving to be valuable in business, education and other sectors of society, as well as in parenting, and even in dealing with the effects of trauma.
Mash recently attended the Mindfulness Conference 2019, which was organized by Whitesman and supported by Stellenbosch University’s Division of Family Medicine and Primary Care and which was held at Maropeng, the cradle of humanity.
The conference was also addressed by Jay Naidoo (previous minister of reconstruction and development) as well as Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela (SU professor on historical trauma and transformation), and by leading international teachers and researchers.
“Many of the students were at the conference as well as alumni of the course. People are applying mindfulness-based interventions in the Eastern Cape to help women running educare centres, in Manenberg to work with gangsters and in Khayelitsha to work with youth – as just a few examples. It was a truly remarkable event in which SU played a key role and had strong visibility,” said Mash.