The Dharma Centre, Robertson
Home of Contemporary Zen in Africa

With Heila and Rodney Downey

June 2005



20 of us gathered for a long weekend to practice mindful awareness in action (MAIA). The retreat was hosted by Heila and Rodney at their lovely home and Dharma Centre in Robertson. Heila and Rodney have developed the MAIA PROGRAM, which they have implemented with great success at Malmesbury Prison (some of you might have seen their work on TV). This is the work of a Bodhisattva – helping to transform members of society for the benefit of all. They teach the prisoners about meditation and how to witness their thoughts and emotions, instead of acting them out with no choice. Through the power of witnessing, and learning to abide in the witnessing consciousness, we can change the way we think and act. Mindfulness meditation brings powerful transformation - not just to prisoners, but to everyone - for we are all prisoners in a greater or lesser degree to the thoughts, emotions and habits that hold us in bondage and deprive us of our freedom to be all that we could be.


Mindfulness means being mindful of what is happening moment-to-moment. It means living in awareness. Awareness allows you to consciously and purposefully respond, rather than to react automatically, often with no freedom of choice. Awareness is the clean, clear and pure space that exists beyond the confusion and impurity of the ego. That underlying clarity and awareness is always there, always present. However, at present, awareness is obscured and controlled by ego. It should be the other way around - awareness should control ego. This is difficult. It requires much practice, hence the importance of daily meditation practice, which helps to ground us in awareness instead of ego. Some of the benefits of practicing mindful awareness include increased self control and adaptability; non-judgemental listening; enhanced clarity, concentration and focus; creativity; and integration of personal / professional life. Sound like you need it? Everybody does!


Heila and Rodney have developed a 20 STEP PROGRAM to greater awareness, that can be practiced during simple activities that you perform every day. The moments of mindful awareness add up and start permeating all your activities. Eventually it becomes natural – the effort becomes effortless, and we start living in constant awareness (= source of freedom), rather than in the reactive ego (= source of suffering). This is the beauty of Zen – its approach is simple, but don’t underestimate its profundity. We are so used to complexity in our lives, that simplicity is an advanced course! Simplicity brings contentment with the ordinariness of life, and most of life is ordinary, but the amazing thing is that the ordinary starts becoming extra-ordinary, when you have the time, space and awareness to notice it. Awareness increases our ability to open to more of life, and to be fully present in our experience of life, with all its joys and sorrows. 


The schedule of the retreat included sitting and walking meditation to make awareness strong and stable; working meditation to practice mindful awareness in action; morning and afternoon teaching sessions and discussions. The food was superb. The atmosphere was one of intimacy and integrity. On retreat, people live together in close contact, yet the practice of mindfulness allows you to maintain your own space in the midst of other people. You are with others and you connect on a deep level, but you also maintain your aloneness. You meet wonderful people on retreat, from all walks of life, backgrounds, religions and cultures. Yet what one always notices is that beyond the superficial differences, we are the same - we are all human beings, and it is so good to connect on this level of sharing our common humanity.  


Attached is a touching story by one of the prisoners who participated in a month long retreat at Malmesbury Prison (from The Dharma Centre Newsletter Autumn 2004), and below is a photograph of the wonderful group of people who participated in this retreat, excluding Heila, who took the photo. This newsletter comes with love from LEELA (holding the pink balloon), SAT CHIT ANAND BUDDHIST CENTRE in Plettenberg Bay You are welcome to forward this newsletter to friends. Please notify us if you wish to be added or removed from our mailing list. 




My joy is like spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
can be left open -
the door of compassion.
[Extract from poem by Thich Nhat Hanh]