Alex Johson at the Buddhist Centre on West Street, Grahamstown.
“In this competitive life people are often unkind to themselves, and to others”, Alex Johson says sitting cross legged on the blue cushions and patterned carpets of the Buddhist Centre on West Street.
A small patch of magenta painted brick and a few weather-beaten cloth streamers only just distinguishes the centre from the other doorways and leads onto an equally small room, though cozily decorated with bright Tibetan silk, looking onto a walled garden.
“I was always fascinated in this idea of going somewhere in the mind going inward and exploring consciousness which let me to study psychology and in the end to Buddhism,” said Alex.
Alex, who graduated from Rhodes, lives just outside of Grahamstown with her family in an off the grid small holding. When she is not teaching at the centre, she home schools her children.
The Mindfulness approach she teaches was begun by Rob Nairn in the ’80s, who took elements of Buddhism and translated them into a Western psychological framework.
“He developed it as a secular course because he realized many people could benefit from these practices but maybe are not interested in Buddhism”, says Alex.
“It’s a very slow building, scaffolded approach just make it easier to learn. So it’s not just whacking into a whole half hour of silent meditation, because that can be very difficult for people who haven’t meditated before,” she says.
“We use different techniques to deal with difficult emotions in the moment, based first in acceptance, accepting it as your own experience, without pushing it on others or blaming” says Alex.
She notes that the key is accepting the moment as it is, “Rob Nairn’s definition of mindfulness is, dealing with what is happening, why it is happening, in the moment and without preference”.
Although Alex sees this as having a positive psychological and emotional impact, she shies away from it being considered therapy, and would not recommend it as a substitute for those in need of one on one therapy.
“But it is very helpful with stress and life problems, getting to know oneself and a way of being in the world. And I think most people have benefited from just the awareness of bringing more kindness to oneself and judging oneself less,” says Alex.
She laughs a little at the idea of using mindfulness to change society as well as individuals.
“It would be wonderful. If I think of a lot of the decisions about the environment and people that are made with a lot of short term aims or self-gain and perhaps without quite enough consideration of the motivation, it could help” and she adds, “Because, I think mindfulness does quite naturally bring a sense of what one does to others and also a sense of humanitarianism”.
South Africa commemorates Women’s Month in August as a tribute to the more than 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women. This August, GAP is publishing a micro-profile a day on women working in Grahamstown in 2015.
About the photographer: Jane Berg is a photojournalist working in Grahamstown and finishing her Bachelor of Journalism Degree at Rhodes University. She is the Media Officer for The Gender Action Project. You can see more of her work at www.janebergphotography.tumblr.com and on her Facebook page.