As I was about to enter the eighth decade of my life, I was constantly hearing from my friends about their memory loss. Or, about their confusion when navigating familiar parts of their home town, or their difficulty in maintaining concentration on everyday tasks. However, it had not occurred to me there was a recognised field of training for people who wished to assist others in slowing down this cognitive decline.

A Chance Encounter

During my daily exploration of the internet, in February 2006, I came upon an international newsletter from the University of the Third Age. There was a seemingly innocuous phrase in this newsletter which piqued my interest. It said, “Dana lives in Prague, and she is a live-wire.” I would certainly like to meet a live-wire during my anticipated trip to Prague in a couple of months. My son was due to be married in Amsterdam, and my daughter and I planned to visit Prague after the wedding.

I double-clicked on the relevant email address and composed a quick email to Dana. The message read, “I am planning to visit Prague in July and would love to meet you and take you out for a cup of coffee,”

A Live-Wire indeed

Within the next 24 hours, I received a response from Dana. Unfortunately, she would not be in Prague in July, as she was to be in Turkey facilitating a Memory Training Course for members of the University of the Third Age who live in the United Kingdom. “But,’ she said, ‘You are welcome to stay together with your daughter in my flat when you are here.”

The Concept of Memory Training

I was excited to accept her offer of hospitality and enjoy her well-equipped residence while visiting the capital of the Czech Republic. In addition, I wished to know more about the course she offered in Memory Training. It took merely a couple of emails, and a few days to arrange that Dana would travel to Cape Town to offer a three-day course in Memory Training. So in June 2007, 200 members of the University of the Third Age in South Africa had the opportunity to attend this course.

Her course was stimulating, engaging and a great eye opener to all who attended. ‘But,’ I asked her, ‘what is going to happen now you are going back to Prague? Please give me some ideas on how I can continue the momentum you have built up.’ ‘If you want to continue my work,’ she responded, ‘then you must come to my week-long course in Prague next February. I will then be running a training course in English under the auspices of the Czech Society for Memory Training and Brain Jogging.’

International Training

So, for the second time in under a year, I was destined to visit Prague. This time it was in the middle of winter, whereas the first time it was a summer encounter. Quite a contrast, but Prague is a beautiful city at any time of the year. Now I had the opportunity to join students from Scotland, America and Tasmania who were also interested in memory training. By the week’s end, I was tested on my ability to recite the 43 American Presidents from memory. Additionally, I could recite the memorised decimals of pi to 100 digits.

‘But what is this Memory Training all about?’ you may ask. ‘And who wants to know the American Presidents off by heart?’ ‘And, I am not interested in pi,’ I can hear you saying to yourself. Your reaction would be the same as the majority of people when they first hear about these exercises. When you engage in the course, you grow to understand the significance of the use of mnemonics as a tool for assisting the memory. Mnemonics is a powerful associative tool giving the learner the capacity to memorise long lists of both numbers and facts.

Sharing my New Skills

When I returned to Cape Town I wasted no time in gathering together a small group of people to share my new insights and trainings. I researched further areas for maintaining our cognitive faculties, and as time has progressed, I have incorporated additional skills into my training program.

Realising that memory training and the building of a cognitive reserve is intimately connected with emotional control, a study of emotional resilience and motivation have become part of my teachings. Recently Mindfulness and Meditation are being rapidly embraced within Western society, so the understanding, practice and appreciation of these concepts have also become part of the range of skills we embrace in our non-directive facilitations.

Maintenance Skills

When we are at school and university, and subsequently in a work situation, we are called upon on a daily basis to exercise our mind. To stretch our intellectual faculties. To absorb new pieces of information. However, during the time of retirement, these external factors no longer form an integral part of our daily life, and the temptation to live a semi-indolent existence is ever-present. However, the trouble is that if we do not use it, we lose it. This expression applies to our mental abilities, in the same way as it applies to our physical abilities. If we are to retain our optimal level of functioning, slow down memory loss and maintain our perceptual faculties we need to adopt some daily routines into our lifestyle. To preserve our manual dexterity, sustain our balancing abilities and maintain our muscle tone, these skills have to be exercised in a consistent and stimulating manner.

Role of Blogging

And, perhaps the best way of all to retain one’s cognitive reserve is in the discipline of blogging. The weekly effort to draw insights from my experiences has become an effortful way of exercising concentration. It ensuring my creative skills do not become dormant. If you do not wish to blog, then daily journaling is a recognised pursuit for those who wish to practice their cognitive skills and ensure their faculties remain intact.

Mindfulness Convention at the Cradle of Humankind

I have just returned from a unique four day conference in the Cradle of Humankind.  It was convened by IMISA (Institute of Mindfulness in South Africa) and created an opportunity for all practitioners interested in contemporary mindfulness practices to share and update their skills and ideas.

World Heritage Site

The Cradle of Humankind was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999 by UNESCO due to the wealth of hominoid fossils discovered there.   Knowing we were in the geographical space occupied by our earliest ancestors offered an additional dimension to the proceedings in which participants were reviewing their knowledge of the theory and practice of mindfulness.   The awareness of the benefits of a mindful lifestyle is now proliferating throughout the western world, whilst at the same time being incorporated into many fields of human endeavour.

The state of the art conference centre at Maropeng at the heart of the Cradle of Humankind, is an hour’s drive from Johannesburg and is the world’s richest fossil site where the bones of man’s earliest ancestors have recently been discovered.  The conference participants learned that the fossils of Naledi; those of mans’ oldest known ancestors, were found in this area.

Ancient Wisdom

During this conference I was made aware, on more than one occasion, of a most profound and impressive attitude which is central to many traditional cultures.   The original inhabitants of both the American and the African continent share a common mind-set.    When the community needs to introduce a ruling into their social structure, they share the tradition of considering whether or not this new dispensation will sustain the present lifestyle of their community for the following seven generations into the future.    How different is today’s attitude of contemporary politicians who are only concerned about whether or not they will win the next elections.   We were made painfully aware of the damage that humankind is perpetrating on the planet because of the selfish materialistic lifestyle of the developed nations.

An opening prayer was beautifully rendered by Madada Kandemwa, a Zimbabwean, who is considered a custodian of African Culture and Wisdom.  He is inspired by the manifestations of his spiritual forebears.   It included the following words, “Teach us Grandfathers and Grandmothers how to be like your Creator.   Mother, Father, thank you so much for bringing us together at this moment.   We have a question Grandparents. What do you want us to do?  What exactly do you want us to do?   So that we can bring harmony to the world of Mother Nature.   We know there is no harmony in the world of Mother Nature any more.   Answer our prayer this morning.   Teach us how to walk the sacred path of love, truth, peace and freedom.”   Wise and heartfelt words, indeed.

If you wish to further experience the calibre of this man, you can watch a YouTube video of him philosophising, here

What is Mindfulness

In the second decade of the 21st century, the benefits of mindfulness have become well known among progressive thinkers in the field of education and health and even business and politics. Whilst there is no universally accepted definition of mindfulness there are certain basic principles for which there is some consensus.    A range of meditation techniques are used as vehicles to allow the trainee to become aware of his senses, feelings and emotions.   An awareness of what is happening in the present moment is enhanced by an ongoing meditation practice.

Application of Mindfulness

These practices which have for many centuries been taught in Buddhist monasteries have during the past 20 years become accessible to scientific study in the Western World.   Neurologists examine how the brain and the nervous system interact with the body, when they use specialized brain-mapping equipment, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines.  These instruments measure changes in brain waves both before and after some weeks of mindfulness practice.  Many studies have successfully demonstrated how an eight week course of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, a sequence of practices master-minded by John Kabat-Zin, helps the participants control both anxiety and reactive impulses, leading to a greater sense of equanimity.

Summing up the benefits of the practice of mindfulness, we are reminded that participants learn how to ‘respond’ rather than ‘react.’   The primitive emotional part of the brain known as the ‘amygdala,’ develops increased connectivity with the learning areas of the brain known as the ‘cortex.’   The result of this neuronal growth means crude emotional reactions can be modified by the learning which takes place during meditation, resulting in a meditator’s ability to develop a greater control of their emotions.

Many international presenters at the conference shared with us how mindfulness is being used in communities all over the world, in settings as diverse as business, government and education.   In South Africa there are practitioners teaching mindfulness techniques to sex workers in Soweto, as well as to child carers in the rural communities of East London.    Encouraging improvements in the stress levels of participants have been notes by measuring the degree of anxiety present, or the degree of compassion practiced, after the training.

The Final Session

The final session of the conference entitled The Ground Beneath our Feet, brought together the aims of this conference by highlighting three integrating sources for the development of the wisdom and compassion of mindfulness.   The Buddhist roots of this training, as well as the sensitivities of the African Traditional Cultures were merged with the scientific trainings of contemporary experimental psychology.   At this final presentation a Xhosa lady spontaneously broke into a traditional song which she rendered in a full and deep voice imbued with a resonating spirituality.   In his closing prayer our African Seer was brought to tears whilst making us all aware of the irreversible damage that we are creating on Mother Earth.   Three rings of the cymbals substituted for any closing comments.

Indeed, this conference proved to be a treat and a special experience for participants travelling from far and wide who shared their expertise of mindfulness on the African soil.

(More about the Cradle of Mankind:


What does it mean to be wise?

When I reached my mid-sixties, I had a strong, and rather guilty feeling, that I had reached the age in which it was required of me that I fulfill the description of being “A Wise Woman!”.   After all, were not all senior women wise?  Anyway, this is what I had been led to believe.   But what does it mean to be wise?   And what is it that motivates me to continue on my journey which has more recently been named by a local public relations expert as a facilitator of “Conscious Ageing”?

In my earlier blog about my visit to the Mindfulness Conference in Gauteng, I mentioned the contribution of the wise Zimbabwean Elder who reminded us of the role of both our Ancestors and Mother Earth in contributing to our wellbeing.   How we need to honour both those who have gone before us as well as the planet, which sustains us in all our multiple dimensions.    These concepts are now resounding in my awareness, I have been made even more profoundly and painfully conscious of the ubiquitous manner in which mankind has been exploiting both natural resources and natural wisdom.  It made me feel there is something which I must do actively to promote the knowledge of impending ecological disaster.   I need to promote support for people who are in a less fortunate position than myself.

Mindful in May

My opportunity to play this role arose when going through this morning’s emails.    Here is a link for you to visit:

If you peruse the information on the website of Mindful in May you will have the opportunity to join an annual program in which I have participated for the past few years.    Elise Bialylew who runs this course is author of bestselling book, The Happiness Plan.    Mindful in May is “The world’s largest online global mindfulness fundraising campaign that teaches thousands of people each year to meditate, while raising funds to build clean water projects in the developing world.”   I do believe that the development of Mindfulness and the acquisition of Wisdom go hand in hand, and recommend you consider taking advantage of this opportunity taking place next month.

Wisdom – Andrew Zuckerman

Returning from the conference last week we popped in to see a friend en route to the airport, and there on the bookshelf I spied a beautiful picture book entitled Wisdom.   The photographer and film maker Andrew Zuckerman has photographed and recorded the thoughts of fifty prominent people over the age of 65 who have achieved acclaim in their chosen field.  I was so intrigued when glancing at this book after pulling it off the shelf, that I had to apologise for being anti-social as my attention was totally diverted to the wonderful pictures and beautiful erudition of the wise men and women who were featured in this work.

Jane Goodall – Animal Behaviorist

I have been an admirer of the esteemed primatologist Jane Goodall since I was a student and it was her profile which immediately drew my attention.   As a young woman she spent many hours in the heart of the African jungle scientifically studying the behavior of chimpanzees. Today the Jane Goodall Institute protects these wonderful apes and inspires people to conserve the natural world we all share. The work of the organisation honors the concept, “that everything is connected—everyone can make a difference.”

Jane feels the most important thing we can do is to try and get out of the mess we’ve made on this planet both from an environmental point of view and a social perspective.    We need to learn about the consequences of our daily actions.   How the choices we make about the products we purchase, the foods we eat and the origin of the clothes we wear impact the environment.    Are the acquisition of these goods causing a disruption in the balance of nature?   Are they contributing to human suffering because of their mode of production or manufacture?

Changes in Water Usage

And, yes you can change your habits, even at a senior age.   In Cape Town, South Africa we have all learned during the past three years of drought, how to use water more wisely.   I frequently remind myself that my daily consumption of water has dropped at least 75% because of the discipline and training I have acquired which means I now use water without any wastefulness.   Washing dishes happens once a day, and the flushing of the toilet, only when necessary.   Watering of gardens is strictly limited to certain hours and number of liters.

What do I understand now about Wisdom?

My exploration of some Buddhist philosophy and my practice of Mindfulness has made me aware that Wisdom and Compassion are deeply enmeshed with each other.    It is through the introduction of “metta” or “loving kindness” meditation that I now am more readily able to value gratitude and looking at the positive side of apparent challenges.   I have been trying to make a habit of listing my Gratitudes, looking at the good things which have happened to me on a daily basis.   So yes, I am feeling a little wiser than when I first realised this is an area of my growth which needed attention some fifteen years ago!

The force needed to empower wisdom is compassion. Both wisdom and compassion shift our sense of identity away from ourselves toward the wider human, biotic, and cosmic community to which we belong.  —Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, “The Need of the Hour”