Tag Archives: meditation

What do Stress and Wellbeing mean to Aid Workers?

In the last few weeks I’ve been engaging in discussions that have put the question of how aid workers interpret stress and wellbeing at centre stage. In August I ran a stress management workshop with an Italian NGO in Kenya which was attended by Kenyan, Somali and European staff. Aside from that, I’ve been talking to various people who have an interest in or are working on providing stress relief for aid workers and social change makers.

The question of how stress and wellbeing is understood by different people is important because in a world that is flooded with information about ‘alternative therapies’ such as yoga and meditation, as well as the western psychotherapy models, we can forget the hundreds of cultural traditions around the world that have handled emotional difficulties and mental health problems in their own, localised way. We can also forget that what works for one culture or society may not work for another. And in the aid sector, where the majority of staff are nationals from the southern hemisphere, we perhaps therefore still have a lot to learn about what interventions (if any) are appropriate for dealing with work-related stress.

The tendency is to assume that standard psycho-social models are a sufficient mechanism for addressing staff mental health. But there is a counter-argument that suggests that Western models of trauma healing are not always appropriate, nor healing, for some individuals from post-conflict countries. This has been argued in various literature (for instance, here) and was a point made by an Italian doctor I met recently who was conducting a training for humanitarian workers in body, mind and spirit practices for stress, trauma and compassion fatigue. During the training she related how in previous trainings in Rwanda and Burundi, some of the participants had commented how traumatising they had found the counselling given by Western psychotherapists.

’Stress’ and ’counselling’ are pretty familiar terms in European and American societies. Whilst there is still stigma around issues of mental health – people don’t talk openly about their depression, for instance –  there is an assumption that stress is part of everyday life, and that chronic forms of stress affect some of us and require clinical intervention in the form of one-to-one counselling.

The personal perception of stress and the way one deals with it is, in many ways, culturally and socially rooted. Whilst many NGOs provide some form of counselling for their staff, it would seem that ‘talking therapies’ are not necessarily the answer for a lot of aid workers.

Here are a couple of quotes from my data:

“There are those of us like me who come from nomadic background which thinks that talking about it is…is being a bit of a sissy. But, there are those of us that come from that culture of expressing yourself and you can see that people do grieve with each other, with different cultures.”

Somali UN worker (male)

“They pay for our counselling…but since it’s not so African to go for such things, most people don’t go for…debriefing. You can go during your R and R but nobody seems to ever get to it […] We as Africans we handle our stress differently – everyone has their own issues so why do you think yours is bigger? […] I think people just learn to handle their stress on their own, in case it’s there. Because for one we don’t open up that much, and especially here in Kakuma who would you open up to, especially if stress is work-related [….] basically you have to learn to handle your stress by yourself.”

Kenyan humanitarian NGO worker (male) (Kakuma)

Stress is not only culturally rooted; it is a gendered concept too. In the stress management workshop I recently ran, the Kenyan women remarked that stress in their society is largely seen as a women’s issue and associated with marital pressures, and with being of the ‘weaker sex’. This not only denigrates stress to the female experience, it also sends out the message that men do not suffer from stress, and therefore should certainly not talk about it.

I have been wondering about self-care practices too. ‘Self-care’ is in itself a dirty word for some aid workers. If it’s not seen as a bit ’new age’ or ‘hippy’, it’s seen as self-indulgent and completely at odds with a sector supposedly focused solely on helping others, not oneself.

There is a growing interest in yoga, meditation and similar self-care practices as a means to relieve stress, build resilience and encourage deeper self-awareness and compassion among aid workers and other social change makers. Regular yoga and mindfulness practices have certainly helped me in the last few years; the way I approach my work as a human rights defender has been transformed by following a daily practice that cultivates presence and a more mindful response to my own emotions and to the challenges around me.  And I continue to explore these further as a means to engage more fully in the world as well as to bring inner wellbeing.

But can these sorts of practices be adapted, and adopted, in African cultures? Are there traditions within African cultures which in fact use some of these practices already but give them a different name? I’m conscious that here in Kenya, for instance, trying to impose yoga or mindfulness as a stress relief tool may be seen as an effort to convert people to Hindu or Buddhist religions. Yet some of the techniques used in both these practices can probably be found in many other ancient cultures, including in Africa.

There are examples where the use of yoga and mindfulness have been introduced in different cultures, among aid workers and the communities they serve, with positive results – as this video from a woman who worked in Afghanistan suggests. Capacitar training also uses yoga, tai chi and other practices for trauma healing in communities that may be otherwise unaware of these traditions.

Self-care needn’t require a commitment to these increasingly popular practices however. As this blog by an Afrofeminist writer eloquently describes, there are many ways of practising self-care without having to devote oneself to yoga, and without necessarily having to completely change one’s lifestyle. Spending more time with family and loved ones is  important for aid workers and any other social change makers; because one of the big symptoms of stress and burnout is social detachment and disengagement, triggered by repeated exposure to the brutality and injustice that represent the darkest elements of human behaviour.  After such exposure, it is vital to seek out community and friendship. This can restore one’s faith in humanity and help cultivate compassion in a working environment that can be susceptible to ‘compassion fatigue.’ This video by the Headington Institute provides some advice to aid workers on how to maintain relationships with loved ones as a means of self-care.

Stress and how one responds to it is in some ways a complex matter. In the aid sector, both the individual and the organisation need to listen more – to themselves, to their staff, and what forms of support and healing are appropriate. It could take some time before aid agencies  go beyond a ‘one size fits all’ approach to staff care, but in the meantime there is a lot aid workers can do to help themselves. The starting point is that old adage, ‘Know Thyself’. What is your body trying to tell you and are you willing to stop and listen?

 

 

The Role of Mindfulness in Aidwork

Using the terms mindfulness or meditation in the work setting of a humanitarian or human rights NGO can often feel inappropriate or irrelevant. In a sector that focuses primarily on caring for others, this method of self-care may seem at best of secondary importance, at worst in contradiction to the principles of selflessness that are associated with aid work. In the wider Western world, these terms also have negative connotations – of being hippie or ‘New Agey,’  therefore only understood and respected by people who have chosen a spiritual path. And a common accusation is that meditation is a navel-gazing exercise, which allows us to be detached from, or to escape, the realities of the world we live in but has no value in bringing any sort of change to those realities. This accusation can be found in, for instance, an article by Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore, which claims that mindfulness is all about self-help, but does nothing to change an unjust world. I would like to take issue with some of these assumptions about mindfulness and meditation, whilst also highlighting and attempting to address the uneasiness that exists towards the practice, both in the humanitarian and human rights sector and the wider world.

But first, what is mindfulness and how can it be distinguished from meditation? I see mindfulness as a practice, or exercise, that can be applied at any point in any day, no matter what we are doing. Meditation is one tool in which to practise mindfulness – a way of stepping out of what one is doing in the day, and dedicating 5, 15, 20 or 50 minutes to simply sitting and being present. Focusing on the breath is a common way of anchoring ourselves in that present moment. Mindfulness, whether through quiet, solitary meditation or otherwise, is an opportunity to transcend the endless chatter in our heads – the grievances about the past, the anxieties about the future – and simply focus on experiences as they happen, in the present. We can practise mindfulness without needing to meditate. The moment may be something as mundane as doing the ironing or as challenging as physical or emotional pain. Or the enjoyment of eating chocolate or walking in the woods. How often do we actually taste the food we are eating, when most of the time we are eating whilst working, or reading, or talking to others? How often do we actually feel our physical pain, when our instinct is to distract ourselves from it or be so consumed in worries about the possible future implications of the pain? Mindfulness puts us in touch with the immediate sensory experience, so that we are able to really feel what is happening, and acknowledge what that feeling is. It helps to deepen our awareness of all the thoughts, feelings and emotions that make up who we are, not only as individuals but as part of the human race.

Relating this back to humanitarian and human rights work, being mindful is a way of ensuring that we are not continuously led by our emotional responses. This is not to say that emotional responses to injustice, or human suffering, are not important. I think the problem that Suzanne Moore and others – including myself at times – have with ‘spiritual’ practice is the notion that it is too inward-looking, and makes robots out of human beings; real, raw emotions may in fact be lost in the search for authentic and transcendental enlightenment.

But mindfulness is as much about connecting with the outer world as it is with navigating our inner world. Both of these are important – we cannot help or show understanding to others if we are unable to help or understand ourselves. This is why compassion plays such an important role in Buddhist teachings of meditation. By exploring what is happening within, we can connect with deeper truths about human existence, consciousness and suffering that we so often overlook, ignore or avoid in everday life. Mindfulness also enables us to take a moment to watch the emotional reactions we have and guage whether they are helpful for us and for others. Anger and rage may be common experiences when working on issues related to oppression and injustice, but they are not always helpful. I have worked in settings where these emotions, displayed bombastically, provocatively and argumentatively serve to alienate the sympathisers to our cause as much as our opponents. Is that what we really want to achieve each time we disagree with something or someone we don’t like? Breathing in to and observing those emotions, instead of always getting lost in them, helps us to gain some clarity over how it is we really wish to respond, and what it is we really wish to convey when we react to human suffering. We are mindful not only in observing our thoughts and emotions, but also in putting those thoughts and emotions into action, for a particular effect or outcome. This is why it is an essential tool to bring into all that we do.

The debate over the relevance of mindfulness in aid work and activism is far from over, and in fact has only just begun, as more and more people take up the practice as a means to relieving stress and burnout. Whilst I try to practise various forms of mindfulness in my everyday life, I also continue to ask myself certain questions about its scope and use in the sector I work in. How can it help aid workers interact more effectively and compassionately with people around them? What role can it play in the quest for social justice? Is it merely a practice for the privileged or can it have meaning for the communities served by aid workers? Perhaps some readers have experiences to share that can help answer these questions.