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.
4 thoughts on “The Role of Mindfulness in Aidwork”
Thanks for a lucid explanation of the everyday advantages of mindfulness and its relevance and value to anyone and everyone – including aid workers. Anyone seeking to know the meaning of the word ‘mindfulness’ should read your admirable essay. You are right to mention that mindfulness unfortunately has its detractors, maybe in part due to the rather awkward and, to some, alienating word itself . Any suggestions for an alternative?
Thank you for your comment and encouragement! I agree mindfulness may put people off, yet we do use this term in everyday life when we refer to being mindful of issues or situations around us. Perhaps another term would be conscious awareness? Would be interesting to know what terms other people use, particularly in the context of aid work and social change!
This is an excellent piece that combines two worlds that I kept very separate whilst studying International Development and Human Rights whilst being what some would consider, very politically active. I struggled to combine a nourishing lifestyle whilst embedding myself in the fight for a more just world, and in fact anything so-called spiritual seemed to be very self-indulgent in the midst of so much suffering. It is only recently that I can appreciate that mindfulness and compassion not only can be but is perfectly harmonious with human rights work and humanitarianism, and your post succinctly states this. Thanks so much for sharing this Gemma. I love your blog already and you’ve only just begun.
Thank you Layla. I do think embarking on meditation entails a new and at times difficult journey away from certain assumptions about how one must be as an activist or agent of social change. And it is certainly not the solution to all society’s ills. But mindfulness does invite us to be open to different perspectives, and to learn from our own inner battles in order that we may fight the external ones more consciously.