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Why aid workers around the world are picking up meditation

by Benjamin Peim

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In 2007, Marianne Elliott was working as an aid worker in Afghanistan. Stationed in the remote province of Ghor, her job included entering prison cells and interviewing people who had allegedly been tortured, bearing witness to their injuries.

Finding herself isolated and experiencing mixtures of grief, anger, and shame, she resolved to meditate for 10 minutes, first thing in the morning, for three weeks. The three weeks zoomed by, but she kept on meditating.

“By the time I got to 21 days, I didn’t want to stop,” Elliott, now 44, said.

Humanitarian aid work is, to say the least, a difficult endeavor. Aid workers live and work in some of the most dangerous, war-torn, chaotic, and isolated places in the world—places like Sudan, Syria, and Afghanistan. They see to terrible human suffering, which can take a mental toll.

Indeed, a 2015 Guardian poll revealed that 79 percent of aid workers experienced mental health issues, and the vast majority said that these issues stemmed from their work in the field. A peer-reviewed study from 2012 found that many aid workers experienced signs of post-traumatic stress and depression. Burnout, many report, is a major issue, as well.

To help stay resilient, aid workers are increasingly turning to meditation and other mindfulness practices, which have been shown to decrease stress and anxiety, and foster compassion.

Elliott said that one of the most difficult aspects of humanitarian aid work was not being equipped to deliver what the community she was working with needed.

“That gap was enormous,” Elliott said. “That makes you feel very strong, stressful feelings.”

Elliott said meditation helped her to not put up armor against the outside world. It allowed her to be open to the reality of the suffering she saw around her without losing herself in it.

“The upside is that when you’re open to the suffering, you’re also open to the joy, and love, and kindness, which I think is absolutely essential to being a human being doing humanitarian work,” Elliott said.

After Elliott returned from Afghanistan to her native New Zealand, she wrote a memoir, “Zen Under Fire,” released in 2013. In the book, she recounted her experiences—both good and bad—in the central Asian country.

While Elliott stressed that things like meditation shouldn’t be used to gloss over systemic issues, she was heartened by the positive response her book received and the increasing conversation around aid worker well-being.

In the last few years, perhaps no one has done as much to promote meditation and aid worker well-being as Emmett Fitzgerald, 38, an experienced aid worker who has been deployed to three continents. He spent over two years in Port Au Prince, Haiti, after a devastating 7.0 earthquake tore through the Caribbean nation in January 2010. Fitzgerald was responsible for managing a camp of 25,000 people who had lost everything and were living in makeshift housing, enduring days of 100-degree heat followed by torrid rainstorms.

After he left Haiti, he began suffering signs of severe burnout. “It can be a very frightening thing,” Fitzgerald said. “It feels like you’ve run out of empathy and compassion.”

“I was experiencing anxiety attacks, questioning, was it all worth it? What did I achieve?” he said.

He took up meditation in 2014 after a friend told him about a four-day course run by the Contemplative-based Resilience Project (the CBR Project) a New York-based non-profit organization run out of the Garrison Institute, a nonprofit that works to cultivate contemplative practices. The CBR Project runs training programs that give aid workers practical tools to deal with stress and burnout. The course focused on meditation, along with mindful movement and extensive psychological support.

At first, Fitzgerald was deeply skeptical that the course was going to help. But he walked out of the course, in his words, “transformed.” It gave him the tools he needed to get back into aid work. In 2015, he spent six weeks working in Nepal, after another devastating earthquake there.

Fitzgerald still practices mindfulness today. Now the director of the CBR Project himself, he said that investing in the well-being of aid workers will make them more effective at their jobs. It will also reduce the industry’s recidivism rate, which will directly help the millions of refugees around the world.

“Simply experiencing their suffering and being overwhelmed by it is not appropriate,” Fitzgerald explained. “You’re there to do a job, you have to develop the skill of putting a certain amount of distance. That’s what meditation does.”

The CBR Project most recently organized a four-day training session in Jordan last December in which aid workers from western countries, along with Iraqi and Syrian aid workers, attended.

Alina Potts, 35, an aid worker who has worked in hotspots all over Africa and the Middle East, said that meditation particularly helped her when she was working in the Congo.

“It was really helpful to have a practice that would keep me somewhat grounded in what can really be a destabilizing type of work,” Potts, who has meditated for six years, said. (She now works for UNICEF and stressed that she was speaking from personal experience, not representing the views of her employer.)

Potts said that meditation seems particularly suited to aid workers because it can be done anywhere.

“A lot of times, you might be working in a place where your movement is constrained, or there are security regulations, or you have a small room with very little privacy,” Potts said. “You don’t need a yoga mat; you don’t really need anything.”

The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.

Benjamin Peim

Benjamin Peim is a freelance journalist based in Jersey City, N.J. He has written about crime and health for various publications. He recently began meditating.