This post is part of Aid to Zen – A Quick Guide to Surviving Aid Work from A to Z by Alessandra Pigni
Why mindfulness is (still) relevant for aid workers
In 2011 I started a project called Mindfulness for NGOs: back then mindfulness was gaining recognition in the academic community, but it was not yet the big “hit” it is today. The project was literally born on the back of a napkin in a cafe in London, when I told a friend that in my work I wanted to connect personal and global development (yes, a bit grandiose!).
Mindfulness was for me the natural place to go to because it had helped me so much when I worked with MSF in the field: it helped me not just to keep sane, but also to try and relate to my work in a more critical manner, addressing power and privileges with some awareness, and actively reflecting on my neocolonial good intentions.
While it was clear that aid workers needed some tools to keep sane and avoid burnout, it was also clear that their burnout was not born in isolation, and it was not something that anyone could simply “solve” by sitting and breathing mindfully for 20 minutes a day (I discuss why here).
Life experiences and my work in the field, have led me to appreciate how there is gold in mindfulness and its underpinning philosophy, but also to recognise that our wellbeing is much more than a set of self-care techniques practiced in isolation. We are “broken” in relation to others and to the world, and we heal in relation to others and to the world. And maybe that is how we connect, in a more humble manner, personal and global development: by healing relations, including the one with ourselves.
Mindfulness is no panacea, but it can help in the process.
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