In this fast-paced, noisy and gadget-dependent world, the recipe for good health and happiness may just be living in the moment and thinking about one thing at a time.
It can be done while doing even the most mundane chore such as washing the dishes by feeling the cold water and soapsuds streaming on your hands; at lunch by savoring your meal and feeling the texture of food in your mouth; or by simply focusing on breathing while stuck in traffic.
This technique, called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), was recently introduced to a batch of humanitarian workers in the Philippines as part of a pilot program by the UK-based Action Against Hunger (ACF) for Start Network, a consortium of 24 leading nongovernment organizations (NGOs) working together to beef up the humanitarian aid system.
Aside from the Philippines, the program is also being rolled out in Pakistan, among countries vulnerable to calamities, and Thailand, a regional hub for NGOs and development organizations.
“The humanitarian sector is the one going through an emergency … These people go from one emergency to another [and] if they are not given something that can help [them, they might reach] breaking point,” Hitendra Solanki, ACF’s mindfulness and well-being adviser, said in an interview with the Inquirer.
To kick off the three-year program funded by the British government, Solanki flew to the Philippines in August and led a five-week training program for aid workers in Manila and Tacloban, hardest hit by the 2013 Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan), the most destructive typhoon on record.
Solanki said that while various sectors in the United States—schools, corporations, hospitals, prisons and even the military—have adopted the mindfulness approach as a way to relieve stress and improve well-being, it was only now that the development sector was joining the “revolution.”
Shift in support
Teaching aid workers the mindfulness technique is a shift in the way the sector is supporting them, with focus on prevention than treatment, Solanki said.
The traditional protocol is to provide help when a worker is showing signs of distress, anxiety or depression, he said.
“Because of the lack of resources, every penny is being spent on the treatment side because it has been looked at as more scientific and more professional,” said Solanki, also founder of the NGO The Mindful.
He added that preventive forms like breathing exercises and meditation are viewed as “weird, wonderful and silly.”
“But we are now saying, make that shift from the treatment side to the preventive side using mindfulness because it is not airy or mumbo-jumbo. It is absolutely hard-core science and other sectors are already doing this,” he said.
MBSR is an eight-week course developed and designed by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the late 1970s based on the Buddhist practice called Vipassana.
Mindfulness, which Kabat-Zinn defines as “paying attention on purpose moment by moment without judging,” has been effectively studied and subjected to many clinical trials for the last 35 years.
“It is very important to stress that although the practice was nourished in the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness itself is not faith-based. It carries no dogma and it is completely secular,” Solanki said.
Results of the numerous clinical studies and research on MBSR have shown that it has many benefits, including 70-percent reduction in anxiety, ongoing reduction in anxiety three years after taking a mindfulness course, and longer and better quality of sleep.
Studies have also shown that the mindfulness technique reduces negative feelings like anger, tension and depression; increases disease-fighting antibodies, which suggests improvement in the immune system, and improves medical conditions such as psoriasis, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Solanki said the mindfulness technique would equip humanitarian workers with self-care skills that would allow them to effectively monitor and manage their own stress.
This is important since many aid workers suffer stress disorders and depression in silence, he said.
Solanki cited a recent report by Netherlands-based Antares Foundation showing that 30 percent of aid workers come home from their assignments with significant signs of posttraumatic stress disorder.
Another study also showed that 60 percent of those in aid and development work suffer from stress, depression and anxiety.
Solanki said workload and management were the top stressors in humanitarian work regardless of the situation.
Aid workers usually resort to negative coping strategies, which include drinking and sometimes drug use, “to make life a bit livable,” he said, adding that the habit of “normalizing” stress contributes to breakdowns and severe mental health issues.
In the Philippines, which is no stranger to back-to-back calamities, aid workers could benefit a lot from the mindfulness approach because of the level of suffering they experience in responding to disasters, Solanki said.
Arming aid workers with the right tools and practical ways to boost their self-awareness will help them discern and understand their thoughts and feelings, he said.
“Noticing where the mind is going is highly important because most people who end up suffering from breakdowns or severe mental health issues are often the last people to know that they have mental health issues because they keep normalizing things,” he said.
But the mindfulness technique is not limited to aid workers. It can be practiced virtually by anyone without having the need to go on a retreat or sit in an empty room devoid of sound, Solanki said.
“The noise and the hustle and bustle of life can become reminders to practice mindfulness because it is not about taking yourself away from life. It is about fully experiencing life as it is and then being skillful in the way you respond to it,” he said.
People can practice mindfulness even with their mobile phones, he said. “If the phone [is] ringing, one of the things you can do [instead of picking] it up right away and react is [letting] it ring two or three times,” he said.
“You can say, ‘OK, the phone is ringing. What is going on in my mind? What’s going on with my emotions?’ Breathe and then pick up the phone and respond,” he said.
Two weeks ago, Solanki conducted the last session of the five-week MBSR course in Manila with about 10 aid workers from Christian Aid and AFC. In that session, he asked the participants to close their eyes while sitting upright but relaxed and focus on their breathing.
He said the easiest way to practice mindfulness was to start with your breathing because “it is always there for you to come back to the present moment.”
During the five-minute exercise, many of the beginners found themselves constantly drifting from one thought to another, only returning focus on breathing when Solanki gently reminded them to do so.
The short drill showed how the mind thinks nonstop without much effort and how this puts people on “autopilot” to multitask and jump from one task to another, Solanki said.
“But there are things that do not need thinking. For example, grief. You can’t [always] think grief away. Sometimes you just have to be with it, experience it in its raw form,” he said.
The danger of always being on “autopilot” is that people with potentially harmful and destructive tendencies will be trapped in this vicious cycle, he said.
“But allowing yourself to have that space inside you, to take a deep breath and step out of automatic pilot is important so you can wake up and see what you are doing,” he added.
Anyone new to the technique will initially find focusing on one thing hard. But just like a muscle that can be trained, the mind can also be primed to stay with something longer, Solanki said.
“And once you got a level of practice and understanding where the mind goes to, amazing things happen … you allow yourself to live life more fully. You don’t have to be driven by your habits and reactions,” he said.
“Because if you will just be carried away with habitual thinking, planning for things, worrying about things that have happened, ruminating about things, you are actually missing the only place you are ever alive, the present moment,” he said.