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The value of resilience training for aid workers

The value of resilience training for aid workers

By Teri Sivilli

“Find a place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.” –Joseph Campbell

I’m up early, before my alarm, watching the sky shade from canary to crimson to cerulean behind mauve and gray clouds. Yesterday was gray and drizzly, so I’m awed and surprised by this spectacular sunrise over Lake Akagera.

We’re about to conduct a Contemplative-Based Resilience (CBR) training for staff from an INGO that works on both emergency response and longer-term development projects. The participants include Western and African staff, and I know many of them are burnt out and stressed from helping people in Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo deal with hardship, suffering and trauma. The faculty have flown in from Spain, Palestine and various parts of the U.S., to gather in Akagera National Park in northeastern Rwanda.

We knew some of the aid workers attending the training had just recently lived through some horrific experiences, so we were expecting to see symptoms of traumatic stress. But I soon learned that some of their stories were worse than I had imagined or expected: a carjacking in which the person had been beaten badly with machetes; offices ransacked; gun battles with local militia.

On top of that, many of the participants were sceptical about the training.

At breakfast, a charming, witty and accomplished expat told me she doesn’t see how any of the things we were teaching could be helpful in the field.

But this INGO is committed to the training and to offering psychological support for their staff. CBR training teaches the tools essential to maintaining resilience, no matter where you are or what you’re doing as an aid worker. It’s an intervention from a relatively new field of scientific inquiry that explores the varied effects of contemplative practices on the mind and body.

Participants working at the training.
Participants at the Garrison Institute’s CBR training in Rwanda. Photo courtesy of the author.

“Contemplative practices” include everything from meditation to yoga to centering prayer to spiritual writing. Some of these practices, such as mindfulness and compassion meditation and some forms of yoga, have been tested; others haven’t. (We have a white paper available here that summarises the research.) Our CBR training uses only techniques that have been demonstrated to build and maintain the qualities that sustain resilience: psychosocial education, mindful movement (yoga) and mindfulness and compassion meditation.

The country directors who are participating in the training are outstanding. They did not force anyone to attend, but they also know some of their people truly need help. They’re hoping this venue will provide it. They are open and ready to learn.

A wall of blank, stony, expressionless faces greeted me as I opened the training. I communicated through a colleague who is fluent in French; the little I once spoke is long gone. I was trying to connect, but got nothing back from the group.

The training days are structured, with sessions devoted to each of the curriculum components–too structured, it turns out, for people whose daily movements are constrained by the violence that surrounds them as they work. At the end of the second day, they insisted on having more free time during the training.

I worked with my team to revise the schedule to accommodate that request, and also decided to move yoga to the poolside pavilion, just as the skies burst open in a beginning-of-the-rainy-season downpour. Creative and resourceful, the participants unrolled their yoga mats, held them over their heads, and formed a conga line to dance to the pavilion. At least the rain kept the baboons at bay.

For too long, it often seemed that anyone interested in the well being of aid workers was primarily talking to themselves. Lately, the issue has gained more widespread attention, with articles in mainstream publications such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Alessandra Pigni, writing on her website MindfulNext and here on WhyDev, has also done exemplary work to explicate the shared responsibility of individuals and organisations to care for staff.

The CBR training is an experiment for this INGO, and if the response is good, they will do more. We don’t expect that this particular program will resonate with everyone–nothing can–and it doesn’t. But the reasons surprise us. Slowly, patiently, we address misunderstandings about yoga and meditation.

As the training proceeded, the group bonded and became more open. They tried on the practices like new clothes, wary at first, unsure if they are suitable. Eventually, the new is found to be comfortable, and comforting. At the lodge, surrounded by savannah and lake, glimpsing giraffe and crested crane, crowded cities and deadlines seemed far away. The setting helped us to relax and to connect with ourselves and each other. Even the Internet cooperated, by going down for several days.

At the closing circle, heartfelt words of gratitude and love flow out of the participants and the faculty and bind us together. When the buses leave the next morning, we smile and laugh through our tears. No one wants to say good-bye. The transformation from the first day to the fifth is astounding. The charming, witty and accomplished expat who expressed her scepticism at our first breakfast tells me that she now understands, and commits to a daily meditation practice. I’m so shocked I can’t even reply.

I will hold you in my heart always, I had whispered to myself the night before, then offered to them the traditional words of metta: “May you be safe, be happy, live with ease.” I choked on the first phrase, knowing how fragile their safety is. Yet, I know that together, we’ve opened a door within to a place of joy that can help them adapt and thrive.

Teri Sivilli is the program manager for the Garrison Institute’s CBR Project. After observing the persistent effects of the conflicts in Kosovo and Sri Lanka on the mental health of national staff and the affected populations, she became interested in the potential for contemplative-based interventions to heal chronic stress and trauma. You can also follow her on Twitter. The next CBR training will be held August 2015 at the Garrison Institute in New York State.

Featured image shows Rwanda’s Akagera National Park. Photo by Jennifer Ambrose.

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