Meditation, mindfulness, and working in global health

I’ve been (a little bit) high-strung for as long as I can remember. I speak quickly, walk quickly, and think quickly. When presented with a problem, I have a tendency to dissect its root causes and come up with a list of possible solutions before the person speaking to me has had a chance to finish. In a lot of ways, this personality trait has been tremendously useful throughout my 29 years of life. It has helped me excel academically, by enabling me to process large amounts of information in short periods of time. It has made the process of adapting to new work environments manageable and even something I look forward to. However, there is a downside. The challenge with development work in general and global public health work in particular is that it’s a marathon not a sprint. The key to success lies not only in being able to hit the ground running, but also in one’s ability to endure and persevere through extended periods of stress. I’ve experienced tremendous professional growth during the last 9 months, but perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned about myself, is that I need to improve my self-care and mindfulness practices.

My usual response to stress is to nap, caffeinate, and power through. I’ve been doing it since high-school and didn’t really think that there was anything wrong with it until GHC’s Still Harbor sessions challenged me to reflect on what I want to accomplish with my life and what possible barriers are currently standing in my way. During these moments of reflection I’ve realized that I’m on the path to doing exactly what I want to be doing, but remain still somehow partially riddled with anxiety (totally normal). Upon further reflection, I’ve started to realize that both this anxiety and my hyperactivity (yeah, I really should just call it what it is) are born out of an impulse to control the future. I’m so focused on ensuring that my life follow a pre-determined sequential order (despite the fact that all of the best decisions I’ve made have come completely out of left field) that I mentally leave the present and spend large amounts of time focusing on things that are largely out of my control.

In January, as part of a broader leadership development process, I made the decision to start meditating. I have to admit that I spent the first few weeks reflecting about how bad I am at meditation (I know NOT the point, right?!). However, instead of controlling my thoughts, I made a concerted effort to quietly and thoughtfully acknowledge them, while focusing a majority of my attention on breathing properly (with the assistance of a very useful Iphone app!). If this sounds simple and easy to you, then I’m a little jealous…However, as those first few challenging weeks turned into months, I started not only to feel physically better (I had not realized the toll that unprocessed tension and stress were placing on my body) but also mentally and professionally more at ease.

I am no more certain about the future now than I was in January (though I have a general feeling that things will work out just fine), but I am more comfortable in that uncertainty than I have ever been before. Meditation is helping me calm my naturally racing brain, and enjoy and learn from each and every part of this remarkable experience. That being said, I am still very much at the beginning of my meditation journey; my mind still wonders and old sources of anxiety, on occasion, prevent me from being fully in the moment, and I know that’s okay. I also know that mindfulness, meditation, and more broadly, self-care are as important to our community’s vision of building a movement for health equity as technical expertise and innovation. Taking on the world’s most daunting health challenges requires not just that we act, but that we do so mindfully. Meditation is a powerful tool for accomplishing that goal.