Archives for posts with tag: activism

Dear Gaza

It is with great sorrow that I hear the latest news about another massacre, another bombing, another retaliation. I feel sorrow for the rising death toll, the pictures of weeping mothers and wives, the murder of children too young to even understand the struggles of their parents, families and neighbours. And I also feel sorrow becuase I know that each death, whether it’s in Gaza or in Israel, will only fuel further hatred, and further violence. I watch as the vicious pattern unfolds once again – attack and counter-attack, claims and counter-claims, threats and counter-threats. A new generation growing up with nothing but anger in their hearts.

In fact anger is everywhere; from the Government ministers to the international solidarity activists holding demonstrations outside Israeli embassies throughout the world, from one Facebook wall post to another, anger is pervasive. It is behind every political statement on Palestine, and every military action on either side.

I know this anger, and I’m by no means immune to it. It is anger that has spurred me on in Palestine, that strengthened my resolve to work there after witnessing the Wall, the settlements, the aggression of the Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. I am only now just processing that anger, releasing it in waves of sorrow and distress after holding it in the pit of my stomach for so many years as a Palestine activist. I am familiar with the anger I hear in the voices of commentators, and even my own father – so incensed is he by what is happening in Gaza right now.

But this time round, dear Gaza, dear Palestine, I am not one of those angry voices. I will not be attending any demonstrations, and I will not be writing press releases or political statements. And I will not be engaging in any of the aggressive political point-scoring, some of it between friends on separate sides of the fence (both politically and physically). I don’t say this with pride, and I do say it with more than a little guilt. My decision doesn’t come from a place of pure wisdom or higher authority, but from a place of accepting one thing: I don’t see the purpose of my anger anymore, and if anything I’m fearful of it – of what this negative emotion does to me, and to anyone engaged in the Palestinian situation. Does Gaza need my inner conflicts, confusion and frustration leaking out into any action I take for the so-called good of Palestine? Because anger often comes from this deeper, more obscure place of inner turmoil. It is not always constructive, or effective – I question now whether my anger over Palestine has really achieved anything over the years except perhaps alienating a few people and breeding further hatred. And what can hatred ever achieve? With anger, and hatred, we lose all sense of balance or compassion. It is easy for our emotions to take over when visiting Palestine, but how often do we stop to question their source and their purpose? It is only once I find the  meaning behind my own emotions and actions that I can understand the emotions and actions of others.

And so, dear Gaza, this time I stand back. I read what I can, and I’m screaming inside. But I will not be expressing my grief on the podium, or in the newsletter or conference room.  Please don’t mistake my non-action for apathy. My non-action comes from a place of understanding that clinging on to anger will serve no purpose except greater suffering. There are many positive actions that can be fuelled by people’s anger over injustice. All respect, and my most sincere wishes, go to those who transform their anger into something beautiful and empowering for the human race. I would one day love to join those who are mindful of every action and reaction, and who have a clear vision of what peace can and should look like, regardless of race, ethnicity or political positioning. But for now, my silence is the strongest thing I can offer as a  sign of love and compassion in this mixed up world.

For more reflections on Palestine activism, anger and mindfulness please read this blog piece from Mindfulness for NGOs: blog « Mindfulness for NGOs.

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I’ve made an odd and unsettling discovery these last few weeks. It’s that I can’t watch or ready anything that reminds me of Palestine, and my time there.

It has been a year, almost to the day, that I left that place. I walked away from my beautiful flat overlooking a valley in Ramallah, with tears in my eyes. I knew my time there was up – on many levels, it was simply not sustainable, or fulfilling, for me to be there. And it appears that I am still getting to grips with that fact to this day, one year on.

The view from my apartment in Ramallah

They say that grief comes in five stages – first, denial; then anger; followed by bargaining; followed by depression. Then, finally, acceptance. Well, as some of you may have noticed, I’ve certainly been dragged – kicking and screaming – over the steps of anger and depression these last few months. Bargaining is a more obscure concept, but I can see that’s what I’ve been doing as I’ve slowly pulled myself away from further job applications for human rights or humanitarian positions.

And before these stages, I guess I was in denial; this is the emotional tool we use when living in an environment of intractable conflict, grinding poverty or blatant injustice. We withhold, and deny, the tears when we see another victim of human rights violations, or another humiliation or indignity meted out against an innocent civilian – who may well be a close friend or colleague – because to cry would reveal a disrespectful weakness in front of those who remain stoic and steadfast in the face of adversity. To cry would also suggest we cannot cope with living and working in such an environment, which would then beg the question, why are we there in the first place.

Perhaps the tears I’ve shed the last few months have made up for the restraint, and resilience, exercised through all those years of fighting an idealistic battle for justice and en end to poverty and inequality without daring to admit either distress or defeat. Or maybe the tears were for bigger and deeper sorrows and regrets – I’m still not sure.

What I do see now is that I am far more vulnerable, and far less resilient. I made this discovery last week whilst filling in a survey put together by a group of academics from the U.S., on the subject of stress, burnout, trauma and resilience in human rights workers. The survey provoked in me a mixture of feelings, which raced through me like a torrent – sadness, anger, hopelessness, anxiety. Some of its questions included:

Have you personally witnessed serious violations of the right to shelter, food, water, and other basic rights?

Have you worked with someone who has suffered serious reprisals or threats of reprisals for their work?

Have you personally witnessed disaster or conflict affected communities?

I found myself answering yes to so many of these questions, in reference to so many incidents and situations I’d come across in my working life. This is not a normal way to exist! I was thinking to myself.

Then things got worse – I was then asked about coping mechanisms, and how I respond to difficult situations. And with each answer I realised that my way of dealing with so many difficult situations has been to normalise it – because any other reaction, such as crying, or getting too angry, would appear disrespectful among friends or colleagues in such environments, who live these experiences every day or week or month throughout their life.

If I wasn’t normalising it, I was certainly having an internal battle against my emotions – not letting myself grieve and instead distracting myself with more work or drinking copious amounts of alcohol. It is only now, after having some distance from these events and situations, and whilst I’m spending so much time confronting my emotions, that I realise how much I internalised – whether it was the trauma of witnessing human rights abuses, or of friends being arrested or injured, or simply feeling under-appreciated and worthless at work. This might explain why when I go through a survey like this now, I feel my heart rate increasing, and start to panic. Feelings of hopelessness and self-doubt stayed with me for the rest of the day.

The next day, I had the same reaction when watching a trailer for a new documentary film released this week, Five Broken Cameras, about the nonviolent resistance in Bil’in, a village in the West Bank. As its soundtrack of solemn, urgent Arab oud music played to footage of the village under fire by Israeli soldiers, I started to panic. I had to switch it off before the five minute trailer finished. Great, I thought to myself, in a state of disbelief – I can’t even watch a video clip. In it were the faces of people I may not have known directly, but I saw them every day in the campaigns we ran, in the press releases we wrote demanding their release from prison or for the Separation Wall to be dismantled. What then followed was a sad emptiness and feeling of guilt. This is the same guilt one gets when being faced with untold human suffering, when one chooses to turn the page instead of reading on. I seem to have leapt from one extreme to another; from reading every news item on Palestine and the Middle East, and every article on detention, or torture, or any other realities that have informed, and inspired, my activism – to not being able to look at or engage with anything.

Yet this is what we have to do once we allow in the grieving process; once we recognise that we are not the superheroes or pillars of strength and determination we thought we were. We have to do whatever it takes to recover, and to heal. But NGO workers and activists, and anyone who is working on human rights issues, can spend years denying themselves this recognition that maybe they cannot cope with all that they have seen; that maybe they need to look after and love themselves as much as they try to do the same to others. We instead hold the anger and grief of what we see and experience inside us, and live to fight another day. And yet I’m learning now that the biggest and most challenging confrontation we have is ultimately with ourselves.

Summer is drawing to a close already – the weather appears to be changing, after a brief Indian summer which we’d been promised since a very rainy June. This summer, as everyone gave in to Olympic fever, there has been a real buzz in the air; an atmospheric lift which has seen most Londoners being more friendly, more laid back, and living more in the moment – apparently putting their worries on hold to enjoy this most unique of holiday periods. They’ve put aside the cynicism for which us Brits are famous, and embraced new experiences and interests, the most notable being the unequivocal support which has been shown towards athletes of all races, backgrounds and physical abilities, whether at the Olympic Stadium, from the sofa at home, or in conversation on the train or in the pub. We all hope that the mood, and attitude, will last and be utilised meaningfully on a political, social and economic level.

Embracing the summer spirit: Notting Hill Carnival

Now it’s time to knuckle down and prepare for the autumn. Many view this with dread, as the season signals an end to outdoor parties and socialising and the start of more time spent at home, with oneself. It is a time to go inward, and reflect. Well, this is no new activity for me – I’m actually wondering how I embark on the autumn’s self-reflection when I seem to have spent a whole lot of my summer navel-gazing.

For thirty-somethings like myself, it appears that this whole year is one of change, which is sometimes frightening, sometimes exhilarating. How many people do I know who are questioning their life, where they’re at, where they’re going? Who, fearing the great unknown, are either continuing to be stuck in a job they don’t enjoy, or are unemployed and fluctuating between moments of excitement and moments of utter self-doubt. Sometimes it seems so much safer to stay in the former situation in order to avoid the ramifications of the latter – the highs and lows which I’ve talked about over the last few weeks. I certainly feel like I’ve learned a huge amount about myself – my fears and insecurities, my anger, my resentment – over the course of my transition, and none more so than in the last three weeks, when some gentle massaging and prodding from an acupressure practitioner seemed to open up a whole new chapter of my journey. Perhaps this would never have happened if I wasn’t out of work and forced to dig deep in order to make sense of why I’ve turned my back on old habits and old identities, to face a life of trying to be more honest about who I am and what I want.

When you embark on a transition, you don’t necessarily realise that it’s not just about leaving one career behind to try and build another. A transition goes to the very heart of our emotions and our identity. If we want to really feel happy and fulfilled, we have to do more than find a different job; we have to confront ourselves and ask, from one fleeing moment to another: How does this make your feel? If you’re feeling down, or agitated, or anxious, why is that? What is it that gives you confidence right now?  What is it that nourishes you?

Perhaps we need to remember that tears, like rain, play a nourishing role. They help us to grow.

We also have to admit to those negative emotions, which we try so hard to fight or to brush under the carpet. If we don’t want them to fester inside us, leading to illness and dis-ease, we have to do more than admit to them; we have to accept them into our lives, as part of us. It’s only by doing this that we can learn from them and learn about ourselves and who we really are. In my case, I’m beginning to realise that there’ve been many times when I’ve tried to ‘rise above’ a difficult situation, when in fact what I’ve probably done is buried it deep inside me, bottled it, instead of fully processing or even feeling it. This is understandable when you’re doing human rights or humanitarian work – we wouldn’t be very effective at our jobs if we were constantly in tears at every injustice we witnessed or experienced. But also in our everyday personal lives, it’s difficult to stop and confront our feelings. Whilst living under the same roof as my parents, I find myself hiding my emotions all the time in order to try and maintain a harmonious environment in the house – one that doesn’t upset or offend my parents, or lead to an argument or tensions. But this is not natural – we cannot remain strong and stoic all the time – and sooner or later the real emotions come flooding out, and our vulnerabilities and fears are laid bare. It is only once we fully release those emotions that we can really heal.

Why did a few sessions of acupressure unleash such strong emotions in me, causing me to cry on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis? Some of my friends have laughed when I’ve questioned this; You were working in Palestine for a year, you’ve been doing human rights work and activism for ten years, and now you’re living with your parents and trying to manage their emotions as well as your own – and you wonder why you’ve been crying?? It’s very hard for us to see these things for ourselves, much like it’s hard to admit to that term used to describe the emotional turmoil felt by development workers and activists – burnout. But if we see burnout as it’s described by the Activist Trauma Network – symptoms of irritability, feelings of hopelessness/helplessness/cynicism, non-enjoyment of activities enjoyed in the past, difficulty in making decisions, inability to stay focussed, and fatigue or other physical effects – we realise that such emotions are common, and likely to be experienced by every person doing this kind of work.

Were my tears an expression of all of the above? Perhaps. Or perhaps I was crying over the heartache of failed relationships, or over the difficulties of my childhood, or over the hurt I’ve felt whilst dealing with each family crisis. I may not have the answers, but I do believe that the tears were necessary as part of the journey of transition. It is only once we have truly uncovered our emotions that we can begin to heal.

And so as we embark on the season of reflection, I think it’s important to try to embrace whatever comes, good or bad, much the same way we embraced the joy of the summer. It is only from truly experiencing darker moments, living and feeling them, that we can better understand ourselves, and appreciate the happiness that follows.

This year marks 50 years of Jamaican independence, so I thought a nod to Bob Marley was appropriate right now. His words are not only a call to mobilise, to unite; they also call on us to dig deep within ourselves, and to let our conscience be our guide.

Marley performing at Dalymount Park

Marley performing at Dalymount Park (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been officially unemployed since December last year. Did I envisage this when I chose to leave my job in Palestine and come back home to live with my parents for the first time in 10 years? No, because for the first few months since returning I convinced myself that what I must do is a) find a job and b) move out as quickly as possible. Well apparently such humble ambitions were a bit presumptuous, as I’m still here, transitioning. Not knowing what comes next. Making bi-monthly visits to the Job Centre and cringing with every story I have to tell of what I’ve been doing to find a job – because this is what is expected of every person in unemployment. Taking a break, or transitioning, is apparently not an option when you’re claiming state benefits.

But despite the low points of being unemployed and full of uncertainty (and I touched on those, to put it mildly, in my previous blog post), I’m reminded each day of the big lessons learned from all this time with, to and for myself. Particularly in the last couple of weeks, when I’ve not been able to move about too much having just had knee surgery, I’ve been forced to be still and do nothing. When I’ve not been doing nothing, I’ve been trying to map my progress over the last eight months; and here is what has emerged.

I’ve had a lot of letting go to do. It is only when we stop and confront ourselves – look within – that we realise just how much we bottle up; how many emotions and feelings we allow to fester inside us, grinding us down, preventing us from moving forward. A key emotion for me has been anger. I’ve had anger over the injustices I’ve witnessed or experienced over the years – in Palestine, in Uganda, in Sri Lanka, in Iraq, or here in the UK, sometimes concerning friends and people I know. I’ve felt anger over people around me who have let me down, or made me feel inadequate, isolated or disappointed. I’ve felt anger over the jobs I’ve done, because of all the effort put in with little appreciation or recognition. But what I have also begun to realise over the passing months, as I work through these emotions and experiences, is just how pointless this feeling is. What, or who, does this emotion – anger – serve? Has it helped me be a better human rights activist? Has it helped me do my job more efficiently? Has it helped me deepen my relationships, with friends or colleagues? I actually find this emotion quite tiring; whether it’s me that feels it, or someone close to me expressing it. Letting go of anger over the last few months has been quite liberating, and has eased my path of transition considerably.

I have learned to say no to situations that no longer serve me. This may be friendships, habits, jobs…..it’s quite surprising to see what comes up when one looks within and asks: ‘Is this really what you want? Is this good for you?’ The result is that I may choose not to read an article, or engage in a discussion, on torture or corporate exploitation. Or I may choose not to go to that party which sounds so exciting but will leave me empty and ill the next day. I don’t always get the answer right, I’ve realised afterwards (and usually after a situation which is alcohol-induced), but I’m getting better at this exercise.

I’ve realised that ten years of human rights work has squeezed out any room for other pursuits, because now I’m not working, I’m discovering (re-discovering?) new interests – like writing, dancing, walking in the countryside. My spare time over the last ten years has been dedicated to, I say slightly ashamedly, partying. OK, so I did intersperse that with a few country walks and a bit of yoga. But when being a human rights activist or humanitarian worker becomes your entire identity, any other meaningful interests slip away, apart from partying until the early hours to work off all that pent-up anger. I know not everyone who works in my sector would agree with this, but that is how I’ve operated over the last few years; and although there’ve been some great parties along the way, the last few months have been an awakening to bigger and better things. Not to say the party’s over – perish the thought!

As I have let go of one identity (the humanitarian/human rights worker), other jobs suddenly seem quite appealing. As I mentioned in my last blog post, accepting the loss of one identity or career has not been easy. But in letting go, I’m suddenly considering other opportunities I would never have previously acknowledged –

The British Library

The British Library (Photo credit: stevecadman)

working in a charity shop that sells unusual clothes and jewellery; or a café that serves a blinding Flat White and delicious freshly baked cakes; or in a University library where I can delve into their collections on Buddhism or psychology whilst meeting interesting and stimulating academics and students.

These are all jobs which I feel will allow me the space to continue nurturing myself – a space I denied myself in my previous work.

Lastly, I should touch on my spiritual path. Until recently the word spirituality, along with ‘God’, ‘faith’ and ‘religion’, didn’t exist in my personal vocabulary, or my life map. I’ve been doing meditation for several years, but I have always shied away from identifying myself with anything cosmic, or metaphysical. Going to the Sanctuary in Thailand at the beginning of this year changed all that. As well as doing daily yoga and meditation practice, I took part in a women’s healing workshop – something I wouldn’t have touched with a barge-pole even a year ago. The workshop involved, among others, crying, laughing, dancing, hugging, sharing. Too much detail would actually not do it justice, but the important thing to acknowledge is that something opened up. It tapped in to a part of me that had been buried beneath the anger, the resentment, the self-doubt. We do not all have the privilege (or money) to go to such a place; the point is, as someone in Thailand said to me, to put aside old habits, assumptions and scepticism. Allow yourself to surrender, and who knows what interesting things you might find. This doesn’t require a belief in God, but it does require courage.

With such a small life, with such a small energy source, it is simply stupid to waste it in sadness, in anger, in hatred, in jealousy. Use it in love, use it in some creative act, use it in friendship, use it in meditation: Do something with it that takes you higher. And the higher you go, the more energy source becomes available to you. At the highest point of consciousness, you are almost a God.

Osho

 


When people ask me what job I do, I always struggle to find the appropriate response. It tends to differ according to who is asking me, and will range from ‘development/aid/humanitarian/human rights worker’ to ‘advocacy/policy/programmes officer’. This linguistic difficulty is not only due to needing to second guess whether the person I’m talking to will actually understand what any of these terms mean; it’s also because I myself am not sure what I am. Maybe the blanket term is ‘activist’ – although this actually doesn’t describe a job, but more a way of life. And not every development worker is an activist; you don’t often see a United Nations official on a podium at a public rally, or camping outside banks or embassies to raise awareness of a political injustice (although I’m sure there are some that do).

I’m dwelling on this because this trouble in semantics is actually part of a wider symptom of burnout in the sector I work in (what sector do I work in? Is it aid/development/humanitarian/charity/non-governmental? Oh never mind…). Struggling to talk about what we do reflects a deeper emotional difficulty in expressing all the hopes, fears, anger and uncertainties that go in to our work. It manifests itself in the tension one feels in the chest, or the lump in one’s throat, when embarking on a discussion about what ‘advocacy’ or ‘capacity building’ is, or what it’s like to live in a ‘war zone’.

I’m not trying to belittle people’s genuine interest in this kind of work – and people are indeed interested and want to understand it more. What I struggle with is actually trying to describe, in as concise and eloquent a way as possible, the feelings, emotions and experiences of working in Palestine, or Uganda, or any other country which is not in the slightest way similar to home. And without using all this jargon listed above, which no one understands unless they’re doing the same kind of job.

It’s not easy to answer the question often posed when returning from one of these countries – what’s it like there? Well, it’s like a number of things, but which parts does the person asking actually want to hear? About the house I lived in or the restaurants and markets I’d regularly go to? About the neighbourliness of everyone I met, and the high number of cups of tea and plates of unfamiliar food that have been put in front of me, on occasions several times in one day? About the elderly man in a refugee camp I met, who was dying from AIDS having had no access to proper treatment? About the friend of mine who was arrested and tortured?

More specifically, how do I describe what my work is like (click to see an amusing summary)? Should I be honest and say I spend most of my time in front of a computer in an office, feeling frustrated as I try to jump through numerous bureaucratic hoops and hopeless because most of the time I feel it doesn’t make any difference to anything anyway? Or do I focus more on those occasional times when I do go to a refugee camp, or a village, or a prison, or someone’s home, and actually have a proper conversation with a ‘victim’, as they’re so often inappropriately termed for their mere existence in that particular country.

What follows is the reality as I see it of doing this kind of work – whatever we might choose to term it. For purposes of clarity, I will use the term ‘international NGO worker’ – someone who works for a non-governmental organisation (NGO), which can, for instance, be a charity or a campaign group working on or in specific countries suffering from poverty or conflict. This is from my own experience, but not every worker is the same, as our environment, our colleagues, our office, the communities we are trying to help, all vary greatly; along with our emotional reactions and approaches to what we’re doing.

I have spent the last ten years doing a number of activities in different countries, most of which have been going through long periods of war. This has included funding projects in communities that have borne the brunt of years of conflict and need support in rebuilding their economies and their livelihoods. This could be a female-headed family, whose men have been killed in war or have abandoned them, and who want to grow some vegetables or rice to sell at the local market to have a sustainable income. At the same time, I have also been raising awareness at international level of the injustices of these conflicts. This entails lobbying British Government and M.P.s – taking them to conflict areas, writing to them, issuing public statements which pressure them to take action; doing much the same with UN officials, to push them to intervene by sending in monitors, or by passing a resolution at the Security Council (the UN body responsible for maintaining international peace and security). It also entails developing campaigns and awareness raising initiatives which will engage the general public in my country – students, workers, Church groups, ANYONE – to take action against the injustice of that conflict. This means supporting them to write to their MP or to a Cabinet Minister to express their concern regarding the British Government’s complicity in that injustice (which there usually is in some way); or getting them out on the street at a public demonstration.

English: Anti-war die-in in Sheffield, UK. Pho...

English: Anti-war die-in in Sheffield, UK. Photo from http://chris.croome.net/photos/2003/0317/009_Anti-War_Die_In_Lg.jpg.8.html , licensed under the GNU FDL. Photographer: Chris Croome. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We go into this kind of work with the best of intentions, thinking that at least one small action – any of the above, or something else – is better than nothing and will maybe help one person facing injustice, and could even help an entire community. And with some actions, it’s easier to see those positive results immediately. The female-headed household gets its small loan, or sack of vegetable seeds, to grow crops to sell at market. The family can now pay for the children’s school fees. Continuous pressure on the British Government results in the Foreign Secretary making a public statement which condemns the violence in that country.

But the bigger picture gets far more complicated. Because ultimately the female-headed household is still at risk of being thrown back into poverty by its Government’s intransigence, corruption or involvement in another war. And a statement by the British Government means very little unless it’s followed up by concrete action and policies aimed at stopping the injustice. And real action is dependent on a number of factors, but ultimately is decided according to the interests of the Government of the time and not public opinion, as we’ve seen so clearly with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

So in fact having a sense of achievement when working for an international NGO is very hard, because we’re up against powerful decision-makers that appear almost impossible to influence. Sure, there are occasional breakthroughs, and maybe over time we do witness a crucial change in policy or approach at Governmental or UN level. But rarely do we feel confident enough to say that we contributed to that. Instead, we spend day after day, in front of that computer, writing that press release or call for action or letter to the Prime Minister, with moments of determination matched by moments of questioning whether there is really any point or purpose. Occasionally, we get out ‘into the field’ – in other words, into reality, where we meet the local population and hear directly from them what it is that’s needed to stop the injustice. Unfortunately, these demands often fail to be met by the NGO in question, for a number of reasons related to capacity, resources, interests, policies, funding. Meanwhile, the violence/poverty/human rights abuses of the country in question rage on, with no sign of meaningful intervention by that country’s Government – who surely should shoulder the most responsibility, over and above our own.

This may all sound very depressing. But then it is coming from a girl in transition, who is trying to make sense of her past and her present in order to make a positive and meaningful step into the future. And I know I’m not alone in this – the feeling of hopelessness, of failure – when trying to address the ongoing injustices attributed to ours and other people’s governments. It is part of the job of an activist or international NGO worker to understand the brutal realities of one’s efforts. It’s good to be idealistic to some degree, but it is equally important to know one’s limits, and not to set one’s expectations too high with any action. It won’t lead to any change overnight. But it might just go some small way in adjusting people’s perceptions or assumptions about a situation in another country that they’ve never been to and barely read about. And this may just go some small way in developing a new world view, a greater connection with other cultures and populations, and ultimately a greater resolve to live together on this planet with more equality and more compassion in our hearts. Perhaps this is the ultimate goal, over above any lofty aims to end a conflict, or change Government policy, or stop its corruption or use of torture, in any given country. As the Dalai Lama and his celebrity supporters put it, we all need to stand up, and be the change.

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