Meditation, Yoga and Emotional Intelligence in a War Zone

Training in Afghanistan

Meditation in a warzone by Bryan Kent Ward

Since delivering resilience training for aid workers and a short workshop on peace-building at the university in Kabul, people have been asking me about this experience. I do many kinds of training work and in some ways this was just another job, in other ways less so. People have been particularly curious about the bodymind aspect of my work in Afghanistan – meditation and mindfulness, emotional intelligence and embodied work. Embodied training involves posture and movement and is similar to work people may have come across in martial arts and yoga.

Just getting there was a bit of an adventure having to go via Dubai to get a visa. One experience I had there that left a real impression on me, was not being able to hug my friend, who gave me a lift to the airport, because she was a woman. I felt the urge to embrace her come up in my body, and then had to stifle it to meet the cultural norm and law. I wondered what it must be like to live with such constraints continuously, and the effect this would have on a person.

The heavy military presence and intense security at the airport on arrival in Kabul let me know immediately I was not in a peaceful country, but I would like to point out early in this article that it was much safer than many would imagine (hi mum!), and many Afghanis were at pains to point this out. The people I met were not happy with the media portrayal of a country where things were blowing up all the time, and like anywhere life goes on. That being said, sleeping behind several layers of heavily locked iron doors, drifting off to the sound of US gunships overhead, mazes of anti-suicide bomb blast walls around major buildings, being asked to check my gun and body armour (which I didn’t have) at the hidden doorway to restaurants…etc, left a certain impression on me. Most of the time I felt very safe – I stayed with an NGO I have worked for in the UK with doctors from Pakistan and Bangladesh. They were great hosts – an Islamic imperative and the reason the Taliban didn’t kick Osama out when the US asked incidentally – and the diet of curry and cricket where I stayed was pretty familiar!  Note – there is a good book on the fledgling Afghan cricket team.

There were other times however when the seriousness of where I was and deep deep fear hit me. Fear and tension were things I worked with emotionally throughout the trip using the same tools I teach (mindfulness, yoga, exercise, gratitude, etc). There is also the issue of vicarious trauma and I didn’t realise how much I was holding until I cried on the flight back while watching a really bad action movie. There’s no shame in crying, but crying while watching Red Dawn – that’s embarrassing! On returning I employed the self-care routine I have been fine tuning for a few years which involves a lot of empathy, touch and movement.

Cultural Training Challenges

I have trained people in maybe 20 countries, and most of the organisations I work with are multi-national so I am used to cultural challenges and adaptions at work. Working with both male and female national and international staff in Afghanistan, and people from various tribal groups however, took this to a new level. At times – for example meeting some senior officials at the health ministry – I guessed I was understanding 10% of the sub-text of what was being said at best. The gender issues were fascinating and can’t be understated, especially when working with emotions, touch and trauma issues! To say I learnt to tread carefully is an understatement though my hosts were very forgiving of my many errors. The young people at the university were a particular delight and easier to work with culturally than some as they had grown up with more Western influence. Even with this group however, many of the young women in the NonViolent Communication workshop I did there were very reluctant to talk with men in the room, despite encouragement from all. Starting to understand cultural differences around emotional issues was also fascinating – issues of shame and trauma-related anger for example are quite different to Europe – but the basics of happiness and being human are the same.

Meditation, Mindfulness, NVC etc in Afghanistan

I was a little nervous to teach meditation and embodied work as part of the NGO resilience training in Afghanistan due to potential cultural/religious clashes. As it turned out this was not an issue, and with some careful introduction and adaptation it was fine. Many people do not know that Afghanistan was a Buddhist country for nearly 1000 years and the Islamic Sufis have their own meditative traditions. There are versions of all the embodied exercises I do that don’t involve touch too which was helpful – some corporations have “no touch” rules so this wasn’t new. Really these tools are about what is universal and people were very open to them as they were to the NonViolent Communication (NVC) work. The Afghanis I met – in the limited “bubble” of Kabul it should be pointed out – were a pleasure to work with.

Trauma and Afghanistan

If you Google “Trauma and Afghanistan” you will mostly get article about US military personnel and PTSD and not much on the local population. What was clear to me however, from both the few studies I found, and discussions with local people and foreign workers, is that after 30 years of war trauma their psychological trauma is endemic. “Every family has war losses and people get so angry these days about nothing” (a common trauma symptom) as one person told me. One disturbing thing is that a number of trauma symptoms are so common to have become normalised.

I was told there are only 20 psychiatrists in the country, and the very narrative of mental health is quite new to many. Western individualistic mental health ideas can in fact cause a lot of trouble there if the family (a HUGE factor), religion and culture are not taken into account.  The heroic work of Inge Missmahl and her team, who I had the pleasure of meeting there, should be noted in bringing culturally appropriate psycho-social care to the country.

Lastly, I’d like to finish with a thank you to the wonderful people I worked with who hosted me so graciously – I wish you all peace and wellbeing.

If you are interested in the Achilles course in psychological resilience for aid workers follow this link. The video below is a good resource too: