Why Mindfulness is Essential for International Development Workers

by Shana Montesol Johnson

Today’s guest post is by Weh Yeoh, co-founder of whydev.org, a website aimed at engaging young professionals in critical analysis and discussion on aid and development. His piece on mindfulness appeared there before the holidays, and it reminded me to be mindful and fully present during a particularly hectic time. As a result, my own holiday season was more centered, peaceful, and joyful. I hope you find his article as challenging and inspiring as I did.

Mindfulness: “A psychological quality of bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.”  Jon Kabat-Zinn

Sitting on a train in China’s rural south, I struck up a conversation with an elderly Chinese couple. Our carriage had been infiltrated by about 40 young people, all in their early twenties, traveling on an office team-bonding excursion.

Despite the noise from our travel companions and my less-than-fluent Mandarin, the elderly couple and I managed to communicate reasonably well. I learned that the man had retired from a career as a neurologist; the woman had spent most of her time raising their children. They were en route to Hong Kong to visit their son, who had moved there more than 20 years ago.

Perhaps because they feel more comfortable talking to foreigners about such topics, discussions with Chinese people often turn towards the ills of the Chinese government. The man told me he didn’t trust what was written in the Chinese media, as it was too tightly controlled. He lamented the state of censorship in China, in particular, that people could not get on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube (without a VPN). And yes, he actually used the English words for those three services.

I soon realised that I was so engrossed in our conversation that I hadn’t noticed what was going on around me. Virtually every one of the young twenty-somethings was tapped into some sort of electronic device. If they were not playing Angry Birds on their smartphones, they were playing Angry Birds on their tablets. I began to realise how much more I had in common with this elderly couple, deep in quiet conversation, than I had with any of the younger people, closer to me in age.

Being this engrossed in conversation, and being able to cope with a long discussion that was not in my mother tongue, I owe completely to mindfulness.

I first heard about the concept of mindfulness when I was perhaps in the worst position to practice it, even if I needed it more than ever at that time. I was in the midst of completing a Master’s part-time, while working full-time and training for a 210 km bike ride, which often involved spending Saturdays riding around my hometown for ten-hour stretches. I was a busy boy.

Often when I was at university, I was thinking about work. When I was work, I was thinking about university. When I was talking to friends and family, my mind was elsewhere. I couldn’t be where I wanted to be at any given time. I simply had stacked far too many bangers and too much mash on my miniscule plate.

Mindfulness is particularly relevant in our lives now because we are busier than ever before, and we need to be able to keep our minds on more than one task at one time. As Bonnie Koenig of Engaging Internationally wrote, being able to translate complexity into manageable action is crucial in international development. From a career point of view, this is increasingly seen as an asset. Many job descriptions cite “ability to multitask” or “ability to balance a high workload with competing demands” as a requirement. However, mindfulness tells us that despite all these pressures competing for our attention, we need to be present now. We need to be able to let go of the other thoughts that are running through our mind, and focus on the immediate.

Mindfulness is directly applicable in international development work. One of the fundamental principles of good development is the ability to listen to people: ridding yourself of preconceptions about a particular situation and possible solutions, and truly focusing on what local people are saying. Mindfulness makes you a better listener, which makes you a better communicator, and hence a better development worker.

Furthermore, for men like me, who are abysmal multi-taskers, the idea that mindfulness is good is an absolute blessing! No longer do we need to fool people into thinking we have a good “ability to multitask.” We only need to single-task.

The Dalai Lama, when asked what most surprises him about man, replied that man “sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

Here are some tips on how to apply mindfulness to your work:

1) Do less. Easier said than done, right? But if your mind is constantly wandering over the things you need to do later, it will be difficult for you to be truly mindful on any one task.

2) In the words of Dr. Srikumar Rao – “swap multitasking for mindfulness” in the workplace. That means actively working towards eliminating distractions as much as is humanly possible. If you are constantly flicking around between your work, Facebook and Twitter on your Mac,  you could try using SelfControl, an application that blacklists certain websites so that while the timer is still running, you simply cannot access those sites.

3) Be mindful in every interaction with every single person, regardless of whether they are a government counterpart, or from a local farming cooperative. Doing this, I think, requires getting in touch with your inner “everyman,” and not putting value or importance on other people arbitrarily, but seeing them as equals with something to contribute. I wrote more on this issue in this piece about David Foster Wallace.

4) Take a break from being around people, if you need it. If you’re tired from being around people all the time, recognise and care for your inner introvert. Disengage for a little while, so that when it is time to listen and interact again, you’re refreshed and ready to go.

5) Try harder. If at first you’re finding it difficult to focus on one thing at a time, persist. We live in an age where multi-tasking is seen as a vital skill, so you might need to actively work at restricting yourself to one activity only. You might want to try running without earphones in for a change. Don’t talk on your phone when you’re driving. Chat with your partner, without playing Angry Birds at the same time. Or, if you prefer, play Angry Birds, but don’t let your partner interrupt your quest for world domination. You get my drift.


Have you heard about mindfulness before? If so, have you found it helpful in your own life? If not, how do you think it could impact your work?



This post is about my own experiences with mindfulness. While I can’t profess to be an expert on this topic, there are many resources written by those who are. I suggest you check out Mindfulness for NGOs as a good starting point.

BIO: Weh Yeoh is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed a MA in Development Studies at the University of New South Wales. With experience in the NGO sector both in Australia and in China, with Handicap International, he hopes to combine his interest in development and passion for visiting far-flung destinations in the future. You can check out Weh’s main online project, www.whydev.org.


Did you like this? Share it:

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cottesloe princess

I loved this- loved the dalai lama and Bonnie Koenig the most. I’m currently anxious over delivering enough information for this consultancy. The community all say the same thing. Im worried my entire week Of research will be summaries as ” they need a well”. Worry worry worry. I will concentrate on the well, and listening


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: