This time last week I found myself weeping in hotel room in the Middle East.
I had just spent my day filming in a dusty refugee camp on the border of Syria and Jordan where I had interviewed a single mother of six children who’s answer to my question, “If you could wish for anything in the world right now, what would it be?” was “Anything? If I could have anything, it would be a tarpaulin for the roof because it leaks in the rain and winter is coming.”
I was in Jordan; a country on the front line of a global humanitarian crisis, in which more people have been forcibly displaced by conflict than after World War II, for my new documentary project, My Year of Living Mindfully.
I set out at the beginning of the year with the simple mission; I would meditate every day for a year to see if it really could boost my health and happiness of if mindfulness is just another over-sold self-help fad. I have a team of scientists tracking my brain, stress, DNA and a host of other biomarkers to see what, if anything changes throughout the year.
About 230 days into my project, right after I’d attended my first 10-day silent retreat, even without the results of the scientific data yet revealed (I won’t know the findings until the end of the year), I became convinced that meditation is a powerful tool in my life. As I wrote in my piece This Is Why I Meditate Despite the Skepticism, when I’m meditating regularly I’m better at regulating my emotions, my insomnia disappears, I’m nicer to my kids and more able to connect with people I care about. Perhaps most importantly, as someone with an incurable autoimmune disease, I’m also better able to stick to my health goals such as healthy eating and sleeping enough.
So that left glaring problems with the whole documentary endeavour. It’s all very well for a privileged and educated woman living in a peaceful country to find time to meditate and transform her life, but what about the people for whom the problems are far from “first world.” What about those who face unimaginable suffering?
And so I found myself in the Za’atari refugee camp in the desert of Jordan, where I met Om Haze (“mother of Haze” who has asked me not to use her real name). Za’atari is home to about 75,000 Syrian refugees, but believe it or not this camp, which is the size of a city, in which people live in glorified shipping containers, represents only a small percentage of the refugee population in Jordan. The majority of them live in urban areas and in poverty.
Alone in my hotel room after we’d finished a long day filming, I had a moment to reflect. When I thought of Om Haze’s youngest daughter, the same age as my five-year-old son, who had been born in the camp and knew no other life, I wept. When I thought of her 14-year-old son who has just dropped out of the daily schooling offered in the camp so that he can harvest vegetables for a little extra cash, I wept. And when I thought of the fact that the young family has no home to go home to, even if the war in Syria miraculously ended, I wept some more. I was weeping for the cruelty of a senseless war that I could not stop; weeping from my soul to express feelings of impotence and uselessness.
In the week since my visit to Za’atari I’ve been hugging my two young sons much tighter than usual and feeling beyond grateful that I was born in Australia. But I’ve also been reflecting on a very different interview that I did earlier this year with Michael Steger, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Colorado State University, who studies meaning and purpose in our lives.
As an evidence-based health journalist, I was interested to talk to Steger because of the mounting evidence demonstrating that people with meaning and purpose live longer, healthier lives. “If you say your life is meaningful, you're saying your life matters, you understand what's happening around you and have a way of making sense of things as they unfold, and you have some purpose that you're striving for in your life,” he explained.
Steger and his colleagues believe there are two possible reasons that feeling as though life has meaning is associated with being healthier. The first is stress reduction. Meaning is a filter imposing order on an often senseless and chaotic world. “If you're focused… and you have a way of making sense of things even when it goes haywire, then life is going to be a little bit less stressful for you,” Steger explained.
The second reason meaning is likely to be an elixir of health is that it often comes with purpose. As I wrote in my piece The Health Benefits of Finding Meaning and Purpose, many studies demonstrate that purpose and healthy behaviour go hand in hand. When you have purpose you feel that your existence matters and that what you do everyday is important. In turn, you feel driven to behave in ways that allow you to work toward your goals.
After my recent visit to the front line of this refugee crisis, it would be easy to fall into a haze of despondency. But although I’ve so far mentioned the awfulness of the Za’atari camp, I haven’t mentioned one of the other key elements of my shoot in the Middle East; the encouraging work being done by a team of researchers led by Associate Professor Amit Bernstein from the University of Haifa in Israel, who are conducting the world’s first randomised clinical trial testing a nine-week mindfulness program that they have painstakingly developed for traumatised refugees. I spoke to some of the refugees who have participated in trial and their responses were monumentally uplifting. One said, “For you mindfulness might be a luxury, but for me, mindfulness is medicine.”
I can’t solve the global refugee crisis and the tarpaulin I’ve bought for Om Haze and her family is hardly going to set them up for a life of luxury. But forging ahead and finishing the documentary so we can release it next year is giving me a meaningful compass and sense of purpose and passion that will carry me through the next few weeks as I come to terms with my experience in the Middle East.