It was still 36 degrees at 3am. The vodka flowed and led to a spate of insults and accusations around the table, unleashed after months of petty problems in a confined space. I couldn’t sleep after such acrimony so I sat on a chair on the lakeshore, struggling with a torrent of thoughts.
The vodka kept the mosquitoes at bay, and around dawn large and exquisite dragonflies and other insects joined them. Bats from the derelict palaces opposite feasted and occasionally came so close to my head I could feel the draft from their wings, but I trusted them not to fly into me.
My head felt like an electrical storm, darkness punctuated by arcs and flashes: I didn’t want to be this person anymore. After 18 months as an Arabic media analyst in Baghdad, the concentration and attention to detail; the daily immersion in the toxic world of satellite tv news channels had sapped my strength. Every nuance mattered and had to be thought through. Why did someone use one word instead of another? What was their real agenda and motivation and had this changed since their previous interviews? There was the travel and bureaucracy. Towering above all though was the unspeakable gore: the horror and savage blood-drenched barbarism of Iraq in 2007 and 2008, all mediated through a familiar grammar of tv news, and spoken directly into my headphones by the victims; sometimes even the perpetrators or their supporters. For the first 6 months I cried at something every day. Sometimes I would look up and a colleague would be silently crying at something they were watching. It proved we were human.
The job was useful and it made a difference, but that night I realised I would have to start repairing myself. A helpful colleague discussed meditation with me. We had tried it in Thailand and it worked for him but not for me, but why shouldn’t I try again? What did I have to lose?
A few weeks later I attended a few starter sessions at the London Meditation Centre. The technique was based on Vedic philosophy but was not religious or doctrinaire. Neither was it lengthy or loud as some ‘monastic’ styles of meditation were. This was a quiet ‘house’ style of meditation you could fit in around the other things you had to do. A mantra provided my focus during two 20-minute periods of meditation every day: morning and evening.
The results happened swiftly and as they predicted. After my first week I got so ill for a few days I couldn’t move. This may have been the toxins moving and flushing out of my system; or it may have been the immediate consequences of deep rest. Suddenly I no longer needed to smoke. It wasn’t that I consciously quit after so many attempts to quit; simply that I no longer considered smoking and have never done so since. A month later I helped transform our work processes back in Baghdad.
This virtuous spiral continued in a sense of positive invigoration. I regained control of my thoughts and had spare capacity, which is often referred to as mindfulness. I was clear-headed, as a fresh day is after fog. From being sceptical beforehand, I tested this civilised technique and proved empirically to myself that it worked. Because it has worked, I’ve maintained the discipline of twice-daily 20-minute sessions nearly every day since September 2008 around the world, on planes, trains, in cars, in gardens, hotels and at home and see no reason to stop.
Mindfulness has increased my patience and my effectiveness, my forethought and tolerance. I’ve come to think other practices, such as prayer or even exercise, might be related to meditation in their effects on clearing and settling the mind, though they come with other rituals that make them less efficient at delivering spirituality or mindfulness. I exercise but avoid religion. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve become spiritual as it sounds pretentious but what I have learned is to become mindful, and I wish everyone had an opportunity to appreciate that and transform themselves in the process. It helped me continue working in Baghdad for a further 18 months. Unpleasant as it was at the time, that heated night on the lakeshore triggered a positive transformation for which I’m very grateful.
This post is part of the Life Junction series. Each part seeks to expand from a vivid fragment into a more general observation about values, in a way that might help the reader draw positive conclusions from events in their own life.
- The Shellscrape (Resolution & Temptation)
- Show Salute (Opportunity & Disruption)
- Dulce et Decorum Erat (Freedom & Confinement)
- Dancing on Fortress Walls (Honesty & Illusion)
- Inheriting a Relic (Vitality & Mortality)
- Karachi Hotel (Empathy & Judgmentalism)
- The Thunderclap (Courage & Fear)
- You need a bomb under your bed to get you up (Agency & Fatalism)
- On Meditation (Mindfulness & Confusion)