Statues of couples talking - mindfulness and development work

Several week ago, I was sitting on a train in China’s rural south, talking to an elderly Chinese couple who were traveling to Hong Kong to visit their son. Our carriage had been infiltrated by about 40 young people, all in their early twenties, who were on a team-bonding excursion with their workplace.

After about two or more hours of conversation, I had started to get pretty familiar with the lives of this elderly couple. Despite neither of them being able to speak English, and my less than fluent Mandarin, we had managed reasonably well thus far. The father had been a neurologist during his career days, while the mother had spent most of her time raising their children. Even though their son had moved to Hong Kong and raised a family more than twenty years ago, they were unable to move over there permanently, even though they both told me that the quality of life was immeasurably better there than on the mainland.

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. This conversation also began to move in this direction. The elderly man started talking about how he didn’t trust what was written in the Chinese media, as it was too tightly controlled. He then 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 started to realize 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 instead playing Angry Birds on their tablets, or, even rarer, reading on their e-book readers. I started to realize how much more I had in common with this elderly couple, deep in conversation, than I had with any of the other younger people who were closer to my age.

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

I first heard about mindfulness from a close friend when perhaps I was in the worst position to practice it, even if at that time I needed it more than ever. I was in the midst of completing a Masters part time, while also 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 at 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 one 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 over at Engaging Internationally wrote, being able to translate complexity into manageable action is crucial in development. From a career point of view, this is becoming increasingly an asset. I have seen many job descriptions where “ability to multitask” or “ability to balance a high workload with competing demands” is a requirement. However, mindfulness tells us that despite all these pressures from outside, competing for our attention, we need to be present now. In essence, it means that we need to be able to let go of the other thoughts that are running through our mind, and focus on the immediate.

Mindfulness makes an incredible amount of sense to me personally, because if you’re unable to focus on the present at any given time, then why are you alive? If you aren’t listening to your partner when they are talking to you, and I mean truly listening and taking in every word, then why are you with them?

The same goes for development work. One of the fundamental principles of good development is the ability to listen to people. It involves ridding yourself of preconceptions about a particular situation and possible solutions, and instead being able to truly focus on what local people are telling you. 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 multitaskers, 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.”

Without mindfulness, you’re not really living in the present, and as such, you’re not really living at all.

Here are some preliminary 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 that you need to do in your lunch break, after you clock off, or the next day before work, it might be difficult for you to be truly mindful with so many things on your plate.

2) “Swap multitasking for mindfulness” in the workplace, as Dr. Srikumar Rao writes. That means actively working towards eliminating distractions as much as is humanly possible. If you’re constantly flicking around between your work, Facebook and Twitter on your Mac—you could try using SelfControl, an application that blacklists certain websites for you 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 at the level of government, 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, recognize and care for your inner introvert. Disengage for a little while, so that when it is time to listen and interact again, you’re reared up and ready to go. This might mean taking the odd lunch alone, out of the office with a good book to keep you company.

5) Try harder. If at first you’re finding it difficult to do one thing at a time, persist. We live in an age where doing more than one thing at a time is seen as vital skill, so you might need to actively work at restricting yourself to one activity only, in many different aspects of your life. Start running without earphones in for a change. Don’t talk on your phone when you’re driving. Talk to 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.


Weh Yeoh is a disability development worker currently based in Cambodia. He has a diverse background, having spent years travelling through remote parts of Asia, volunteering in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interning in India, and studying Mandarin in Beijing. You can view his LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.

Article originally posted at WhyDev (CC-BY-NC-ND).

photo courtesy wallyg (CC-BY-NC-ND)