From Monastic Traditions to Mental Health: A Personal Journey of Mindfulness and Belonging

From Monastic Traditions to Mental Health: A Personal Journey of Mindfulness and Belonging

Growing up, I was exposed to prayer, chanting, and contemplation, which sparked my curiosity in meditation in later life.

I come from a Maronite background, an ethnoreligious group that originated in the Near East. The Maronites were early-Christians that emerged as a monastic movement and incorporated ascetic practices as part of their spiritual development and practice of Christianity. Being raised a second-generation Brit born to a family that fled to the United Kingdom on account of war, I wrestled with questions of identity and often felt a sense of otherness due to the limited diversity within my social circles and education. As diverse as London is now, throughout my childhood I often felt alone in my life story, which increased as a teenager and throughout my time attending university. Whether it was exotification, on account of my ethnic, socioeconomic or regional background, I often felt friction to integration.

During 2010 this took a turn when I left to study in Damascus, Syria, at a time before the Arab Spring, when it was more of a trickle. Our student cohort innocently enjoyed the beauty of the country, and I the beauty of blending into a culture that felt like a home-from-home, all the while not understanding the regional political undercurrents that were about to become life-changing for all. Everything happened rapidly as civil unrest erupted, shattering the image of the city we had come to know. I had begun to feel a real sense of belonging and attachment to the country, and this period brought to light a subconscious pain I carried, realising the impact of the civil war that forced my family to flee just three decades prior. Seeking safety and an opportunity to extend my time in the region that was cut short, I travelled to Lebanon and lived with a group of Maronite monks for three months. Throughout this time, I experienced a stark contrast to the chaos I had witnessed. I studied Arabic, taught English, and immersed myself in their prayer, meditation, and Maronite tradition. The monks and hermits I met highlighted in their lives the transformative power of meditation and connection to something greater, that was especially grounding in a perpetually unstable region like the Middle East.

After graduating, I chose to dedicate my life to working in the mental health sector, recognising the intersectional relationship between many of the experiences I had encountered and impact on the mental health and wellbeing of people. As an Independent Mental Health Advocate, I have had the privilege of supporting and safeguarding the rights of thousands of the most vulnerable people in society who found themselves being treated in services where their fundamental freedoms are restricted. Much like my formative experiences, I found that this too brought to light a lot of truths, notably that of the human experience, its complexity and questions of identity and belonging. It was during this time that I came into contact with the practice of mindfulness, working within a service for people with a diagnosis of personality disorder. During visits, I would find myself participating in these sessions with service users, both as a way to build rapport, but secondarily because I derived great peace through them myself. I learnt that mindfulness had widespread application within many different types of therapy, DBT, MBCT, MBSR, ACT[1], to name a few. I also realised very early on that many of the practices were deeply rooted in traditions that spanned centuries and even millennia and the essence of the practices not so dissimilar to those I had come across during my time with the monks in Lebanon, albeit Christian-based.

Fascinated to learn more, I signed up to a MBCT course at Oxford Mindfulness Foundation. After much research, I had decided that OMF was the right place for me, as it fit my niche interest in mindfulness as a holistic human practice and mindfulness as a therapeutic programme, with active, scientific research into the effects of regular mindfulness sessions being undertaken. The team at OMF provided our group with a robust but accessible introduction to daily practice of mindfulness, with the perfect balance of practical application and theoretical learning. Over the course of the first two weeks of the eight-week course, I knew that I had made the right decision to enrol. Benefits of consistent mindfulness practice became apparent, the shaping of my week around time to be present and commit to my own wellbeing and the difficulties that arose through the practices themselves as well as the scheduling of time for them, all provided me with key data points that helped me to evaluate my life. I noticed a marked increase in my confidence and resilience, and a tangible positive impact on my own mental health started emerging, as well as better productivity and overall general sense of wellbeing. I have had the privilege of sharing practices with family and friends many of whom were unaware of the evidence-based grounding that mindfulness practices have and due to the rise in openness around discussing mental health and wellbeing the conversations have been made much easier.

Mindfulness has allowed me to address the experiences of my life through a non-narratavised lens, something that is particularly unique to the practice. When you are taught a way to break free from the stories that your mind feeds you, which are often bolstered by your physiological reaction to them, you, even if just for a moment, can experience what deep peace feels like. MBCT opened me up to the world of mindfulness in a way that gave structure and provided science to a way of being that was in front of me but not fully realised. The beauty of having what seems like an impossible feat, broken down into simple and effective steps made all the difference in applying the strategies to everyday life. I began to foster an interest in sharing mindfulness with people from atypical backgrounds like mine recognising the universal scope to connect with any foundation, cultural, religious, economic or otherwise so long as we take time to understand the breadth of human experience and meet people where they are and make it relatable. The World Health Organisation reported last year that stigma around mental health is still high in all countries, but may be even higher in low- or middle-income countries. Here in the UK, I can say that I feel hopeful about how much more open society is becoming as far as talking about mental health and the ways in which alternative practices are being welcomed by major health bodies, corroborated by the new research constantly emerging. I take my experience as testament to the fact that with time many more people will have the great opportunity to access the power of mindfulness and that together we can combat the stigma around mental health and improve access to support worldwide.

[1] Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)