Leading a ‘mindful’ life

An inspiring new documentary — My Year of Living Mindfully — spotlights University of Haifa Professor Amit Bernstein’s research applying mindfulness training to promote resilience and recovery among traumatized refugees and asylum seekers. Bernstein is a Professor of Clinical Psychology in the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Haifa, where he directs the Observing Minds Lab and the Moments of Refuge Project.

As the coronavirus pandemic injects uncertainty into our lives, it has only compounded our search to find some semblance of inner peace in this fast-paced and tumultuous world. Mindfulness has often been offered as panacea, but most of these marketing gimmicks ignore the science behind a practice that could very well change how we react to both mundane and traumatic events in our lives.

In the new documentary, My Year of Living Mindfully, producer and journalist Shannon Harvey’s own journey and the effectiveness of the practice is explored from scientific and personal perspectives. In addition to having her genome mapped, her brain scanned, and her subjective experience tracked throughout her year of living mindfully, she speaks to experts in the field around the world who study whether mindfulness may be used to promote mental health in the 21st century.

Her journey takes her from her native Australia, to Manhattan, to S. Tel Aviv and ultimately to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. On this journey she interviews a wide swath of world renowned experts in the field such as our very own Prof. Amit Bernstein as well as laypersons whose lives have been profoundly changed by the practice. While in the Middle East, she visited with Bernstein and his Observing Minds Lab team, to shed light on its work which utilizes mindfulness training to help refugees begin to heal, one moment at a time.

Below are Bernstein’s thoughts on the documentary and his valuable work.

1. My Year of Living Mindfully is described as a documentary that delves into “the heart of what it means to be human in the twenty-first century.” How does the film accomplish this?

The film approaches the issue of stress, suffering and mental health in the 21st century — from a variety of perspectives; using a global health perspective, grounded in the very best science available. From the personal and subjective perspective of the brilliant film-maker and journalist — Shannon Harvey. The film is true to its word — it seeks to include and relate to humanity in the broadest and most inclusive sense, from the North Shore of Sydney all the way to the suffering of refugees and asylum seekers in urban slums and refugee camps in the Middle East. But that’s only the beginning. Most of the film is dedicated to exploring what mindfulness or the training and practice of present moment attention and awareness may teach us about being human, about our minds, about wellbeing and mental health, and about how mindfulness may be one simple, yet powerful, way to cultivate health and wellbeing while human in the 21st century.

2. What are the challenges inherent in educating the public on mental health? What more needs to be done in order to ensure people prioritize their mental wellbeing just as they would take care of their physical health?

Suffering is part of and may be even essential to being human. Life, after all, is hard — we live in vulnerable, fragile and aging bodies. We live among other humans, that all too often, threaten and harm one another. And in environments that we cannot control. And so, perhaps it may ultimately be most important to remember and to accept that suffering is part of what it means to be human, and to choose to face and approach that suffering with courage and compassion — compassion towards ourselves and towards others. It may also help to remind ourselves that a lot of good and growth can come from suffering — wisdom, meaning, perspective, gratitude, and valuing the ways we may not only learn to care for ourselves but how we may care for others and allow others to care for us.

3. Can you talk about your own research in mental health and how it fits in with the other esteemed scientists featured in the film?

The film-makers somehow worked their magic to reach the most important thought leaders in the science and practice of mindfulness — all around the world. It was quite an experience to be part of this really remarkable cast of characters. And, no doubt, a real privilege.

In one part of the film, my role is to reflect on the state of the science of mindfulness. And to share what my students and I study. So for example, we talk in the film about how precisely paying attention to the present moment impacts wellbeing and mental health. Or how we scientifically study mindfulness and its mechanisms when such phenomena are invisible, subjective states of mind.

But the main reason that Shannon and her film crew came to Israel and to our mobile laboratory in Tel Aviv to begin with is because of our lab’s applied research. For the past decade, we have worked closely with the African asylum seeker community across Israel. We have done this work in close partnership with the asylum seeker community from the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, a tent in the desert outside of the Holot detention center and from inside Tel Aviv NGOs that care for asylum seekers here in Israel.

We developed a mindfulness-based intervention that is trauma-sensitive and socio-culturally-adapted for diverse populations of refugees — Mindfulness-Based Trauma Recovery for Refugees (MBTR). We designed MBTR-R to empower and enable refugees to cultivate moments of inner refuge and safety from which healing and recovery may begin and hope may emerge. Shannon and her crew came to Tel Aviv — to learn more about MBTR-R when we were mid-way through a randomized clinical trial testing the efficacy, safety and mechanisms of the intervention program.

Since the filming, we completed the study and found that MBTR-R was not only safe but therapeutically transformative for even the most vulnerable African asylum seekers — including survivors of torture, human trafficking, and former child soldiers. MBTR-R led to large and significant reductions in chronic and debilitating mental health problems endemic to the trauma, loss and stress of forced displacement, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety. This led to the launch of the Moments of Refuge Project dedicated to the study of the mental-, physical- and inter-generational health effects of MBTR-R among diverse populations of refugees around the world. We are extraordinarily excited about these findings and what they may mean for refugees and asylum seekers across the country and around the world.

4. With regard to the coronavirus outbreak, what kind of discussions should we be having about mental health globally as this disease has gravelly impacted those who were already suffering from anxiety, depression and OCD?

All of us, to some degree, have felt the impact of fearing infection, social isolation, economic stress, and for some of us illness and loss. Yet, for tens of millions of forcibly displaced refugees and asylum seekers, the stressors and sequelae of this pandemic are magnified significantly. Already struggling with insecure residential status, housing, income, food and health care access — refugees’ pre-existing daily life stressors and stress-related mental health problems are acutely exacerbated by the pandemic.

Accordingly, we developed a brief, web-based adaptation of our mindfulness-based intervention for refugees — specifically designed to mitigate acute stress around Covid-19 among refugees and asylum seekers. I’m very proud of my team’s work around the clock in recent weeks and very excited about the potential impact of Mindfulness-SOS.

And we are just getting started. We already have the intervention program online — in English, Tigrinya and Arabic — available for refugees and asylum seekers in Israel and around the world. While we have a great deal to learn and a long road ahead, the potential impact is enormous. Our next step will be to figure out how to secure funding to rigorously study the efficacy, safety and ways to develop and optimize Mindfulness-SOS among refugees and asylum seekers around the world. I’m confident that we will find a way.

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