How exploring difficulty leads to greater mental, emotional and physical health and wellbeing (’re halfway through our eight week mindfulness journey, following the course detailed in the book “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World,” by Professor Mark Williams and Dr. Danny Penman.

To get the most out of this Expat Backup series, I recommend you start at Week 1 here and follow the journey step-by-step each week. Maybe you’re not yet ready to join the journey and that’s fine too. There’s a lot that I share here that is useful whether or not you’re developing a mindfulness practice to improve your health, happiness and general well being. I hope that when you’re ready, you’ll come back and join us. To sign up to receive all 8 weeks of the course by email, click here.


Usually, when we find that something is difficult, we try to tune it out, ignore it or push it away. In other words, we’d prefer that it didn’t exist. This can be true for that endless construction project across the street from your apartment or the mental stress of being sexually harassed on the walk to work each day. And there’s good reason for this defense mechanism, because what we’re trying to avoid is truly unpleasant and may even feel unsafe.

Ultimately, though, resistance is futile. It will wear you down, make you irritable and, in the end, it doesn’t work. The thing you were trying to avoid is still right there, threatening your sanity and well being. For us aid workers trying to be healthy and happy in the world’s most challenging places, this is a huge issue and a tragic Catch-22. By trying to avoid what it is that’s triggering us, it amplifies and prolongs its effect on us, doing quite literally the opposite of what we intend.

Zen masters, yoga teachers, Sun Tzu in The Art of War and our authors all say the same thing about this unique paradox. By turning towards, instead of turning away, from difficulties we can begin to diminish their hold on us and put ourselves in a more empowered stance to take positive action.

I know. It’s probably not what you wanted to hear, but I promise, it works.

Because we use resistance to help us feel powerful and more in control, letting go of it may feel incredibly vulnerable. The truth is, though, that it only gave us an illusion of control. Being present to hold space for the thoughts, feelings and sensations we’re resisting allows our full being to respond naturally in a way that deeply serves us.

In my own personal experience of this practice, I was often surprised by the positive result. Situations I’d been mentally looping to “think through” again and again that caused me emotional anxiety, physical disquiet and an impulse to take action reactively literally settled and started to evaporate with the practices we’ll be doing this week. Everything from professional pressures to careless comments made months ago that continued to hurt my feelings began to lose their grip on my mind and release. The space and peace created by this practice has been immense, but it takes courage to undertake and stick with long enough to see results.

Sitting with difficulty means making friends with discomfort – not a popular pastime in our fast-paced, success-focused and competitive western industrial culture. In the world of humanitarian aid and international development, difficulty usually means something is wrong – either something is wrong with you personally, or something is wrong with you professionally. Either way, the mind often tells us, if word gets out, you’re going to suffer. It’s no wonder we want to push our difficulties away and resist our challenges, trying to get them out of sight and out of mind.

This week is about changing tactics, since the old way wasn’t working in the first place. By seeing our difficulties as opportunities to invite in empathy and self-compassion and by being willing to sit with our difficulties and feel them wholly instead of compartmentalizing and trying to ignore them, we offer ourselves a precious gift. Yes, it is uncomfortable to do this kind of “deep cleaning” of the mind, but the result is more light, more space and more ease in everything we do.

Reaching Out for Support

The struggles that we undertake, we usually do alone. Especially for those of us who are single or away from our partners and families, the knowledge that we often meet our challenges solo will come as no surprise. As expat aid workers, we live separate from our home cultures and can easily feel disconnected from our local communities. Even in professional circles, we can make a huge effort to pretend like everything is okay because we fear the consequences of saying openly that it’s not.

This exploration of difficulty does not need to be done alone. Of course, our daily practices are intensely intimate, internal and private, but that doesn’t mean we need to do them sitting by ourselves in a dark room. If you have friends who read Expat Backup, ask them to meditate with you and sit together someplace quiet and beautiful. You can even do this on Skype, which is particularly useful if you’re new someplace and haven’t made friends yet.

Another invitation I want to extend around support comes as a direct result of the daily practices we are doing together this week. When a difficulty comes up that you decide to hold space for internally, compassionately and without judgment, other things will start to bubble up in your awareness that you might not expect. Maybe you’ll have an idea during meditation that will be waiting for you to act on when you’re done and that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Maybe after the practice, you’ll think of someone you’d like to share something with and act on that impulse to reach out.

Breaking down the illusions of separation and competition that our western industrial culture has taught us is essential to receive the love and support that we need to truly thrive. This practice can be a first step in that direction, if you let it.

On Acceptance

I grew up in Cairo and I love the Sufi poets, Rumi in particular. This poem that the authors and I want to share with you is about the beauty and wisdom to be found in trying to accept our difficulties gracefully. Please remember that this is a practice, not a perfect, so don’t be hard on yourself for “not getting it right.” There’s no such thing.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.


A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.


Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,


still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.


The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.


Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Jalaluddin Rumi, in The Essential Rumi translated by Coleman Barks, 1999


You may find, in your practice, that there are two steps to this acceptance – noticing the difficulty and then “letting it in,” feeling it deeply in your body and noticing its effects on your emotions and impulses to act. As you hold the space, your body will naturally process these reactions in a way that may feel very different to you. Allow and welcome this as well, without trying to fix or solve anything, and enjoy what happens – even if at first it seems like “nothing.”

This practice is powerful because it arrests our mind’s aversion pathways, the loops and spirals that can feel so powerful and out of control, before they have a chance to gain purchase. As we slowly train our awareness to recognize how we hold resistance, we learn to accept it and consciously chose our own way forward. Moving out of our brain’s habitual reactions makes space for more creativity, ease and flow even in the midst of great challenges. It also helps us to see when our automatic reactions are based on old patterns and simply no longer true.

I think I’ve probably convinced you of the benefit of this by now, so let’s get to it!

Mindfulness Practice Week 5: Exploring Difficulty

I have good news. For those of us (me included) who had a hard time finding two separate 15-minute periods to practice each day, this week will come as a welcome relief from the effort of making that much space in your schedule. Rather than two sessions, we have one.

Chapter nine in “Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World” explores this in detail, and I highly recommend you read it as a foundation for your practice. My posts here are meant as a companion and not a substitute for the course as it’s outlined in the book.

Here are our daily practices for Week 5:

25-minute meditation, once a day: To set up this longer meditation period, it’s easiest to create a playlist so that you don’t have to interrupt your focus mid-meditation and you can settle in for the entire period with the audio files all queued up in a row.

  • We start with the “Breath and Body” meditation that you’re now quite familiar with. If you need to download it again, you can find it here.
  • We continue with the “Sounds and Thoughts” meditation and this week, it starts to get easier to isolate thought patterns just like we would with sounds. You can find it here if you need to download it again.
  • The new meditation for this week is “Exploring Difficulty,” a 10-minute guided meditation in staying with thoughts, physical sensations, emotions and behavioral impulses that feel uncomfortable. I found this a wonderful way to make space for things that were quite literally “on my mind” and used the practice to start to clear our mental loops that had been taking up disproportionate mental and emotional bandwidth. I encourage you to do the same!

3-minute meditation, twice a day: By now, the hourglass process of this simple meditation is probably becoming something you’re quite familiar with (download it here if you need to). Maybe you can even access it without the guided audio and it’s now in your toolbox as an in-the-moment meditation.

Taking care of a plant: The authors suggest that we spend time this week taking care of a seedling or plant, nurturing it and tuning in to cultivating an environment in which it can grow. Maybe we already have a massive garden or a small plant next to our computer at work. If not, find yourself a low-maintenance shrubbery and make friends – not just for this week, but for the long-term.

The complete set of guided audio meditations from “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World” are here, if you want to download them all at once.

I want to thank you for being on this journey with me, whether you’re practicing all of the meditations daily or just reading along and maybe considering doing something like this in the future. I value our community so deeply and it’s a privilege to be journeying with you towards greater health and happiness through mindfulness.

If anything comes up for you around these practices, I encourage you to get in touch and email me at And if reading this has brought someone you know to mind who you feel might also benefit, don’t be shy. Sharing is caring, and I encourage you to pass it along. If you enjoy the Expat Backup project and want to be sure you don’t miss a post, you can subscribe for email updates here.

And I’ll see you next week.

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