Namaste, Ms. Elliott: Zen Under Fire (review)

Zen Under Fire 
by Marianne Elliott
Sourcebooks 2013

 Marianne Elliott documented human rights violations in Afghan prisons and police stations and trained local law enforcement officers and prosecutors about human rights and Afghan law. Her life, first in Kabul, and then in Herat, was one of contrasts. Rules and procedures narrowed her freedom: she needs a driver or security officer with her whenever she travels outside her UN guest house, she can’t walk alone on the streets, her dress and demeanor must at all times show respect for Afghan culture. But in countless other ways, Elliott’s circumstances open her to rich experiences: the camaraderie of UN and NGO workers from around the world, the priceless friendship of her Afghan co-workers, and the indelible mark the Afghans she served left on her heart. Sometimes frightened, often edgy, occasionally endangered, and always driven, Elliott struggles to maintain balance in her life–she knows that a shell-shocked, stressed out aid worker would be less than effective.

Before arriving in Kabul, Elliott practiced yoga and meditation in her native New Zealand, and she continues during her time in Afghanistan. At first, her practice is almost mechanical. Unnerved by a phone call or a meeting, she’d head to her mat, do some simple breathing exercises and several sun salutes. While the stressful situation was often the same, it was Elliott who was different. Yoga becomes both her refuge and strength: “Yoga is helping me little by little to trust my breath and my body, and to loosen my tight grip on control. I am starting to get glimpses of what yoga might be able to teach me …”

What I like so much about Zen Under Fire was the author’s transparency. As an American who only hears about aid workers on the news and has no experience with life in a war zone, it can be easy to elevate those who serve to sainthood. But Elliott struggles with jealousy and anger and helplessness
and self-doubt. Through fits and starts, she gives herself permission to sit with those feelings, acknowledging them instead of repressing them, and realizes “it is a kind of yoga, this approach. It is transforming my ability to be in the presence of profound suffering without closing my heart or leaping too quickly into action.” Maybe most important of all, she learns that sometimes it is more important to be a heartstrong woman than a headstrong one.

Yoga and meditation can sometimes seem like an “add-on” to our modern lives–something that might be nice to have, but certainly isn’t a necessity. But Marianne Elliott teaches us that living the mindful life allows us to experience the true depth and breadth this life has to offer. Even in a war zone.

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