Recently, I was in Dharamsala, India, for a conference at the Tibetan Medical College sponsored by the Dalai Lama. While there, I had the opportunity to do a workshop for 200 teenage refugees who had just fled Tibet. I taught soft belly breathing, talked about fight or flight and stress responses, did shaking and dancing, and answered questions. The kids were, even in the large group, remarkably open about their difficulty sleeping and studying, the painful memories of loss, and their flight from Tibet. Afterward, the Tibetan physician Dr. Sonam Dolma, who headed up the conference, asked if there were any kids who wanted individual consultations with me. To her and my amazement 20 lined up; others, a bit discouraged by the length of the line, waited for me later.
I talked with a couple of the kids individually, and then decided to do a mind-body group with all of them. I did an exercise in guided imagery—creating a safe place and looking for a Wise Guide of whom one could ask questions. It began with my taking them on a journey down a country road. I’ve done this hundreds of times for many different populations here in the US as well as in post-war and post-disaster situations.
Though all the kids were able to eventually find a safe or comfortable place, I’ve never seen a group that had such problems simply imagining being on the country road. There were enormous ruts in their roads, narrow bridges with sheer drops on either side, and dark and dangerous forests. In time, I was able to work with all of the kids, to help them get to a safe place and to find messages that were appropriate for helping them deal with the problems that beset them: anger at unpredictable times, nightmares and sudden disturbed disoriented awakenings, great difficulty in concentrating on the simplest school work, withdrawal even from their closest friends, and above all, the overwhelming sadness of leaving their families behind and losing their country. Afterwards, Dr. Dolma, her associates, the kids, and the school principal at the “transition school” all wanted to know: “When will you come back with your team so that all of us can learn how to do this?”
Sadly, for so many people finding a safe place can be a huge challenge. We hope one day to return to Dharamsala as we continue our trauma relief efforts around the world.
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