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.
As children in the United States head back to school there is always a flurry of anticipation and excitement — and the usual rush to make sure the school supplies and wardrobe are in order. I am counting my blessings and recalling my experience at an orphanage in Haiti during a visit with CMBM’s Global Trauma Relief team last March. Here are my notes from that trip, and my thoughts about each of us being the bridge between scarcity and abundance.
“After Katrina hit I received mops and a bucket from a disaster relief organization. From The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, I got my life back.”
Mindy Milam, LCSW, New Orleans
Most relief organizations focus on the physical: providing supplies, water, shelter, food and medical assistance — and rightly so. But where there is physical trauma — whether it affects our body or our possessions — there is also emotional distress. And with emotional distress, especially in extreme situations, if you can’t cope, nothing else matters. Relieving emotional stress is the key. By lowering levels of stress, we can think more clearly — vital in a crisis — and we can relax our bodies, to express caring and give and receive love more fully.
In the bucolic community of Sandy Hook, the air hangs thick with grief and anxiety. I visited with Dr. James Gordon at the end of July, as CMBM’s new Global Trauma Relief Coordinator, seeing and talking to people who had been profoundly affected by the December 14th shootings at their elementary school. I had followed these events from afar, of course, but now I was actually listening to how people’s lives had changed, and realized that it’s not just the people who lost family and friends who are suffering. Everyone in the Newtown area, perhaps across the state, now sees life differently. Some heard the gunshots. Some saw children flee—and didn’t know why. Some saw the dead, and painfully realized they couldn’t restore life. Tragedy has visited others since then, but in the shadow of December 14, they grapple with it quietly. And how to celebrate? Babies are born; there are birthdays. I worried about being seen as an interloper.
Community. Healing. Hopefulness. Tens of thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are using the CMBM model to repair the damaging effects of trauma and stress. They have created a community of healing and support that touches lives and builds a sense of hopefulness for the future.
The next day, before we leave, we spend time at the Foyer des Orphelins d’Haiti, an orphanage not far from the airport. The cramped gray-walled quarters, beds without mattresses, and, especially, the kids’ desperate need for attention and touch and anything else we might give, bring us all to tears or to that state in which we knew if we would but let them, they would come. There are 70 kids who live in the orphanage and 100 more who go to school there each day. Already, the principal tells us, 60% of the older kids who have participated in our groups, are calmer, more focused. We will, over the next few months, have 10-week-long small groups for all 170, and do whatever we can to help the orphanage’s caring, committed, and overwhelmed staff provide enough food and guidance so that these kids will have the best possible chance at life.
In Port-au-Prince the next day, Kathleen and Catherine have the opportunity to see the small groups—with kids, teenagers, and adults—in action, to hear which technique has been most helpful to each person, to feel the closeness that develops over the weeks of regular meetings.
Jacmel, a seaside town famous for its crafts, is a three hour drive south across the mountains. At the side of the road are chickens, donkeys and the occasional stray dog, behind them banks of vegetables in stalls; overhead, blue, purple, pink, and orange flowers, and, beyond, ranks of mountains marching off toward the horizon.
Before we leave for the countryside we visit classrooms at Notre Dame de la Guadeloupe where our Haitian team is currently leading workshops. After workshops, which take place in classrooms, have been offered to all 700 students, we’ll begin 10-week-long small mind-body groups for all the kids, and the teachers and administrators as well.
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With me in Haiti is Kathleen deLaski, a former journalist and AOL executive, whose father Don has made possible everything we’ve done in Haiti. Since Don’s death a year ago, she has headed up the family foundation, and now wants to experience firsthand the program that Don so generously and lovingly funded. Her daughter, Catherine Grubb, who is studying neuroscience, is with us, as are Lee-Ann Gallarano, who manages our Global Trauma Relief program, and Laura Milstein, our Development Director. It’s Laura’s first trip to Haiti, as well as Kathleen and Catherine’s. Linda Metayer, the psychologist who leads our Haiti program, has organized our visit.
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