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Shaking & Dancing in Dharamsala

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A Group of Tibetan Refugees Find their Inner Guides

By James Gordon

The skinny streets of Dharam­sala in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, where the Dalai Lama lives with his Tibetan government in exile, are carved along a steep mountain slope. Crowded with people and animals and clogged with sputtering vehicles, the streets rise and dive between thatched stalls of vendors selling scarves and beads, curry and tea. Across a deep valley, peaks green and brown in the summer march toward the horizon. The bright colors of this daytime scene, however, are shadowed by the dark terrors of flight that haunt the refugee Tibetans.

Recently, I was invited to Dharamsala by the Men Tsee Khang Institute, a school of traditional Tibetan medicine sponsored by the Dalai Lama, to give a talk on the scientific basis of the mind–body connection and the techniques of self-care and mutual help that my colleagues and I at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine are using with war- and disaster-traumatized populations. In my talk, I described the ingredients of our approach: several forms of meditation; biofeedback; guided imagery; self-expression in words, drawings, and movement; and small-group support. I presented evidence that shows people who participate in 10 weekly mind–body skill groups reduce their level of post-traumatic stress disorder by as much as 80 to 90 percent. I emphasized to the audience—250 Tibetan doctors, Buddhist monks, and academics—that I believe anyone can learn and use our approach, and explained that our work—in Kosovo, Israel, Gaza, Haiti, and the United States—has been implemented by local clinicians, teachers, and community leaders whom we’ve trained.

When I’d accepted the invitation to give this talk, I’d said that I also wanted to lead a workshop for recent refugees. It felt important, if I were going to make the long trip, to give more to the community than an academic lecture. So after an audience with the Dalai Lama—who held my hand and expressed his abiding appreciation for the marriage of Western psychology and Tibetan Buddhism—I had the opportunity to lead a workshop for teenagers at The Transition School. The students here, many of whom had grown up illiterate on remote Tibetan farms, had fled Tibet in recent years and were now beginning to make their transition into the larger Indian community.


On a bright but chilly morning, after a breakfast of dosas and chai, Sonam Dolma, the physician who’d organized the academic conference and would serve as my translator, guides me into the school’s auditorium, where 200 teenagers, all in white jackets, are kneeling in rows on mats. I’ve done this kind of workshop dozens of times, in freezing bombed-out schools in postwar Kosovo, in the shelled city of Sderot in southern Israel, and most recently with Syrian refugees in Jordan. Almost always it’s part of a larger program, a way for the people we hope to train—teachers, religious leaders, and clinicians—to get to know our work and me, and for me to begin to feel connected to the kids they serve and to them. But it’s a little different in Dharamsala since I’m not sure whether they need our program here, and I have no plans or money to start one.

I begin my workshop with an old Indian story involving a saddhu, one of the orange-robed Indian holy men who wander the country praying and are often viewed as teachers. The story goes like this: one day, many years ago, the people in a small town heard that a saddhu was nearby. Some villagers went out to ask him to come to speak to them. He came reluctantly to where the entire village had assembled.

“How many of you know what I’m going to say?” he asked. The villagers looked at each other in bewilderment. How could they possibly know? “Idiots!” the saddhu shouted. “You don’t know anything. I’m leaving.” The villagers were insulted but also intrigued, so they sent out another delegation to ask the saddhu to come back. Grumbling, he returned.

“How many of you know what I’m going to say?” he asked again. This time all the villagers raised their hands. The saddhu looked at them and said, “If you already know what I’m going to say, why should I bother talking to you?” He stomped away.

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