Now the villagers were really intrigued. They put their heads together and figured out what to do next. This time they sent out a delegation of all the elders. “Please,” they begged the saddhu, “come back. We really want to hear what you have to say.” Cursing, the saddhu allowed himself to be brought back to the village.
Once again he asked, “How many of you know what I’m going to say?” The villagers, having carefully prepared, believed they knew what to do. Half of them raised their hands, and the other half kept their hands down. “Ahh,” said the saddhu, looking out over the assembly with a smile, “those who know can tell those who don’t. I’m leaving.”
“The point of the story,” I tell the kids, who are laughing now, “is that we may think we don’t have the answers, but each of us has a part inside us that knows. One of the most important ways we can use this inner knowing is to help us relieve stress.” Slowly, I go on to explain to them the biology of the fight-or-flight response, with Sonam carefully translating as I pause periodically. I talk about how our fast heart rate and breathing, our dilated pupils, the blood rushing away from our skin and filling our large muscles all make it possible to fight an enemy or run away. “Fight or flight is a survival response,” I say. “It’s crucial, lifesaving.” Many of the kids nod their heads in agreement, remembering, I imagine, their own flight and the Chinese soldiers who pursued them. “The problem,” I continue, “is when fight or flight goes on too long, when weeks or months or even years after the threat is over and you’ve escaped, your body is still acting like it has to fight or run. Then you become tense when you don’t need to be. You feel your heart racing, can’t study, have stomach and head pains. How many of you have experienced the fight-or-flight response?” I ask. Everybody’s hand goes up. Then I pose the key question: “How many of you are still feeling it?” Well over half the kids have their hands in the air. “Now,” I go on, “I’m going to show you how to quiet the fight-or-flight response, to deal with stress when it comes up.”
I ask them to sit comfortably and breathe deeply—in through the nose and out through the mouth, with bellies soft and relaxed. I suggest that they close their eyes to block out as much external stimulation as possible, and explain that when the belly is soft and relaxed, more air comes into the lower part of the lungs and more oxygen enters the bloodstream. I tell them that oxygen feeds our brains and all our body’s cells and that a soft belly helps activate the vagus nerve, which promotes relaxation and is the antidote to fight or flight. “When your bellies are soft,” I say, “all the other muscles in your body can relax as well. To help achieve this, you can say to yourself ‘soft’ as you breathe in and ‘belly’ as you breathe out. If thoughts come, let them come and let them go. Gently bring your mind back to ‘soft belly.’” We do this for six or seven minutes, and then I ask the kids to open their eyes and bring their attention back into the room.
“How many of you noticed a change?” I ask. At least 80 percent of them raise their hands. “What kind of change?” I want to know and pick a few eager students to answer.
When I point to her, one girl calls out, “Calmer.”
“Brighter colors in the room,” another girl says.
“I’m smiling,” offers a boy in the middle of the room.
“Good,” I say. “This means that most of you can relax the first time you do this, in just six or seven minutes. This tells you that relaxation is possible and, even more importantly, that you can make it happen yourself. And if you’re one of those who doesn’t feel more relaxed, don’t worry, it’ll probably happen next time.”
Next, I want to talk a little bit about trauma, and as I look out at the faces of these children, who’ve left their homes and their sense of place behind under violent, frightening circumstances, I take a deep breath myself. “Sometimes,” I say, “when we feel overwhelmed and trapped, when we can’t fight or run away, we may, as a last-ditch effort of survival, freeze in terror, or even collapse.” I ask if they’ve ever seen a cat playing with a mouse, swatting it, biting it, shaking it in its teeth. “Have you noticed that sometimes the mouse looks dead, but when the cat loses interest in it, the mouse suddenly turns over and scurries away on its little legs? That’s freezing and unfreezing. Have any of you ever frozen?” I ask. Most of their faces become serious, reflective. Perhaps 40 or 50 hands go up. “Sometimes when we’re terrified and unable to do anything, our bodies feel so tense that our minds can’t work. We feel heavy, weighed down. It’s as if we’re trapped, physically and emotionally. And when this continues for days or weeks, we need to shake ourselves out of this trap in our bodies and minds. The best, easiest way to do this is to shake our bodies. So let’s stand up,” I say, my voice rising like a coach’s.