“I know we promised individual consultations,” I say, “but there are so many of you, and I think there’s a better way. Let’s get in a circle and form a group. I’m going to teach you to go in your mind to a safe, peaceful place. And then I’m going to help you find a wise guide inside yourself who can answer the questions that you have. As a bonus, you’ll be able to learn from each other.”
I’d been warned that Tibetan children tend to be shy and that the culture doesn’t easily allow for sharing of feelings. Still, I’m pretty sure this small-group exercise will work. After all, it’s worked in other places where emotions are customarily concealed. When they know they’re not going to be mocked or reported, for instance, US combat veterans feel comfortable sharing, shouting, and crying in a small group of peers. In Gaza, abused, veiled women have overcome the silence their culture teaches them and shared their pain with one another, often finding the strength and courage to stand up to their husbands.
In Dharamsala, I put on Native American flute music and ask the kids to close their eyes. Once again, I begin with soft-belly breathing. After a few minutes, I say, “Now, let the sound of the music and the sound of my voice take you to a country road. As you walk down that road, notice what you see, hear, feel, smell, and think.” After a few minutes more, I suggest that they come to a place that’s safe or special for them. “This is somewhere you can go when you’re feeling anxious or troubled,” I explain. “It can be a place you know or remember or one that just comes to you now.” I tell them to take their time and notice how the place looks, feels, and smells. “What sounds are there? What clothes are you wearing in this place?” I prompt.
After they’ve had time to settle into this safe place, I suggest that a wise guide will appear—a human or an animal, a relative or a friend, or a figure from scripture or books. This guide represents the part of them that knows what their conscious mind doesn’t. It’ll answer the questions that trouble them, and tell them what they need to know to feel better, more secure and happy. After they’ve had time to silently ask their guides questions and receive their answers, I guide them slowly back down the country road and into the room where we’re sitting. I then invite them to share their experiences.
I’ve done this exercise hundreds of times. Sometimes, particularly with victims of war and refugees living in stifling or frigid tents, the safe place is hard to locate and, on first try, the guide seems elusive. But never have the country roads been as treacherous as the ones these young people have envisioned. They’re rutted, steep, narrowing at bridges, flanked by sheer drops, obscured by forests, concealed from the sun. Even so, many of the kids report that these roads led them to surprisingly friendly, safe places—a welcoming familiar home they’d left behind in Tibet, meadows high in the mountains bright with birds and flowers. The guides that appeared to some—birds, grandparents, best friends—provided answers and gave directions the kids find reassuring.
One girl recounts how she asked her guide, a graceful deer, why she couldn’t appreciate beauty after leaving Tibet. She says the guide told her, “You can’t be happy with beauty now because it reminds you of what you lost. Even if you find the most beautiful place, you’ll still feel lonely unless you find peace inside.”
A boy relays that his guide, who looked like the kind father he’d left behind, told him, “You’ll have to cross many difficult bridges in this new land.”
At one point, a solemn, stocky young man says he wanted to ask his guide how he could relieve the pains in his joints and banish his nightmares. For two years before he escaped, he says, he was regularly hung by his arms from the ceiling and beaten in freezing Chinese prisons. “When I closed my eyes just now,” he continues sadly, “I saw a butterfly, but I wanted a monk as my guide, and he would not come.”
“How did the butterfly make you feel?” I ask.
“Happy,” he answers with a slight, surprised smile.
“Why did you want to see a monk?” I ask.
“Because monks are wise,” he replies.
“Yes,” I say, sad that the real monks in Dharamsala haven’t been able to help more, but hopeful that he’ll be able to find comfort and strength within. “Next time, try asking the butterfly what to do. Perhaps she’ll have an answer.”