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(Not Quite) Seven Years in Tibet

Children’s therapist Maureen Healy was interested in Tibetan Buddhism and decided to spend four months helping Tibetan refugee children learn about music and the arts. by Maureen Healy

I had trouble thinking of them as troubled. As a children’s therapist, I worked in an inner-city clinic in Queens, New York, where I saw all sorts of misdiagnosed and mismanaged children. They were between three and 12 and had a range of problems, mostly stemming from loss, trauma and abuse. Many of them were born in faraway places. So many were the product of their miserable environments, with so many strikes against them. My heart yearned to see them in a wide-open space.

Being connected to a Tibetan Buddhist community through classes I attended, I had made friends with many Tibetan refugees. Many of their stories were similar—as children, they fled Tibet in a ten-day trek through the mountains to northern India. Their destination was the small Indian city of Dharamsala. Nestled at the foothills of the Himalayas, this mountain town has the largest Tibetan refugee community in the world. There are some 10,000 children, many of them orphans, at Dharamsala’s Tibetan Children’s Village, an educational community for children in exile. Such stories all stood in stark contrast to my suburban Christian upbringing in Commack, New York, where crossing the street was a serious topic.

I knew that the children’s village, established by the Dalai Lama in 1960, could use my skills. A common cultural thread is that the Tibetan, and therefore Buddhist, worldview supports a child’s positive emotional, mental and spiritual development. Having studied the emotional world of Western children, I knew the Eastern approach was the puzzle piece I was seeking.

The trip was a total leap. Taking unpaid time off and traveling solo was enough to raise more than just my mother’s eyebrows. But the timing was perfect—I was 34, single, caught in a broken, stifling system of highly medicated children and over-regulated therapists who always had more than a full caseload. Sometime in 2007, I wished upon my lucky stars—and they delivered. I had enough frequent flyer points to get a free round-trip ticket to Asia. I sublet my city digs and let my pug join his “grandmother.” My perceived obstacles fell away one by one.

Arriving in Asia shifted my sense of normalcy. I was good at going with the flow, but this was different. Hot showers and electricity were massive luxuries even in a relatively top-of-the-line Tibetan hotel. I adjusted to bucket showers every few days and sleeping wearing a hat, gloves, scarf and socks. After all, I dared to live at the bottom of the world’s tallest mountain in the middle of winter. Was my mother right? Did I lose my mind?
No chance. Dharamsala danced in me in more than one way. Smells of incense, banana pancakes and fried “mo mo’s” (dumplings) filled the streets, along with sacred Buddhist chants of “om mani padme hum.” Yes, it was cold, but we were surrounded by panoramic sunsets. Frequently on an evening kora—the meditation walk around the Dalai Lama’s residence—I was accompanied by monkeys, donkeys and yaks.

Swimming into the rhythm of the preschool day at Yongling Creche & Kindergarten was easy: morning prayers, teaching, tea and cookies, rice and dal, nap and art. I was there to devise a creative arts program for both challenged and regular children, and being constrained by a small budget was a gift. It cost nothing to invite Tibetan artists to demonstrate their extraordinary skills. I watched four-year-old Tenzin Gawa transform before my eyes. In my first few weeks, the boy wouldn’t stop holding my pinky all day, his eyes filled with a deep sadness. One day, an artist named Dorjee played his dramyen, a three-string Tibetan guitar, filling the air with traditional lyrics. Gawa lit up. Apparently music was a language I could use to rewire his world, teaching him about emotions and social skills.

Staring up at the snowcapped mountains in Dharamsala, I realized there was more. Back in Queens, my little office was filled with paperwork. I had never been encouraged to use creativity to empower, inspire and educate children. Our clinic emphasized talk or cognitive behavioral therapy. But using the creative arts was my truth. And being in a community of people like me, who viewed children as intrinsically spiritual, reincarnate beings, was a powerful turning point.

Four months flew by, and I returned to New York with a deep desire to bathe but an intense wish to see mountains again. Instead of returning to Southeast Asia, I set out to do the next best thing—build creative child-development programs in the U.S. As fortune would have it, my Buddhist teacher asked me to create such a program at a Tibetan center in Redding, Connecticut.

An Asheville tourist book had also been sitting on my shelf unopened, and before long, I knew it was time to see mountains again. I felt Asheville was a place I could recreate my Tibetan experience, so last year I founded The Rainbow Well in North Asheville, a center for creative child development. It is similar to the program I created in Asia with added Appalachian pizzazz (green piano, banjo, drums). For me, it is living my truth. And as Buddha said, there are only two mistakes you can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting. 

To learn more about The Rainbow Well, go to www.therainbowwell.com.

Posted on Friday, April 3, 2009 at 01:01AM by Registered CommenterVerve-acious | CommentsPost a Comment

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