By Aiya B. Staller
”How do you fall in love with being alive? Be willing to glimpse the end of everything you hold dear.” ~Stephen Jenkins
Sitting in the far back of our travel van, held firmly in place by a large backpack against my body on one side and my bent knees curled towards my chest as to make room for the storage beneath my feet, I find a balance as my hips straddle the edges of two seats. For this moment, it feels luxurious as I relax into the air-conditioned van ride and play a recording of singing humpback whales that I have on my ipod. I have a little over five hours to process the experience at Cambodia Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC). I feel happy-sad as I let myself cry. Endings are often emotional, sweet, and sad for me. I saw this reflected in others’ tear-streaked faces during our final group. I begin to dream as I think about the people I worked closely with at CWCC.
Last Friday was our closing group at CWCC. Our work with the residents and staff focused on art therapy within Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics and Trauma (Perry, 2006). This approach can help the nervous system calm down, especially after trauma, and can allow people to more fully open to their own creative process with its innate capacity to heal. It also allowed me to drop into the creative process with the group. We laughed, played, cried, heard stories of struggle, and learned about each other through creating art together. The simplest connections were often the ones that stood out the most to me: passing scissors to help a girl cut her shadow puppet just right, laughing in surprise as a woman teases me because she knew English all along, gently taping the art on the walls of the building as I think of the person who created it, and sitting with a traumatized woman as she watched the group in silence. The small moments flash through my thoughts as I sit in our ritual circle to share our ”Shining moments” with the group. The framework of our relationship was clearly structured, and this will likely be the last time that I see these women and children, even if I am able to return. I’ve long since forgotten about the heat and discomfort, as all that matters to me right now are the people I’m sitting with. The tears flow on many of our faces as I listen to the staff, residents, and children, “I will always remember you . . . I want to see you again . . . thank you for coming here . . . don’t forget us . . . please tell people about us. . . I love you . . . you are our friends . . . thank you for bringing all of this art.”
It is time to leave.
I wake up from my dream-remembering to the reality that l am in the back of a van heading to Phnom Penh. The whales have stopped singing on my ipod. A recording from Pema Chodron’s book, When Things Fall Apart, begins instead (1997). She speaks about the practice of Tonglen and its relationship to Bodhicitta, or the “Awakened Heart.” Tonglen is a practice of cultivating compassion through allowing space for feelings that arise in ourselves and others. In simple terms, it involves breathing in the suffering of others, and breathing out relief, or good intentions, directed towards them. It can also be used for ourselves to aid in staying close to our feelings and experiences, even if they are difficult. It is a practice of not turning away and staying present with self, others, and reality. This can allow us to sit with people in whatever emotional state they are in, as we recognize it as part of the whole experience of being alive. It is also closely related to Bodhiccitta, and the “Awakened Heart” which is correlated with the experience of sweet sadness (Trungpa, 2007).
I cry as I recall the stories that I heard, remembering sitting with the women and children, and imagine what they are doing right now. Even though our time was brief; it had depth. I feel a tender ache in my chest when I think of them. They have touched me and I will always remember this.
I wrote previously about the alchemical element of change that happens in therapeutic relationships. Through creating art together and experiencing each other in a therapeutic context, which allowed safe connection, I was touched deeply. As I saw their faces and heard their words, I could see that they were as well.
My heart hurts.
I wanted to leave with you a part of a translated poem from from ”Sokha”, which was a Cambodian performance art piece from a partner organization of CWCC’s called Phare Ponleu Selpak. It speaks of grief and endings, reading as follows:
”Life is given to us, we earn it by giving it……do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness….beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. Keep peace in your soul. With all the shame, drudgery, and broken dreams, it [life] is still beautiful…” ~ Phare Ponleu Selpak, Social Justice Performing Arts Circus School & Theater
Chodron, P. (1997). When things fall apart: heart advice for difficult times. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Perry, B. (2006). Working with traumatized youth in child welfare. New York: The Guilford Press.
Trungpa, C. (2007). Shambhala: the sacred path of the warrior. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.