Valentine’s Day, Lovingkindness and Cambodian Trauma

Group work with lovingkindness and survivors of the Cambodian genocide.

Posted Mar 07, 2011

Valentine's Day either charms or crushes you, or both. Thoughts of l'amour arouse ardor or bitterness, hope or wistfulness. Almost no one gets through life without a broken heart, or breaking hearts themselves. Through tragic eyes, the world itself is broken, wounded and raw. But through the lover's eyes, the world is a vulnerable heart, waiting and eager for our cares.

A few years ago, I was introduced to the Buddhist practice of Metta, or lovingkindness. Metta is one of the "Divine Abodes". Along with Karuna (compassion), Mudita (selfless joy, or joy in another's happiness, the opposite of schadenfreude), and Upekkha (equanimity), Metta opens the heart. We begin with directing Metta towards ourselves. I chose a simple phrase, suggested by Jack Kornfield in A Path with Heart:

May I be filled with lovingkindness,

May I be well.
May I be peaceful and at ease,

May I be happy.

For 45 minutes a day, I sat on a cushion and repeated this phrase silently to myself. My mind rebelled, calling me selfish for wishing Metta for myself. Kornfield recognizes this common trap, and encourages readers to persist. Gradually, the resistance faded, and my mind grew calmer and more gentle towards itself. I changed "I" to "you" and turned my Metta outwards. This was much easier now that I had grounded myself in self-directed Metta.

Months later, I went on a weeklong silent Metta Retreat with author and Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein and others. All day, every day, we deepened the groove of Metta, directing it first towards ourselves, then a benefactor/loved one, then a neutral person, then a "difficult person" or "enemy", and finally towards all beings. It was a deeply transformative week that sent reverberations throughout all my attitudes and interactions with others.

Last year, I started a group for my Cambodian patients. Survivors of the Pol Pot genocide, they came to my clinic for treatment of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. They had suffered starvation and torture, and witnessed atrocities, losing many relatives and friends to the killing fields. They also suffered trauma from relocation in refugee camps, immigration, poverty, and finally the stressors of broken family lives, with partners who didn't treat them well, and children who rebelled, all caught in their own traumas, unable to find a path to happiness. Other providers tell me they feel Cambodians are the most traumatized people they've ever seen. The local Cambodian Buddhist Temple is a refuge, but I was struck by how difficult their lives were, how burdensome the memories. Somehow, in group and in conversation, I hoped we could generate connection and community.

We started with Metta practice. There is a Metta sutra or prayer in the Cambodian language, passed down from the Buddha's teachings. My co-leader, Mayany Brody, translated the simple Metta phrase into Cambodian as well, and we worked with that. Over months, patients reported feeling calmer when they said the phrases. "They help me go to sleep," one woman said. Others said it was hard to find time to do the Metta on their own, but it was good to meditate during group.

This Valentine's Day, we talked about love. They told me about the Cambodian words for universal love and love for a specific person. "It's very hard when you love just one person, Doctor!" they joked. We shared heart-shaped chocolates, heart-shaped cookies, and cake decorated with Valentines, and they told me about foods they loved: salted fish, fish paste, fish prepared half a dozen ways, beef sour soup with lemongrass, young tamarind, green papaya sour soup, banana sour soup (sour soups are popular, I guess) and many others, shared with laughter and appreciation. One woman said she didn't know what food she liked, and another responded, "whatever it is, I'll make it for you!" Warmth and tenderness arose spontaneously.

Do these foods bring you any memories, I asked. One woman said one kind of vegetable soup reminded her of the days of foraging for food during the Pol Pot era. This vegetable was sometimes the only food available. Another woman said, "Whenever I eat, whatever I eat, I'm always thinking of the killing fields."

Silence. I didn't know what to say, other than "I'm so grateful you survived, and so happy we can share this food together."

When even nourishment brings the bitter taste of loss, one feels the world's brokenness. Metta helps create a space where that brokenness can be understood and received, and perhaps even soothed. Hearing their stories, and knowing their pains, I am more certain that their words could change the world, even as they've changed me.

I would encourage you to watch the documentaries New Year Baby (http://www.newyearbaby.net/), Enemies of the People (http://enemiesofthepeoplemovie.com/), S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, and The Conscience of Nhem En to learn more about the Cambodian genocide.

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