One weekend last year, when I’d normally be relaxing poolside, practicing yoga or sleeping in to recover from the workweek’s so-called stress, I found myself instead at an orphanage in Cambodia.
Living in Hong Kong at the time meant that Cambodia was a relatively accessible destination, and while I was prepared for markets, temples and a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience, I was not prepared for the dozens of children in the streets, tugging my clothes at every turn.
It was heartbreaking, like nothing I’d seen before—and perplexing to witness these children, often as young as four or five, roaming the streets alone late at night, in heavy traffic, in overcrowded markets.
Among a variety of tips that my husband and I received from fellow travelers and our hotel was that the worst thing we could do as tourists was give anything to the children, especially money.
So taken aback and moved were we by the dozens of little ones begging desperately at every turn, that my husband and I decided to visit a few of the local nonprofits that work to rehabilitate the children who work Cambodia’s streets.
Much can be debated about the tourist industry, neo-colonialism, international volunteerism and the effects both positive and negative of travel to third world countries.
In the case of the few reputable orphanages (not all are such) that we encountered, tourist compassion (curiosity with the other as well? Perhaps.) has the potential to yield an increased awareness and emotional investment that crosses continents, as well as the potential for critical in-kind or financial support. The debate surrounding the colonial nature of tourism aside for another time, I was deeply moved by meeting former street children in their safe new home, observing them working, sometime giggling, in art class, laughing and talking excitedly at the cafeteria table, finally allowed to be children.
To just be.
Among the necessities deemed imperative by one children’s home in particular in Siem Reap, to rehabilitate the children willing to leave the street for the security of a surrogate family and home—education, security, shelter, clothing, healthcare, routine—is trust in others and, with time, love.
An essential of this home to introduce to a child his or her first experience with love of self and others, is meditation. Meditation! I was so astounded and delighted that I virtually tackled the founder with glee and gratitude.
We learned that this particular home builds meditation into the daily curriculum, where it is given as much importance as mealtime, chores and school. It serves to soothe the 70+ children there, teaching them to observe and control their emotions, adapt and heal from the horrors they witnessed and experienced as street beggars and victims of abuse and neglect, and learn, many for the first time, how to care for themselves and others.
Think about it.
Meditation’s only requirement is a mind—no supplies or accessories. How amazing for these children, many of whom were abused to garner greater sympathy from tourists in order to provide income to their peddler, pimp or parent—to be introduced for the first time to self-worth, their own thoughts, their very being as something of value.
To use meditation to learn how to be children.
According to a volunteer, the kids, aged four to 16, look forward to meditation every day, never having been exposed to it before.
What does this teach us about the power of meditation to restore, heal and nurture body and mind? What does this teach us about the presence of and need for meditation in schools, child development, counseling, therapy, rehabilitation, medicine?
In our daily lives?
That meditation is perhaps one of the greatest healers, available to any and every individual, at any time, setting, without cost or limit, without care of skin color or religion, country or class.
I carry this experience of meeting these beautiful children, so grateful to those who have dedicated their lives to healing the children’s hearts, with me—much more than I recall any temple visit, bike ride or tour from that trip.
I think often, especially when teaching children yoga, of the immense power of meditation to expose these tiny human beings to self-worth, and recall that this very special practice of finding quiet, stillness, peace, has the capacity to heal so many wounds, hurts and breaks.
When my mind utters a complaint or cry, I recall these little faces, hands and hearts, take a breath and then, simply sit. And meditate.
Consider this profound use of meditation next time you’re in a rut, dealing with pain or loss, or simply need to drop the excess, renew your perspective and come back home to yourself.
If meditation is healing to such great depths across the world, surely it has the capacity to nurture you and I too.
Let’s agree to tap into its powers and when given the opportunity, share the gift, wherever that may be.
If you’d like to learn more about the above-mentioned organization and meet some of its wee meditators, visit www.greengeckoproject.org.
Elizabeth Rowan is a formerly anxious, multiple BlackBerry-clutching arts executive who went all-in to lose the high heels, teach yoga full-time and drum up some health and inner peace. Elizabeth received her 200 hour yoga teaching training from Anahata Yoga, Hong Kong, in 2011 while studying under Yogananth Andiappan, son of Dr. Asana Andiappan of Chennai, India. She is also a certified Pranakriya prenatal yoga teacher and Radiant Child Yoga teacher. Elizabeth currently lives in Savannah, Georgia with her husband and dachshund Boudreaux, and teaches Vinyasa, prenatal and children’s yoga after spending the last several years in Hong Kong. Connect with Elizabeth on Twitter, Facebook and at havenyoga.com.
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Assistant Ed: Sarah Winner/Ed: Bryonie Wise