Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Energy medicine.

What a night we had last night!

I have been spending time with the girls at Transitions every day, teaching them various body-centered, body-reclaiming concepts and exercises. We have learned about grounding (feel your feet! stand strong like a tree!), centering (breath of fire!), orienting (count your vertebrae as you role your spine up and down!), breathing (inhale into the belly - make it big!) and connecting (sit with your spine against a partner's spine! Make your breathing match their breathing!).

We have created games to inhabit the body. I taught a fake surfing lesson and the hokey pokey.

So last night I had an hour with the girls. I asked them to teach back the various concepts and they stepped into the middle of the circle, one at a time, and without missing a breath or a beat, showed the teacher/healer within and taught the concepts beautifully. We got ourselves pretty wound up after the hokey pokey and surfing so we brought things down a bit toward the end of the session.

Earlier in the week I had done a bit of Reiki with two of the girls. Each of them had volunteered to check it out. So for 15 minutes or so, I sat with each girl, placing my hands on feet and then my hands on head. Last night I asked if either of them wanted to talk about what that was like for them - to explain it to the other girls.

The first girl got into the middle of our circle prepared to show how it was done so I followed her lead. I sat in the center of the circle and extended my legs and feet toward her. I explained to the other girls that the energy we feel when we place our palms near each other is energy you can give or receive as a sort of healing medicine.

With complete confidence and grace and power, this young girl closed her eyes, rubbed her palms together, took a deep inhale and exhale, settling into her job. She put her hands on my feet and dropped into a still space of deep, meditative focus. I may as well have been touched by the greatest Reiki master on the planet. Perhaps I was. It took every bit of my strength to not weep right then and there. That came a bit later, once I was in my tuk tuk on the way home.

The other sweet girl demonstrated the "head" position. And then the girls partnered up and took turns sharing "energy medicine" with each other. I stood and watched these power pairs settle into the experience of healing touch. It blew me away.

These are moments I will never forget. I wrote earlier this week about the complexity of healing. Last night I was reminded by the girls themselves of the simplicity of it.

Touch, breathe, believe, connect. That is some powerful medicine.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Grounding, centering, orienting, connecting.

I have spent two lovely days (out of five) working with the clients and staff at Transitions to understand how the body reflects stress and trauma. It is my hope to give them simple but effective tools to help create a culture of body awareness.

I am often eager to share the anecdotes from my days but it gets so tricky as this work is highly personal and private. The girls' stories are not mine to share. Nor are the staff stories. There is a shorthand narrative that will have to suffice.


From 1975 to 1979 an estimated 1.4 to 2.2 million people were executed in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot. Yesterday marked the holiday that celebrates the end of Khmer Rouge. At this moment, there is much political turmoil and unrest. A young Cambodian woman I met yesterday told me she was afraid. She said, "I was born after Pol Pot but when they had the elections last year, my family was afraid it would be like before and so we packed everything to leave."

For most of us, the scary stories we heard as children reflected a reality far from our own. Hansel and Gretel. Campfire slasher tales. Wizard of Oz monkeys. Here, in Cambodia, each family narrative comes with a horrifying, real-life history of violence, death, encampment and isolation. It is a trauma culture and the "body" of the country is neither grounded, centered nor oriented. The flight, fight, freeze responses are at the ready.

I do not condone violence but I understand it. In a land like this you will likely become victim or perpetrator. It represents the same sad thing - dissociation from any reality except that of fear, whether numbly internalized or aggressively externalized.


Depending on age, the Cambodian staff at Transitions either survived Pol Pot or are first generation after Pol Pot. They have suffered their own traumas and work every day in close contact with girls who are survivors of sex trafficking. Part of the healing process is to work through the trauma narrative - bringing slow light to what has happened to be able to work through it. We are empathic beings down to our marrow. Each cell responds to what we hear and see. So each staff member gets a daily dose of visceral reminders of what it is like to live in a body that has been taken hostage and violated. It is called vicarious trauma or "compassion fatigue."


The girls. Oh, the girls. There are currently 15 or 16 girls in the house. I didn't take an exact count. They range from the ages of 12-18. It is sometimes hard to know their age exactly.

They are sweet, they sing songs, they work on their English, they do their chores.

They also must go to court to confront a man who abused them. They ask to take the screen down because they are brave. And they fall apart, crying, shaking, falling to the floor.

Horrible things have been done to them and they persevere in ways that are hard to fathom.


Somehow, thanks to the vision and constancy of James and Athena Pond and the many, many people on staff and elsewhere who have supported these girls, the fatigued heal the broken, one humble day at a time. Yesterday the staff shared it is so hard to put together a long term treatment plan and watch it crumble. They rebuild the plan and in turn, rebuild the girls. Hopefully, they also heal themselves a bit along the way. It is a slow process, this reconnecting. This is my fourth year and some girls are just now coming into themselves, embodying a fullness and hopefulness for the future.

I come equipped with tons of information to share - loads of documents and solid science and experience.

In the end, I bear witness to each and every beautiful soul here. We breathe together. I put my hands on their feet. We twist and shout. It becomes a somatic kindergarden. And that is exactly where we all need to be.

Monday, January 6, 2014

"Whole" is a beautiful thing.

Where Transitions' girls learn and thrive.
I visited the Shine Career School today in Phnom Penh where the girls from Transitions spend a full school day and/or engage in vocational activities. The staff at Transitions works tirelessly to match these girls skills and interests to meaningful education and employment.

Some girls are easier to match than others. I met one of these girls the first year I visited Transitions. In fact, I wrote about her in my first blog post about the experience. She is especially sweet and lovely and she gave me the tiny ring she was wearing on her finger. Every year I have come back she has been there, constant in her sweetness, yet struggling to find her way in school and other studies. She has been challenged by abuse and has a sort of body and mind dyslexia. Things just get mixed up for her. Even counting is difficult.

But she loves to be sweet and to give gifts and to make things.

I do not know the entire back story (and all the people who made this cool, next part happen) but now this lovely young woman is employed making and designing the most gorgeous jewelry. It is a collaboration with Abolition International called Penh Lenh - which means "whole."

The girl who gave me a ring just designed a necklace for me.
I purchased a bracelet last year and a necklace I am wearing as a bracelet today. These are beautiful pieces that not only go to a great cause but create meaningful employment for girls who need it - the best kind of social enterprise.

And guess what? This girl who struggled with math and with problem solving is now helping with inventory and going to market and writing emails. She helps design and make the jewelry. Before she could barely count to ten and now she can soar past 1000.

She is now wildly confident. Her shyness has all but disappeared. Her language is bold and funny. Oh. My. God. You know? She shines. As do the other girls that Transitions' staff nurtures, every day and often for years.
Rachel works with the girls every day to help them learn to design/make beautiful jewelry.

So buy a piece of jewelry or maybe two. Give one as a gift and wrap another around your wrist. It is a beautiful circle of giving and receiving you can feel great about for a very long time.

Some of the pretty bracelets.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

It's Not About How You Look, It's About How You See (well most of the time anyway)

Every time I have travelled alone on these adventures I eventually hit a wall.

The first year, I hit the wall in Bangkok, underprepared and under financed to manage a city I had neglected to remember was massive and unwieldy and expensive. I skipped out of town and went to solidify my isolation on a desolate island. Maybe I freaked a little there too, but in an eco-friendly, sit-on-the-beach-with-a-book sort of way.

The second year, I made a mistake and did a home stay in Bali without really checking that out. It was really far outside of Ubud, it was raining, and my friends were all staying in uber deluxe yogi blissed out niceness far away from me. I prayed the bugs would not do me in and was thrilled the next day when there was neither electric nor water so I could justify my instant departure from the pushy well-meaning lady I had rented from.

Last year I got knackered again in Bali, wondering why I was traveling ALONE AGAIN to such an exotic, erotic and spiritual center. I bounced in a cab ride for ever, thinking "never again!" until I got out of the cab and thought "why don't I move here?"

This year I kicked off my travel month with an incredible trip to New Zealand to see my son Nick and Ellie. It was so unbelievably fun and I remembered two things that I had forgotten: traveling with others is awesome and I am an outdoorsy person. We SURFED for heaven's sake!

After that, I arrived in Phnom Penh to get ready to do my much-loved work with the amazing girls and staff at Transitions. It was a longer slog from New Zealand than I had considered, another 13+ hours of air travel plus ferry/bus/airports/tuk-tuk plus a 6 hour time difference. So I spent a day getting my bearings. I spent the next day getting ready for my workshop and five-day program with Transitions.

Truth be told, I was already feeling dispirited.  I missed Nick and Ellie and the constant adventure of New Zealand. In Phnom Penh, you can spend a lot of time not talking to anyone and getting a little too existentially wound up about aloneness, time, grief. So by the time I was getting ready to teach my workshop yesterday, I was READY to connect.

Enter martial law. Or some version of it. Two days short of the holiday that celebrates the 1979 end of Khmer Rouge, there was more bloodshed in an altercation between the ruling party, Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and the opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party.  Hun Sens has led the CPP since 1998 and last year's election has been widely disputed.

There is a garment worker's strike and the political situation merging to bring hundreds of thousands of CHRP protestors to the streets. On Saturday the CPP used military force, at least three died, and they called an end to the protesting. The U.S. Embassy in Cambodia suggested that we should not leave the house today as they expected violence to erupt and road's to be blocked.

Well, shit.

So I freaked out a little bit. Not like it is a wussy thing to do in an unstable, developing country with one airport on the other side of the fighting and Delta Airlines on terminal hold dealing with cancelled flights due to snow, ice and global tundra. But it was definitely fueled by my annual dive into loneliness on the road to adventure and service.

I figured out how to get out of town just in time for everything to settle down enough for me to believe, at this moment, I can stay for the week as planned and start my work tomorrow.

But today was weird. We cancelled my workshop at NataRaj in the moments when it seemed everyone would be stuck indoors, before the opposition party cancelled the planned demonstration and called for non-violence. So I had another day to wander around in the heat, again, and find various hangouts to check out Twitter feeds about Cambodian breaking news. I am extremely happy to report that for now, it seems things are okay in Cambodia. I am not sure how long it will last or what it all means, but peace has been temporarily restored.

But it didn't necessarily uplift my mood and by the end of the day I had to do something to shake things up, to set a new tone. I zig-zagged the streets in my neighborhood, seeing if there were any new shops or restaurants that seemed interesting. I took some photos. I stared in a lot of windows.

And that's where I found it, my stuck-in-a-rut-again-but-this-time-in-a-rioting-country cure!

Eye. Lash. Tinting.

Most of the time, I believe 100% in this wonderful saying I found on a sign in Raglan, New Zealand: It's not about how you look, it's about how you see. Today, I needed to care about how I look AND how I see.

I can't control the political situation or knowing when I will leave Cambodia or the ultimate fate of the girls here. I can't will a relationship into existence, no matter how hard I might have tried.

Tomorrow is a new day. I will teach the girls and Transitions' team about grounding, centering, orienting, breathing, connecting and nourishing. And I will be nourished for it. Tomorrow night I am sure I will be back on cloud nine, assuming peace rules both Cambodian parties.

Tonight, I am happy to be reasonably less afraid with my new dark and alluring eyes.