Love Knows No Bounds
My days teaching the kids and teens at the psychiatric hospital in Florida were some of the most intense moments of my life. It is not that I had an easy, stress-free life until then. Oh no! I had encountered some pretty intense moments over the years in which I lived and worked around the world. I had learned that in order to survive, I had to adapt by being flexible, open minded, and by taking risks. Most of all, over the last 25 years, I had learned how to understand and accept people of all walks of life. I became pretty good at fitting into almost any situation with ease and comfort… or so I thought.
It was not until I became a psychotherapist at a psychiatric hospital for the severely mentally ill that I seriously questioned my ability to fit in with people. Was it me? Or was it them? Maybe it was them. These kids were so bad off that not even their own families wanted them. They were so prickly that everyone in society had rejected them – not even the foster homes, nor the adoption agencies had a sympathetic corner in their heart for them. These kids were deemed unfit to be in society. So, they lived their days locked up in a mental hospital, which was like a maximum-security prison. They were not even allowed to go to the bathroom on their own. They were supervised at all times. We were required to fill out a sheet every 15 minutes, confirming which staff member they were with. It was a high stress environment to say the least. The most familiar sound on any typical work day was a blood curdling scream of yet another kid in distress. The scream eerily echoed down the hallways like a scene from a bad horror movie. And no amount of yoga music that I had playing in my office could mask it. My only solace was in my basket full of chocolates that I would dip into more than I want to admit. I had learned to give myself permission to indulge in sweets as my psychologist had given me a good rationale a few years back when I was struggling through a bitter divorce. In one session, I had asked my psychotherapist, “Why am I compelled to eat chocolate like this every single day?" He simply replied, “We all need a little something sweet in our lives, don’t we?”
Despite all of my sweet chocolate indulgences, there were still countless times during my first year at the hospital that I wanted to just throw in the towel. For how many more abuse cases could my heart endure hearing? How could I help the little 8-year old boy who brought razor blades to school and tried to cut his fellow classmates? He had already killed the family kitten by suffocating it in a backpack in a broiling hot tool shed, with no remorse. Why should he feel bad, when his father had done many worse things to him? What was I supposed to do for the 14-year old girl who was raped by her father at age 5, and whose subsequent psychotic delusion led her to believe that she actually gave birth at age 5 to a baby girl from that rape? How could I really help the 17-year old who had fresh self-inflicted cuts up and down her arms every time I saw her, and who regularly tried to kill herself by hanging herself in her hospital room? What could I really do to help the 16-year old boy who was hearing voices in his head, calling him the devil and ordering him to run away? The voices were so disturbing that he did not notice his physical body, not even when he had a bowel movement in his pants. How could I get through to my 16-year old catatonic patient in diapers and wreaking of urine? She was non-verbal, and sitting in my office with a blank stare as drool dripped down her face and onto her shirt that was two sizes too small. How was I supposed to do talk therapy with someone who didn’t talk? I felt overwhelmed, defeated, and helpless. Most days I just wanted to give up. I wanted to leave that place and never return.
The only thing that kept me going was a commitment I made to myself when I first started the job. I vowed to stay at the hospital for the two years required in order to accumulate enough hours to attain my professional state license as a psychotherapist. Once licensed, I could leave my job and start my own private practice. I dreamed about that day nearly every single day as I dragged myself into the hell hole, that I called work.
But what happened in my second year at the hospital was an entirely different experience that gave me newfound hope, and energy. After returning from meeting my teacher, Babaji in January, 2015 in India, I immediately began using his Hitopadesh stories about animals with my patients. Every Monday and Thursday in group therapy, I would read part of one of these stories. The patients became completely absorbed in the stories, and we would have engaging group discussions. The kids loved it, and my days started getting easier at the hospital. My chocolate consumption decreased, and I actually started looking forward to seeing the kids. These stories about animals opened their hearts and somehow brought out their best qualities. I felt happy and optimistic that maybe, just maybe, they could get better.
I threw myself completely into writing and teaching these stories. There were 6 stories total that I was working on re-writing from Babaji’s book, The Hitopadesh. I had completed re-writing the first 3 stories, and Babaji had read and approved each one for use. He usually would respond to my email after reading the story with some feedback within a few days. However, when I sent the fourth story, he did not respond after a few days. I began worrying if the story I wrote was so bad that he was angry with me? I speculated that perhaps I misunderstood his point, and the story that I wrote was a terrible representation of his material. Maybe he felt disrespected by me and that was why he was giving me the silent treatment? As the days passed that I did not get an email response from Babaji, my worry increased about him. I began thinking, what if he is not mad at me and he is not responding for some other reason? Maybe something bad happened to him? I felt so uneasy.
After one week, Babaji finally responded. He wrote just one line: “I have malaria and am very weak in bed.” Oh no, I thought! We were just getting started with our work together! What if he dies?” My mind started spinning. Just like my father who dropped dead of a heart attack, now another important male figure in my life is going to leave me just like that. I felt sad, overwhelmed and unsure about what to do. Babaji was the only bright spot in my life. How could this be happening? And now the kids were also depending on him, waiting for the next Hitopadesh story. I didn’t want to proceed with reading story #4 unless Babaji had approved it, as it was his original work. I wanted to make sure I got the concepts right, and also to incorporate his unique and powerful insights. Yet I needed a story to share with the kids. If I didn’t share a story with them, I was worried that I would break their momentum. I couldn't let them down, as the previous caregivers in their lives had already hurt them too badly. The kids were so enthusiastic, for once, about something. These stories were really my only hope for their healing. Therefore, I did the only thing I could think of doing. I wrote a new story. I used the same format that I had created for the Hitopadesh worksheets, which was short paragraphs, pictures, and discussion questions on each page. This story I wrote was about Babaji. I thought maybe if I shared his story with the kids, they could have empathy for him? You see, these kids mostly all struggled with having empathy. No adult gave love, compassion or empathy to them, so in turn, they did not have any empathy for others. And how do you teach a kid empathy? That’s a tricky one. But I saw this situation as a golden opportunity. I titled my story, On Empathy and the Bearded Babaji. The story was about how Babaji got bitten by a mosquito and ended up in bed with malaria for 10 days. I printed the story out, complete with pictures of Babaji and discussion questions on what the kids would do if they could? What would they tell Babaji, who was sick in bed?
When I arrived on that Monday for group therapy, I told the kids that I did not hear back from Babaji with feedback for story #4, so we could not read it. They were visibly upset, as they protested, “What? Why? Why didn’t Babaji respond? No, we want to hear the next story! This is so unfair! C’mon Ms. Jessica!” they pleaded. I explained that I have another story that we are going to read and that in this story, they can learn about why Babaji didn’t respond with feedback yet. That got their attention. As I passed out the story in our small group circle, the kids immediately changed their mood and the complaining ceased. One autistic boy, begged, “Please, can I read the first page out loud to the group? Let’s get started! What happened to Babaji? I want to know!” The rest of the group agreed and the room became quiet as all the kids listened to the boy read aloud the first page of the story.
I was surprised at how eager the kids were to hear about Babaji. When the kids learned that Babaji had malaria, one girl’s eyes welled up in tears as she said, “Aw, I feel so bad for Babaji. He is so sweet. He doesn’t deserve to have malaria.” I was shocked. This is the same girl who got in a fist fight with another girl just the week before. She had such a tough exterior, but somehow hearing about Babaji melted her heart. And her mood was contagious. One by one, each kid in the group expressed their heartfelt concern for Babaji.
I was blown away. These children actually did have empathy! They were asking if they can see Babaji or if they can help him in some way. They did not want to leave the group therapy session because they wanted to keep talking about Babaji. A few days later, in our next group therapy, I used the session for the kids to make Get Well Soon cards for Babaji. Each child wrote out their well wishes for Babaji on a heart, and we pasted the hearts on a big blue poster, and decorated it with stickers. The kids compassion for Babaji was amazing. I took a picture of the poster and emailed it Babaji. When he felt better and was back on email again, he emailed an individual response to each child’s Get Well Soon wish. In our next group therapy session, I told the kids that Babaji is better now and he wrote a response to each of them. They were overjoyed! I read Babaji’s responses aloud to them, and they asked if they could write another response to Babaji. I think that this was most likely the very first time that these kids had experienced a loving exchange with someone, and they wanted more. As they were mostly young teens, they had lots of questions about love. Each of them wrote their most burning question about love, and I emailed Babaji their questions.
He so generously took the time to respond to each child. This is what he said:
Question from MT, age 12 - I think your love is amazing. I think I would feel great, respected, and never want to leave your center if I went there. Why would you do all this about love? What made you start this?
Babaji’s Response: Dear MT, I started this on the order of my teacher who died two years ago. I learned everything from Him. He was a great saintly person but always confined to his ashrama. He did not travel anywhere.
Question from GB, age 14 - I believe that Babaji's description of true love is true. I would feel loved at his center. How do you find true love? What is true love?
Babaji’s Response: Dear GB, True love is feeling intimacy towards the person you love. You want to be with that person, you want to see him/her happy. By seeing him/her happy you feel happy in your heart. You naturally think of him/her. You open your heart to that person.
Question from NT, age 17 - I think Babaji's true love is amazing. I would feel peaceful at Babaji's center. How do you know if you are in love?
Babaji’s Response: Dear NT, You will feel it in your heart. You feel very happy and satisfied just by being with the person you love. You feel happy by making the person you love happy.
Question from RR, age 15 - I think Babaji's true love is wonderful. I would feel amazing at his center. Why does love hurt so much?
Babaji’s Response: Dear RR, True love never hurts. It always gives happiness inside the heart. We feel hurt because of our expectations.
Question from RW, age 16 - I think Babaji's center is cool. Pretty right. Why does love hurt?
Babaji’s Response: Dear RW, true love does not hurt. The nature of love is happiness. If it is hurting then there is something wrong with it.
Question from ES, age 14 - Why does love fire back so much?
Babaji’s Response: Dear ES, love fires back because of our expectations. Unconditional love is without any expectations and thus it does not fire back.
Question from PB, age 15 - What is true love?
Babaji’s Response: Dear PB, True love is feeling of attachment towards the person you love. You want to be with that person, you want to see him/her happy. By seeing him/her happy you feel happy in your heart. You naturally think of him/her. You open your heart to that person. You want to serve the person you love.
At the end of the day, what I learned is that lack of love is at the core of all unhappiness, cruelty, pain, fear, and suffering. In such an unlikely turn of events, an Indian guru got connected to some psychiatric patients in Florida, on the other side of the world. Who would have ever guessed these kids would get the chance to feel the love of a saint? And would you believe that the seed of love that he planted in their hearts started to grow? These kids started getting better. They began caring for others, being kind and thoughtful. They often asked about how Babaji was doing. And even on days when they were feeling down, I observed that they would say encouraging things to their peers in group therapy. Babaji’s love had inspired these kids that there is such a thing as love, and it is possible for them to feel it and act upon that feeling. This is the amazing power of true love. Even though these kids were locked in a hospital, love knows no bounds. Their heart was set free by Babaji.
PS. Attached is the story I wrote, On Empathy and the Bearded Babaji, for the kids. If you would like to read it and maybe even use it with your own kids, feel free to do so!