My Journey Back Home
As I sat on the 16-hour flight from Delhi to New York, the hours seemed to whizz by. Normally I would be like the guy next to me, snuggled up under his fuzzy blanket, in a deep slumber. The pleasant hum of the jet engines set the mood for sleep. The cabin lights were dimmed, and dinner service was complete. Yet I was buzzing with excitement as I indulged in a different kind of feast; a relishing of an ancient Indian book called The Hitopadesh. It is one of many books that my teacher, Babaji, translated from a Sanskrit text that is hundreds of years old. This book in particular is about relationships, decision-making, and trust, written in the form of stories about animals. I stayed up the entire night on that flight, devouring each page about a tiger tricking a traveler, a cat conning a bird, a mouse fooling a monk, and other captivating animal stories. By the time my flight touched down in New York, I had read the entire Hitopadesh from cover to cover. The pages were now decorated with my bright pink highlights and notes scribbled in the margins.
What was so special about this book, you may ask? It certainly didn’t look so special on the outside with its boring brown hardback cover, a scrawled cartoon sketch of a tiger, and some Sanskrit letters on it that I had no idea what they said. In fact, if I had seen this book at a bookstore or on amazon.com, I’m sure I would have just moved on past it. It was only by my good fortune of meeting with Babaji’s student, Kubara Dasa, that I even ended up with this precious gem. This one small, unassuming book had completely seduced me. It changed the fundamental way that I thought about therapy, and consequently changed the course of hundreds of kids’ lives. It could not have been more perfect timing that Kubara just happened to be at the ashram, coming all the way from Poland, at the exact time of my brief two-day visit. It was my first visit to Babaji’s ashram so I did not know anyone there. Kubara took the time to get to know me. During our conversation, I shared that I was a psychotherapist that worked with children with severe mental health disorders. The next day when I was departing for the airport, he generously gave me a gift of Babaji’s Hitopadesh book. He casually mentioned that the book was full of stories about animals. He suggested that maybe I could use these stories with the kids I work with. Little did he know what an impact his small act of kindness had made.
This book became not only a treasure to me, but also to so many of the depressed, anxious, misunderstood, traumatized and abused children that were locked up in a psychiatric hospital, and all but forgotten. Most of these kids had been so badly neglected and abused, some sexually, some physically, some both. It was difficult for them to open up in therapy and talk about what had happened to them. So, what they did instead was to act out. Some of them would punch the glass windows out in the hallway, which occurred about once per week on average. Some of them would spit or curse at me. Some would try to tackle or punch me. Some would ignore me and not answer my questions. Some would talk to me, but in complete nonsensical ways, either lying, or talking to the voices in their head, or some other psychotic delusion, like Jesus giving them some crucial message that they needed to act on right now. Some would yell loudly at me in a fit of rage. Some would blame or accuse me as the reason for their pain. Some would try to run out of my office. And one even successfully escaped from the hospital all together, hiding in the tropical forest as the search crew in helicopters loudly circled overhead while inside I nervously watched the evening news. My client's face was plastered all over it as a missing person, dangerous and potentially armed. Some stood out more than others, like the little 12-year old girl who was plagued with extreme anxiety. She would sit in my office for the entire session and scream a blood-curdling scream for no reason at all. The sound was worse than nails down a chalkboard, and being witness to it certainly increased my patience for humankind. Quite possibly the worst one, however, was a 7-year old little boy. One fine day, he pooped right there in the open on the hospital floor. He just pulled down his pants, squatted, pooped, and nonchalantly picked his decrement up and threw it at me. Needless to say, it was difficult to find the motivation to go to work every day, and even more difficult to feel optimistic and energetic about helping these kids who seemed beyond help.
As soon as I arrived back home to Florida, I began making a worksheet about one of the stories from the Hitopadesh. It was about a tiger who tricks a traveler into coming close so he can eat him for lunch! Even though the story was about an animal, the original story was written and explained at an adult level of understanding. So, I re-wrote the story for kids. I added some funny pictures. I also added in discussion questions. At each point where there was a decision to be made in the story, I would write in discussion questions for the kids to answer, such as, “Do you trust the tiger’s words? What would you do? Would you go in the pond to get the gold bracelet from him? What about the tigers in your life? Has anyone ever tricked you like the tiger tricked the traveler?” I would make up games for the kids to play in which they would vote on what they would do. I would encourage them to try to convince each other to change their mind. This gave them a chance to think more deeply about their decisions and practice their debating skills. Some days, the whole room came to life in fun, invigorating debates about if the tiger was trustworthy.
It seems really quite benign, when I recount this story of just some kids in a group therapy session reading and discussing a simple story about a tiger. However, the way in which the kids responded was absolutely astounding. Kids who usually remained quiet in the group spoke up. Kids who were typically shy became animated. Kids who would hog the air time, sat back and listened to others. Kids who acted selfish, displayed empathy and compassion. Kids who were autistic, or socially awkward, participated in an appropriate manner, and were accepted by their peers. Kids who were angry, talked about their anger, instead of punching the wall. Kids who were abused, betrayed, bullied, they all told their story. Stories that I had never heard before, even though I was their therapist, and had been working with them in individual sessions for hours per week, and months on end. I was blown away, amazed, and truly flabbergasted that such a simple story about a tiger tricking a traveler could open up pandora’s box like this.
Now I know why Mary smoked pot and ran away from home at age 12. No wonder why she hated going to therapy group for her so-called, “drug addiction.” No wonder why she clammed up, sitting with me hour after hour and week after week, forced to talk about her depression. She wasn’t a drug addict, nor depressed. She wasn’t even a bad kid. She was just reacting to the trauma that she experienced. It turns out that she was scared shitless of the family friend who sexually abused her, and whom she was absolutely terrified to tell anyone about. So smoking pot helped her to forget about her memories and feelings. Actually, she could have lived many years like that. But, somehow hearing the story about this tricky tiger, got Mary to boldly, unapologetically share with the entire group about the tiger in her life. Over time, as we read more of the Hitopadesh stories, one after the other, the kids started opening up and telling their own true stories. Most of them had a close encounter with a tiger or two in their lives. One young teen boy, actually admitted to the whole group that he himself was the tiger. He was the one who tricked the young girls to have a romp in the hay with him. The honesty, innocence, vulnerability, raw pain, support, and compassion that this young group of mentally ill teenagers exhibited was truly remarkable.
Impressed by the results, I emailed my teacher, Babaji and explained what transpired in the groups. I asked him how a simple story could get these kids to open their hearts and reveal so much? These very kids whom had created a whole personality to hide their secrets and pain had been living like that for years. So why would some short story about a tiger be the magic key to their heart? I knew the story worked because I shared the worksheets with a few of my therapist friends, including my boss, and they all experienced similar powerful results with their patients.
Babaji explained to me that in the Indian culture, the timeless tradition of teaching is through storytelling. People love stories. They have a genuine curiosity about another person, especially one in a predicament that they can relate to. Babaji said that if you tell a person directly what they should or should not do, they don’t like it. Nobody in fact, likes to be told what to do. Our ego tells us that we think we know best. Our ego abhors taking instructions from others. Even when we seek advice, often times we doubt it. Or we do not take the advice seriously, even if it is from a qualified source, like a psychotherapist, a parent, or a guru. Babaji said that in contrast, when a person hears a story, they let their guard down. They are not on the defensive, because no one is criticizing them, judging them, telling them what to do, or what is wrong with them. Their ego doesn't feel threatened or minimized. When the guard is let down, a person feels relaxed as they often times can relate to one of the characters in the story. In Sanskrit there is technical word for it called sadharanikaranam, which literally means, "generalization." This concept of generalizing the point to avoid offending the ego has been used by wise teachers in India for hundreds of years. And that is when the magic happens. When the ego is relaxed, a person generates their own insights because they feel safe and secure. So they share from the heart. This is the sweet spot for tremendous healing to occur.
I was impressed by Babaji’s explanation, and it only left me wanting to share these Hitopadesh stories with more kids and families, which is exactly what I did. Over the next few years, Babaji and I began teaching these Hitopadesh worksheet stories to kids, families, psychotherapists and teachers both in India and in the USA.
Of course, this story would not be complete without me applying these powerful Hitopadesh stories to my own life. I guess I didn’t see it at first, partly because I was focused on teaching these stories to my patients. However, the other reason is because it is very difficult to see one’s own self, especially one’s weaknesses. But one day Babaji asked me point blank, “So, who are the tigers are in your life?" His question caught me off guard. I thought I was too smart for any tigers to trick me. But upon introspection, that was not the case at all. Babaji’s piercing question encouraged me to apply the Hitopadesh stories to my own life. In fact, as I asked myself that question, I realized that there had been quite a few tigers in my life. You might even call me a “tiger magnet.”
I started writing about the tigers in my life. And for each story that got put onto paper, three more stories followed. Eventually, an entire 375-page book, Codependency Karma, was born out of my personal process of uncovering, examining, and writing about how I got tricked by tigers. These tigers were in the form of bad boyfriends for over twenty years, who used me for their own pleasure. Through Babaji’s potent teachings, I finally understood how my own neediness and craving for love continually put me in vulnerable positions to get used by men. My desperation to feel loved blinded me to all of the tigers tricks. My blindness caused me to say yes when I meant no. To suffer and tolerate abuse just to not feel lonely. To accept what I should have rejected. To stay when I should have run. And to sacrifice myself, my needs, my path, my voice, and my health for the frivolous pleasure of another. Babaji’s words of wisdom taught me not only how to spot and outsmart a tiger, but also how to come home to myself and rest in the soft, peaceful love that has always been there in my heart.
Babaji and I created an online course called, Storytelling in Therapy, with a famous company, Simple Practice, in Los Angeles, CA. Our 2-hour video course was just released last week and it is available for anyone interested. In the course, I read aloud the first chapter of our book, Codependency Karma. Here is the link to our course: https://www.simplepracticelearning.com/courses/storytelling-therapy