Tibet, once the inspiration for Shangri-la, is now a besieged country where thousands have been imprisoned, tortured, and forced into exile. Since Buddhism is catching on in the West in part because it promises relief from stress, it's natural to wonder whether the country's spiritual traditions are helping its citizens cope with the oppression. Findings of a study published in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (Vol. 186. No. 1) indicate yes.
With the help of several Tibetan organizations, researchers from the Boston School of Medicine studied 70 Tibetan nuns and lay students, who were living as refugees in India. Half had been arrested and tortured. Using standard psychiatric measures, the researchers found that the refugees showed dramatically elevated levels of clinical anxiety and moderately high levels of clinical depression.
Concerned for the refugees' long-term mental health, the researchers identified a powerful source of coping and resiliency: the Buddhist understanding of suffering.
As Palden Gyatso, a Buddhist writer, who was imprisoned for over 30 years, told the researchers, Buddhism teaches that "one's suffering is little compared with the suffering of others," that "the result of one's travail may even benefit others." The study confirmed that the more resilient subjects clearly had internalized these beliefs.
The author of the published study, Timothy H. Holtz, M.D., points out that earlier studies of U.S. civil rights workers confirm that resiliency rises when one believes in what they are doing. The researchers hope their findings will help the international community provide support for the world's growing numbers of refugees.
Originally published in Spirituality & Health--The Soul/Body Connection (R). Online at http://www.SpiritualityHealth.com. For a free trial issue of the print magazine: http://www.spiritualityhealth.com/about/prmg.html.