Theses Doctoral

Spacious Minds, Empty Selves: Coping and Resilience in the Tibetan Exile Community

Lewis, Sara

Mental health in the Tibetan refugee community has been studied extensively; but like most research on political violence, these studies focus almost exclusively on trauma. We know little about those who manage to thrive and what kinds of sociocultural practices enhance their resilience. This dissertation, "Spacious Minds, Empty Selves: Coping and Resilience in the Tibetan Exile Community" investigates how Buddhism and other sociocultural factors support coping and resilience among Tibetan refugees living in Dharamsala, India. In contrast to other work that focuses exclusively on trauma, the aim of this project was to examine the broad range of reactions to political violence, exploring how people thrive in the face of adversity. Drawing on 14 months of extended participant observation and 80 in-depth interviews conducted in the Tibetan language, this project investigates how communities through social processes cope in the context of political violence and resettlement. The study draws upon and aims to extend theory in three distinct but overlapping areas: 1) trauma and resilience; 2) the anthropology of memory and temporality; and 3) the transferability of interventions across cultures. The dissertation argues that the Tibetan concept of resilience is more an active process than a personality attribute. Seeing emotions as impermanent and changing, Tibetans living in exile are reticent to dwell on distress, which seems only to stagnate or prolong suffering. Rather than processing the details of traumatic events, members of this community attempt to transform distress through cultural practices that emphasize compassion and impermanence. Many forms of coping in Dharamsala work to create a greater sense of spaciousness, openness and flexibility within the mind--qualities associated with resilience and wellbeing. In practicing flexibility, the durability of negative emotions is diminished, such that the encoding of trauma is derailed and disrupted. The contribution I make involves using a "resilience imaginary" as a fruitful site for pushing the boundaries of how we understand human freedom and agency.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Sociomedical Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Hopper, Kim J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 7, 2014