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Trauma and the Making of Flexible Minds in the Tibetan Exile Community


  • Sara E. Lewis


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. Studies suggest this exile community seems to be unusually resilient; but from where does this capacity to thrive stem? On the basis of ethnographic research in Dharamsala, India, conducted over 14 months, this article demonstrates how Tibetans conceive of resilience as a learned and active process of making the mind more “spacious” and “flexible.” Drawing on extended participant observation and in-depth interviews with 80 Tibetan refugees, this work explores why negative emotions associated with trauma exposure are considered toxic and how many Tibetans exposed to political violence engage in a Buddhist practice known as “mind training” (lojong in Tibetan) to abate its harmful effects. Attending to culturally sanctioned responses to political violence and displacement, this study challenges the notion that trauma is a universal experience.