Review of Spacious Minds: Trauma and Resilience in Tibetan Buddhism. Sara E. Lewis, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019, 228 pp.

Reviewed Book

Spacious Minds: Trauma and Resilience in Tibetan Buddhism. Sara E. Lewis, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019, 228 pp.

Dylan Thomas Lott

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Spacious Minds offers a rich ethnographic inquiry into the ways in which “Buddhist practices might shape responses to traumatic events” (p. 2) in the lives of everyday, non-elite Tibetans in exile. For Lewis, the key lies in the ongoing efforts of those she interviewed to internalize the fact that to be alive is to encounter suffering, as the First Noble Truth asserts. The equanimity that purportedly arises from this acceptance is reflected in the experience or characteristic of having sems pa chen po, a “vast or spacious mind”; the ability to see beyond one’s own suffering. Lewis notes that the Tibetans she interviewed did not frame their personal experiences of torture, displacement, or hardship in terms consonant with Western notions of trauma. Even though the exile Tibetan community’s identity is intertwined with human rights issues and the realities of disenfranchisement, political oppression, and torture, “individuals on the personal level tend to down play and even deny their own trauma” (p. 3). Those interviewed were “reticent to frame personal experiences in terms of trauma [see post-traumatic stress disorder]. Instead, they deploy shared cultural understandings, often infused with Buddhist doctrine, to reframe the mental distress associated with loss, violence, and displacement” (p. 9). Where a simplistic reading may suggest that these individuals are merely repressing or performing an expected type of identity for a Westerner’s consumption, Lewis attempts to show, through the voices of her interviewees, “that sems pa chen po acts as a kind of north star principle guiding the way, even among those who are struggling” (p. 9).

This monograph is a product of Lewis’s long-term fieldwork—beginning in 2007 and culminating in a 14-month period between 2011 and 2012–in Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj, a former British hill station in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Through participant observation and semi-structured interviews with various figures and residents in the community, Lewis’s “aim was to investigate how Tibetans living in Dharamsala identify and understand resilience from their own view” (p. 17). For the past half-century, McLeod Ganj has been home to some of most important political and religious institutions in the Tibetan exile community. It is also home to the main reception and medical services for Tibetan refugees and a key tourist destination, drawing thousands of visitors annually from all over the world to attend the Dalai Lama’s public talks, study Tibetan Buddhism, and volunteer in various capacities to support the exile community. Many foreigners and NGOs come with a genuine desire to help yet are encumbered with preconceived notions about the nature of trauma and how to heal from it; namely, that it must be expressed and ultimately overcome, otherwise betraying a moral or mental failing in that person. Lewis suggests that Western understandings of trauma and resilience are, from the perspective of the Tibetans themselves, inimical and largely counterproductive.

In Chapter 1, Lewis offers an overview of the historical and political context of the formation of a Tibetan community and government in exile. Lewis also addresses the ongoing Tibetan resistance within the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and the awareness Tibetans in exile have in how their actions and speech might impact those within the TAR. The chapter concludes with the poignant observation that while Tibetans recognize the “fight for social justice there is a simultaneous insistence that people are ultimately responsible for their own happiness or misery” (p. 43). In this way, Lewis sets the stage for the subsequent chapters and the introduction of the practice of lojong (mind training), designed to keep one’s mind “spacious” and “agile” and thus more “resilient” in Lewis’s sense.

Subsequent chapters explore this notion of spaciousness in relation to Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and medicine (sowa rigpa). Importantly, Lewis underscores that she is looking at the ways in which resilience is defined within the Tibetan community, as opposed to superimposing a Western psychiatric understanding of such concepts. Where Western concepts of resilience may foreground fortitude, Lewis sees in the Tibetan perspective an exhortation to allow suffering to transform oneself into someone capable of compassion. Suffering becomes an opportunity to practice “mind training,” which, in turn, allows one to be more spacious. Lewis goes on to discuss the habits of thought one may try to inculcate to achieve this, allowing her interlocutors express in their own words the relevance of lojong in their own lives. Lewis also discusses the emic categories of mental health operating in the Tibetan Dharamsala community and the various types of helping seeking behaviors usually associated with each.

One of Lewis’s key arguments is that, by cultivating spaciousness, Tibetans actively “resist chronicity” (p. 87), or the fixity or clinging (shenpa) of negative emotions. Lewis engages with findings in Western science, psychology, and Tibetan philosophy to underscore that one can train to develop a flexible approach; to not reify through rehearsal in speech a view of events or emotions that reinforces negative affects. And while Tibetans are conscious of the need for a consistent narrative in communicating their plight as a people, Lewis observes that “rather than becoming postcolonial victims of Western trauma concepts, Tibetan political activists have appropriated foreign ideas and fashioned them not for psychological healing … but as a political device to fuel their human rights campaign” (pp. 115–16). Lewis notes that while reporting traumatic cultural events and speaking of the tragedy of Tibet—whether through the media or through researchers bearing witness with those who journey to Dharamsala—many Tibetan refugees see that individual suffering can be harnessed to make one more open to compassion and letting go. Lewis argues this “resilience practice” is not a contradiction but “emblematic of Tibetan forms of resilience” (p. 152).

Lewis also takes up the important question of how Tibetans perceive and define agency in relation to suffering consequent of political oppression and displacement. Engaging with several moving first-person accounts, Lewis expands on Kim Hopper’s notion of agency as a “moral category,” suggesting that in the Tibetan context framing one’s response to suffering as a “taking on of negative karma of those who wrong you” (p. 181) is the frame of mind or action most in accord with the cultural ideal. Ultimately, Lewis frames her work in the context of cross-cultural psychiatry and psychology on trauma and survivorship and considers the shortcoming and dangers of applying a treatment approach or diagnostic structure from the West to other cultural contexts.

Sara E. Lewis’s Spacious Minds is an important and engaging work for those interested in cross-cultural psychology and well-being, anthropology, diaspora studies, those seeking a better understanding of the complexities designing public and mental health interventions, and all who seek to understand “sociocultural practices that bolster communities under duress” (p. 10).