A spiritual rescue mission


New York, USA -- After the search for food, water, shelter, and lost loved ones comes the need for spiritual healing. Joan Hoeberichts, a psychotherapist and Zen Buddhist priest in Ridgewood, will go to Sri Lanka to help survivors of the disastrous Dec. 26 tsunami come to their own emotional rescue.

Hoeberichts, 62, will spend three weeks next month lining up Buddhist monks, nuns and teachers to be trained by American therapists on how to hold group sessions. She is being sent there by Dr. Ganepola A.?P. Ganepola, a Valley Hospital surgeon who recently returned from his native Sri Lanka deeply concerned that many of his countrymen were in shock and suicidal. Ganepola is intent on sending therapists to Sri Lanka to help with the crisis.

"I've never been there," Hoeberichts said recently. "I was just very moved by the situation and the fact that it was a predominantly Buddhist country was particularly important to me."

Hoeberichts, head of Heart Circle Sangha, a Zen meditation and study group, helped raise money for tsunami victims. She sent to money to Sarvodaya, a grass-roots organization in Sri Lanka that has helped 15,000 villages become self sufficient.

The Sarvodaya entrée, and having Sri Lankans help each other, is crucial to her plan, she said.

"You can't just walk into a country and say, 'I can solve your problems,'?" she said. "All I'm doing is facilitating.

"I imagine you could send a couple people to train the [Buddhist] clergy who are already doing trauma work there, so they can hold the group therapy and it becomes indigenous to their culture as quickly as possible," she said.

After Ganepola accepted her proposal to go to Sri Lanka to lay the groundwork for the training network, Hoeberichts made arrangements to tour the country in February. Marasinghe Charika, an attorney with Sarvodaya and daughter of its founder, will be her liaison.

Hoeberichts, who specializes in family and group therapy, considers herself a "pastoral psychotherapist." She will travel with her husband, Jef, 71, a retired inner-city economic developer.

"We'll talk to people in the camps and schools, and to the fishermen who don't want to go back to their boats," she said.

"It's mostly about listening to who they are and what they want. We don't even want to use the word 'trauma.' We say 'psycho-spiritual healing,'?" she said.

Hoeberichts maintains an altar in a second-floor room of her house where she conducts Buddhist services. As she spoke, wind chimes jangled gently in the breeze outside.

The tsunami that struck nearly a month ago killed an estimated 226,000 people - including 31,000 in Sri Lanka. The possibility of mass suicides in the wake of such a terrible disaster is very high, she said.

"When you have lost everything, and there is not much reason for going on living, and the pain of remembering is so great, you just get frozen. [The prospect] of suicide is real. One of the biggest problems is survivor guilt," she said.

The American Group Psychotherapy Association |is helping Hoeberichts assemble the teaching materials to help in training clergy and teachers. But Buddhism's basic precepts about acceptance of change will be the key to coping, she said.

"Buddhism is built on impermanence. Everything is a process of change. You can't hold on to anything, and all our suffering comes from trying to hold on," she said.

The Buddhist faith teaches followers that there is no death, just a change in form, and that we're all one body that is part of universal energy, she said. Letting go is the important thing to do.

"The healing process is one of rebuilding community, the sense of belonging to a social support network," she said. "That's why the group therapy process is particularly useful.

"One of the core teachings of the Buddha is that suffering is caused by our grasping. Recognizing the truth of impermanence brings a reduction in human suffering. It opens the door to acceptance after there's suffering that is so horrible," she said.

"I'm a Buddhist," she said. "I had to help."