The first time I volunteered my time and skills was in 1999. I was accepted to teach yoga weekly at Children of the Night, a shelter in Van Nuys, California, that houses, educates and rehabilitates adolescent prostitutes. These are children between the ages of 11 to 17 who have all been seriously sexually abused.
Although teaching these children was a life-changing experience for me, it wasn't effortless in the beginning at all. Teaching at-risk youth can be beyond challenging, and I had to rely on my own yoga and processing skills often to keep my assumptions and fears in check, but it didn't always work. These children, because of their abuse, were often shutdown, angry, antagonistic and/or withdrawn. Working with them, I would sometimes feel uncomfortable and even judgmental. Sometimes I resented them for their behavior and would lose my patience. It didn't take me long to realize that if "you spot it, you got it!" Meaning that the shadow parts of them (the angry, shut down, arrogant aspects of their personalities) that triggered my discomfort were a reflection of the same emotional parts within myself that I've judged, repressed or disowned. Those kids were just holding a mirror up to my own angry, albeit repressed, self. No wonder I judged them. I was ashamed of those qualities in me and was accustomed to shoving my big feelings discreetly away. In their presence, I experienced the parts of myself I could not stand and projected that shame and disgust onto them because, in actuality, their big feelings scared me. Their big feelings forced me to look at mine! I think it was during this time that I realized that if I were going to choose to serve and be a part of someone else's healing, that I was also going to have to buckle down and commit to healing myself as well. Otherwise, I would continue to respond to the children from judgment, pity or sympathy, which does nothing but create separation. How could I truly serve and love them if I was unwilling to love those parts within me? Their anger was only a mask to their deep grief...as was mine. I could have never awakened to that truth without their presence in my life, as challenging as it sometimes was. I knew that learning to understand those kids was the key to my healing and my pathway to God. I knew that if I was going to be affective in outreach, then I had to understand their trauma through understanding my own. Only then would I generate true compassion and empathy. Only then could I serve without trying to "fix." Only then could I love and be open to God.
So, I offered them some skills to deal with their tension and stress, but these kids helped make me whole. Who got served?