Sitting in the Charnel Ground

Heads-up: This post contains some dark images, but I’m letting them out in the hopes of letting some sunlight in, shining some light onto what I’m sure many struggle with.

The moment starts out mundanely enough. Standing in line for coffee at our local donut shop, I attempt to distract myself from the racks of be-sprinkled options behind the counter by giving all my attention to silent TV monitor hanging from the ceiling. Then there it is, the scrolling headline of the mid-day news about the local schoolworker accused of sexually assaulting a student with a developmental delay, and I’m real, real gone, as Van Morrison says. An invisible hand has punched me solidly in the gut, and for the next few hours I’m walking, weak-kneed, in a terror-induced fog.

This has been happening for a while, this getting overcome by stories of abuse when I least expect them. Half-heartedly skimming down my Facebook wall, I come across a headline (courtesy of the disability organization that I apparently “Like”) about two adults with developmental disabilities who have been found locked in a basement by a couple who stole their Social Security checks.  That I do not wretch is a miracle. Or in class, watching an inspirational short film about disability reform, images of neglected “students” from an institution in the 1950’s flicker by, and it’s all I can do to get myself out of the room before convulsing in tears in the hallway.

These images come when I least expect them, when I’m least prepared. They are the distillation of my very real but unspoken terror: When I am dead, who will protect my vulnerable, trusting son from abuse? (There, I said it.)

Buddhists might say that I have found my charnel ground: the above-ground sites of ancient and medieval India and the Himalayas, where corpses were left to decay naturally with the help of scavengers and the elements. It is said that the Buddha encouraged his students to meditate in charnel grounds as a way of releasing the ultimate attachment: the attachment to one’s body and to this life itself. The practice was meant to be uncomfortable and challenging. Kind of like a spiritual Tough Mudder. Get through this and all else will be a cakewalk. Not sure there’s a “getting through” this, but I would like to be able to not burst into tears in a meeting. So it could be worth practicing.

Pema Chödrön guided us through a Charnel Ground Practice when I went to her retreat this past fall. Her advice: To build your tolerance, don’t try to stay engaged for too long. For 30 seconds at most, just be with the feeling, the terror, the rage, whatever it is and then retreat. Breathe through your nose, not your mouth, which is more likely to bring the feelings up to the surface. Stroke your arm, which does something biologically to calm you down. Think about something else. Like any muscle, over straining causes injury, sometimes irreparably so, so don’t overdo it.

I think it’s working. In the past, these images were so terrorizing that it’s one of the reasons I avoided engaging with the disability world at all. I didn’t have the capacity to handle even a split-second consciousness of these possibilities. But now that I’ve taken the leap into the deep end of advocacy and activism, these stories are everywhere and there is reason to practice tolerating them. If I want to understand how to eliminate the circumstances that make these atrocities possible from happening in the first place, I have to engage.

Part of living fully and deeply means learning, if not to get comfortable with, then to at least tolerate the presence of great sorrow without turning away. Facing our deepest fears, if only for a few seconds from time to time, we can learn to be there for each other, not get carried off by our fears, and stay present and aware of what is needed of us in the moment to make things better for all.

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Just this! Just this!

In an unusual moment of stillness between the last bite of dinner and the itchiness to get up from the table, I wished my family a Happy Solstice and asked if anyone had a poem, song or blessing to add. (I’ve been thinking about how to add more spirit to the everyday, though usually don’t remember it at the actual moment in the chaos. For some reason, this time I did.)

My seven-year-old daughter, who is an old soul and so easily slips between the sacred and the material world, sprang to the bookcase, pulled down Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s “Everyday Blessings,” flipped to the following page and read aloud:

“First we braid grasses and play tug of war,
then we take turns singing and keeping a kick-ball in the air.
I kick the ball and they sing, they kick and I sing.
Time is forgotten, the hours fly.
People passing by point at me and laugh:
“Why are you acting like such a fool?”
I nod my head and don’t answer.
I could say something, but why?
Do you want to know what’s in my heart?
From the beginning of time: just this! just this!
— Ryokan, 18th century Japanese Zen master

Whatever your traditions or your calendar, whether the tilt of the world’s axis where you are is bringing you closer to light or darkness, may the next few days bring you a peaceful moment to linger and savor. Just this, just this, indeed.

A few minutes in the hospital lobby

I arrived a little earlier than expected at our local pediatric hospital last Friday. I have spent plenty of hours there with my son, both inpatient and outpatient, or visiting friends whose children are also patients, providing plenty of opportunities for a lot of suffering.

On this day though, I’m here in a more neutral role, as a student participating in a fellowship on developmental disability. Relishing the few extra minutes and the chance to get centered before a day of lectures, I grab a private seat in the lobby to slip in a few minutes of meditation.

I’m a pretty straightforward vipassana meditation gal, usually just “gentling myself” (thank you, Jon Kabat-Zinn, for this tender phrase) myself toward awareness, moment-by-moment, on purpose, using sounds as my anchor. But on this day, with a delightful kinetic lobby sculpture clanging away, along with the murmurs of pacing parents on cell phones updating friends and family on about another long and probably sleepless night, sound is too challenging a focal point.

Leaning into the palpable emotions that surround me, I make a quick adjustment to instead try out a few minutes of tonglen meditation. Tibetan for “sending and receiving,” tonglen meditation is one in which one breathes in the pain of others and breathes out the means of their relief. Setting my handy iPhone timer, I close my eyes, put my feet on the floor, and welcome whatever pain shows up. In this place, there is plenty to be found.

On each inhalation, I draw on my own experience of my past suffering in this very space, and breathe in hot and sharp pain — not just my own but what I imagine the children, healers, the administrators and the other parents, might be feeling right at this moment. On each exhalation, I breathe out a cool relief.

I don’t know if this really helps anyone but myself. I hope that on some level this intention manifests itself as some peace in the world, some real and specific release from pain, but I can’t be sure. I do know that in being willing to open myself up to the suffering of others, I open myself up to all emotions, even good ones, peeling away the layers that create a barrier between me and the rest of humanity.

Breathing in pain, I breathe out comfort.

Breathing in fear, I breathe out ease.

Breathing in anger, I breathe out openness.

Breathing in impatience, I breathe out patience.

Breathing in impulsivity, I breathe out steadiness.

Breathing in pride, I breathe out humility.

Breathing in resignation, I breathe out perseverance.

Breathing in isolation, I breathe out connection.

Breathing in confusion, I breathe out clarity.

Breathing in despair, I breathe out strength.

Breathing in pain, I breathe out love.

May all children be free from suffering and harm.

May all families be free from suffering and harm.

May all staff be free from suffering and harm.

May all beings, including you and I, be free from suffering and harm.