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.

Published by Cristin Lind

Facilitator, consultant, speaker for better health and care through patient-professional partnership. Passionate about helping change agents build courage and agency. She/her.

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  1. This post was really interesting because this is how I deal with things. I just never realized it had a name. Thanks for the insight!

    Facebook is brutal for situations like this because these images can sneak up on you. Everyone has their different triggers, and awareness is so important, so I try not to be mad when something rocks me to the core when I was seconds earlier laughing at a funny status or admiring a friend’s baby, but my immediate reaction is always “How dare you?” It’s a fine line for sure.

    1. I’m laughing at your reply, realizing that I probably did the very same thing to you on FB with this very post! FB certainly can cause mood-related whiplash. I contemplate going on a media detox every now and then just to let my nervous system recover.

  2. Cristin. Your honesty takes courage. Fear can cripple us. I can go from everything is fine to kicked in the gut in a second.
    Many times, when something has happened in my life that is really upsetting, someone will say don’t dwell on it. I appreciate the advice. But, sometimes I feel that I just need to dwell on it, feel it, and then I can move on. I will have to try to give this some thought.

  3. You’re so right about the concept of “getting through this” not being an option for the bigger picture of having a child (and someday adult) with special needs. I look at my boy’s innocent face sometimes and my heart nearly stops beating with the fear of how he will cope with danger when I’m not with him. I read an article once fr. a mom w/a child on the spectrum who compared being an ASD mom with “PTSD”–but “without the “P”. I related to this enormously! I guess taking each moment in time and focusing on experiencing small mile stones with all the joy they deserve is a key strategy–and you certainly do that! Building their “villages” to help them help themselves later in life is a huge challenge; I wish I had the answer.
    Thank you for another brave and enlightening post.

    1. I can totally see your (P)TSD link with what I’m talking about and I appreciate you bringing it into this conversation. (What will it take to get a guest blog post from you about this, pretty please?)

      In a similar thought, I considered that by exposing myself to all of these stories, I was starting to induce vicarious trauma, which is basically trauma-induced stress by association. We need real strategies to cope with both kinds, and those you suggest are helpful too. Being honest about these feelings, acknowledging that they are real and big and being open about them is helpful too. (By the time I finished the blog post, some of the blunt-force reaction had actually lessened.)

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