Light in the Bardo

I would have died if I hadn’t died. This sentence has been as consoling and informing to me as whole spiritual books and courses. For a long time I attributed it to the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Yet so far Internet searches have turned up nothing. I can almost remember hearing it in a class called Existentialism 101 (or something similar), a ray of sun breaking through the dense cloud cover of all that reading about fear and dread, something memorable and useful for my actual life, something hopeful that also had the ring of truth. But it may have been my own compressed translation. There is a clarity in all of us that can appear from time to time. There is something deep inside us that recognizes the ring of truth, literally resonates with it in embodied experience.

We die and die and die in this life, and we recognize this from a young age. We die of embarrassment, when our hearts break, when we lose a relationship or a job or move away, anytime our hopes and dreams and certainties blow up. We die and enter a transition state where we feel vulnerable and uncertain, as if the ground is shifting beneath our feet.

I recently led a session of mindfulness meditation in the Rubin Museum while sitting in front of an illustration of “The Peaceful and Wrathful deities of the Transition State.” From a distance, the figures in the illustration look a little like the characters in the bar scenes in the Star Wars movies. Some of them possess an otherworldly glamour, and a few of them look like they could be allies. But all of them look strange and frightening. This is what life can look like when we are in the bardo or transition state.

What helps us at such times? Recently, I have been remembering the death of a friend. At his funeral, people spoke about how he had changed in the last years of his life, after the death of his daughter.  He was shattered but in the years that followed he slowly turned into a big cozy campfire that drew people in from the cold and warmed them.  He was a brilliant man but in his youth he was impatient and a bit of a know-it-all. After the death of his daughter, he softened. He led with his heart, observing and listening to people rather than arguing his point all the time.

He always had a keen interest in the mystery of life but after he weathered that great loss he seemed to marvel more. It was as if he found a door in his suffering and walked through. He as wasn’t defensive or aggressive or full of himself as he once was. When you were with him, you felt seen and included in a process of wondering and marveling and sometimes glimpsing a truth. Being in his presence gave you the sense that you also might have unsuspected depths and possibilities.

What happened? Partly it had to do with the movement that humans naturally make when something unexpected happens. In Buddhism, people call it “sati” or remembering. We come down out of the attic of thought and remember the body and our present moment experience. Suddenly, we are aware that we don’t really know what we think we know. The world can seem new and strange and uncertain.

What can qualities can guide us? We need a good, sharp intellect, sure we do. But we also need qualities of heart to sustain and give us courage. We need a willingness to open to truth. We need wisdom, which isn’t head knowledge but seeing how things are without thinking getting in the way. We need patience and determination and the faith that I am more and life is more than I think. And we need kindness. Soft as it seems to be, kindness may be the crucial power that helps us escape the centrifugal force of ego.

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