What the Buddhist teachings reveal about this moment and how it helps
We all find ourselves in an unprecedented situation due to the Corona virus outbreak. If we’re lucky enough to have our basic needs taken care of, this can feel both frightening and liberating. My son is home from school for at least three weeks, I’m working from home (which is a mixed bag) and I’ve reluctantly halted all play dates for at least the next two weeks. This sudden strangeness feels like a whole new space that is at once unfamiliar and yet full of potential.
The Buddhist teachings on the Bardo speak directly to this unprecedented space we all find ourselves in. In fact, it’s almost as if these teachings were made for this time. It’s refreshing to find spiritual teachings that feel as if they are speaking to you directly and helping you to navigate the stormy seas of reality.
Bardo is a Tibetan word that can roughly translate as an “in between state”. In some traditional teachings it refers more directly to the state between death and birth and specifically to realms that your remaining consciousness faces which determines that nature of your rebirth. However, Bardo can also be understood as any transitional or liminal experience between one state and another, and in fact in some sense, all of life is a bardo as we are continually in flux. Thus, to understand and work with the bardo teachings means we become more skilled at holding our minds during times of uncertainty.
Here is a direct quote from Francesca Fremantle’s book, Luminous Emptiness
Bardo can have many implications, depending on how one looks at it. It is an interval, a hiatus, a gap. It can act as a boundary that divides and separates, marking the end of one thing and the beginning of another; but it can also be a link between the two-it can serve as a bridge or a meeting place that brings together and unites. It is a crossing, a stepping stone, a transition. It is a crossroads where one must choose which path to take, and it is a no-man’s land belonging to neither one side nor the other. It is a highlight or peak point of experience and at the same time a situation of extreme tension caught between two opposites. It is an open space filled with an atmosphere of suspension and uncertainty, neither this nor that. In such a state, one may feel confused and frightened, or one may feel surprisingly liberated and open to new possibilities where anything might happen.
I don’t know about you, but I definitely feel an atmosphere of suspension and uncertainty. Everything is literally suspended. Our normal activities such as school, work, socializing- have all come to a grinding halt. We are totally uncertain about what’s going to happen-there are so many unknowns. I find myself vacillating between feeling hopeful and feeling scared. I’m hopeful that this is exactly what our society needed to actually stop and see the implications of our non-stop consumerism and activity and at the same time I feel scared that we might not get it (whatever “it” is) and that this pandemic could lead to something worse and that our economy will never recover.
Luckily there are instructions on how to work with our minds in the Bardo. This is based on the understanding that our minds are the most important part of the equation here. Our minds determine “which path to take”, one of fear and aggression or one of trust and love. Sometimes that’s a moment by moment decision-we can wake up feeling hopeful and go to bed feeling distressed. The point is that we see our minds (thoughts, emotions) as the source of power which determines our reality. This is both true individually and collectively. The more we individually decide to work with this situation as a practice to wake up, meaning turn toward love and authentic power, the more our collective consciousness will shift toward creating a more enlightened society.
The instructions for working with your mind in the bardo is to realize the dream-like nature of reality and the emptiness of all phenomena. “Emptiness is the realization that nothing has a permanent, substantial, independent existence of its own. Since this is so, there is infinite potentiality and dynamic transformation. It is this alone that makes it possible for the ever-changing display of life in all its multiplicity to arise” (Fremantle, p. 87). Even though this seems a little theoretical and out there, after all our experience of everyday life can feel very solid, this is based on real science-everything is moving and changing all the time and nothing is solid!
When we cling to things, including ourselves, as solid and real, we can’t shift and change. We need to see the transitory quality of all phenomena and know there is nothing to fear. What we took as utterly real and solid (our routines, our lives, our society) is coming to an end and a new world is being born. We can trust this process just like we trust childbirth and death, not always easy, but utterly natural and beautiful.
A practical exercise for working with the mind in the bardo is to feel both the earthiness of the body and the transitory quality of the mind and heart. Even though our minds and moods are constantly shifting: What can we trust? Can we trust our bodies? Can we trust our minds? The irony here is that the more time we invest in knowing our minds, the more we can let go of the tendency of our minds to fixate.
Spend at least ten minutes everyday stabilizing your mind by focusing your mind’s attention on the breath. Feel the transitory quality of every moment, of every breath, and at the same time your ability to be and trust something larger.
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