The Bardo

I recently read the amazing book, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.  It was unique, touching, haunting and heartbreaking — all the things I love about fiction.  This post is not a book review, I will just say that I loved it and I think you should read it too.  (And get your copy from a library or local independent bookstore.)

Since I finished the book, I have been thinking a lot about the concept of the bardo and how I can carry that idea into my life.  Briefly, the bardo is the intermediate space between death and rebirth, as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  When I was trying to learn more about it, I found this wonderful comic book guide to the bardo.  I suggest you check it out for a primer on the concept.

The ideas that stuck with me in all my reading on this topic were that the bardo is not just one “place,” there are multiple manifestations.  Several commentators also suggested that the concept of the bardo could be expanded to apply to any transition, not just the transition from life to death and whatever comes after.

I have been thinking about that a lot lately — that there are several bardos which apply to any life transition.  It is, for me, a useful metaphor to describe how I was feeling at multiple points in my life where things changed and I felt completely out of myself for a while.  The transition of moving to a new city.  The transition from being in a long marriage to being single.  The transition from being single to being back in a loving, supportive relationship.

At the same time, I have been re-reading one of my favorite Lynda Barry books, One! Hundred! Demons!  The book is autobiographical, and it goes through the moments of life that hurt you, both small and not-so-small.  At the end of the book, Lynda Barry has a short how-to section, where she invites you to draw your demons, to give them shape and features as a way of removing their power.

See, there are demons in the bardo as well.  And demons in every transition.  Maybe they aren’t the specific kinds of spirit manifestations as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  Maybe they are things like grief, self-doubt, fear, and anger.  And maybe Lynda Barry is onto something when she suggests you draw your demons, give them a face.  Isn’t it somehow easier to know what you are facing, to be able to call it by name somehow?  This is another thing I understood about the bardo — that the dying person finds peace when they are able to recognize the true nature of the things manifested before them.

So, if I can draw (or name, or recognize) the demons that appear in every life transition, I can release their hold on me.  I can maybe even strike up a friendship with them and learn the lessons.  My friend grief helps me recognize and articulate what is precious in my life now.  My friend self-doubt teaches me where to find my deepest skills.  My friend fear shows me where I still need to heal.  My friend anger drives me to act for a better, more loving world.

As with everything, I am trying to bring this understanding to every client interaction, indeed every human interaction.  Recognize that we are all, at some level, in some bardo, facing or running from some demon.  Deal gently and gracefully with each other, as we navigate our own transitions.

(And forgive me for my limited and very beginner knowledge of what the bardo is and what it represents in Tibetan Buddhism.  If you want to learn more about the Tibetan Buddhism, Louisville have a great resource in the Drepung Gomang Center for Engaging Compassion. )

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