It’s been quite awhile since I’ve updated this blog.  I was busy for a long time completing my book, Contemplative Psychotherapy Essentials:  Enriching Your Practice with Buddhist Psychology (W.W. Norton), which came out just over a year ago.  I hope to be more steady going forward!

W. W. Norton
Source: W. W. Norton

You could say I’ve been in a kind of “bardo” with this blog.  I was done with what I had written so far, but I hadn’t begun a new phase yet.

An important teaching in Vajrayana Buddhism is the idea of bardo, or intermediate state.  Traditionally it is the time between death and rebirth, but it also refers to any time of transition.  Most of us find ourselves in the midst of transitions on a regular basis.  We are “in the bardo” when we are at the end of one thing and before the beginning of the next.

Endings are a time when we are in such a “between” time.  Such endings may be large and life-changing:  the beginning of a relationship, the death of a loved one, or the end of one’s career and the beginning of retirement.  Or, they could be smaller transitions:  leaving the house in the morning to go to work, finishing a remodeling project at home, or finishing up one’s tax return.  They could be much, much smaller, too:  the passing away of one moment and the gap before the next moment takes birth which we might notice in our meditation practice.

All of these gaps in our usual sense of the flow of experience are kinds of bardo moments.  In Buddhist teachings, bardo times are regarded as great opportunities.  Especially in major transitions, we have a chance to glimpse things in a new and fresh way. 

Recently, my little dog, Sunny, passed away after the sudden onset of a rare immune disorder.  It was a painful and distressing time.  I felt bereft and sad.  I noticed that at the same time that I was mourning the loss of my small friend, I also became aware of details in my experience that I hadn’t noticed before:  the way the sun reflected off of the glass in the kitchen door in the morning, the small noises the house makes at night (which I had previously been attributing to Sunny’s restless sleep), the bright sky when I went for a walk by myself without her.

Karen Kissel Wegela
Source: Karen Kissel Wegela

In the bardo we have the chance simply to be with our experience free from our usual habitual patterns.  In the moments when I didn’t prepare Sunny’s meals, when I didn’t take her for a walk, when I didn’t think about taking care of her, I had the opportunity to directly experience whatever was happening.  Her passing had opened up some space.  Yes, it was often filled with sadness and broken-heartedness, but it was also tender and open.

Instead of being open and present in these bardo experiences, though, we often have ways of skipping over or getting stuck in transition.  If you think of a time when you experienced an ending, you might see one way in which you have dealt with the bardo.  Many of us, for example, simply ignore the open space of the bardo caught up in a new project or a new relationship immediately.  Or, we get busy with all kinds of things.  Or, on the other hand, we refuse to let go of what has already ended.   We hang on to a relationship that has long ago “died,” and try to find ways to keep it going when, really, we know it’s over.

I often work with clients around this idea of transition, gap, or bardo.  In fact, it is a big reason people come into therapy:  they are in transition.  They have lost a relationship or begun a new one;  they have started a graduate program;  they have retired from a long career and no longer know who they are or what matters to them.

A common experience in the bardo is to feel intense ambivalence.  We might feel drawn in two directions and doesn’t know how to choose.  One client tried to decide between staying in an marriage and leaving it.  There were good things and bad things about both options.  She swung painfully back and forth.  The more she went back and forth, the more her thoughts sped up and the more urgent it all seemed.

There are bardo teachings which offer some useful advice.  In the case of ambivalence, the suggestion is to “practice in not taking sides.”  That is, be with the experience of not knowing and whatever other emotions arise.  Then, perhaps, something will become clear.  Prematurely choosing one side over the other just to get out of the discomfort of not knowing the right thing to do rarely leads to a good outcome. 

The next instruction is “recognize and relax.”  That is, recognize your experience and rest in it.  For my client, she practiced noticing what she was wanting in any one moment.  She learned to recognize the experiences of fear and anger that she had been avoiding feeling.  To her surprise, she also discovered tender feelings toward her husband and found a way to talk with him that led to their finding a path forward in the marriage. 

When we are willing to just be in the bardo, we may tap into our natural wisdom, our brilliant sanity.  Our clarity and creativity have a chance to come into play.  We may, like my client, surprise ourselves with discovering a next step for going forward.

About the Author

Karen Kissel Wegela, Ph.D.

Karen Kissel Wegela, Ph.D., is a professor at Naropa University and the author of The Courage to Be Present.

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