The notion of bardo — the in-between state — from The Tibetan Book of the Dead is very helpful for anyone dealing with the end of a relationship.
I was just eighteen and in my first year of college. I had been going out with Sam for about four months, and it was the first important relationship I’d been in. I was already fantasizing our future life together.
One evening he sat me down and said, “Karen, I think we should stop seeing each other.” Everything seemed to stop. I felt shocked and uncertain. I could hardly formulate a response to what he had said.
For the first few seconds, nothing at all seemed to come. I felt disoriented; I don’t think I felt much of my body. Then I felt a wave of heat come to my face. I began to shake. Then I felt a swirl of emotions: fear, sadness, anger, self-doubt, jealousy.
A part of all relationships is facing their impermanence, their endings.
A stream of thoughts rushed through my mind: Was he going to go back to his former girlfriend? What was the matter with me? Had I done something wrong? What would I do now? How would I tell my friends? What about that great time we had two weeks ago? What a jerk he was anyway!
I was lost in thoughts about the past and future, doubts about myself, and judgments of him. I barely saw Sam sitting right in front of me. I mumbled something and dashed out of the room.
Like many of us, I believed that a good relationship was one that lasted forever. “Happily EVER after.” The truth is that all relationships change, and all of them end. Unless we die together, one of us leaves first. These days, even more commonly, one or the other of us will decide that the relationship has reached an ending. This is true of all kinds of relationships: friendships, marriages, business colleagues, teachers and students.
I have just returned from a week-long program of meditation and study held during spring break for the third-year students in the Contemplative Psychotherapy program at The Naropa Institute. Since it was held just seven weeks before they graduate, the focus of this Maitri program was on endings, and we studied portions of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
“Bardo” refers to an in-between state. It is most often used in the Buddhist tradition to refer to the time between death and rebirth.
In the evenings we had talks and discussions about the text and engaged in some experiential exercises based on our study. The textures and patterns of endings became vivid and poignant. Sometimes people found themselves crying, feeling as though they might never stop.
Other times people were furiously angry.
Some people felt numb; some felt anxious. Some spent their time thinking about what they would do after graduation; still others refused to consider it at all. At the same time, all of these responses would fall apart again and again, and many would find themselves feeling shaky, uncertain, and tender.
A part of all relationships is facing their impermanence, their endings. In psychotherapy we use the unbeautiful word “termination” to refer to the time preceding and the actual ending of therapeutic relationships. The notion of bardo presented in the text known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead is very helpful to students about to graduate, therapists working with clients on termination, and anyone for whom a relationship is ending or has ended.
“Bardo” refers to an in-between state. It is most often used in the Buddhist tradition to refer to the time between death and rebirth. The bardo experience is generally regarded as a time of great opportunity. There is a sense of heightened intensity as well as a feeling of great uncertainty and groundlessness. Because we cannot rely on our usual reference points and habitual patterns, the possibility that we might wake up and recognize the nature of mind is enhanced.
In the “Bardo of the Moment Before Death” and in the “Bardo of Dharmata,” according to the text, we are presented again and again with our own nature, yet we generally fail to recognize it because we tend to rely on our habitual styles of perception and projection. In the Book of the Dead, these projections appear as peaceful and wrathful deities. Rather than see that these are just the projections of our own nature, we see them as external beings who might help or harm us.
Finally, if we do not recognize our true nature, despite many chances to do so, we find ourselves wandering in the “Bardo of Becoming,” trying to either re-enter our old body or find a new one. Driven by the momentum of karma—the speed of habitual mind—we find ourselves once again having to face birth, old age, sickness and death.
Regardless of whether one believes the accuracy of the text’s description of the after-death experience, it provides a powerful metaphor of how we usually approach transitions. Often, the first time we let ourselves recognize that an ending is really coming, we feel the kind of disorientation I felt when Sam told me we should stop seeing each other. Our ordinary reference points fail us; we lose track of who and what we are; we don’t know what we can count on.
This can be extremely helpful, if we are willing to tolerate it. It gives us a chance to see things just as they are. All of those reference points—“I’m Sam’s girl,” “I’m a student at Naropa,” “I work as a therapist”—are impermanent. They hold no real solidity, and in moments when we feel the shock of impermanence, we glimpse the nonsolidity of these relative reference points. As in the Book of the Dead, we might have a glimpse of our buddhanature, our basic goodness, our brilliant sanity—our unconditioned true nature.
There is no problem, in itself, with doing something new, but often we jump blindly into the next situation without taking the time to notice our experience of the ending of the last one.
However, we don’t usually manage to stay that open. We are more likely, as I did, to fall into obsessive thinking or despair. We tend to speed up and lose track of where we are. We try to hang on, or we try to reject the relationship first, or we try to avoid the whole thing.
Often we become caught in ambivalence: we want to do two conflicting things at the same time. We want to know the right thing to do and we torture ourselves with our options. “Should I move to Oregon and look for a job or should I stay put and see what happens?” “Should I call him up and try to talk or should I wait and see what he does?” Or we drive ourselves nuts going over what happened, seeing if we can find an answer: “Is it his fault or my fault?” “Did I really understand what was taught or did I fool everyone?”
This ambivalence is accompanied by a sense of building urgency and momentum. Sometimes it will build to a crescendo and then “pop,” and we find ourselves once again on the spot in the present moment. This is another opportunity to wake up. Usually, however, we just start the whole thing up again.
The Book of the Dead offers a good suggestion for us. It tells us to “recognize and relax.” In other words, we can try to come into the present moment and be with whatever is happening. We can hold both options and not have to choose until we have some clarity. We can befriend not knowing. We can recognize that all of the fantasies that we run are just the projections of our mind; they have no reality separate from us.
Furthermore, with respect to the Bardo of Becoming, we can recognize that we are trying to find a “new birth.” One of the most difficult parts of working with transitions is the pressure we feel to replace the old “body” with a new one. We search for confirmation of ourselves by finding a new relationship, a new community, a new job. Obviously, there is no problem, in itself, with doing something new, but often we jump blindly into the next situation without taking the time to notice our experience of the ending of the last one.
Finally, the most important thing is to bring mindfulness and awareness to what is happening as the ending approaches and passes. Often we will try to apply old habitual patterns, but if we are curious about this, we might not get so caught up in them. We can notice the speed of mind that might arise. We can allow ourselves to feel all of the feelings that come—anxiety, selfdoubt, relief, guilt, sadness, whatever it is. Ironically, if we let ourselves experience what is really happening, we might be surprised to discover openness and vulnerability that makes us more available to others.