June 18, 2020

The Buddhist View that can help us Cope with Grief & Uncertainty.


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“It’s like we’re in purgatory,” I said to my therapist a few weeks ago during a virtual session.

Life felt surreal, and I kept experiencing jarring waves of this feeling—was I really sitting in my basement office doing therapy via a computer screen during a global pandemic, while my kids were upstairs finishing out second and fifth grade via Zoom meetings on their laptops?

After my appointment, I Googled “purgatory.” The word seemed too sticky with religiosity; it’s sometimes described as a waiting room for heaven or hell—bringing to mind a bland, beige-walled room stocked with only AARP magazines. Other times, it’s described as a place of suffering and/or purification.

As a worshipper of words, I’ve been craving a lexicon to capture this era of uncertainty we’re in. Something to tuck amongst the other once-foreign words that have crept into our vocabularies, like herd immunity and endemic. To place next to words we thought we understood that have taken on terrible new meanings, like droplets—once a tear-shaped glimmer of rain, now an invisible, deadly enemy.

We’ve been in this strange in-between place for a few months now. Humans are creatures of habit, but we’re also adaptable.

In many ways, my immediate family has been wildly privileged—we’ve so far been healthy, we’re financially stable, and we have plenty of space in our home and yard to spread out. So I keep thinking I should be more used to this “new normal” by now, even as any form of “safe” childcare seems unlikely for the foreseeable future, and even as I wonder when I’ll be able to see my mom—who’s stuck in California due to the pandemic—again, or enjoy a leisurely afternoon at home without fielding any requests for snacks.

I’ve been thinking about the space between two worlds, because that’s precisely where we are right now.

Like many, I’ve been in a similar place before.

Twenty-one years ago, when I was 24, I answered the phone call that changed my life, forever: my little brother, my only sibling, was dead of an apparent heroin overdose.

I flew out of my own body at that moment. My brain emitted a thick cloud of shock to buffer the reality of what I was trying to comprehend. My body rebelled, and I gagged. I said, “no, no, no,” like a mantra, my voice sounding like a bad TV movie of the week actor. I called friends, until one of them offered to come and pick me up. Then, I sat on the concrete stoop outside my home and I waited.

Even in those first raw moments, my mind darting and frantic, I realized a deep truth: from now on, my life would be forever divided into before and after. To one side sat the old version of me, the one who was a sister to a living brother, the one whose family hadn’t suffered this tragedy.

On the other side was the person I’d become, the after version. Not this raw, shocky version with a ticker tape pushing the same words over and over through my mind—”Your brother is dead, your brother is dead”—that I was now experiencing. But a version of me that had metabolized my loss. A version who had healed a smidge, who’d had enough time to absorb the ticker tape’s message that it no longer played on repeat.

These two versions of myself, these two planets, existed only in my mind in that moment. But I could visualize the way I swung between them, dizzy and weightless. At the time, I belonged to neither world. It had only been minutes since I’d been launched from before, yet already, I could barely graze its shore. And I was nowhere near after.

I’d hover there, in that space between two realities for months to come.

Tibetan Buddhists have a word for this in-between space: bardo. It’s most often used to describe the gap between life and death, but in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche describes six different bardos. Three happen during and after our physical deaths, while the other three occur during this lifetime, including the bardos of sleep and meditation.

Bardo is an otherworldly place, a land that shudders with uncertainty. Time flows differently here, the days elongating while the weeks seem to pass at a dizzying velocity. In the bardo, I experienced when my brother died, I slipped in and out of the stunning reality that he was gone. I’d have brief pockets of respite when I felt almost okay, and then the force of his gaping goneness would hit me again.

Early in this bardo, flooded with cortisol, I couldn’t sleep, could barely press food to my lips. Bardo is a time, like giving birth or dying, in which we are closer to our animal selves. In bardo, my old coping mechanisms no longer worked—food, fantasy, booze, boys. In this wilderness, this labyrinth, this chasm, there was no escape hatch.

Of course, we all swing between worlds all the time. Those syrupy moments in bed when we wobble between sleep and waking, our dreams intersecting with waking life. The grief we experience when we lose a loved one, a job, or a relationship. Perimenopause, the murky, inflamed space between fertility and its absence. This time between birth and death that we’re all traversing.

I’m fortunate enough to be comfortable right now.

But we’re still swinging between worlds.

So how do we cope during bardo?

My understanding is that Tibetan Buddhists harness the bardos as a practice for dying. It’s sidling up to the free-fall. It’s loosening our grip on what we thought to be certain—on the world or our own bodies—as we once knew them. It’s allowing our realities to change form, to be open to revision.

Sometimes, it’s sitting in sweet moments of relief, of rest. Today, we might be able to focus, to eat our vegetables, to create and follow a color-coded schedule. But tomorrow, the terrain might shift again—the way landscapes sometimes morph during the bardo of dreams—you’re on a school bus, now you’re in quicksand!

Tomorrow, we might need to trudge, shedding whatever we can no longer carry, whether that’s homeschooling assignments, housework, or the identities we once clung to without even knowing it.

Just like in meditation, we’ll have moments of darting thoughts, full of the panic of our own minds. But if we keep practicing, we’ll also have soft moments of shrugging out of our individual selves, and slipping into the sweet dissolve of belonging.

None of us know what the next version of the world will be, but we know there will be face masks. Cheekbones might become an erogenous zone, while handshaking and SATs, and perhaps even racism, become relics of the past.

Later, we may knit meaning from our time in the bardo. We can glance back on what we learned. Right now, we are still too close. Still traipsing across the dizzying space between two worlds. It’s sacred and treacherous. It’s often un-pretty here, though there are moments of fierce beauty.

We don’t know how long the hike will be, or if we’ll need to sprout wings, build a bridge, or dive to the bottom of the ocean. The journey will likely take much longer than we’d like it to: just like most grief, like most loss, like most becoming. The good news is we are all together in this, though none of us really know the way.

“This is really hard,” I’ve been telling myself when I feel scared or overwhelmed, when the relentlessness of uncertainty becomes too thick, when this introvert is fed up with a house full of people who never, ever leave.

Maybe, what I need to say to myself instead, is, “Welcome back to the practice of letting go of everything you thought you knew. Welcome to the Bardo.”


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