The lull after the rain
Reflecting on the bardo after being sick
I'm David Gasca and this is Mystical Silicon, a weekly newsletter on mindfulness, how to make the world more full of life.
I’ve been in and out of being sick for the past month but it wasn’t until this weekend I was truly swept off my feet: on my bed, in and out of sleep, unable to really do anything productive, at the mercy and grace of my wife who had to take care for me (and the kids) while I just wallowed between bouts of unconsciousness with small pockets of energy interspersed.
A messed up digestive system can truly reduce a human to complete lethargy. At times this weekend I felt like a giant sack of water - just a bunch of cells held together.
It’s during moments like these that I realize just how little of my grasping actually matters. The world moves without me. Even though I am unable to do anything, the world keeps going. I can’t move but the trees and birds don’t care. The wind and the skies are still there. My kids, family, friends still operate. Everything still works. Not even my own body truly stops: my lungs keep breathing, my body keeps processing energy, my ears don’t wait for my mind to catch up. My rational mind and consciousness are gone but they are just a secondary process – other parts of my brain and body truly run the show.
Ayurveda says digestive energy is one of the main determinants of your wellbeing - if it’s out of balance, everything is out of balance. Oh what truth! If my digestion is off kilter I can’t focus on anything. My belly completely and utterly hijacks my brain. How funny to think I’m in control…
When I go hiking with my kids they often ask for stories while we walk. I like to tell them made up tales based on what they ask for (“make it about vampires! make it spooky!”) but I also try to interject parental propaganda as well: spoiled kids get comeuppance; tantrums don’t end well; brothers need to be nice to each other…
My latest hike-story was about a gardener that was converted into a vampire after he poked his head into an abandoned mansion that was one of his clients. The gardener then had adventures as a vampire, learning how to live the vampire life…
One of the chapters of this hike-tale involved a grim reaper (another kid-request). I of course introduced some buddhism: It turns out that in this fictional world of vampires, grim reapers are toys the vampires keep to remind them about death. The vampires, I told the kids, didn’t fear death. They actually welcomed it since it made them more grateful and increased their enjoyment of life. Vampires always carried around grim reaper toys in their pockets and would even have it as a stuffed animal when they went to sleep. The gardener thought this was odd at first but eventually had various adventures with his grim reaper and ultimately found his life to be much richer…
The kids loved this story - they thought the concept of someone wanting to be reminded of death was hilarious.
I find Tibetan Buddhist writing to be different from other genres in that it’s much more explicit about death. The writing does not sugar coat it. In fact, it’s front and center.
There is a quote from Montaigne quoted in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that has stuck with me for decades:
There is no place on earth where death cannot find us — even if we constantly twist our heads about in all directions as in a dubious and suspect land… If there were any way of sheltering from death’s blows — I am not the man to recoil from it… But it is madness to think that you can succeed…
Men come and they go and they trot and they dance, and never a word about death. All well and good. Yet when death does come — to them, their wives, their children, their friends — catching them unawares and unprepared, then what storms of passion overwhelm them, what cries, what fury, what despair!…
To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to the common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death… We do not know where death waits us: so let us await for it anywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”
When I first read this quote I remember finding this radically provocative… “Embracing the idea of death?? Who would do such a thing…”
When my one of my kids was young he once got very mad at me for saying the “d” word.
“The D word?” I asked confused. We’d recently learned a number of other lettered-curse words in the house…
“Yes… the ‘d’ word…. ‘Death’ ” he whispered…
“Oh, that’s not a bad word, I said. It’s just a natural part of life.”
If he’d known other curse words, he might have used them in surprise. The look of bewilderment on his face…
Being sick reminds me of “bardos.” As I wrote about in “On Mushrooms, Bardos and Impermanence”:
“[Bardo] is a Tibetan phrase that’s often confused with “afterlife” but in reality it refers to cycles of being. Here is Sogyal Rinpoche describing it in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:
“It is true that "bardo" is used in everyday speech among Tibetans for the intermediate state between death and rebirth, but it has a much wider and deeper meaning. […]
We can divide the whole of our existence into four realities: life, dying and death, after-death, and rebirth. These are the Four Bardos:
the "natural" bardo of this life
the "painful" bardo of dying
the "luminous" bardo of dharmata
the "karmic" bardo of becoming
What distinguishes and defines each of the bardos is that they are all gaps or periods in which the possibility of awakening is particularly present. Opportunities for liberation are occurring continuously and uninterruptedly throughout life and death, and the bardo teachings are the key or tool that enables us to discover and recognize them, and to make the fullest possible use of them. […]
Because life is nothing but a perpetual fluctuation of birth, death, and transition, so bardo experiences are happening to us all the time and are a basic part of our psychological makeup. Normally, however, we are oblivious to the bardos and their gaps, as our mind passes from one so-called "solid" situation to the next, habitually ignoring the transitions that are always occurring. In fact, as the teachings can help us to understand, every moment of our experience is a bardo, as each thought and each emotion arises out of, and dies back into, the essence of mind. It is in moments of strong change and transition especially, the teachings make us aware, that the true sky-like, primordial nature of our mind will have a chance to manifest.
Sickness presents powerful bardos. While you are sick, and when you come out of being sick, you have strong opportunities to learn and change. Life is disrupted and presents a window of reflection. The "painful" bardo of dying. The "karmic" bardo of becoming…
A lull after the rain. A moment of blue sky amidst the clouds.
The Buddha said:
This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds.
To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance.
A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky,
Rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.
This is all impermanent.
All bardos a reminder.
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Wow. What an amazing post! Thank you for sharing such profound and provocative discoveries. I am deeply grateful that you are feeling well enough now to share such incredible insights. Take good care of yourself.