Fear of the unknown is a notorious aspect of the human psyche. This is something that many of us struggle with on a daily basis.
Change is often what scares us the most and just the thought of making a transition into a new circumstance can have us running for the nearest source of comfort and safety. This sense of scarcity, however, means resisting the natural flow of reality.
For some people, making the transition into different periods of life can signal danger and discontent. For others, each situation that requires adaptation offers a unique opportunity to grow and become liberated from the confines of a mundane mind.
For the most part, we are completely unaware that this choice even exists because the transition between our thoughts seem instantaneous and the spaces that occur between different situations are easy to ignore. But these gaps are constantly occurring, and if properly recognized, they always present an amazing opportunity for choice and transformation.
In early schools of Tibetan tradition, these spaces of transition are called bardos (literally meaning “intermediate state” or “transitional state”). For the prepared mind, the bardo symbolizes liberation.
The Origin of the Bardos
The Tibetan word bardo signifies a gap between the completion of one situation and the onset of another. Bar means “in between,” and do means “suspended” or “thrown.” This term fits well in context of how we can often feel thrown around from different situations and sometimes left dangling in between circumstance of uncertainty.
Metaphorically, this term describes moments when our usual way of life becomes suspended in lieu of transition. Such times are believed to yield fruitful possibility for growth.
The bardo teachings are extremely ancient and found in what are called the Dzogchen Tantras. This concept was popularized by the 'Tibetan Book of the Dead'. The original text (Bardo Thodol) was translated into English in 1927 by American Scholar Walter Evans-Wentz.
The name was coined in imitation of the famous ‘Egyptian Book of the Dead’ — an ancient text that was created to help decode and navigate the spirit world. The original name Bardo Thodol means “Great liberation through hearing in the bardo.”
In ancient Tibetan tradition, the bardo is often associated with the intermediate state between death and rebirth, when one's consciousness is no longer connected to a physical body.
But bardos also have a much wider and deeper meaning. In fact the Tibetans make it clear that there are a number of different bardos. We are actually living in one of the bardo realms at all times.
The Six Bardos
The six bardos map the process of consciousness and the nature of existence. This can be divided into four realities: life, dying and death, after-death, and rebirth. The six bardos represent the transition that takes place between and within each reality.
The most crucial of all the bardos is our waking existence; the bardo between birth and death. This is the “natural” bardo.
The moment we fall asleep to the moment we wake up in the morning is the “dream” bardo. Yoga of sleep is to practice unbroken awareness through day and night in order to prepare the mind for transition between other bardos.
In dream life all elements of thought process dissolve and we are present in what is called the dream body. This is where the clear light of the mind is experienced, but only recognized by the trained practitioner.
The third bardo is “meditation” and this bardo is only experienced by practitioners. When someone meditates consistently there is a shift in consciousness. The bardo is in between the person's state of heightened awareness during meditation and the cessation of this state while in normal waking activity.
Approaching the dying stages of life is referred to as the “painful” bardo or “trauma of death.” Here is when the consciousness begins the plunge into its own nature; a moment of transmutation where the inner respiration merges with external luminosity.
Luminosity fully commences after the final inner breath. This is where visions and auditory phenomena occur accompanied by a profound state of peace and expansion. This is believed to be the after-death experience; the bardo of becoming and possibility referred to as the “luminous” or “dharmata” bardo.
In this bardo, the consciousness begins to reunite with the sperm and the egg. The phase referred to as the “karmic” bardo takes place from the moment the body is created and continues until the connection with a new rebirth is complete.
The Potential and Nature of the Bardo
The true nature of the bardo is difficult to penetrate without some knowledge of the tradition that gave birth to it. This can only be understood through the unwritten oral instruction transmitted from master to disciple.
What happens after death is a mystery to most of us. But one thing that we can all relate to is the turbulent nature of reality and the ever changing dynamic of the human mind in relation to the experience of life.
What distinguishes and defines each of the bardos is that they are all gaps in which possibility is most present. Although our awakened state is the natural bardo of existence; within the process of life we are constantly faced with infinite choice and possibility.
Transition is constantly taking place. As our minds are perpetually shifting in and out of confusion and clarity, one common characteristic of the bardos is that they are periods of uncertainty–a feeling that we are all very familiar with.
For some this is a scary experience where uncertainty is a constant threat; a place of danger which can result in a less than desireable existence. For others, transition represents a unique opportunity to train the mind and prepare for growth.
The bardo teachings tell us that these are the moments when the mind is freer than usual. In times of continuous uncertainty there is a constant choice to be made. The space in which we recognize and seize these opportunities are contained within the ever occurring bardos of life.
How things unfold will ultimately depend on whether or not we are able to make the choice of freedom and personal growth as opposed to limitation and fear of change.