The word “Bardo” is commonly used to denote the intermediate state between death and rebirth, but in reality bardos are occurring continuously throughout both life and death, and are junctures when the possibility of liberation, or enlightenment, is heightened.
If we really examine every aspect of our life, as I have shown, we will discover how we go through, again and again, in sleep and dream, in thoughts and emotions, that same process of the bardos. And the teachings reveal to us that it is precisely this fact—that we go through the process of the bardos again and again, in both life and death, and at all different levels of consciousness—that gives us innumerable opportunities, now and also in death, for liberation. The teachings show us that it is the character, form, and uniqueness of the process that offer us either the chance for liberation or the potential for continuing in confusion. For every aspect of the whole process hands us at the same time the chance for liberation, or the chance for confusion.
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche, 1993
When I was in my late teens I encountered the idea that the psychological state of an individual at the moment of death can positively or negatively affect the quality of their eventual reincarnation. Coming from a strict fundamentalist Christian upbringing just the proposition of rebirth was borderline sci-fi—and the notion that the judgment wasn’t a cryptic papyrus laboriously scratched with marks of moral failure; well, that was the stuff of potential revelation. What then, I wondered, would be my response when the fateful day finally arrived? Would I be one of those saintly Grandpa’s who delivers a poignant dialogue to my enraptured family on the true value of life, family, and love before raising my hand towards an invisible familial apparition at the foot of my hospital bed and promptly expiring? Or would I recoil in fear? Would I cry out in terror and denounce the inevitable misery of life’s ultimate conclusion?
Being young, I thought about this problem for a few quick moments before concluding that I would, of course, die free from fear with dignity and hope not only for a wonderful rebirth, but perhaps even ultimate enlightenment. Confident in this conclusion I was free to ponder other equally important college freshman questions, such as, what should I get for dinner and do we have beer?
But the question continued to haunt me. I graduated, got married, became an adult, and still it lingered. Every now and then in a quiet moment not occupied by work, the last season of True Detective, or A Song of Ice and Fire novel, I would think to myself, “Will my deathbed smell of fear?”
In these moments I frantically searched my disheveled library for a neglected religious tome I was sure I still owned, and upon its discovery in a decaying cardboard box would refresh myself in the soothing belief that freedom from fear was possible. All you needed was proper knowledge—to know that death is not the end, to know that reincarnation is what happens to the soul (the residual energy that is “us” and cannot be created or destroyed thanks to the law of the conservation of energy), and to know that this belief mentally prepares you for the moment of crisis.
But life/consciousness is an amusing paradigm with the unsettling potential to refute our most deeply held perceptions in a tremor of unexpected associations. And so it happened that on a warm summer Sunday afternoon, after a three hour Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training session, I lay down on the couch and lazily dozed, content in the mild muscle aches that behoove intense training.
That morning we had extensively drilled a Judo throw called O-Goshi, commonly referred to as the “greater hip throw,” in which the opponent is leveraged over your hips and flipped head over feet. It is an obvious observation that the landing of such a move is potentially dangerous if both partners are not aware of certain technical factors; first, a rigid body is more susceptible to injury than a relaxed body, so it is important to exhale when being thrown; second, concussing the ground with the back of the head, the shoulder, the hand, or the elbow can result in serious injury, so it is important to keep the chin tucked and to slap the mat with the palm of the hand at the moment of impact. These things are easily learned, but when you see your feet back dropped against the ceiling tiles with a perilous sense of motion filling your ears, things suddenly become more complicated.
Break falling, therefore, is a skill of the mind—a belief that defies instinct. You must accept the fall, for in calm acceptance the body rejects rigidity. The force of the impact can then move around you like a young sapling bending in a strong wind.
Consequently, in the mentally free space between wakefulness and dreams, I remembered being thrown. I felt the coarse cotton of my opponent’s Gi collar in the palm of my hand. I pulsed my grip between hard and soft, hard and soft. I smelled the sour aroma of sweat. I felt my expanding diaphragm pull cool air through my nostrils. And as my feet were lifted from the earth in an endless expanse of time, I thought of death. I thought of its finality. I thought of leaving the things I love; of never again encountering my fears and dreams; of being dragged into the unknown by a riptide pulling and pulling and pulling. The ground approaching. The concussion inevitable.
I woke with an audible gasp. My rapidly beating heart throbbed in my neck. The natural base beat of elevated blood pressure boomed in my ears. I exhaled with an exasperated and soon to be self-reflective, “huh…”