“How we live is how we die. For me, this is the most fundamental message of the bardo teachings.”Tweet
– Pema Chödrön
Death, according to the Tibetan tradition, presents us with one of the biggest and most heroic challenges of our lives. The tradition teaches that after death, a person’s consciousness passes through a series of stages or bardos which offer the opportunity to awaken completely, to pass into a ‘heavenly’ Pure Land, or to embark on the journey to a new embodied life. In her new book, How We Live is How We Die, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön takes an in-depth look at this process and what it can teach us – not only about the process of our own death, but also about how we can live our lives more fully in the present moment. In this excerpt, she writes about the opportunity of groundlessness, about how, in those moments when we experience, for example, a heart-breaking loss, we can use the experience to shift us out of our comfort zones and really absorb the truth that ‘that there is nothing reliable to hold on to, and that our sense of a solid, stable reality is just an illusion.’
My most intense experience of groundlessness was quite minor compared to what is happening to so many these days. Nevertheless, it totally pulled the rug out from life as I knew it. It was many decades ago when my husband suddenly announced he was leaving me. One moment I was in a long-term marriage, the next moment I wasn’t. For some time, I completely lost my bearings and didn’t know who I was. I’ve told this story many times because in a way it was the turning point in my life that set me off toward a spiritual path. As much as I wanted things to go back to the way they used to be, I had an intuition that I’d been given a great gift.
As awful as I felt, I kept thinking to myself that this was actually the chance of a lifetime. Something just disappeared on me, leaving me in a fertile, tremendously meaningful place where anything could happen and I could go in any direction I wanted. It was almost like being twenty years old again, where you feel like you have all the world’s possibilities in front of you. Of course, I vacillated for a while between this feeling of limitless possibility and the overwhelming wish to return to the familiar. But in this case, there was no way things could ever go back. My only option was to go forward, with as much bravery as I could muster, into the unknown.
“Every time our bubble is burst, we have a chance to become more used to the nature of how things are. If we can see these as opportunities, we’ll be in a good position to face the end of our life and to be open to whatever may happen next.“
Abrupt and shocking transitions can upend our world, but no experience of groundlessness is as powerful and unsettling as the end of our own life. If we aim to meet our death calmly, then we can try to see the other upheavals in our life as “the chance of a lifetime.” Major dislocations and reversals expose the truth underlying all our experience—that there is nothing reliable to hold on to, and that our sense of a solid, stable reality is just an illusion. Every time our bubble is burst, we have a chance to become more used to the nature of how things are. If we can see these as opportunities, we’ll be in a good position to face the end of our life and to be open to whatever may happen next.
How we live is how we die. For me, this is the most fundamental message of the bardo teachings. How we deal with smaller changes now is a sign of how we’ll deal with bigger changes later. How we relate to things falling apart right now foreshadows how we’ll relate to things falling apart when we die.
But we don’t have to wait for enormous transitions to force us into reckoning with groundlessness. We can begin right away to notice the transitory nature of each day and each hour, reflecting on Anam Thubten’s words about how we continually go through endings and beginnings, endings and beginnings, one mini-lifetime after another.
“We don’t have to wait for enormous transitions to force us into reckoning with groundlessness. We can begin right away to notice the transitory nature of each day and each hour.”
At the same time, we can work with our general fear and anxiety about the fact that we’re not in control. Most of the time, we’d rather dwell in the illusion of control and certainty than recognize how life and death are always unpredictable. Actually, I’ve often asked myself, “Is it really a problem that we have so little control? Is it a problem that when we plan our day, it rarely turns out as we predicted? Is it a problem that plans altogether are written in water?” I had my whole year scheduled when Covid hit, and as happened to millions of others, all my plans were suddenly erased like words from a blackboard.
Over the years, people say little things to you that make a big impact. Once someone said to me, almost in passing: “Life has its own natural choreography.” I thought about that for a long time and started tapping into this natural choreography and experimenting with letting it do its thing. I found that most of the time, when I just leave it alone, what that choreography comes up with is much more inspired, creative, and interesting than anything my mind could come up with.
Trusting the natural choreography of life is another way of talking about trusting in reality. We can start to develop this trust by allowing ourselves to let go in small ways. For instance, when I teach, I like to experiment with allowing things just to unfold. Before I gave the talks that have gone into this book, I spent a good deal of time reading and thinking about the bardos and I jotted down various notes. But when I arrived at the retreat and the time came for me to speak in front of people, I left the notes behind and was curious if the words would even come out of my mouth. I’ve found that my teachings flow better if I just step into open space and leap.
From How We Live is How We Die by Pema Chödrön © 2022 by the Pema Chödrön Foundation. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.