A Wake Up Call (featured in Lion’s Roar)

by | Death and Dying

Full article is published in Lion’s Roar.

Andrew Holecek on bardo, one of the Six Dharmas of Naropa’s two practices for helping us find our way, when the time comes, through the death experience. It can help us in life, too.

Of the six Dharmas of Naropa, two are for the daytime (tummo/chandali and illusory form, or gyulu), two are for the night (milam, or dream dharma and osel, luminosity yoga), and two are for death and beyond (bardo yoga and phowa). Phowa and bardo yoga are supplemental practices. If you accomplish the four root dharmas of the day and night, you don’t need the death yogas. Phowa and bardo are insurance dharma. And I’m an insurance salesman. It’s good to have this protection policy, because things don’t always go as planned at the end of life.

Bardo yoga is more contemplation than meditation. Contemplating death is a cold plunge for your psyche, a wake-up call. The purpose is to become familiar with the stages of the bardos during life, so you’ll recognize them in death. The practitioner engages in contemplations and visualizations that transform the three death bardos (the painful bardo of dying, the luminous bardo of dharmata [Sanskrit; the true nature of phenomenal existence], and the karmic bardo of becoming) into the three kayas (or “three bodies of the Buddha”—the dharmakaya [body of absolute truth], the sambhoga­kaya [body of enjoyment], and the nirmanakaya [body of emanation]). Bardo yoga downloads a psychic GPS that helps you find your way through an otherwise bewildering death experience. You’re essentially installing pop-ups into your unconscious mind that will ping into your consciousness just when you need them the most.

Bardo yoga is designed both to wake you up to the fact that you’re in the bardo, and to help you attain lucidity, or awareness, in what the Tibetans call “the dream at the end of time.” The practice is allied to dream yoga in this regard. If you don’t wake up and take control in a dream, what does? Your unconscious habits. Similarly, if you don’t become lucid in the dream at the end of time, what controls your bardo experience? Your habits. Bardo yoga transforms an otherwise harrowing nonlucid death experience, where you’re battered around by the winds of karma, into a lucid joy ride. Instead of being tossed about by the gusts of habit, you put up the sails and glide gracefully into your next birth.

It’s not safe to die as long as you have an unconscious mind, because those forces of the dark side erupt to the surface and take over in the bardo. It’s just like when a dream flips into a nightmare. With bardo yoga, you “stuff the ballot box” during life, and reap the results by becoming lucid to what’s really happening as you die. You fill your unconscious mind with good habits that will then take good care of you when you die. The insurance policy is cashed in when you really need it.

Death is often personified as the Grim Reaper. He carries a scythe designed to reap, which means “to cut” as well as “to harvest.” Likewise, bardo yoga shreds all our misconceptions around death, born from ignorance and lack of familiarity, and therefore removes all fear. Bardo yoga also serves to harvest our good karma cultivated during life, allowing us to take full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If you’re prepared, there are more opportunities for spiritual development in death than there are in life. The Grim transforms into a Grin. Because of the fluidity and the emptiness of the bardos, it’s much easier to move things forward. Imagine a huge tree stump on land. It takes a dozen strong men to budge it. Now place that stump in water, and one person can move it.

In Jamgön Kongtrul’s Treasury of Knowledge, Naropa is quoted as saying:

The consciousness in a dream is seven times clearer than during the daytime, and the bardo [consciousness] is seven times clearer than the dream [consciousness] and is easier to change. Since the consciousness is not supported, it is [also] difficult to stabilize your mindfulness and intention. But if you can maintain mindfulness [lucidity], traversing the path will be trouble-free, and you will be liberated by one session of meditation in the bardo.

But the promise of the bardos is in direct proportion to their peril. If you’re not prepared, the fluidity and groundlessness can lead to panic. That panic, which increases the further you go into the bardos (because the karmic winds pick up), eventually forces you to make bad choices due to your inability to withstand the tornadic onslaught of your own mind.