Beginning the End

Mom is now on hospice care. The unmistakable signs of stilted breathing and dulling awareness indicate she is slipping away. Of course, no one knows how long the process will take, but her energy is waning with regard to physical reality. She seems to have one hand reaching into the bardo of death (chikhai bardo) while the other grasps after the bardo of this life (kyenay bardo). The word bardo is loosely translated as ‘in between’ or transitional state. So mom is in between the ‘in betweens’. (Vajrayana Buddhist teachings refer to six bardos: birth, life, death, the time between death and rebirth, dreaming, and meditation.)

As people become aware of my mom’s situation, they sympathetically ask me how I am doing. I understand the kind motivation for such a question, but it is curious to me. I wonder why they do not ask how my mom is doing. Is she having any pain? Is she fearful? It seems we make death about us, the living. Perhaps this is because we cannot deal with death ourselves.

I walked the journey of dying with both my father and father-in-law. I was there at the end and experienced their last breaths with them. I was a hospice volunteer. But the reality of dying was made more visceral with my own brushes with that bardo—anesthesia gone awry during a surgery and pulmonary emboli following a surgery. Even those experiences pale in comparison to my spiritual practice.

In Vajrayana practice, we enter the bardo of meditation or lucid dreaming. We willingly enter a realm in which the sense of separate self does not appear to be. The ‘I’ does not appear to be. It is a little death (la petit mort). We repeat this experience until we dispel our fear of actually dying. Then we are able to be of benefit to others as they complete their life journey, and we face our own death with heightened awareness.

It is no wonder people shy away from entering true meditation. It requires developing equanimity with non-being. Ego has no job description here. When we experience this, we realize life is not about us. It is about developing unconditional love in a realm that fears death. It is about always beginning our perpetual ending.

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