Bardo is a Tibetan Buddhist term. It refers to the space between birth and rebirth, a space marked by vulnerability, in that one does know for certain what is coming next. It can also be a time for growth. I often liken bardo to the period of time when lobsters molt their shells, and develop a new one. It is the way they grow. Lobsters shed their shell in about fifteen minutes. The emerging, larger shell is fragile, and takes six to eight weeks for it to harden into a protective exoskeleton.
Bardo is not confined to Tibetan Buddhists or to lobsters. Bardo is the state we find ourselves in when dealing with the paradoxes of death and life, vulnerability and growth, fear and opportunity. Several of my own bardo experiences stand out: when my oldest child went off to college, leaving me feeling bereft and wondering how I would continue; when I retired as an active bishop, and worried if my new ill-defined role would take shape and how I would learn to fill my time.
In those and several other chapters in my life, I was both excited and scared when I found myself in bardo situations. Each experience involved some pain, and in some cases a worry that I might die; and yet every one of them resulted in growth. All of them involved significant change.
Our egos fight change. Our egos don’t want to give up our protective shell and molt into a new way of living. Our egos don’t want bardo. I see this played out in so many ways throughout our culture. In an effort to preserve and protect their shells, millions of people are stockpiling weapons, and more states are giving people greater license to carry weapons in public – without a license. And any restrictions on guns are seen as a slippery slope into the vulnerable – and untenable, state of bardo. Science, which by my definition is the intention to discover more information – regardless of the consequences, has made it possible for people to molt their bodily shells from one gender to another, and yet more and more jurisdictions are refusing to allow that to happen. “You must remain with the gender shell you are born with,” is a growing refrain.
On the other end of the political spectrum, there is an increasing tendency to rely on reason as the sole source of engaging with the world. What we can know, what data we can gather, what problems we can solve, what breakthroughs we can achieve – become the ultimate benchmarks, and end up being an intellectual shell. Mystery, and not knowing, are to be avoided. Artificial Intelligence, which is expanding its extraordinary ability faster than we can keep track of it, is the antithesis of bardo. It seeks to know, organize, and discover most everything. Mystery and emotions can be identified, and explained, but AI can’t feel them. There are gaps in AI’s capacity, which expose the reality and mystery of bardo.
Bardo moments keep showing up, whether we want them or not, on both a personal and communal level. Resisting bardo, while understandable – at least for the ego, nevertheless keeps us locked in, renders us smaller than we actually are, and truncates our ability to see. The resistance undermines community, and reinforces polarization. Accepting bardo is a risk worth taking. It invites us to cast off our shells – and live into the vulnerability, the growth, and the vision of what is next. And opens up the possibility of stronger relationships with one another.