“What will you do in the bardo?” This question, posed in Tibetan meditation master Mingyur Rinpoche’s exquisite book, “In Love With the World,” is one I’ve turned to again and again over the past 4 months. In Tibetan Buddhism, “bardo” is a word used to describe the space between physical death and rebirth; it also points to the ‘gaps’ in daily life, the transitions between something that’s ended and what has not yet begun. The bardo is the interstitial, the in-between, the new territory we land in that’s not yet mapped, where our bearings are lost, and uncertainty is the currency of the realm. What will you do in the bardo? How will you respond?
I’ve been living into these questions since being diagnosed with breast cancer late last year. As with so many unwelcome experiences we have as humans, I did not see this one coming. A routine mammogram in early December, the discovery of a lump. A follow-up ultrasound, a needle biopsy, and 2 days before Christmas, confirmation of cancer. Surgery in mid-January to remove the tumor and biopsy lymph nodes to check for metastasis. There was none (deep outbreath). Pathology reports indicated no need for chemo–another seismic relief. Radiation treatment ended last week.
I’m very fortunate. We caught it early, Stage 1. My lab markers are good, the care I’ve received, excellent. I’m told conditions are great for a full recovery; expectations can be, as my truly wonderful surgeon put it, that I’ll “die from something else, not cancer.” Ok. Good news.
And still…Cancer is a fierce teacher. There may not be a single person reading this who has not lost a beloved family member or friend–or knows someone who has–to cancer. As with every serious diagnosis, or sudden loss, or major change, cancer creates a tear in the fabric of “normalcy”, a trap-door-drop straight into the bardo. Death is abruptly in the room, taking its undeniable seat at the table.
What will you do in the bardo?
The question really is: what will you do with your mind in the bardo? Your heart? I’ve been taking notes. Even in the midst of the past months of discomfort, fear, grief, not knowing, I’ve been curious about the experience–the moment-to-moment choices for responding that make up what we call the “cancer journey.” These questions are akin to the ones that motivated me to begin practicing mindfulness and have kept me at it over these many decades: When we can’t change what’s happening, how do we show up? What’s in our control when external circumstances are not?
One of my first thoughts after the ultrasound radiologist came into the room and said that the lump was “without a doubt” cancer, even as I could feel my body going into shock, was: “well, this is going to up my game.” From the start, not knowing how the experience would unfold, I was aware that it was possible to approach the whole messy path as an experiment, a kind of case study in bringing awareness to the unwanted. Don’t get me wrong–this wasn’t a way to shortcut emotions. I felt the fear of uncertainty, the grief that this could have happened, the concern for my husband, kids, mom and siblings. And yet, difficult as it was right out of the gates, I knew I could make choices each step of the way NOT to fall into habits of mind and heart that would make what was already hard worse. Regardless of the outcome, I could choose to be present, to the degree possible, and kind while navigating the bardo.
The science of stress psychology (and, in specific, Suzanne Kobasa’s research) has shown that when we can see the difficulties in our lives as a challenge, containing within them some opportunity to learn and grow, it’s not only protective against the most harmful effects of stress, but also promotes resilience and ‘stress hardiness.’ This doesn’t mean that when the unwanted appears at our door we ‘like’ what’s happening, or that it’s pleasant in any way, but rather that we can (and regularly do) do hard things and learn from them. In fact, we’re hard-wired for it–otherwise, evolutionarily, we never would have survived as a species. Within the difficulties that arise in any human life, there lie the possibilities that they will ‘grow us,’ teaching us what we need to know next on our path as an evolving, vibrant person.
What I did not think, as the news sunk in, was, “why me?” Even in the moments of suspended disbelief that accompany autonomic shock, I was aware that the question was actually, “why not me?” I’ve worked with, known, and dearly loved many women and men with cancer of all kinds, some of whom, tragically, have not survived it. There are those in my life who have experience with other seriously impactful and life-threatening conditions as well. I have seen myself in them, learned from them, studied beside them the course of the human mind/heart in relating to illness, loss, dying.
Thanks to these courageous teachers, the lesson has again and again been brought home to me that, as Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote in his beautiful book of (almost) the same title: “bad things happen to good people.” It was a relief not to waste energy arguing that the new reality into which I had suddenly been thrown should be different than it was. Cancer is non-negotiably hard. But it can be harder or easier depending on how we relate to it, on what we do, and don’t do, in the bardo… I chose to focus on how not to add to the challenge of what was happening.
There are many, many opportunities with cancer to wait. There’s waiting for appointments–sometimes in the appropriately named “waiting room”, but certainly not limited to them. There’s waiting in the exam rooms, waiting for procedures, waiting for lab results and pathology reports, waiting on the radiation table, and waiting in the pre-op cubicle. At the hospital before surgery, the darling nurse tending to me kept checking in with updates as 1 hour of waiting became 2, then 2 and a half, then 3. At one point, coming in with news of another delay, she noted with some surprise, “You seem very calm!”
Mingyur Rinpoche’s book was beside me on the gurney. I had been staying with the inquiry: “what will I do in the bardo?” Of course, waiting is a bardo–one shore fading in the distance behind you, no solid ground yet ahead. In that no-man’s land, I discovered that I could be present, here, open to the sounds of light chatter at the nurses’ station, the beeps and whirring of machines, feeling the coolness of the air, and the texture of the blankets over me. I could stay with the sensations of breathing, softening in the body as tension or fear gripped, offering kindness to myself, to those waiting for surgeries in the cubicles near mine, and to all the skilled professionals caring for us. I could stay with wishing us all well. It was an experiment, this waiting for surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, praying for clean margins, and for no spread to the lymph nodes. I’d never done this before. How will it be in this bardo, now? Hearing the nurse’s comment, I chuckled, realizing that, actually, I was pretty calm. I responded: “It turns out, I’ve been preparing for this for a long time.”
Victor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of the timelessly important book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” wrote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Decades after I first read them, his words still astound me. Consider his assertion, written after his years in a concentration camp, after losing his family in the camps: in every difficult experience that arises in our lives, no matter how difficult, we can claim our inherent capacity to choose what happens next! For me, Frankl’s words land as both an inspiration and aspiration. Because, let’s be honest, how often does it actually feel like we have a choice? In the many mundane and critical moments in our lives, how often do we actually not choose, but rather get swept away by habit, conditioning, unexamined bias? Certainly for me, it’s all too frequent.
This is where seeing our lives as a practice is so helpful. We can practice, and pay attention, and be interested in noticing the ripple effects of our choices in order to deconstruct, bit by bit, the architecture of our suffering. It’s so easy to default into–”This is so awful!” or “What did I do wrong?” or “Whose fault is it?”, feeling helpless in the face of the unpredictability, impermanence, and sometimes cruelty of life on this planet. Yet, as a practice, we can build reliable scaffolding to support choices for leaning in the direction of greater ease, well-being, and freedom right within the challenges life serves up.
Cancer is hard, even with the most optimal outcomes of treatment. But it is not unique among events in life that are hard. And it is not only hard; of the many tears shed over these past months, many have been in response to both the random and the very intentional acts of generosity and kindness I have experienced, and to the depth of love I’ve felt for and received from others. I’ve heard myself saying about this journey with cancer: “It’s been hard, but not bad.” The bardo is a highly instructive place in which to linger, if not at all comfortable. As we bring interest to these gaps between the end of one phase of life and whatever will emerge next, no matter how terrifying, joyful or grief-laden, we might discover, to our surprise, that our capacity for resilience is much deeper, our courage much more profound, and the beauty of our own heart much more expansive than we’d ever dreamed.
Thank you Janet for putting words to your experience. It helps me to process my ovarian cancer experience. May you be healthy and well.
Dear Sue~ Lovely to hear from you. I’m happy knowing that these words resonated and felt of use. Sending the same wishes for health and well-being, on all levels, right to you! Love, Janet
Beautiful! Thank you for sharing
Sweet to hear your voice here, Robert! I hope you are well. ~ Janet
Janet – this is so potent! I just read several paragraphs to my family, before breakfast even! The piece about seeing our difficulties as opportunities to “grow ourselves” is so empowering and encouraging. Thank you for your beautiful and clear writing, for sharing your journey, and I am grateful for your recovery.
Rachel, thank you for your message–like receiving a warm hug and strong boost! I’m so glad that this landed in a useful way for you. I so appreciate you. xoxo~
So insightful and encouraging, dear one. Thank you for teaching us as you move through this journey. Love and healing to you! 💞🙏🏽
Thank you, dear Rhonda. I smile to read this, and to think of you. Much love~ Janet
Thank you for the shared wisdom of grounded practice to support a journey I wish you hadn’t had to take! ❤️
So glad to hear you are well, Peter and I are reading How You Live Is How You Die. The bardo is real!
Dear Liza~ So good to hear your voice here! Thank you for your good wishes, kind heart, and your own practice in the midst of it all! Appreciate your referral–just bought Pema’s book! Love to you and Peter.
Thank you, Janet. There is such clarity and transparency in your writing. And love.
For sure, much love to you, Katherine!! You and Linda are so close in my heart. xoxoxo
Sweetheart, we’re both moved to tears by your news and so heartened by the outcome. Sending our loving arms and very best wishes for continuing on your path of recovery, one day at a time. Much love, Kath and Jon
I’m very grateful for you two, Kath! And for all your love and care. Much love right back to you~
Janet, so sorry to hear your diagnosis but glad of the prognosis. And not surprised at how you’re taking this and using it as a learning opportunity for us all. Thank you. I’m sorry to say I’ve been remiss with keeping up my practices since class ended in Dec. But this has re-motivated me. I want to be stronger and more prepared for daily struggles, let alone if such a diagnosis were ever to happen to me. Thank you again.
Tracey, your courage moves me in turn! Thank you so much for reaching out–I appreciate you, your kind words, and your determination to keep leaning into the edges of greater freedom and ease. I’m cheering you on!
Dear Janet. You have certainly put into practice the “space” Victor Frankl writes of: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Your writing of your journey is an inspiration. Thank you.
Dear Rose~ It means so much to me to hear your voice here and feel your kind and loving support. Thank you for all your encouragement over the years to keep at this expressive art form–to keep writing! With much gratitude and love~ Janet
Janet – the depth and authenticity of your writing is very moving. You are the writer you hoped to become.
Aw, Sherrod. Thank you for being a friend and support over all these years. Love you!
Thank you for sharing. We can do hard things. I am so grateful for this practice-helping us to build our strength breath by breath, moment to moment in the quiet ‘normal’ mornings of life so we have something within us, deep within us, embodied within us when the hard things come knocking. I am grateful for your teachings.
I’m so grateful to walk this path in such good company, Sarah!! Hugs, and gratitude~
could not agree more— thank you for sharing with the world and walking the walk! xox AMY
Thank you, Amy, for shining such a bright light and leading the way… Love to you~
Oh my Janet! Deeply bowing to you right now! You have been and continue to be such an inspiration to me! These words from your heart are profoundly beautiful and quite helpful. Thank you for sharing your journey and continuing to inspire so many of us. Sending much love!
And much love right back to you, dear Jean! I so appreciate you reaching out here. Your kind and gorgeous heart always touch me deeply. I hope you are well! Big hugs~
Dear Janet! Your words go straight to my heart — I’m in the bardo now, newly diagnosed with a “stage 1B” melanoma on my scalp, waiting to meet with my surgeon on Tuesday, and then who knows? My time “on the cushion” keeps me from going off any of the possible deep ends, and rather, just staying present in this moment, VERY aware that I have been practicing for this — your words gift courage to me today, and tears of joy! 🙂
That’s it, Carol–anchoring ourselves again and again in the present moment is a wise and powerful practice!! Please know that I’m sending my love and prayers for all to go as well as is possible for you in the ‘adventures’ ahead. Courage! (Which you have in spades.) Sending love~
Janet, I appreciate your sharing this so much. Your words always comfort and inspire me. I’m so grateful that your prognosis is excellent and that your practice has continued to support you when you’ve needed it most. Sending much love your way and looking forward to sitting with you again soon.
Dear Lindsay–Thank you so much for reaching out here. I’m touched by your message, and by your care. It will be a joy to keep on practicing, exploring, and learning with you, as it’s possible. Lucky me–I get to sit in the best company!! 🙂 Love to you and your boys~
your insightful reflection on your Cancer journey is a powerful reminder to me of being present to liminal space. I think of it as swimming in jello, -Keeping head up, noticing thoughts and welcoming all – not always easy but your mindfulness training is a gift. Blessings on your recovery 🙏🏻
Dear Ginny~ What a treat to be in conversation with you again! Thank you for reaching out–and for your own reflections on ‘swimming’ in the liminal… Jello! Yes! Head up, heart open. What a lovely image to keep with me in the challenge. I so appreciate your good wishes. Sending love~
Thank you for sharing this experience in such a beautiful writing. I’m happy you are doing so well!
I appreciate hearing from you here, Kate–thank you. I hope you and Bill are well in all ways~ Janet
Janet, thank you for your moving story of fear and courage and curiosity. Plus wisdom. I had not previously considered the bardo as an interstitial space in daily life. Such a great relief to see my gaps that way.
And such a great relief to hear of your positive outcome. May your recovery be strong and swift.
Right blessings to you, Faye
Thank you, dear Faye. I take your words, and your blessings, right to heart. xoxo~ Janet
Dear Janet – thank you for the gift of your writing, which is inspiring to me, and poignant.
I have the image of you, waiting, on the gurney, for…what came next.
And, filling that space with well-wishes, lovingkindness to all the others waiting, and their caregivers…
Dear Carol~ Aren’t we so fortunate to have learned such reliable and trustworthy options for how to work with the mind/heart? And to have a community of friends to support each other in remembering we can make use of them? Sending love~ Janet
Thank you for sharing your incredible insight of the bardo.
I’m thankful for your humble approach and perspectives that have applications to help others with life-trials beyond cancer – which is why my friend and mentor of almost 30 years steered me here. As a hospice nurse, I will also carry your counsel forward to open up even more opportunities to serve patients and their loved ones/caregivers better. I will cherish this day and the blessing of your work here – not to mention how happy I am to know you kicked BC’s rear-end..
Hi Adam~ I appreciate your post, and bow to you for your important work as a hospice nurse. Or, as Ram Dass put it, “midwife to the dying.” It’s the powerful transition/bardo we’re all practicing for! And thank you for sharing in the happiness that there’s been some major rear-end kicking happening!! 😉 Wishing you well~ Janet
Janet, I felt a catch in my breath as I read your information and journey thus far. The question you pose to self, and for the rest of us to think about is so powerful. I am in the waiting process around uterine issues now. Meantime I fell And messed up my right hand. Pretty bad and headed for surgery this morning. I will now live in the expansion of your question. Blessings to you, Janet, and may your Wellness continue. Sent with love.
Dear Barbara~ I’m holding you in my heart as you tackle your own health bardos, characterized, as they so often are, by discomfort and not knowing. May you be well, content, safe and at ease in the midst of it all. Thank you for writing here, for your kindness, and your courage~ Janet
Dearest Janet, I found myself in a bit of shock reading your email. Wasnt expected and no mater what life throws, it usually never is. What a beautiful message. I am not surprised what beauty and grace you’re able to hold all of it with. I love that you mentioned you have been preparing for this. I will definitely be holding my practice as a preparation for all that’s ahead and utilizing your question of “what will I do in this bardo?” Thank you for sharing yourself so beautifully. I cherish you and all you have taught me. All my love sent💞
Dearest Claire~ It’s so lovely to hear your voice from the screen. Thank you for reaching out in this way–I feel and am grateful for your kindness, generosity and love. I’m grateful for you! Much love right back to you~ Janet
Thank you Janet, for this deep, tender and fierce teaching. What a journey!
I’m ever grateful for your giant heart, Elaine, your steady support, and warm companionship on the path. Love to you~ Janet