“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.