When I was working on the first draft of my novel, one of the themes I stumbled upon was liminality.
Liminal space is an area of transition. For instance, puberty is a liminal state, with a person transitioning from childhood into adulthood. Liminality is often represented in folklore through streams and rivers, sunrises and sunsets. Liminal states play a significant role in paranormal phenomena including UFO and Bigfoot sightings, as well.
In Buddhism, a significant area of liminality is the bardo, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that space the past few days.
Before I go any further, here’s a caveat: I’m a student of Buddhism, but in the early days of that education. If I misspeak, be gentle with me.
The bardo, according to Buddhism, is the liminal state between death and rebirth. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a major text of Tibetan Buddhism, was known originally as Bardo Thodol. Like all things spiritual, there are significant metaphorical components to the bardo, and that’s really where my thoughts have drifted lately.
Over the past several weeks, American society has entered a bardo-like state, joining much of the world. We are collectively in a liminal space between pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19. For many of us, our homes now double as a bardo space, a cocoon from which we will emerge as different beings than we were a month or so ago. We will live in a world markedly different from the one we knew before.
Last night I finished re-reading George Saunders’ incredible first novel, Lincoln In the Bardo. The story is told largely from the perspective of deceased individuals who have yet to accept their deaths, even decades after dying. This lack of acceptance holds them in the bardo space, unable to transition to the unknown next world.
We’re seeing similar situations play out now, particularly in the United States.
Fear-based movements aiming to hold on to how things were before the pandemic are popping up in various states. These movements are draped in the slogans of liberty and freedom, but really, they are campaigns built on resistance to inevitable change. As such, they are pronouncements of deep suffering.
It’s very easy to get frustrated with these movements and look down our noses at them. (I know I certainly have.) It also gets messy, confusing, and ugly when politics enter the equation. Compounding the urge to respond with anger and frustration is the reality that protests not done with social distancing, face masks, etc … spreads coronavirus further into our communities. In turn, this deepens everyone’s suffering and lengthens our time in the bardo.
Despite this, I feel the situation calls for compassion and empathy. We’re all afraid. No one knows what waits for us on the other side of this global bardo. Whether one accepts it or not, nothing will ever be the same.
We should approach this from a place of acknowledging our common humanity, even with those whose politics are diametrically opposed to our own. We need to be mindful of our own fears and how we are often unsuccessful in addressing them appropriately. This is not something unique to people we disagree with. And consider the degree of self-compassion we’re giving ourselves. We can’t meet others where they need us if we’re not caring for ourselves, after all.
When the time comes to transition from this collective bardo into the new world, there will no doubt be some folks left behind, unable to accept the change. Something we should be asking ourselves now is whether we want to move beyond this space, knowing we didn’t do everything we could to help the souls in here with us.