Nourishing Our Roots,
Bending With The Wind
Welcome to my website. I’m in the process of updating everything, so thank you for your patience. This year I’m embarking on a new initiative which I’ll introduce gradually as I slowly edit the pages.
Dedicated To Creating A Culture Of Kindness
Love is bigger than Fear
In 2022 we are feeling the weight of isolation over the past two years. I’ve completed my year-long retreat in recovery from cancer treatment and the work on my new book is continuing. I’ve shifted my focus to the topic of fear. Fear comes in many forms and it’s critical right now that we know how to respond to this challenging emotion.
I’m working on a project that brings the buddhist teachings on the bardo to the crises we face in our everyday life. Stay tuned. Below are some excerpts from my work so far.
Note to friends and readers, I’m grateful to you for any feedback you would like to share. I will be adding material progressively. There are 21 steps through the bardo in this project, which is the basis both for my new book as well as a series of classes I will be offering online. Stay tuned and stay in touch. Thank you so much. With love….
Being in a bardo
The word bardo is a Buddhist term often used for the after-death experience. But it also describes the gap triggered by any unexpected crisis. The shock of illness, death, or any kind of loss can be the most brutal of interruptions. Your life’s timeline no longer makes sense. You feel vulnerable and alone. But we’re not truly alone. We’ve just dropped out of everyday life into a new dimension, a bardo-world that appears as if out of nowhere. For example, my elderly mother had a fall one night and ended up in long term care, never setting foot in her home again. Suddenly all her reference points were gone, the little things and routines that gave her life meaning. Another vivid example of a bardo is happening as I write this. Friends living in wild-fire zones are packing grab bags for an emergency evacuation. When life pulls the ground out from under your feet, how do you decide what to take and what to leave behind?
A bardo is an emotional free-fall. We’ve moved into a strange new neighbourhood, or we just lost our job. It’s the morning after a painful fight with our lover. It feels like a sink hole has opened with our past on one side and our future on the other. We are refugees from the life we thought we had. Like refugees, we need to know where to find support, shelter, and nourishment.
Nourishing The Roots, Bending With The Wind
A contemplative guide for meeting difficult times
with mindfulness, compassion, and courage.
This book was born when a friend on a zoom call turned to me and commented “there are so many different words we say but they all describe one thing we’re all dealing with: fear.” I thought about it. Words streamed through my mind: anxiety, trauma, concern, worry, panic, uncertainty, nervousness. In the past, I’d sometimes joked that my credentials as a contemplative psychotherapist came not so much from my graduate degree but from being an expert in fear. As a teenager I learned to ride the kind of horse that bucked me off regularly. My adult life was a similar bumpy ride. So fear is something I’m very familiar with. But then again, aren’t we all?
The 2020’s is unfolding as a decade driven by fear. It began with a global pandemic that forced us into isolation behind closed borders, lock-down restrictions, and masks. Even the most ordinary of exchanges, as with our grocery clerk, were blocked by plexiglass. Behind those barriers, we had our individual crises. Mine began in the summer of 2020 when I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, a rare, aggressive and hard to treat form of the disease. In the months that followed my personal experience sensitized me to the difficulties other people were going through behind their masks. That winter our family lost a loved one to the opioid epidemic. Friends had their homes destroyed by wildfires and floods. In the background hateful speech was spreading like a virus through our social and political conversations. As I write, the devastating war in Ukraine is raging.
It feels like we’re in a collective free-fall. Yes, there are many words for fear but they all point to a human emotion we can all relate to right now.
If we were left with fear alone we could never survive difficult times in our life. Thankfully, there’s another human experience that has the power to absorb, embrace and transform these challenges. This is the power of love. Love also goes by many names, such as kindness, generosity, gratitude, mercy, tenderness. When love in any of it’s forms comes together with fear the roots of our human nature are nourished. This is because we’re like trees in a forest. It may appear that we stand alone from the view above the ground but below the surface we’re interdependent, always in relationship. When those roots are nourished, we have an inner strength that enables us to reach beyond ourselves and help each other. We’re connected to a social supply chain that delivers ordinary acts of courage and resilience.
A path through fear
Having cancer during the pandemic lockdown brought home to me how challenging it can be to keep an open heart when you feel paralyzed by fear. Fear is a crisis of trust. If we lose trust in the power of love, it will trigger us to shut down, freeze our hearts and minds and build walls between us. This mis-guided path leads to the worst of human suffering.
In my life I’ve been fortunate to be guided by teachers from contemplative Christian, Zen, Shambhala and Tibetan Buddhist traditions who showed me how to work with fear. Their instructions were like shock absorbers for riding the energy of disruption rather than getting bucked off. I’ve worked with these teachings as a meditator, a therapist, and a Buddhist teacher for decades, but now, when my personal life fell apart with my cancer diagnosis, I had a chance to test them out for myself.
This book is about learning to meet fear with love, but it’s also about a transformative journey that begins when our life seems to flip upside down. We call this experience a bardo. This is a Tibetan term often associated with the period between death and re-birth. But in Contemplative Psychology we also apply this concept to any gap that disrupts our normal life. The duration of a bardo can be relatively brief, like a time-out during a fight with our partner, or lengthy, like a period of unemployment, cancer treatment, or a global pandemic. Regardless of how long it lasts, a bardo is a life changing encounter with fear that can either open our hearts or further shut us down. It all depends on knowing how to meet fear with love.
A mother-child reunion
In the Tibetan Buddhist teachings the meeting of fear and love is symbolized as the reunion of a compassionate mother with a lost and fearful child. The mother represents our true human nature and the lost child’s life-long journey is a step-by-step process of turning toward fear rather than pushing it away. This guide book is an attempt to map out this journey through our personal bardo so that we can unmask all the faces of fear and bring them into the embrace of lovingkindness, wisdom and compassion.
Using the image of a bardo journey is inspiring because we’re reminded that this transition period doesn’t last forever. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this book we will work through each of these stages with progressive instructions for meeting fear with love. It begins with a sudden shock and ends with a resolution of some kind. In the process, our old life will pass away, and we will be reborn into a new normal. These teachings give us some control over what that rebirth might looks like.
This book references teachings from the Buddhist tradition but there’s no expectation that you to follow any particular religious tradition. Anyone who is willing to turn inward, to listen to music or poetry and feel their heart is already attuned to these teachings. By creating a listening space we are meeting fear with love. Paying attention is the first gift a loving person offers someone in fear. In this book we create this space for ourselves with practices such as self-reflection and meditation. In your own times of change or hardship I hope these will help you engage in a process of healing and discovery.
This Guide Book
I invite you to join me in working through our bardo journey together, the one you are in now or the one that waits around the corner. The format of this book suggests you can use a journal or record a voice memo on your phone for self-reflection. Some people might prefer to meet and discuss each chapter with one or two friends. Others find it helpful to simply sit silently or go for a walk.
The topic of fear is triggering, I know. If at any point along the way you come to a dark place that’s too hard to navigate in this way, as I did from time to time in the past few years, I encourage you to reach out to a professional counsellor or spiritual guide for support. At the same time, I am confident that the information I’m passing along to you from my teachers can be helpful if you are seeking a contemplative approach during difficult times. These instructions meet the challenges of our personal bardo, allowing these times of fear to make us more compassionate and resilient. Like trees bending in a storm, when our roots go deep, we can move in the wind without breaking.
Steps through a Bardo Journey
Step One: Rude Awakening
The past situation has just occurred and the future situation has not yet manifested itself so there is a gap between the two. This is basically the bardo experience.
The three words ‘you have cancer’ stopped my mind. I didn’t hear anything after that. I was on my mobile phone, sitting on a park bench. My husband had wandered off alone and I saw his silhouette in the distance. A wave of sadness flooded my heart as I imagined a future without me at his side. In that first moment, the word cancer felt like a death sentence. My rational mind knew that this wasn’t necessarily true, so why did that word trigger such a shock? Nearly 50 years earlier I began practicing meditation in response to the sudden death of my younger brother in a car accident. Since then, I’ve contemplated the inevitability of death nearly every day. So why did this diagnosis pull the rug out from under me?
A Perfect Storm
Having cancer during the Covid lockdown was like a perfect storm. A silent killer was growing in my body and I was heading into unknown territory. Within days of my diagnosis, a team of medical experts swung into action, mapping eight months of treatment with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and another year to recover. All this in the science-fiction-like isolation of the pandemic. Because they were hidden by masks, I would never see the faces of my doctors, nor anyone else’s. Without greeting each other, patients would drift by in the hallways of the cancer center like ghosts and land silently apart, socially distanced in the waiting rooms. I realized there was a word for the black hole I found myself in and it wasn’t cancer. With this diagnosis, my world had turned upside down. I had fallen into a bardo.
Being In A Bardo
Finding the word bardo was like being handed a flashlight in a dark tunnel. It reminded me of the instructions that could illuminate my path forward. While the medical team was treating the cancer in my body, these bardo teachings could heal the suffering in my mind and heart.
A bardo is not the kind of experience we enter by choice. It’s a rude awakening. In Tibetan Buddhism this term is used to describe the transition between death and rebirth. But in my graduate studies in Contemplative Psychology we were trained to apply these teachings to any gap that disrupts what we think of as our normal life. It’s that sinking feeling when our past disappears behind us and our future expectations dissolve before our eyes. It could be a fender-bender on your way to an important interview or the gaping hole in your heart when your teenager moves away from home.
In my previous book, The Five Keys To Mindful Communication, I described a kind of bardo that happens in a moment of doubt, a sudden loss of connection in a conversation. “In-between is a place we normally don’t want to enter. We find ourselves there when the ground falls out from beneath our feet, when we feel surprised, embarrassed, disappointed—on the verge of shutting down. At this moment, we might feel a sudden loss of trust, an unexpected flash of self-consciousness”.
Working With Fear
A bardo is a trigger for all kinds of emotional reactions. We might feel overwhelming anger, grief or raw irritation. But the teachings point to one emotion that underlies everything else. Fear. The first message is ‘don’t be afraid’. If we know how to work with fear our other emotional reactions won’t destabilize us. But how do we do this? Fear isn’t the kind of experience you can simply delete by command. By understanding the bardo as a journey, we have an opportunity to disarm fear in all it’s forms. At first we meet the fears that are vividly present, like shock or panic. But we can also discover those fears that are masked or hidden in the background.
Embracing Fear With Love
When we’re on shaky ground, when we’re overwhelmed by fear, what kind of support do we need and how do we access it? During the initial shock of my cancer diagnosis I was handed a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ to prepare for the treatment ahead. But more than anything, I needed a map and nourishment for the emotional journey I had found myself in.
Recognizing this experience as a bardo gave me step by step teachings I could follow and reminded me of the key instruction about how to work with fear. For this we turn to the one emotion that’s more powerful than fear. That emotion is love. When embraced by love, the fears that arise in our bardo can be transformative. In the absence of love, those fears can turn toxic.
Like fear, love has many faces and names. Love is a stranger appearing out of nowhere when we stumble on the sidewalk. Love is a child smiling at us over her father’s shoulder in a lineup at the grocery story. Love is a friend who brings a meal to our doorstep when we’re in grief. Tapping into love opens us to a generosity that has always been flowing through the background of our lives, though often it’s been hard to recognize.
Mother Child Reunion
As with many other ancient traditions, the bardo teachings speak in archetypal images. To describe the practice of embracing fear with love we’re given the image of a lost child being reunited with a loving mother. When things in our life fall apart, when fear arises, we have an opportunity to meet the goodness, wisdom and compassion of our human nature. This is the truth we’ve spent our lifetime searching for, like children wandering in the dark.
I asked a woman who is terminally ill, what is it like to wake up each morning knowing you are dying? She replied, ‘ what is it like to wake up each morning pretending you are not?’ ( anon)
Contemplative practice is a listening space in which to re-imagine our bardo as a journey we will walk through together. Like any journey, the disruptions in our life have a beginning, a middle and an end. How we emerge from our personal crisis depends on whether or not we know how to work with fear.
Years ago my family traveled to Nepal to meet a Buddhist meditation master. Every morning before sunrise we’d hike up a steep hill, and enter the stone steps of his dark unheated monastery. We were escorted up to the third floor where we would wait for this master to give us teachings.
One morning, we were sitting on the floor at the foot of his bed and the sun was rising behind him. It was the kind of situation you’ve always dreamed of, a powerful, magical, image. Like a film script, we’d climbed the mountain, met the great guru, and now we waited for the profound instruction. He said a few opening words and then looked directly at each one of us. “You are going to die. Your death is right around the corner. Your death is so close”, he pinched his finger tips together, “it’s like the width of a horse hair, it’s around the corner from you, right now. You are going to die.” He repeated it, I would say, eight or nine times.
We were stunned. Shortly after, we left the monastery and walked in silence down the path. Finally my friend turned to me and said, “gosh, you know, for just a moment there, I thought maybe I would die some day.”
We cracked up, because we realized that the teacher was not only waking us up, but he was also pointing out how quickly denial sets in.
Three kinds of fear
Over the years I’ve contemplated what I learned from this teacher and wondered about the difference between the kind of fear that wakes us up and the frozen fear that shuts us down. If fear is a crisis of trust, how is this related to the presence or absence of love? What is the core fear in the background of our minds that triggers us to seek safety by building walls between us? These three kinds of fear seem to occur instantaneously but there are important differences that can learn to identify.
Being in the presence of this teacher, hearing the words “you will die”, the shock I felt was awake fear. This kind of fear abruptly opens our attention to the present moment, like an emotional seismograph delivering vital information. Awake fear happens all the time. It could be as simple as our cell phone accidentally going off in the theatre, or as dangerous as a truck lurching toward us on the road. Awake fear is intelligent and truthful. Without thinking, we know what to do.
Awake fear interrupts distraction and shocks us into mindfulness. In that instant our body, heart and mind are open to fresh information. But this openness is usually brief.
Nourishing Our Roots
How does the image of a loving mother apply to awake fear? Whenever we’re shocked, surprised or disappointed, there’s a flash of awake fear. The bardo instruction to ‘nourish our roots,’ means to learn how to hold steady in the presence of kindness. Reflecting many years later, I realized that it wasn’t only the words from the Buddhist master that woke me up. It was the power of his loving attention. I felt as though my fearful mind was being bathed in the morning sunlight. Opening to kindness is a simple but profound practice that restores a relationship to our true nature. If I live my life awake to the truth that I could die at any moment, how does my sense of self change?
Frozen Fear: a false self
The shadow side of the teaching about death was to witness how quickly denial sets in, like a car-hijacker seizing control of my mind. This is frozen fear, a defensive reaction we learned in the distant past when there wasn’t enough love and clarity to support staying open. Frozen fear is a barrier that dissociates from our true selves, a core trauma that we all suffer from to varying degrees. This barrier creates the illusion of security by ignoring what is true. Rather than being in the flow of reality we’re frozen in place, recycling old patterns. It feels so familiar that we think of these defensive habits as who we are.
Frozen fear is an experience we all share, but it’s not the whole story about who we are as human beings. How do we meet the loving mother when we’re lost in this shadow world of self-deception? How would a mother come to the rescue of her beloved child? To liberate from this prison the mother manifests as Fierce Compassion. She represents the fullness of an inborn clarity, the kind of wisdom that blazes like the sun, melting the barriers between us.
We meet this mother by following a contemplative path, deeply listening to the confusion of our bardo experience and following the map given to us by wisdom teachers who have made the journey. For example, the Buddha looked deeply into his own mind and heart seeking the origin of human suffering. What he found was this frozen fear, the habit of ignoring. In that moment of enlightenment, he recognized the false self that we cling to without knowing why. The alternative, he discovered, was to open to the brilliance of our true human nature.
Core Fear: a misunderstanding
What is it that triggers us to shut down instead of staying open to our natural brilliance? Somewhere in the background of our mind we’re afraid that we’re not worthy, not loveable, not good enough. This sense of being somehow broken beyond repair is the innermost lost child. In the final stage of our bardo, we’re heading to a re-birth.
Mother as Healer
We can either be re-born as our defended false self or we can be restored to our true nature. The direction we take depends on meeting the Loving Mother as Healer, or midwife. She offers the space, compassion and skill to correct the misunderstanding of our core fears. “You may feel as though you are broken, but this is the nature of your heart. Your heart can be broken open, not closed.”
Self reflection: being open, closed and in-between
A practical way to reflect on these teachings is to notice how fear interrupts our ability to listen.
1. Awake Fear is an example of being in relationship to whatever is going on in the present moment. It’s a mindful skill we tap into whenever we listen openly.
What does it feel like when I am open? When I’m here, paying attention?
Think of a time when you met fear with openness. Was someone else present to support you. What did that support feel like?
Frozen Fear: What does it feel like when I am closed? When I’m distracted, not able to pay attention?
Don’t judge yourself, but welcome the opportunity to notice how easily your attention drifts away. Think of a time when you reacted to fear by shutting down. What happened to your body, heart and mind?
Core Fear: What does it feel like when I’m being triggered? What is it that I’m truly afraid of?
I’m unloveable, unworthy, unforgivable, incompetent, unwelcome.
Take some time and reflect on how these inner bully voices show up in your mind.
These core fears are vulnerable and often arise as shame or a sense of humiliation.
- Being the loving mother.
- Pause right now, take three deep breaths, and hold your fear gently, like a parent holding a newborn baby. Just let it be, not too tight, not too loose.
awake, frozen, core fear.
In the decades since meeting my Buddhist teacher, I’ve been exploring how the three dimensions of fear and the presence or absence of love relate to the different stages we go through in the bardo that happens in everyday life.
Because I live in a city at risk for ‘the big one’, we regularly get instructions for how to survive an earthquake. “Your instinct is to run for the door, but the best thing to do is to simply drop to your knees, go under a table if you can, and hold steady.” This is good advice for a bardo. When the ground suddenly shifts under our feet, our habit is to look for the nearest escape. It isn’t easy to simply hold steady, not knowing what will happen next.
How do we stay open in the present moment when our lifelong habit has been to run out the door? How do we hold steady and ride the energy of fear when our world has flipped upside down? The teachings about meeting fear with love are a survival training for taking care of ourselves in these crises.
The map we’re following for our bardo journey originates from the Tibetan Book of the Death. Here the after-death bardo is described in three stages. The first is a brief flash of openness, which near-death survivors describe as a blissful white light. The equivalent in our everyday life version of the bardo is what happens in those first moments of Awake Fear.
Bliss and brilliance isn’t exactly what most of us would associate with the shock of Awake Fear. Many would consider this a form of spiritual bypassing. But if we look more closely at the kind of protection we’re seeking in this crucial first stage of a bardo, love comes to us as the intention that we be comforted, that we be happy. And brilliance occurs in short flashes. The sudden parting of clouds, or a tiny yellow flower coming up through a crack in the pavement. It’s the message that, in spite of everything we’ve lost, we can be nourished by moments of beauty.
Awake fear shows us a truth we haven’t seen before. Love softens this sharp blow and makes it possible for us to hear that truth. The relationship between truth-telling and encouragement is an inner dialogue that requires protection. We need a container for this vulnerable awakening. In my work with mindful communication I’ve called this container a ‘green zone’. This term is short-hand for a culture of kindness that supports us to stay open.
A green zone can be a one-to-one conversation with a loving friend, or it might describe the inner dialogue in your personal contemplative practice. The important point is that it is container for kindness.When fear arises our instinct is to seek shelter. A green zone is the best place to take refuge.
We meet fear with kindness by learning to recognize openness. This is an ordinary human experience but it often passes us by. What is it like when we’re openly paying attention? Openness is a flow of exchange, a balance of giving and receiving, listening, and speaking. This is not only true when we connect with other people, but also when we’re openly listening to our own body, heart, and mind. Our human nature is full of qualities such as mindfulness and compassion, but these are only available we’re open.
In our bardo journey, we need, a green zone, where the vulnerability of openness is protected and encouraged.
The second stage of the bardo parallels the arising of denial, or Frozen Fear. This is when we enter a ‘red zone’, when we’re tossed about in a storm of confused emotional reactions and projections. It’s like being a young child in a Halloween party where all the players in our inner drama are masked and we’re totally convinced they are real. In everyday life, this Halloween party is described in buddhist psychology as the realms of suffering. We find ourselves in these social environments all the time because they are shaped by narratives that have become so familiar we forget there’s an exit door to another way of thinking. For instance, consider how difficult it is to stay open in a divisive social environments where there’s pressure to conform. The masks of Frozen Fear dominate in our conversations and in who we think we are.
When this barrier is up, our hearts are shut down. Everything out there is other. We “ other” a person, or we “ other” a situation. But, closer to home, we “ other” ourselves—our own body, heart, and mind. This internal ‘other’ is a false identity that we think of as ‘me’.
A red zone propagates denial, a dangerous hiding place. Instead of listening to what is true we are triggered to react to the imaginary stories that recycle through our mind.
Being stuck in a red zone is like keeping an ice-cube in the freezer. It’s impossible to melt. But if we can bring these patterns into a safe refuge, it’s like dropping the ice-cube into warm water. Frozen Fear dissolves.
The loving mother appears in a red zone in the form of a fierce compassion, a discerning wisdom that can unmask our projections and warm the frozen fear that is dividing us from not only from others but also from ourselves.
The final stage of the after-death bardo is the momentum towards rebirth. The compassionate instructions are to intercept the confusion that leads us to being reborn in a hopeless situation.
Applying these instructions to our life-transforming bardo experiences, having unmasked our frozen fear and brought self-compassion to our suffering, we now meet the loving mother who is like a healer, a midwife who can give birth to our true self. For this, we turn inward toward the core fear that we are broken. What we find is that the lost child in our bardo has a broken heart. But when this neglected wound is touched by the healing hands of love, we realize that our hearts can be broken open rather than closed.
My training in Contemplative Psychology has been to always come back to my personal experience in meditation as a way of observing what happens in my own body, heart and mind when things fall apart. I’ve witnessed the same patterns in my work supporting others during the darkest periods of their lives.
Understanding the stages of the bardo is like being given a map for the transformative crises in our own lives. The way to apply these teachings is take refuge in a safe space, learning to trust the people who are open, encouraging, compassionate and healing.
More steps to come, stay tuned!
To make these important teachings as accessible as possible to those who are ready to hear them, I welcome your own personal stories of a transformative bardo in your life. Please feel free to share with me by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. With your permission I may be able to use some of your stories in my book.
If you can find a friend or small group of friends who want to talk about these bardo stories and bring them to the inner journey of prayer or contemplation, please do so. It’s important to have a ‘green zone’, a safe space to hold steady when the ground falls from under us.
GREEN ZONE : Awake Fear
A bardo breakthrough happens when we join fear with love
Practice of the Cradle of kindness; stop torturing yourself, sympathy
- we need to receive love before we can let go and give it away.
- Fuelling up, nourishing our roots.
- Note that under fear is sadness.
- Grief opens to love.
Letting go into groundlessness
Asking unanswerable questions/ listening space
Sitting still / sympathy
Reality check/ validation and encouragement
Green Zone: Retreat/ listening space
Mindfulness: positive interruptions– affection for your world
Impermanence- body/ beauty, senses
Inter-being- heart/ gratitude
Wisdom, agelessness, Open questions/ mid-wife
Life review/ collecting pearl
RED ZONE: Frozen Fear
The realms of suffering : Hope and fear
Red light: pause, feel, embrace
YELLOW ZONE: Background Anxiety/ Core Fears
Identity crisis/ rebirth
Still face/ restorative dialogue
Rebirth– a new normal, wounded healer
The Five Keys To Mindful Communication
Karuna Training in Contemplative Psychology
First introduced at Naropa University in 1975 by the Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, contemplative psychology was founded in collaboration with leading western psychiatrists and psychologists who were inspired by the therapeutic and clinical implications of the shambhala and tantric buddhist teachings in working with others. Contemplative Psychology is now the pre-eminent psychology in North America and Europe mixing the wisdom and skillful means of buddha nature and inherent healthiness with ordinary situations of helping others.
Contemplative psychology programs are taught by authorized senior Shambhala meditation teachers who are also mental health practitioners with years of clinical experience working with others.