Teachings on death and rebirth describe a stage of disembodied consciousness between death and rebirth called bardo. Bardo means ‘gap’ or ‘space’. ‘Bar’ is a flow or stream, and ‘do’ is an intermediate place or island in the stream. Between the consciousness of the dying physical being and the consciousness of the reborn physical being, a dream-like state of consciousness is experienced – and this is called bardo. This is a disorientating or frightening experience if the consciousness has had no experience of the empty nature of mind. Through attaching all experience to the sphere of our physicality, we limit our awareness of the nature of mind. When mind is free-flowing, no longer connected to familiar physicality, we can feel lost and disorientated. When we no longer have the context of our physicality, we can be overwhelmed, and experience fear and confusion in relation to the intangible manifestation of disembodied consciousness. Disembodied distraction is more potent and wild than embodied distraction and we therefore can find it overwhelming. Eventually the power of our psychological patterning blows us like the wind, toward habitual formulations in which we grasp at physicality as a secure reference point.
We become embodied once again and begin the process of identifying with physicality in which we ignore the nature of existence as a stream of moments of emptiness, energy, and form.
This is an extreme simplification of the subtle process of dying, bardo, and rebirth, but gives some idea of the principle of what Ngak’chang Rinpoche describes as
… the continuity of beads of existence on the thread of non-existence – which is the same moment-to-moment as it is life-to-life.
If we have any feel for the experiential sense of this continuity, we can begin to grasp the importance of engaging in spiritual practice. Any practice that hones awareness and the ability to allow mind to be free in complete identification with the present moment will be of immense benefit. Practice enables us to experience Sky Mind, rather than remaining trapped in cloud mind with its referential need to grasp at physical form. If we have not familiarised ourselves with emptiness through spiritual practice, we continue our referential addiction to form as the factor which defines our existence. The direct experience of non-dual emptiness and form in the bardo is overwhelming for the style of perception desperately seeking form, and therefore we miss the opportunity to see form and emptiness as undivided.
However, if I have confidence that the stream of my consciousness will continue, I need never be frightened of death. I need not be frightened because I can recognise death as a natural process occurring in each moment. I can celebrate the fact that I never need be confused or overwhelmed by the process of death, once I learn to exist in the liberated spontaneity of the present moment. Then thoughts of death can become a valuable incentive to engage in spiritual practice.