Meditation as a ‘rehearsal’ for dying, the irrelevancy of beliefs, and the need for a new take on the Bardo Thödol.
The mystics tell us that we are consciousness; that our true self, our essence or ‘kernel,’ lies beyond the bodymind, which is in fact only a shell. Those of us who have entered deep meditation know that indeed we do have the capacity to observe our body – just as if it were somebody else’s.
In meditation I can ‘look around’ internally and see the container in which I am; and of course because it is observable, that container, the body cannot be me. Similarly – though they are more subtle and thus more challenging to disengage from – I can observe my thoughts and my feelings. Therefore I cannot be them, either. So I have been able to verify that mystical insight: it has become my own experience.
The mystics also tell us that consciousness survives beyond death. I have a taste of this when I am in a state of deep meditation because in many respects meditation is a kind of dying. I withdraw all my energy, voluntarily, from the external world to move inside, just as happens involuntarily in dying. I am alone just as I will be in death, regardless of however many friends might be surrounding me. Though I’ve been a meditator for over 35 years now, each time I close my eyes to move into my interiority I feel I am moving into the unknown, even the unknowable, just as I will in my physical death. So, in many respects meditation provides a rehearsal for dying; because of this, it is unique and immensely invaluable.
Yet, however profound my meditation, however removed I might feel from my bodymind, the fact is that the blood is still circulating in my body, the breath, though it might be almost imperceptible, continues. So can I honestly attest that my experience in meditation provides proof that my consciousness will continue beyond the death of my bodymind, when the blood no longer flows through it and my breathing has ceased?
Along with many others, I am fortunate in having had an out-of-the body experience. (This happened when I was not meditating; in fact many years before I knew anything at all about meditation.) So I know that my consciousness can function independently of my body; even that, once outside my body, it can look back at my body; it can move about, around my body. Still, I don’t know what will happen to my consciousness once my bodymind dies.
As importantly, even though my experience of my body being separate from my bodymind is irrefutably true for me, it may only be a belief for my clients. And I do not want to cultivate beliefs; I certainly do not want to encourage a client to use my experience as a source of solace. I’d be doing her a great disfavour, because she then might stop her own self-exploration.
Understanding that others’ experiences can, at the most, inspire us to explore for our-selves – and given that we may have very limited time and little energy to devote to such exploration – what then, can we do?
The Mystics’ Insights: Our Hypotheses
One of the many aspects of Osho’s approach that I value is his constant exhortation not to believe, not to blindly accept anything he says as so. He points out that Buddha’s last words were: “Be a light unto yourself.” Endorsing that, Osho says, “Learn from everybody but don’t cling to anybody. Be open, vulnerable, but remain on your own, because finally the religious experience cannot be a borrowed experience. It has to be existential; it has to be your own. Only then it is authentic. Otherwise my words will remain words; at the most they can become beliefs. Unless you experience the truth of them, they cannot become your own truth. My truth cannot become yours; otherwise it would have been very cheap” (Ancient Music in the Pines).
And on the irrelevancy of belief, Osho suggests: “When you don’t know, never believe, because if you believe you will never know. Belief is not needed at any stage of life. When you are ignorant, belief is not needed; it is very dangerous, because if you start believing then who is going to enquire? Belief stops enquiry, kills enquiry. And when you know something, it will be simply foolish to believe in it. What will be the point of believing? – you know! You don’t believe in the sun – you know. You believe in God because you don’t know. You believe in the soul because you don’t know” (From Personality to Individuality).
Specifically around the issue of death, Osho comments: “What I am saying is my experience: there is no death. I am not saying to you, ‘Believe that there is no death.’ I am simply expressing, sharing my experience that there is no death. It is not an effort to convince you; it is a challenge to come and explore” (The Dhammapada: The Way of the Buddha).
When asked about the reality of reincarnation, on one occasion Osho responds: “To me, an infinite series of lives is a reality. It is my experience. So if you ask me, I say yes, it is a very fundamental truth. But for you, it is only a fiction. You can turn the fiction into a reality – but before turning it into reality, don’t believe. That’s why I don’t touch these subjects; I bypass them, because I will have to say something which is my experience, but for you it will be only a belief. And you love me, you trust me; you may start trusting my words. Love me, but don’t love my words. Trust me, my presence, but don’t trust my experiences” (From Death to Deathlessness).
Ever the pragmatist, Osho suggests that we take on board someone else’s assertion or experience only as a hypothesis: “just a working arrangement. A hypothesis is just a direction. You will have to experiment, and if the experiment proves right, then the hypothesis becomes a theory. If the experiment goes wrong, then the hypothesis is discarded. “The words of the enlightened ones are to be taken on trust, as a hypothesis. Then work them out in your life. If they prove true, then the hypothesis has become a faith; if they prove false, then the hypothesis has to be discarded” (Yoga: The Alpha and Omega).
Osho on The Bardo Thödol
Osho has endorsed that the Tibetan writing, The Bardo Thödol, aka The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which describes in detail the journey beyond our physical death, is based on reality. (In brief, it asserts that our consciousness leaves our body, goes through certain stages and then either moves into enlightenment, self-realisation, or finds another body in order to enter life on earth again.) As I have mentioned, though I know my consciousness can exist outside my body, I don’t know what will happen once my bodymind dies. So I take The Bardo Thödol and Osho’s commentary on it as my ‘working hypothesis.’
Some years ago Osho spoke of the need for a contemporized version of The Bardo Thödol. While he lauded it as Tibet’s greatest contribution to the world, he commented that, “Soon it will be difficult to find a person who is capable of listening to the Bardo instructions and almost impossible to find a person who can give those instructions.” What especially caught my ear was what he said next: “They are simple instructions but they can be improved, and I have the idea to improve them because they are very ancient and very crude. They can be polished. Much can be added to them, more dimensions can be given to them. But the basic thing is that the people should be meditative” (The Path of the Mystic).
In his introduction to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Chogyam Trungpa, says one should not just read the instructions of the book but make one’s guidance for the dying person more ‘like a conversation.’ For example, you might say, he suggests: “When you die you will have all sorts of traumatic experiences of leaving the body, as well as your old memories coming back to you as hallucinations. Whatever the visions and hallucinations may be, just relate to what is happening, rather than trying to run away. Keep there, just relate with that.”
In my training as a hypnotherapist I learned that it is helpful to avoid planting negative suggestions in a client. When someone is dying they are especially susceptible to suggestion. So I would hesitate to inform my client that he or she “will have all sorts of traumatic experiences.” Similarly, hypnotherapists avoid preceding any suggestion with the words ’Do not’ (and these abound in The Bardo): the mind tends to disregard the ‘Do not’ bit and does exactly what isn’t a good idea. For example, when the transiting person hears, ‘Do not be afraid of the terrifying brightness, do not be bewildered,’ it will only retain ‘be afraid…be bewildered of the terrifying brightness,’ and proceed to do so.
In a similar vein Chogyam recommends giving “some kind of simple explanation of the process of deterioration from earth into water, water into fire, and so on – this gradual deterioration of the body.” Frankly, I don’t know how useful that would be; nor how helpful, when I am transiting, to hear that I will encounter any of the scary (and culture-specific) images used throughout , such as ‘wrathful divinities,’ ‘hungry ghosts’ and ‘hell-beings’; or that I should expect to hear the sounds of ‘gnashing teeth’, of ‘a thousand armies clashing’; that at some point there will be ‘a great roar of thunder…like a thousand thunderclaps simultaneously,’ and so on….
What does sit more comfortably with me is Chogyam’s view on the basic principles behind The Bardo Thödol – “the notion of impermanence becoming a living experience rather than a philosophical view; the recognition of one’s projections, and the dissolution of the sense of self in the light of reality,” and his saying that The Book of the Dead can show us how to live … the purpose of reading The Book of the Dead to a dead person is to remind him of what he has practiced during his life” (The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying).
For the past 34 years or so I have listened to Osho talking on dying and death, and have read pretty much everything he has ever said related to the subject. When I put that together with his urging us to trust our own experiences, and with what I read in The Bardo Thödol, along with Chogyam’s views, I came up with an idea for a contemporary Bardo Thödol.
Creating a Bardo for the 21st Century
According to Chogyam, if we have the experience of life’s transience; of the mind as a storehouse of projections; and of how, when we drop these projections, we have more light inside, we have lived in a way most conducive to benefitting from The Bardo.
What stands out for me about Osho’s take on The Bardo is the need for the listener, the dying person, to have been a meditator; that is, someone who has worked towards being more and more aware in her daily life. (He points out that The Bardo was created by the Tibetans, who are practising Buddhists; that is to say, meditation is an intrinsic part of their daily routine throughout their lives.) Only such a person will have a chance of staying conscious during dying. Finally, from my own experience of life, the most helpful practice is that of witnessing. That is, the capacity to inwardly disengage from my bodymind.
These elements, from these three sources, played into my creating ‘In Transition,’ a guided meditation* to be used both as a rehearsal for dying and at the actual time of dying. I have had clients use this meditation while preparing for dying, and been heartened to hear how helpful it has been for them. However, the downside of my work is that my clients, having left their bodies, cannot send back postcards to confirm or deny the hypothesis on which the meditation is based. More frustrating is the realisation that, when my time comes, nor will I!
NB: ‘In Transition’ has been superseded by Osho Bardo: right-mindfulness in living & dying which is available as a limited edition CD and as a downloadable mp3.