Line Dancing in the Bardo

Bill Powell —

Bardo: a Tibetan term/concept that refers to an intermediate or transitional state between two incarnations or two sequential lives on earth. There is, coincidentally, a new novel, recently published, entitled Lincoln in the Bardo written by George Saunders. . . .

There are things we experience that we rarely, if ever, mention to others. . . .

Nearly every person dreams. The dreams and dreamers vary. Having them is treated as “normal”. People formulate theories about why we dream and the various purposes that dreams may serve and then, largely, interest in them waxes and wanes and we often forget theory and forgo further study; then we go right on having them. We don’t much know if or how they change us; our brains formulate them largely without conscious control and they are rarely remembered. But, personally, I have an uncanny memory and recall many of mine and the themes in them. It feels like they fuel metaphors and patterns.

First, a middle-aged man’s dream: It began as all dreams begin … it just popped into consciousness and I am there and I become aware of it and notice events. Light emerging in darkness, interpretation and sentience, a narrative coming into being in a void. I am suddenly a being, a consciousness, in a tunnel with stone walls, reddish brown walls as I recall. I recall no history and don’t know why I am there or how I got there, I only see the surfaces of the tunnel surrounding me and its fading and narrowing into the distance. I am only “I”. Other entities are sensed nearby, but seem irrelevant to the subjective script. I sense a silent roar approaching, a coming wave, and see an approaching thick layer of frost and ice forming on the tunnel walls and it rushes toward me. Instantly freezing everything. I have the urge to turn and flee but it is too late. I too am frozen by the rushing ice. No pain, just ceasing. That chapter is at an end. After a brief return to darkness, nonbeing, I then again erupt into light and place and narrative and am stepping from the edge of a street, on a summer day, onto grass and toward a small park. It is a pleasant day. I cannot name the place. Another narrative is underway.

I briefly enjoy being in that pleasant new place (and being unfrozen) but wonder what happened in the previous place, where I was rapidly frozen, and then awoke in this new setting. I remembered the lost race to escape the ice and that recollection added to the puzzlement. I didn’t consciously know the new place or the people within it, though I felt a part of it. Where am I and why? Why does it suddenly begin to feel tenuous again? What am I to do now—what lies ahead? I turn and look around. Across the street is a row of old two storied frame homes sitting behind trees. Pleasant. Home-like. Nostalgic.

stairwell-full-sizeDown the road, in the distance, I again sense the coming of the ice like a frozen curtain. Silently it comes, but there is again the visceral sensation of crinkling and flash freezing. The unseen wall comes at a high rate of speed. I remember instantly beginning to freeze. Not knowing what to do, I run toward the houses seeking any respite from the fate I know is coming. The ice comes pushing a breeze of cold air before it and then is upon me. My gaze is drawn to the end of one house and it is ice covered, save for the window on a door. I am being covered by frost and struggle to that window and look through the glass. I see wooden steps going up; the walls and steps are not frozen. I turn the doorknob and push open the door. There is not any particular temperature inside and it is silent but there is no freezing—only plain wooden steps up to a landing. I close the door and there is the hollow sound of wood and age. I feel drawn to climb the steps, not out of fear but inevitability, and again sense I am not entirely alone. Others are there with me, but unseen. I climb the steps up to a higher landing and to the left is a second door. No freezing, just another place removed from the frozen world outside. I open the door and go into that room. Around the room are simple old chairs, each backed up in a line against the papered walls. On the chairs, unmoving, are desiccated people lined up who look to be alive but unmoving and unresponsive and of a dull color. They stare dully and depleted into the empty space in the middle of the room. There is no fear. I sense that I/we are to move past them into a cloak room or hallway off to the right. In that space are coat hooks and cabinets for unseen belongings. All around is a hollow, ancient, space and a muted sound of rattling and echoes. No one speaks but there is a tacit understanding: the inhabitants are there to empty or deposit/download their souls or minds or memories of experience and knowledge before being refreshed and moving on. They are bearing the subjective apprehension, strain, history, of years of living. This is how objective being becomes subjective. My sense is that there is some quiet relief in the waiting period. They will, in their time, begin to sense of relief from an accumulated burden of life and move on to another stage of something. … like a metaphoric railroad, it seemed there was more track and other stations on down the line but first the “beings” needed to take on fuel. I realize in my own quiet observation that their awareness and fate matches mine and, externally, I likely appear similar to them. I do not turn and flee back down those same steps because I have no urge to do so. I am “here”, once again, wherever “here” is. I am outside linear time, outside standard “reality”. The path or old narrative is at an end, the stage play is at the end of its run. My job is and has been to experience and comprehend “life”. To shape a life in a given set of changing circumstances. I recognize an ineffable sense of larger purpose and am again in that similar circumstance, a transitional state. I recognize it, grasp it, without being “told”. I also realize how weary I’ve become.

There is an understanding, a vivid memory, of this event and there is a recollection that I have been at this point in multiple other forms and times in my “existence”. I recollect this as one among several patterns and themes in my dreams that has developed for more than 50 years. As I write, I recall a similar older and more memorable one involved walking into a dark stairwell and sensing my male ancestors (who also appeared empty/desiccated and silent and unmoving) standing, one to a step, both up and down the stairwell and fading away down into the dark. Looking upward they stood unrecognizable on the steps and disappeared clear up to the light at the top. I began to walk up imagining them to be closer to me in time and perhaps recognizable. As I moved up toward the light I heard a “voice” in my head telling me to “go back. It’s not your time yet!” I float down and quickly out of the stairwell. I remember that expulsion quite vividly.

Other times, other dreams. I stood in other lines and went through some process and came out the other end learning that I’d “done all right”. Whatever all right means. Once I recall having fallen madly in love with a kindred experience in what I refer to here as the Bardo, but never again crossing paths with that nameless loved one, and feeling a great loss. Another time I was told by several other beings, who seemed to be monitoring things, that this experience (in the Bardo) was real and that, though the other “normal” life seemed real, it was not as it seemed to be—that this thing we call life is a dream which seems very real. And, interestingly, I was instructed that I must remember being told this! That dream and the messaging persisted even after I awoke and moved around the house in 1972. Awake and dreaming at the same time. For the record, I do not use recreational drugs and was painfully sane. Fleetingly, I remember snippets of circumstances in other lives nearly every day now, but as soon as I shift focus the ancient memory darts away. Still they are triggered and continue coming without notice. Sometimes the tacit sense of patterns presage more specific prescience—a sense of how things will play out. The longer I live, the more I remember, and the more this existence seems to be overlaid over a dream, both, and ever-so-real.

I remember the walk up the stairways described above and the frozen landscapes, the depleted or desiccated lives being re-tuned and the draining of memories and senses-the sentience-of a life. Refurbishing. I recall the many times my mother reminded me that I was always old—I was born mentally an “old man” and always “knew things”. Delusional? Perhaps it is. Perhaps my metaphoric mind is too energized, or, I am Bullshitting (I’m not). Is there any objective reality here or is this totally a subjective memory or merely symbolic? An unconscious fantasy? Who knows? It’s hard to characterize something unique as “real” or sane if one knows no one else who’s had any remotely similar experiences. I ponder all this and recall that, among others, that the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who lived about 200 years ago, felt that we live in at least a dual universe—one which we perceive with our limited senses and reasoning and then the deeper universe as it truly is, but which is unknowable via our limited senses or sense of reason. I recall that, in the Bible, the book of Jeremiah contains a suggestion that “God” has known us before birth, while we exist, and still after we exist. … that our actual existence precedes this life as we know it and after we leave it. Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Butler Yeats both acknowledged the effects of unusual dreams on their lives. Others have sensed something akin to all this but have reluctant to talk openly. I have recalled these “dreams” and memories all my life and more; perhaps, there is actually something or some place, symbolic or more, we have named a Bardo. Perhaps we are truly conscious at the oddest times and places in unusual circumstances. I believe I recall the Bardo. Tibetan Buddhists think others do also.

Bill Powell

William (Bill) Powell (Author) – PhD, MSW, and Professor Emeritus of Social Work, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He is Editor Emeritus of the journal Families in Society, with many publications and presentations at international and national conferences, and awards for teaching, contributions to urban education, and professional presentations on phronesis or practical/practice wisdom and artistry in practice.

2 thoughts on “Line Dancing in the Bardo

  1. Eight years ago while delving into reincarnation, I encountered Toronto neurophysiologist Joel Whitton’s 1986 book, “Life Between Life.” Dr. Whitton had done a thirteen year program of studies of > 30 medical case histories dealing with phenomena such as you present here, Bill. The book jacket summary cites, “The testimonies of Dr. Whitton’s subjects, elicited through a technique known as hypno-regression, confirm that we choose our lives, writing the Karmic script for each incarnation while in Bardo . . . [&] can learn how certain emotional & behavioral patterns influence our present & future paths.” Inherent in this metaphysical scheme of things is our responsibility to “learn why we’ve assumed our life’s burdens—& what we can do to relieve them.”

    All this may seem like hyped up New Age mumbo jumbo, but the research findings go well beyond Whitton’s work. When I encounter kneejerk skeptics of realms very real but only marginally detectable, for example reincarnation, I ask them to tell me exactly what, from the continuum of right-before-our-eyes phenomena to deep nature in the cosmos, does nature NOT recycle? From Creation on, continuing every moment in evolutionary processes “built into the system,” are ineffable mysteries it seems we can only know when we experience them.

    Thanks for your piece, William Powell (note that a pretty straightforward anagram of your formal name is Will “MIA” Powell. As we used to say, “Coincidence? I think not!”).


  2. Bill, your descriptions of the inescapable advancing cold/frost/frozenness, and your intuitive realization that you have no choice but to accept the fate it brings, reflects the principle of physics known as the Einstein-Bose Condensate. As matter becomes increasingly cooled to near Absolute Zero, the independent (“individualized”) motions of atoms cease. As this “terminal” process is realized, the atoms phase into a single quantum state, in effect a merging into a unity with a greater whole. At this point the same energy state is universal (& infinite?). Physically, it is accurate to state that “all is one.” (Spiritually, too?)

    Your image of a “cosmic freeze frame” totally captures this. Cosmic Consciousness Cryogenics?


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