Panic and the bardo of life

At Pernille's Flat Copenhagen
At Pernille’s Flat Copenhagen – ceramics and books

I returned from nearly 3 months in Europe to turn around and go to Colorado for a week of Qi Gong practice with my teacher. I also managed to attend my Aunt’s 80th birthday party in between. A crazy amount of travel.

While in Europe, I was hitting the pause button on the art-making, on the mental momentum of graduate school portfolios, so that I could spend some time re-assessing. I delved into exploring places and volunteering in various meditation programs, as well as doing a lot of my own meditation practice. I visited Vienna, Brussels, Berlin, and Copenhagen, investigating the livability of these places, meeting and making friends, and visiting a few art schools. I also explored with the support of the Shambhala community in Europe some improvisational dance, performance art, and began finding many more connections using my singing voice that I had abandoned for most of the last 30 years. It was a fresh and rich summer, everything you would expect a summer traveling around Europe to be.

Beginning next week I’ll be in NYC for three months. Upstate now at Eric’s, my resting place between places. Both here and the city generally are like my “home turf” where I feel “returned.” In this place, aside from continuing to explore the path to my future through classes at the Art Student’s League and elsewhere, I will be reflecting on what all the travel experiences have produced in my mind.

One very clear message I was receiving over and over is that I should be using my voice – people enjoy hearing me sing, and singing comes naturally to me. Further to that, I made a very strong connection to a women’s singing/performance group in Brussels that I met the director of last spring at Dechen Choling – the group called Patshiva that I posted about on Facebook. What they are doing – polyphonic choral voices performed with movement, contemporary dance, costume, light – is transformative and amazing work. It’s something I’ve looked for my whole life without realizing it. And they have been doing community work as well – a residency in a poorer neighborhood in Strasbourg, and teaching workshops at festivals like the summer festival at Dechen Choling. Empowering women’s voices. There is something very magnetizing happening there. And in Brussels, where they are based, also happen to be two university art schools. Still, I really want to use this return to home turf to give some perspective on everything I have been accumulating by way of “research” this year. I will have some opportunity to do some teaching this fall as well, which also usually helps me process things. Through this stage, my next move will become clearer.

The Side Yard - Spencertown
The Side Yard – Spencertown

At the moment however it’s Sunday, I’m here in Spencertown for the week. I venture into the basement to swap clothing and encounter again (as I do every time I return) the volumnity of my stuff. All the things I’d pulled out in June to sell now…plus luggage and boxes of practice materials, dharma books, art supplies…all my competing aspirations and artifacts of my nomadic life filling the whole of space. (At least, that’s how it feels). Although I shed a lot of possessions when I moved into storage, and have shed about half my wardrobe since then, there is still too much. I feel overwhelmed by the task of severely editing my possessions to match my current vision of my life.

Which is changing all the time, will change again and again. I’ve enjoyed the lightness and simplicity of living from a suitcase. Being without stuff frees up so much time and mental energy. As soon as I perch somewhere though, things begin to accumulate again. I have a lot of Ratna so it’s inevitable, even as a nomad. (One of the five Buddha families, Ratna appreciates the wealth of the world…and all of its stuff). Then my Vajra Buddha aspect (sees the essence of wisdom apparent in any situation, applies clarity and sharpness) takes a look around and says “enough! Wipe the slate clean!” So I put myself through the ruthless (but healthy) editing process and then the whole cycle begins again. Part of the “volumnity” is two piles of half-finished sculpture project began this year that I “should” return to. I began to feel the urge to torch the whole pile. Storage unit too. Freedom.

I also did my monthly bookkeeping…and felt the pressure of the next 3 months in the most expensive city in the world on my dwindling bank account. I’m not going to “really” run out of money for a while, but I definitely have gone beyond my budget for the “exploring” part of my transition…partly because I have been spending money on various forms of temporary housing pretty much all year. So I’m beginning to dip into the funds set aside for studying & its attendant expenses.

At the end of this grumbly, overwhelming day, Eric out of the blue asks…”after these two years of wandering, what vision do you see for your life? Just wondering – will you have money after you go to school? How will you make a living?” All kinds of DOUBT and panic swamped me. Not questions I can answer easily.  While I feel (fantasize?) I have a clear sense of what I’m doing, on being pinned down I have to admit it’s all just a speculative brew of ideas I’ve collected from observing other working artists mixed with my various competing aspirations (time for some Vajra clarity there.)  WTF am I doing? How did I go from being this person who worried about her 401K and spent years rehabilitating herself as financially “responsible” to someone who had faith that if she followed her inspiration things would work out? And now—moving to Europe to join an unpaid performance group? NUTS. I actually pictured myself (briefly) back at a desk at UBS with a steady paycheck, good health insurance, a regular schedule. But quickly saw that move as the one I’ve made repeatedly when I feel too overwhelmed by the panic I’ll not survive the perpetual uncertainty.

To find a livelihood in creative work that feels true and necessary requires living in this continual uncertainty.  There’s no “safe” way to go about it – having money to live on the past two years while I’ve delved into what I care about most has inured me somewhat to the reality that I’m not some carefree world traveler with every curiosity an open door I can step through. In the next 2-5 years, I really do have to build a whole new life AND livlihood from the ground up and it is terrifying.

In Europe, living out of a suitcase, away from all the artifacts of the life I’ve led, everything seems so clear. And here, so complicated (is that any surprise?) I can continue to de-complicate, stuff-wise, but know I need to ask for some help – it’s a lot of work to go through everything and try to cut my possessions in half again. And realistically, life is complicated, no matter where I end up.

This overwhelm and panic is also where I’ve tripped in the past with relationships – it feels “safe” to make a haven in another person’s life and hide there (or try to), as many people do. I’ve written elsewhere that generally I don’t like life to feel too comfortable – I equate it with being asleep, in the cocoon – yet when I realize how exposed and vulnerable I am, I panic and long to jump into the nearest “safe” place, which sometimes is another person rather than situation. In either case, I realize there’s a key Buddhist teaching here (probably several) – the teachings on the Bardo or intermediary state between death and rebirth. In the Bardo it’s groundless – no longer with a body, mind is just flying wildly through some kind of space. It’s said that when we begin to panic in that state, we’re not trusting in the inherent wisdom-nature of our mind, sometimes called basic goodness, or buddha nature. From this doubt we feel the need for external confirmation – so we begin to look for what we think is a familiar (comfortable) situation. Rebirth is the accident that happens on the way to enlightenment (someone said that before me). We (formless, but with ability to know, hear, see) gravitate towards some couple having sex and boom – we’re conceived for another trip around the samsaric world. Recognizing this is what’s happening tames the panic a little for me, enough to take a few deep breaths and see just what is, in this moment, to trust that my inherent nature can lead me. And from that, maybe I see what to do next. As in today, this hour.

It’s remarkable to me that somehow this is now possible – all these years of practice seeing the thinking process of mind and (sometimes) recognizing how it rarely helps to just think my way through confusion. Confusion is another word for the panic. Not trusting that I have an inherent connection to wisdom, if I just allow it to emerge and illuminate. Practice has cultivated a tiny ability to withstand intense fear and see past it. I don’t know how it all turns out – and that’s ok. At least, I can remind myself of this from time to time.

At Pernille's Flat Copenhagen
At Pernille’s Flat Copenhagen – music corner