I recently spoke at Breaking Convention, one of the most exciting and historically significant conferences that has taken place in London for some time. The conference is a multidisciplinary exploration of psychedelic consciousness studies and attended by some of the most brilliant neuroscientists, anthropologists, psychologists, clinical psychiatrists, philosophers and visionary artists in the world.
One talk in particular started a thought process around meditation retreats and their psychological significance. The talk in question was by author Erik Davis, who delivered a very compelling argument about the relationship between psychedelics, meditation and ‘the Bardo’ of Tibetan Buddhism. For those unfamiliar with the term, the ‘Bardo’ of that particular tradition is the space between life and death, where the dying person is confronted with an array of positive and negative entities who represent their various hopes, anxieties, attachments and desires. The Bardo is an opportunity to transcend an attachment to life, or to be reborn.
Davis pointed out that, leaving aside the metaphysical aspect of this model, it provides an interesting psychological and philosophical model for the space between two different modes of consciousness. For example, one could argue that mindfulness meditation is itself a bardo between the autopilot state and a state of full awareness. The Bardo can be used to denote any kind of interstitial space in which consciousness is changed or expanded.
This had me thinking about what other activities could be considered to represent a Bardo. Meditation retreats immediately sprung to mind. By committing to leaving their daily routine behind, and coming to a space that has been set up specifically to change your perception of the cultural operating system we all live within, a person who attends a meditation retreat is entering into a space between worlds, so to speak.
The important thing from my perspective is that, just like the Bardo in Tibetan Buddhism, the Bardo of a modern meditation retreat in London, for example, is a space that takes you away from the limitations of your day to day experience of the city and gives you a new perspective on how to live freely.
And the similarities don’t stop there. The Tibetan concept of the Bardo is centred entirely around death, and whether people realise it or not, so is any type of meditation. The only way to truly be alive is to, as Eckart Tolle puts it, ‘die before you die’. To me that phrase is incredibly important, and I’m using it in the mystical sense of undergoing a simulated death experience in order to ‘practice’ what’s inevitably going to happen to you.
Most people in the west find this kind of thing grim or scary, because of a cultural operating system that both fears and fetishizes death. There is a tremendous anxiety over what is in fact the only certainty you as a human being have to make sense of reality. Once this is understood experientially, and death is embraced, understood and treasured, life becomes much more fun.
As such, meditation retreats are a Bardo in the sense that they act as a place you can come to to gain a new perspective on your life and your environment, and on the nature of reality and consciousness itself. I think this, along with the many hours of practice and guidance they provide, is the reason that meditation retreats, especially in large cities like London, are so popular and so effective.