Leading in the Bardo

April 2021

The rupture of bardo inevitably leads to whatever is next…Impermanence is not just an illuminator of loss. It is an illuminator of newness, the ever-unfolding present moment and its creativity.  –Pema Khandro Rinpoche

Springtime as Bardo

At this transitional time of year in the northern hemisphere, lots of hibernating mammals, amphibians and other animals who have been in a torpid or frozen state – entombed/enwombed for many months – are stirring, as if resurrected.  They bust out of their dens or logs or mud reborn in hunger and, in many species, with offspring to feed.  Soon baby birds, looking like impossibly fragile miniatures of their dinosaur ancestors, will use up all their remaining energy to hatch from their confining eggs, just to initiate the next struggle for survival. 

Buddhists note that the bud is destroyed by the flower!  To me, spring is a confusingly ambivalent season of freedom, devastation, grace, turbulence, sweetness, peril and the transformative paradox – spiritually acknowledged at Passover and Easter – of what I will call “sacred violence.”  A couple of days ago my husband and I happened to observe the brief moment when a small long-tailed weasel slipped into an invisible vole-hole amid the straw on our back hill and efficiently popped out the other end, making off with its dead occupant clamped in her jaws; likely food for the weasel’s own litter.  

Leadership in the Bardo

For experiencing visceral attunement with the eerie edges between death, closing, rebirth and opening in the cosmic life cycle, springtime is – to my mind – the most poignant season.  Noticing these edges can be a powerful practice for leaders because leadership is, itself, a succession of bardos.  What’s a bardo?  It’s a Buddhist term for what exists after one thing has ended and a new thing has yet to begin.  Pema Khandro Rinpoche explains in “Breaking Open in the Bardo”:

The Tibetan term bardo, or “intermediate state,” is not just a reference to the afterlife [the phase between death and reincarnation]. It also refers more generally to these moments when gaps appear, interrupting the continuity that we otherwise project onto our lives. In American culture, we sometimes refer to this as having the rug pulled out from under us, or feeling ungrounded. These interruptions in our normal sense of certainty are what is being referred to by the term bardo. But to be precise, bardo refers to that state in which we have lost our old reality and it is no longer available to us.

Intermediate or liminal states happen non-stop in leadership, actually, because continuity is an illusion and disruption is constant.  A practice of acknowledging and breaking open in the relentless stream of bardos serves a leader well: it can bring to her – paradoxically – a stillness of interior presence amidst all the outward action.  Such presence, in turn, offers her sufficient space for the curiosity of mind, largeness of heart, and embodiment of perception that allows her to sense what’s emerging externally and choose whether or how to make a move.  Moreover, Otto Scharmer of MIT and co-founder of “U Theory” frequently quotes CEO of Hanover Insurance Bill O’Brien as observing: “The success of an intervention depends on the inner condition of the intervenor.”  Leaders are always encountering potential thresholds of intervention.  The late poet John O’Donohue put it this way: “a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and I think that very often how we cross is the key thing” [my emphasis].  I believe cultivating our how – our who we are in disruption – is leadership self-development, in a nutshell.

Arguably, leaders co-create reality by sensing and observing as we move from threshold to threshold, across boundaries, into the unknown.  Ambiguity can be our friend.  Bardos – interruptions, in-between states, or what William Bridges names “neutral zones” – are as available every second of the day and night all our lives as heartbeats, waiting to be leveraged by our awareness.  And (to reiterate observations from prior blog posts), the direction in which a leader consciously chooses to look at any given moment determines where energy is invested in the organization, when vision becomes realized, and even how the future is made.  In addition, the “eyes” with which a leader sees the emerging future (eyes of love, eyes of fear, eyes of sadness, eyes of generosity, eyes of anger, or eyes of compassion, etc.) will similarly determine the tone and the potential for what is possible.

Hover in the bardo of absorbing that idea: The eyes through which a leader views unfolding circumstances determines what is possible.  With what eyes are you crossing the threshold into your next moment?

Additional Resources

  • Otto Scharmer’s presentation, “Innovating in the Face of Disruption: How to Lead from the Emerging Future” (12/15/20), and/or his book The Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applications (Berrett-Kohler, 2018). Scharmer asserts, “There is no such thing as the future…The future is emerging from the quality of how we respond in the disruption of the current moment [my emphasis].”
  • “The World is Our Field of Practice,” an “On Being” interview with African-American Zen Buddhist cleric, angel Kyodo williams.
  • Notice the easy-to-spot bardos in your daily existence, and consider the implications of how you view them.  Here are just a few examples: passing through doorways, gates and other literal thresholds; that wonky state of consciousness between sleeping and waking; a global pandemic; twilight; waiting for the doctor to call with test results; a slumbering puppy; a rain delay during a baseball game; the shift from fully sitting in a chair to fully standing up; a cocoon or chrysalis. The photo below that I took from my back door on this post’s publication date prompts wonderings: Is this a picture of late winter or early spring?  Is it raining or snowing?  Where does field become forest become cloud?  In the trees, where is the snow line?
This is the view out my back door in Montpelier, Vermont on the afternoon of April Fool’s Day, 2021.
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5 Responses to Leading in the Bardo

  1. Mel Ampthor says:

    These posts are just the BEST.  You are a gift.  Happy April.  Clutch

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