Hello from the bardo; it’s a Tuesday.
Today I would be (am?) eight weeks pregnant. But I am waiting to miscarry. I am waiting to no longer be waiting.
My body is still catching up to what my mind learned last Friday, which is that I am pregnant, but it’s not a healthy pregnancy—it will never become a sentient being.
I lay there, watching my uterus come into focus on screen. Cool, I thought. For all the ways it has ruled my life, I had never even seen it. A black hole emerged from the staticky white. My pregnancy. Inside there should have been the small white bean of an embryo, but there was not.
The first photo of a black hole was an amazing feat of astrophotography. A black hole absorbs all light. How can you capture something whose very essence subverts capture? The only way to know it is to understand what it is not. The photo of the black hole is of its silhouette—a flickering halo of light around its precipice, into which light disappears.
On screen, I stare at the black hole and I understand: this is nothing. A perceptible emptiness. My doctor is still searching for the words. I am pregnant with an emptiness. No embryo, never to be a fetus. A pregnancy sac with no tenant.
It sent me hurtling into the bardo.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche describes the bardo as “being drenched with boiling hot and freezing cold water at the same time.” It is the space-time between lives, between deaths, between realities, between this and that. You are on the move, and have not yet arrived. There is nothing to do but to be in the let-go.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, we travel through the bardos between death and rebirth. We cannot actually experience it while still alive, though we can study it, and meditation prepares us for it. Losses and other sudden destabilizing forces that change our life trajectory are fertile ground for this practice, and offer glimpses of the bardo itself. Training groundlessness for the tender-hearted warrior.
So here I am, sword drawn, trying to make sense. Before my doctor’s visit, my reality was that I was pregnant with a tiny growing being. In a parallel reality I had not yet met, I was not. Now, I know that I’m not pregnant with a tiny growing being, yet I continue to be pregnant. The moment boils as it freezes.
I am now waiting, wishing for cramping to start. Praying that it starts, though I do not pray. My body and mind are on different planes: I feel physically fine—spritely and even strong—but mentally, I am emotionally dissipated. I am an astronaut violently untethered from her ship, spinning out into a vast and dark expanse. No plan, no way home.
These first moments in the bardo are agony. And yet, I feel a twinge of good fortune to have the chance to dwell inside of it. I hate it here, and I am also grateful to experience this loss in slow, vivid phases. I take my time with it, because it’s what I’ve been given and now it’s all that I have.
Sitting with the crack-pop moment of realizing a delusion and discovering that what you believed was true actually was not. I thought I was having a baby. The swift flick of betrayal, the burst of an illusion. It hits me that I told other people this thing I believed was true, and now I foresee an entire cascade of bursting illusions. There should be a name for that ripple effect, like when you’re standing in the old Penn Station staring fixedly at the schedule board and one by one all the departure times for the trains along the Northeast corridor flip, flip, flip to… “delayed.”
The global fertility test market is projected to reach $680 million by 2025. I had chosen the least obnoxious pregnancy app, the least cutesy, and the current still drew me in. My early morning ritual was to open the app and verify the size of the assumed critter inside of me. Each day added a new layer of shellac. Now, weeping, I deliver the news to my app: “Report a miscarriage” and it wipes away my lovingly entered data. “Nothing to see here,” the screen says. I feel pure sadness falling quickly like a plumb bob; even my fingertips ache. Later, I get an email from the company: “We are sorry for your loss.” Thank you, “we.”
Now I meditate on the loss of this particular dream that will never materialize like I envisioned it. I will not birth this Virgo. I will not have this creature with me as the year ends and a new one begins. I am aware that I do not know what else will happen this year or the rest of the years that I may live. But I know for sure that it will not be this.
Letting go. The phrase rings like a gong, always preceding something big, hard, or exhilarating. It is the light at the precipice of a black hole. I once read that letting go is just the acceptance that it is already gone. “The past has gone and the future has not yet come,” scholar and translator Francesca Fremantle wrote about the bardo. “We cannot catch the in-between moment, yet it is really all there is.” The let-go, in other words, is not up to you; only the acceptance of it is.
Six days into the bardo, the texture shifts a bit. My eyes are adjusting to the light. The groundlessness feels more spacious and luscious, wondrous even. I am trying to allow for the metabolism of this experience to move at the speed that it wants. Yesterday I woke up in tears but in a burst of energy to write.
What is the secret to showing up? You just show up. So I keep going. I know that I need to appreciate the richness of this place, and I know that I will not always be here. My time in the bardo will end, as all things do. My beautiful, terrible windfall is to just sit with the emptiness inside of me.
Thankfully, I have been practicing for this. I’ve spent hundreds of hours, maybe more, on my meditation cushion with only my mind and my body. Many times I felt, “for sure I am failing at this,” but I still did it. You just show up.
Emptiness is my favorite Buddhist concept. A beautiful trickster, it is not nothing; it is everything, an infinite fractal of interconnection and conditionality. It is fundamentally true. It is wild. Meditating on emptiness, I can feel a subtle shift from feeling bereft about what is not inside of me to overflowing with gratitude for what is.
By day seven, I’m getting to know my way around. It’s a trick, I know this. No one gets familiar with the bardo, as its very nature is shifting. I have a target in sight: a doctor’s appointment that I hope will bring some certainty, some relief from the emptiness. It would move me closer to an altered version of my prior state, although forever changed. The experience of a change that changes you.
Day eight is my last in this stage of the bardo, I guess. In a few hours I’ll be back in the exam room peering into the galaxy of my uterus, waiting for the black hole to come into focus.
An old friend calls. I’ve just texted her to let her know what’s going on. “Hello sister,” she says. She shares some of her own stories from the bardo and I drink it in. She’s talking about blood and tissue and grief and partying too hard in order to forget, and wishing for sisterhood in a barren place, and auspicious signs, and cataloging all the spirits that come into contact but decide not to stay. She’s talking about abortion and miscarriage and wanted and unwanted and the right time and the wrong time and what is time and are you open to what life will hand you?
I feel something shifting even further.
“Miscarriage is extremely common,” she says people love to inform you. She’s right. There are many things about which people love to inform you, especially when you are a woman. If it’s extremely common, where is the art and the poetry, she is asking. Why is there so much silence? So much grief in solitude? As women, we collect losses. Gigantic and minute ones, endless and everyday ones. We are librarians of losses. We accept and file them, some better left unread and gathering dust. I will always know exactly the shelf on which this volume was placed.
She said she’d finally found a poem, but couldn’t remember the exact words, so she paraphrased, and now I’ll paraphrase, too. “Some spirits are too sensitive to be here (on Earth). They come through you, and to you, but for some reason don’t stay. Their travel plans change. Haven’t your travel plans ever changed?”
I begin to weep from a new place. Trapped in the bardo, forced to face something that “never was,” staring into an abyss that my mind filled in: “You’re not enough. You were deceived, again. You failed.” But once I see that story, I drop it. A different story shimmers from the hologram of my experience. A flash of sentience flickered in me, undeniably. The emptiness will always be mine, even when it’s finally gone. I feel awash with peace and grace. Then a new pang of sadness arises because I don’t want to let it go. But I know that it is already gone.
Many weeks later I am without the emptiness, which was also a fullness. An experience of deep loss is also one of absolute limitlessness. I wonder how a loss can have made me feel so full. Pema Chödrön wrote that while the bardo brings great uncertainty and discomfort, it also brings singular opportunities for awakening: “When we stand at the crossroads, not knowing which way to go, we abide in prajnaparamita.” The crossroads are the best place for a tender-hearted warrior to practice because “it is where our solid views begin to dissolve.”
Back on my meditation cushion, I listen to Sharon Salzberg. She brings magic to the mundane, and makes the word “slump” sound holy. “Remember that the magic moment is the moment you realize you’ve been gone.” In the bardo I had a thousand magic moments. I realized I had been gone, and so I come back to myself and I start again.