Posted in Essay, Michael Watson, Peace & Justice, Uncategorized

Life in the Bardo

Waterbury, VT, ParadeI just returned from purchasing a new computer monitor. Last night, my two-year-old monitor suddenly malfunctioned. When I went to the store this morning, the associate with whom I spoke said she thought the life expectancy of new monitors might be about a year. Expensive and time-consuming.

Last week a colleague attended a national conference in Seattle. This gathering of psychotherapists moves about the country from year to year. The Seattle conference was immense, forming a forum for many hundreds of therapists. It also took place in a part of the country with a large and obvious Native presence, yet seemingly made no attempt to include, or even acknowledge, Seattle’s diverse Native community.

During a workshop towards the end of the conference my colleague spoke to the absence of a Native presence at the conference. After the workshop, a woman came up and thanked her for speaking up, explaining she was Native and had been deeply disturbed by the notable absence of her community. (Tibetan monks had been invited to build a sand painting during the conference.) She was also aware of her light skin color,and fearful her whiteness might disqualify her from speaking, at least in the eyes of her fellow conference participants.

Also, last week the latest film version of The Lone Ranger came out. As you may know, Johnny Depp stars as a very wise Tonto, who just happens to wear a stuffed bird on his hat, an oblique reference to the imagined Native. A couple of day’s ago a panel gathered to chat about the film on NPR’s On Point. A young Native woman who blogs at Native Appropriations was also invited on briefly critique the film. Sadly, the non-Native reviewers, even with a bit of Native guidance, simply failed to understand why the film might be offensive. I invite you to read Adrienne K.’s comments at Native Appropriations for a detailed critique of the stereotyping and racism inherent in the film.

Finally, Thursday was the Fourth of July. For me there are three highly problematic holidays in the U.S. calendar: July Fourth, Columbus Day, and Thanksgiving. Each celebrates, in some way, the theft of our land and the genocide, physical and cultural, against our people. On the Fourth our family usually attends a small town parade, and always we look forward to the evening fireworks. Small town celebrations are all about the local, although even here in Progressive Vermont, there may be no mention of the several Native tribes that lived here prior to the arrival of Europeans, descendents of who still call Vermont home. I guess acknowledging Native people opens up to many uncomfortable questions concerning genocide, appropriation, and land claims.

As a light-skinned Native person I wrestle with questions of identity. I also, in my elderhood, am likely to speak my mind about issues anyway, although most of the time no one seems to be truly listening. One of my friends, an aged Cree medicine woman who stands just about five feet tall, sometimes wanders around carrying a large hunting rifle, “To get people’s attention.” Sometimes I despair.

Locally we have developed what amounts to a Buddhist/Native dialog. We’ve discovered we agree about most things. For instance, there is a lovely idea in Pure Land Buddhism and in some Native thought that we are already in Paradise and simply don’t recognize it or act accordingly. Rather, we seem to be caught up in the Bardo, spinning endless fantasies derived from fear, greed, and anger.

Life in the Bardo is challenging. We seem to be sinking in a sea of expensive, poorly made, often essential, material goods that break all too often. We go about trying to find distraction or release and fail to notice or acknowledge the suffering created and continued by our actions and those of the folks who came before. In the process, we cause more harm even though we might wish otherwise. No wonder the Prophets from many traditions tell us to wake up. I imagine paying heed to our lives might in the end be less painful than the road we are collectively on now; maybe we could even create the conditions for fine lives and rebirths. Now that is a good Dreaming.

– Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 2013, essay and photographs (includes portrait below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

3 thoughts on “Life in the Bardo

  1. The aborigines in Australia came to mind as I read your article. They and the native Indian have suffered at the hands of Europeans whose so called ‘culture’ failed to see the spirituality and earth consciousness of these races.


  2. scillagrace, thanks for the insightful comment. Perhaps we have come to the place where we are, as a species, throwing away our precious, fragile world and lives. So sad. Yet, there remain other voices and open hearts, for which I am grateful.


  3. Conveniently disposable, planned obsolescence, seems to apply to everything from light bulbs to indigenous people. Is this driven simply by economics? It becomes such a habit, such an evasion of responsibility. Waking up to responsibility, paying heed to our lives, the harm we cause, the ambiguity of our actions, will dismantle our egos, that house of cards upon which so much of our culture rests. And who is brave enough to invite that tumble into fluidity and weather the sea change?


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