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Rude Awakening: Keys to mindful life transitions with Susan Gillis Chapman


According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead a bardo is a period of great transition and uncertainty.  Change is an inevitable part of life, but often when it comes to the BIG changes like a divorce, a career change, the death of a parent or a pandemic we often freeze or panic. Time spent in a bardo cuts to the core of who we are and tests our resolve to stay present in the midst of what feels like chaos.  However, if we have trained in the practice of mindfulness it is possible to meet uncertainty with openness and navigate our way through the bardo to a place that reflects our highest aspirations rather than our fears.

In this episode of AIR I speak with return guest Susan Gillis Chapman, Buddhist teacher and author of the 5 Keys of Mindful Communication, about the perils and possibilities of mindful life transitions.  In the course of this chat we discuss the role of meditation for overcoming the fear of change, self care practices  during big transitions and the keys for awakening to greater wisdom and compassion in uncertain times.

Show notes

  • To learn more about Susan Gillis Chapman check out susangillischapman.com
  • To get a copy of The 5 Keys of Mindful Communication go here
  • To find out more about the mindful communication training check out Green Light Communication
  • To learn more about the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the bardo check out this article on The In Between State by Pema Chödrön


Episode Transcripts

intro  0:09
You’re listening to Awake In Relationship, a podcast about intimacy, community and culture in a time of great change with Silas Rose
Silas Rose  0:40
Hello dear listener, my name is Silas Rose, and you are tuned in to Awake In Relationship,  between COVID and some pretty extreme weather events we’ve been having lately, it really feels like we’re living in this kind of endless liminal state. One of the core tenants in Buddhism is impermanence. Life is often punctuated with transitions and change. It’s a rare individual that welcomes change. For most of us transitions when they come, especially when they’re unexpected, like a divorce or loss of a job, the death of a parent or even a pandemic, we tend to freeze and just try to hold on to what little ground we have left, even if that ground is a source of great suffering. Many listening to  this podcast are probably familiar with the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This text is a unique collection of teachings really on how to navigate the liminal state or what’s known as a bardo. The bardo  is often thought of as a period of time between death and rebirth. However, we’re actually encountering these gaps all the time. And when they show up, we have this unique opportunity to develop a deeper awareness of who we are at our core, and where we’re going. The key to successfully navigating the Bardo really depends on our ability to stay present, and not freak out. With the power of mindfulness it really is possible to meet uncertainty with openness. Mindfulness is like a lamp or sunlight that guides us through the darkness and transition to a place that reflects our highest aspirations rather than their fears. In this episode we welcome back our returning guest, Susan Gillis Chapman,  Buddhist teacher and author of the five keys of Mindful Communication. In this conversation with Susan we talk about the Bardo of life and how to meet changes, both big and small, with compassion, and courage. We also discussed the role of mindfulness meditation, for working with anxiety and fear around change, as well as some self care practices for times of transition. If you tuned in to my previous interviews with Susan, you know that she’s someone that’s really steeped in deep practice, but also has kind of walked the long road with their own personal experiences of the bardo and uncertainty. If you’re really feeling the collective cultural limbo we’re all in right now with COVID or perhaps just going through a really personal BIG change. I think you’ll enjoy this episode.
Good afternoon Susan and welcome back to the show.
Susan Gillis Chapman  3:21
Thank you. So I’m really happy to be back again.
Silas Rose  3:26
So you, you’ve been on a few times. And perhaps for the new listener maybe you can just introduce yourself a little bit and talk about your book, The Five Keys.
Susan Gillis Chapman  3:39
Yeah, sure. Well, introducing myself, I know that you recently interviewed Melissa Moore, and her book has just been published the Diamonds Within. And it’s led me to trace my own story right back to studying at Naropa, studying Buddhist and Western psychology 40 years ago. And I realized that almost all of my work and my teaching kind of spins out from a lot of what we learned in that very intensive program. So we studied, I would say, experimental community have forgotten exactly how many we were less than 20 people, where we kind of went through this intense study and practice and living together in a retreat program studying Buddhist psychology. And so I went on after graduating to work in domestic violence, which led me to work with both victims and perpetrators, both in Colorado and Alaska. And a lot of my work that resulted in my book originated from me offering educational programs, both within the that client population, but also in private practice, working with couples, where I was taking the principles of Buddhist psychology, and using the language of communication, to convey those principles. I didn’t want to go particularly into the language of psychology alone. And I didn’t want to go into the language of religion. But I wanted to come up with a symbolic set of symbols and examples and kind of storytelling that would help people understand how communication is really about discovering our interdependence with each other. So the set of symbols I came up with are the familiar traffic lights, you know, that when, when our communication is open, it’s a green light. And when it’s closed, it’s a red light. And the tricky thing is that as we all know that, you know, there’s a lot of talking that happens when communication is closed. So the whole idea of what is open and what is closed had to be kind of unpacked. And that’s what led to the teachings on mindfulness that if we could begin to look at our own mind and heart, and particularly using the lens of meditation, that we could actually start to notice the difference between being connected to our own awake, body, tender heart, open mind, in meditation, and once we start identifying what openness feels like, we can begin to recognize it more and more in our communication with others. And that this kind of openness is actually a very precious and rare and nourishing experience. And on the other hand, you know, when things are closed communication, as I said, kind of continues to appear to happen, but authentic connection is not there. So another example I would use is the bridge and the barrier, you know, that authentic communication is like a bridge that connects us. And that red light communication is like a barrier that divides us. So that was kind of the starting point for my work. And then the book resulted from that.
Silas Rose  7:32
And that book is really kind of taken off. I forget how many languages it’s published in now, but it seems like it’s getting some traction. And it’s interesting, this conversation  really arose from previous discussions we’ve had, related ta your personal journey, in particular with cancer, and going through a big transition, which relates to the yellow light you discuss the book. So talk us through a little bit about yellow light, and where your thoughts are going these days with with writing and teaching.
Susan Gillis Chapman  8:05
Yeah, that’s a really timely question, because, literally last night, I started to work on the fourth draft of my new workbook. And that’s exactly where I ended up that I’ve gone all the way back to square one with the five keys and identified each of these steps each of these practices as having this potential for process to take place, that there’s a process, it’s not just you’re open, and then you’re closed, or you’re open and closed back and forth. It’s actually that there’s a process that occurs, particularly when we’re triggered. And so this process, which I identified in the book with the word Bardo, and more recently, I’ve been kind of exploring that word. And wanting to bring that word forward a little bit, so that the average reader or listener could begin to define a certain kind of transition as a Bardo. And then that’s somewhat synonymous with yellow light, but it’s not. It’s actually expanding it quite a bit. And so, looking at, like, for instance, it’s much more common for people to say I’ve been triggered, you know, I was triggered by what you just said, was triggered by what I heard, or the trigger warnings and so forth. So here the invitation is to look at what that means. And notice, what is the journey or the process that occurs between that moment and reconnecting to either openness or solidifying into being closed. So the openness is a fluid kind of experience of being present. Close has more of a fixated or frozen, I call it toxic certainty. In other words, you can easily when you’re triggered, you can easily be persuaded to hang on to a rigid set of opinions something that is appealing because it offers security and stability in a kind of a groundless experience. So it’s really, and there’s a lot of parallels there to the Tibetan Buddhist teachings on the Bardo, which can be applied to any kind of gap in our life, not just Traditionally, it was referred to as part of the after death experience. But I’m looking at these transitions, these yellow light experiences. And I’m looking with a little bit of a closer, close up into the process right now, compared to what I was doing. When I originally wrote and taught on the five keys,
Silas Rose  11:01
it seems very timely, in the sense that we’re in kind of a political culture right now, where people are essentially retreating to their respective tribes, being left and right. That  makes me curious about the origins and these teachings a little bit more, and the relevance to this particular time. So you mentioned the Tibetan Book of the Dead. And I’m sure many people tuning in to this podcast are probably familiar with that, But just in case can you give a little bit of a Coles notes on what that is?
Susan Gillis Chapman  11:31
Yeah, sure, um, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is poorly named, that there was some criticism about that translation, because it makes it sound too much like the Egyptian Book of the Dead, or, you know, sort of this rather trippy, kind of, I don’t know, view of the afterlife. But in fact, it’s a very profound text for practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, that helps you to recognize the true nature of your mind, during the process of dying. And in the process that occurs after death, and before you’re reborn again. So it’s, it’s based on the belief system, that all of us are recycled, you know that human beings don’t disappear at death. But that there is not just human beings, all beings, are continuously being reborn, which, by the way, I think is a very helpful view for those of us who are worried about the climate crisis, because it invests in the future in a particular way. And so, these teachings about identifying stages, in this interval between death and rebirth, can be 100% applied to any kind of interval, for instance, the interval between falling asleep and waking up in the morning. Now we can get more specific about different Bardos in everyday life, like, what happens when, when your partner walks out on you without warning, or the shock of losing your job, or your the wildfire takes your home, or for all of us, this pandemic, and the groundlessness and the disorientation when so called normal life disappears. And that’s why I agree with you. It’s a very relevant set of teachings for for these times. Because the, the basic teaching of the Bardo, going back to your original question is that there are some instructions one can follow to prevent one from going into what I would call a red zone. The red zone being these kinds of not not just personal, but social realms in which what we call kleshas, or I call red light, emotions dominate, and are driven by fixated ideas. And so there’s something very luring about those realms when you’re feeling groundless. So the Tibetan Book of the Dead has lots of cautions about Be careful not to be drawn into these realms and learn how to, you could say tread water. Learn how to as as Pema children, the famous Buddhist teacher says in almost every title of every book, you know, when things fall apart or be comfortable with uncertainty, it’s all about learning how to handle fear and groundlessness in a way that allows you to stay open rather than shutting down That’s really where I’ve, I’ve kind of come with my most recent draft of my book, which is to really look at specifically, all of the ways that we’re challenged to shut down. And how do we actually just keep coming back to this trust in the yellow light. And sort of different ways that and then I realized that a lot of that was already embedded in my book, The Five Keys, but I think it was, it needs to be expanded upon.
Silas Rose  15:39
We cant divorce Bardo teachings from the underlying or foundational Buddhist teachings on impermanence and emptiness, luminosity, and certainly, the path of meditation. How do you see mindfulness helping us to kind of navigate through the bardo?
Susan Gillis Chapman  15:57
Mindfulness is hugely important, I would say beyond important to say it’s essential. And it brings me back to some of the Tibetan teachers who, who commented that mindfulness is sort of a basic training of the mind. And that, you know, it’s sort of like, they often use the example of training a horse, you know, like, when you have a trained horse, the horse will do and go where you want. But if you have an untrained horse, it’ll take you wherever it wants. And mindfulness is really kind of a fundamental ability to connect with present moment reality. Right? And so again, using the green light, symbol, you know, when you when you’re mindful, you’re actually attuned to present moment reality. And the way that we’re attuned is through what I call awake body, tender heart and open mind. Those are the three synchronized functions that bring us back to reality and are functioning when we’re in reality. So from that point of view, mindlessness is being out of reality. And we have lots of different words for that. But basically, you know, I mean, imagine when you’re driving the car mindlessly you’re at risk of, you know, driving off the road or hitting someone. And I think it’s wonderful that it’s being taught in schools, it’s exactly what children need to learn. Everyone needs these very basic trainings in how to work with our mind. Otherwise, you know, we’re kind of at the whim of this untrained horse.
It seems something the bardo experience isn’t just, you know, one kind of big event at the end of life. But really, there’s a series of smaller events that are, I think we’re all familiar with these sudden gaps, where something kind of dissolves that we’ve really strongly identified with, like, as you mentioned before, can be a job or can be a partner, a home, where it just sort of disappears into the mist, and then you’re left with this, this kind of uncomfortable space.
Yeah. And so if we call that space, Bardo, what we’re actually giving ourself is a sense of journey. A sense of validating, like, yes, you’re in this space. It’s like, similar to me the instruction in a Buddhist tradition, like when somebody dies, you tell them, You’re dead, you know, you validate that they’ve entered into the space. But there’s also a sense of journey, like so as you said, there’s going there’s an event, a shocking event, perhaps that starts that journey. But then there’s also a process that that you’re going to be engaging with. So there’s a sequence of stages, and then there’s going to be an end there will be a rebirth of some kind.
Silas Rose  19:13
I think we can agree it’s very unsettling experience, what would be the first thing to do if you suddenly realize, actually, hey, this is this is the bardo?
Susan Gillis Chapman  19:24
Yeah. So that’s a little bit of what I’ve been exploring my writing and one of the things I came up with was validation, give it a name. I use the example of diagnosis, you know, like, you have cancer or you know, or your lover has left you or there’s just that need to, because there is that feeling of is this really happening or is this true or so again, imagine that you have a good friend who’s providing you with this guidance. Then this the second thing I feel that we all need is what I call a green zone. or a sheltered sacred space for exploring, like going through this cool boarding process or, or a place to have meaningful dialogue with another person, like you and I are having right now that, but there has, you know, there’s a sense of like what Melissa refers to as container. So having a safe place, whether it’s a park bench somewhere where, when you sit in that space, you are able to be present with whatever’s going on. This is what your meditation corner of the apartment could be, or, but I call it a green zone, because it’s, it’s protected by boundaries. Because I do feel that we’re very vulnerable and aborto. And therefore we’re very susceptible to, you know, influences. So this idea of a safe, trusted friendship, we’re trusted practice that we do. You know, and then I think taking it from there, I have, you know, something I call a restorative dialogue, which is being able to invite in the parts of ourselves that have been lurking in the background that we’re so afraid of. And this goes back to a phrase background anxiety that my teacher used. And, and I’ve identified, you know, five examples of those. And normally, those are cocooned those are fears that are hidden. They’re not obvious. So in my book, I think I call these the five, you know, yellow light fears. And so for instance, they would be like, I’m afraid I’m unlovable, I’m afraid, I’m unforgiveable. I’m afraid I’m unwelcome. I’m afraid I’m powerless. I’m afraid I’m unworthy. So, you know, those core fears have been hidden by our normal, you know, coping mechanisms or defense mechanisms. But often in a Bardo, they’re revealed. And it takes a very trusting, compassionate conversation with another person. This is, of course, what a lot of therapy is. But we can also do that for ourselves by allowing those fears to come forward, and then listen to them with this awake, body tender heart, open mind. So we’re really actually restoring confidence. In our goodness,
Silas Rose  22:53
I know this is kind of a finger painting question, because you’re still working on the ideas. But how do the five keys help people to navigate through big transitions?
Susan Gillis Chapman  23:08
Yeah, so the five keys come from a Buddhist teachings called the Five Buddha families. And it’s really a mandala principle similar to medicine, Buddha or medicine, we’ll you know, so the, the central part of this mandala, the the core, the first key is about space about creating space. And so that’s mindful presence, you know, that’s the practice of mindfulness and will being willing to be present with suffering without doing anything. But just being there, holding steady being present offering space. Because right now, I’d like to translate all of them the language of compassion. So you could say the first key to compassion is being able to hold steady in the face of suffering. Then the second key, I use the word encouragement, that mindful listening is actually more than just being a blank listener. There’s something very heartfelt about listening with encouragement, that you’re kind of seeing the heart of gold and the other person. So that’s, you know, that’s the second it’s related to the what’s called the Rajnath family in the in the mandola. Seeing goodness singled enriching. And then the third one is related to how do we speak? And so the mindful speech is gentleness. And the example I use is the kind of gentleness that we could say an acupuncture healer would use to feel a pulse that you need to have a certain amount of gentleness to feel feel the pulse of what’s going on. And if you’re not speaking from that pulse of what’s going on, then you’re usually speaking from past or future. So the key of gentleness being a guide to speaking in a way that you can be heard, speaking in a way that’s always exploring your own authenticity, rather than, you know, you could say it’s related to the not knowing mind. So that’s actually related to the, the Buddha family, that’s, that’s water, you know, it’s the larger family. And then the the fourth key is unconditional friendliness, which is an approach to relationship in general. So it’s a more kind of a more of an umbrella view of, of, is it possible to be unbiased? Of course, there are people we love dearly. And of course, there are people we don’t like. But can we have a commitment to some degree of what I call we first, where everyone at least has value, but we don’t devalue others. And so that, and that also has to do with looking at impermanence that every relationship ends, and friends become enemies, and enemies become friends and strangers become friends. And you know that there’s this incredible flow of relational experience through our lives. It’s not frozen. And the last key is called playfulness. And that’s another kind of term to describe, what is it like to act skillfully in a situation and the playfulness refers to being able to dance with the coincidence of how things are. In other words, you don’t come in with a preconceived idea of how to, you know, approach something, you’re dancing with the arising of whatever’s there, using the word co incidents, meaning that you’re a kind of a co participant, co creating action, rather than coming in like a bulldozer with a plan. So that’s related to what’s called the karma family or the the family, the energy, the Buddha of, of activity, it’s skillful activity,
Silas Rose  27:37
So basic training for staying open in uncertain times, rather than hardening into a particular position.
Susan Gillis Chapman  27:47
Yes, exactly. And I think the way that I’m going to be trying to unpack it for this next draft of my attempted book, is really looking at all of them as compassionate responses to suffering. Like, what are the ways like when you when you encounter suffering, most human beings respond compassionately when they see suffering. The problem is that in our red zones, suffering is masked. So you look at certain political figures whose names I won’t repeat, and you immediately can’t stand that person. Right? Because their suffering is masked as arrogance or a masked in some way. But so, you know, sometimes I imagine being with them on their deathbed where everyone’s equal, you know, that just seeing the suffering for what it is, rather than being fooled by the mask. And I think that’s a big challenge, especially when we’re looking at our own suffering. You know, to actually see that our own, you might say, what we think of as a character defect is actually just a mask for the suffering that we’re neglecting. It’s sort of like the neglected wound that’s infected because we’re not able to actually go in and heal it.
Silas Rose  29:15
Yeah. Well, it seems like there is a lot of suffering right now in general, and we’re all in kind of this collective bardo with the pandemic, which is interesting, because, you know, typically bardos are thought of as, individualized or personalized experience of uncertainty or groundlessness. What do you feel the gifts are on this particular moment with the pandemic?
Susan Gillis Chapman  29:43
Yeah, well, I think that anytime you have a global suffering, whether it’s the climate disaster, or whether it’s a global illness, there’s always that little possibilty that we will identify ourselves as a global community of human beings, instead of dividing up according to, you know, borders, or where, as you said, political parties, you know, all of that tends that kind of populism or, you know, extremism, it would be the redzone. So, you know, when you see, like, for instance, this issue of how do we extend whatever medicines we have, how can we make sure we extend them to countries that aren’t as well off, as we are, you know, how do we take care of our brothers and sisters and children who are in other parts of the world. So there’s, there’s always that possibility. And then, you know, I don’t want to be, I think that for myself anyway, and I was gonna say, I don’t want to be countered to your criticism about online media, but I have been able to find connection through zoom in a way that I haven’t been able to have in any other way. So for me, one of the blessings has been that I’ve got friends in Europe, and I’ve got friends from, you know, far away, that I am much more able to connect with now than I was before it became more common to, you know, do what you and I are doing right now talking from a distance, I would lose a lot of our friendships, if we didn’t have these methods, and even my cancer group, we have a exercise class that meets, there’s 90 people from all over British Columbia that get together and do exercise in our living rooms, that we would not normally be able to do at all. So in some ways there is there are ways of connecting, that were not available, and creating almost the possibility of a global village. And the more that we can think that way and care about each other and support each other. I think that’s really the only fabric of hope we’ve got for working with these huge global crises.
Silas Rose  32:17
Well, this is probably a great place to end our conversation. And I’m really excited to hear more about this new thread, because I do believe it’s in good medicine for these times. So Susan, thank you again, and we’ll have you back. And how can people learn more about you and your work?
Susan Gillis Chapman  32:38
Well, thank you. I’m a little behind in upgrading my website, but I do have one. It’s Susangillischapman,com. And yeah, I guess just stay tuned. Thanks!

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