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May 04
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Bardo List of Unemployment

Rain, by Joey Johannsen.

Rain, by Joey Johannsen.

For some time I’ve been telling myself that if I had the time I’d meditate more frequently. Given the opportunity and space, I’d park my butt on my meditation cushion and practice shamatha daily like a good meditation warrior.

As an art director in a busy Madison Avenue advertising agency, however, my days were unpredictable and frantic. My schedule was unreliable. I could either work an eight-hour day, or spend entire evenings at my desk meeting deadlines for demanding clients. During the week, time was not mine to do with as I pleased. If I was not attending a brainstorming meeting, I was staring at my computer screen designing ads or flowing copy to a brochure. I always had plenty of excuses to skip meditation or convince myself that I would make up for it the following day.

Then, in February, after a dismissive handshake from my supervisor and signing several legal release forms handed to me by HR, seven years of my life were swept away. Without notice, I found myself having all the time in the world and everything cleared from my schedule and to-do list. The rug had been pulled from under my feet, and I found myself feeling what Pema Chodron refers to as “groundlessness.”

“Welcome to the bardo of unemployment,” a friend wrote when I posted my new employment status on Twitter. “May this be a time of growth and opportunity.” As I gathered my belongings and said good-bye to coworkers, my mind was clouded with thoughts about what I was going to do. I walked out to a cold, wintry New York City day–snow falling and covering the ground around me–and headed home to figure out what steps to take.

The first few days were filled with panic, anger, and confusion. Though I kept reassuring my family and friends that I was all right and I knew what I was doing, I had little confidence in myself or my immediate future. For the better part of the first month of being unemployed, I walked and sat in my apartment–like a ghost lost in a dreamlike state–feeling lost, unable to make up my mind about what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. Unwilling to face my dilemma, I wrapped myself in news and entertainment channels on television that distracted me away from confronting my personal pain and emotional distress.

One morning, after a particularly restless evening, I woke up to make myself a cup of tea. While standing in the kitchen waiting for the water to boil, I relaxed and asked myself, “What would I do if I had all the time in the world?” Tea in hand, I took a pen and piece of paper and began to make a list of things I now had plenty of time to do: see friends, write, travel, catch-up on movies, lower my cholesterol, study, read books on my reading list, lose weight, go to museums, work out, practice.
The last item on the list glared at me. It was painfully obvious that something so important to me arose naturally on the page. It was not a surprise either. My meditation cushion sits next to my bedroom door. There is no way I can miss it when I walk in or out of the room. It practically calls attention to itself by its burgundy and gold colors. It also sits next to the desk where my computer is and where I spend most of my time. At one time or another, my feet brush up against it or rest by one of its side, reminding me of what I could to be doing instead of surfing, chatting, or shopping on the internet.

I decided to name the list ‘The Bardo List of Unemployment” and dared myself to do and scratch items off as I completed them. Now that I had time, I had run out of excuses not to do them. I gave myself no other choice than to practice.

The first week did not go well. My mind was too agitated. I found that I was still angry and confused about my dismissal. I wanted to blame others for my situation; my mind demanded answers to questions: Why me? Why now? What had I done? I wanted to call former coworkers who had been laid-off as well so we could gossip about who was still working or find out who had news that would satisfy my curiosity. Doing that, however, would only feed my anger. So, I tried to diffuse my anger instead. The energy and confusion, however, only seemed to get worse the more I tried to meditate. When my practice lasted only a few minutes, I felt worse and more discouraged. My practice became as erratic and inconsistent as my thoughts. One day I sat for ten minutes. Another day I could only sit still for three. Some days, I avoided the cushion altogether, feeling guilty but unable to gather my thoughts or feel settled enough to focus on my breath.

Practice Space

Practice Space

Then, while reading Gail Sher’s One Continuous Mistake; Four Noble Truths for Writers, I came across the following advice: “If the emphasis is on attendance, one has marvelously succeeded as soon as one is seated at one’s desk…One’s commitment is solely to attend…” The words resonated with me. If I could learn to simply sit on the cushion, I didn’t have to force anything. For the next few days, I merely sat. I didn’t try to do anything other than rest my butt on the cushion without keeping track of time or following my breath. After what I felt was a prudent amount of time, I stood up and rewarded my “attendance” with a cup of tea. On days when I caught myself deliberately avoiding sitting on my cushion, those were the moments when I would go and sit for five or ten minutes–if only to remind myself that my cushion was always available to me. This exercise lasted a few weeks until gradually the practice began to formalize itself.

As the days progressed, I began to sit for longer periods of time, checking my posture, following my breath, looking at the emotions and thoughts that began to rise during meditation. Though I still felt sensitive and exposed, I began to breathe easier, and I allowed myself to sit longer with each raw emotion. Following my meditation instructor’s suggestions, I gave each emotion room and space to rise, manifest, and dissolve. I began to be kinder and gentler with myself. To my surprise, I became curious about how and from where these feelings arose. If I felt angry, I allowed myself to feel it; if I was confused, I asked myself why. With each practice session, I slowly began developing a fledgling sense of confidence in myself, and I began to nurture what is slowly becoming a daily meditation practice.

A lesson learned during this time of uncertainty is that no matter what happens, I will be all right. Although there is still much to be sorted out from this period, this bardo has been a time full and rich with opportunity. Even though I’m far from scratching or removing every item off my Bardo List, I can say that since February I write and read more than I used to. My cholesterol has dropped twenty points and continues to improve. I’ve shed ten pounds. I’m more mindful of my eating habits and diet. I’ve reconnected with sangha friends. And, more to the point, I’ve discovered that if I decide not to return to the demanding world of advertising, there is ample opportunity to do compassionate work that is supportive of my practice.

There is richness in unemployment if we’re open and willing to see it. This temporary space–this bardo–can become a training ground for meditation and personal growth. For me, unemployment has provided time and space to meditate. This bardo has given me what Pema Chodron refers to in The Places That Scare You as an in-between state where “we’re encouraged to spend our whole lives training with uncertainty, ambiguity, and insecurity. To stay in the middle prepares us to meet the unknown without fear…” For this fledgling meditation warrior, there has been no better way and opportunity to sit and confront his fears.


Walt Hernandez is a travel essay writer. He’s been a member and practicing Shambhala Buddhist since 2006. He currently lives in New York City.

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6 responses to “ Bardo List of Unemployment ”
  1. Walt, nice piece! So glad you have joined whatever occurs with the path!

  2. Max Daniels
    May 15, 2009

    Thank you for this! I look like being unemployed for the foreseeable future, but your article inspired me to make my own Bardo Fun List of Unemployment. And I think I’ll take it one step further, and maybe get to some of those things *before* I’m unemployed. Very inspiring – thanks!

  3. It’s quite a commentary on our society that when you are unemployed, you have the time to meditate, lose weight and drop cholesterol or in other words, be healthy.

  4. Maggie Hill
    May 6, 2009

    Hey, they say that we are given what we need….if there is a Higher Power, and I believe there is, he is giving Walter Hernandez exactly what he needs. Hopefully, he’ll keep writing and sharing his thoughts with all of us! He’s got it.

  5. I am a big fan of this author… Most people would not have the maturity and wisdom to turn this time in their lives into an opportunity of self-discovery. Wow, I take my hat off… Keep it up.

  6. John Castlebury
    May 5, 2009


    I treat the now like –
    Like a phobia –
    Anything but now!
    What dread of space could –
    Dreadest space of all

    I dread the moment
    Or behave as if
    I do forever
    Wall-papering now
    With wandering mind:

    Treat my phobia
    Of now that is gap
    With gradually more
    Exposure gradually
    Losing its power

    Eventually I might
    Feel exhilarated
    Instead of horror
    When I touch the snake
    Or climb the mountain.

    [From Satisfaction Feast, Samurai Press, 1997]

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