Traveling Light

by Andrew Holecek

empty shoesOne of the biggest problems in death, as in life, is looking back, or being held back by unhealthy attachments. By cutting our attachments and lightening our load now (by writing wills and other advance directives), we can free ourselves to move forward.

Dealing with all the emotional, medical, legal, and endless practical details that surround death is overwhelming at the time of death, so it behooves us to prepare in advance. The single best thing you can do to have a good death is to relax, and the best way to relax is to have all your affairs in order. These practical preparations have spiritual implications. When we die, we want to travel light into the after-life, what the Tibetans call “bardo” or “gap, transitional process.”  Traveling light allows our consciousness to move forward to our next destination.

This is actually a form of “phowa,” which means “transference, or ejection,” and refers to the movement of consciousness after death.  There are esoteric and exoteric forms of phowa, and getting all our affairs in order now is a form of exoteric phowa. It’s a spiritual practice.

Advance directives help everyone. They help your caretakers follow your wishes; they help your loved ones by removing all the hassles of sorting out your wishes and implementing them; and they help you by lightening the load on your mind and allowing you to move forward.

What are you waiting for? Since death comes without warning, this means you want to prepare now.

Andrew Holecek

Andrew Holecek will offer a class on preparing to die (advance directives, signs of impending death, hospice, grief, funeral issues, and medical and legal challenges) in Boulder, Colorado on the 1st and 2nd of November. He regularly offers seminars internationally on meditation, dream yoga, and death.  He is the author of The Power and the Pain: Transforming Spiritual Hardship into Joy, Preparing to Die: Practical Advice and Spiritual Wisdom from the Tibetan Buddhist Perspective, and the audio learning course, “Dream Yoga: The Tibetan Path of Awakening Through Lucid Dreaming”.  His work has appeared in the Shambhala Sun, Buddhadharma, Light of Consciousness, Utne Reader, and other periodicals.

Shambhala Soldier: Interview with Paul Kendel


Paul Kendel (SSG Ret), MA, is the author of Walking the Tiger’s Path: A Soldier’s Spiritual Journey in Iraq, which chronicles his military deployment in Iraq, experiences of doubt and disillusionment, and eventual introduction to and connection with the Shambhala Buddhist teachings. Paul will be co-hosting a retreat for veterans and their families at Shambhala Mountain Center August 1-4

Paul Kendel

Why are mindfulness techniques effective for ameliorating the symptoms of PTSD?

Mindfulness helped me confront some of the hidden demons related to PTSD. Most veterans want to escape and forget about painful memories related to war, but that is the exact opposite of what one should do. Only by confronting the past can one go forward and live a productive life. Mindfulness meditation practice calms the mind and allows for the proper space for healing to begin.

What was your experience of being in the military prior to discovering the Shambhala teachings?

Before I discovered the Shambhala teachings I had always looked at war and aggression differently than others. I recognized the need for military action under particular circumstances but I did not support the war in Iraq. I deployed because I was already in in the National Guard and it was my responsibility to serve regardless of my personal views. In Iraq I was confronted with levels of ego and aggression that disturbed me greatly. I didn’t see our mission the same as many of my fellow soldiers. I wanted to understand and help the Iraqis, not see them all as “terrorists.” The Shambhala teachings made me realize that it was okay to think the way that I did, that my views were not abnormal.

How have you generated compassion for those who meant you harm, and those allies from whom you were alienated?

The Shambhala teachings helped me understand the motivations of the Iraqis who tried to kill me as well as the views of my fellow soldiers toward them. It wasn’t as black and white as the media would like to portray. It wasn’t a simple fight against “terrorism.” The war was far more complex. The Shambhala teachings helped me see the human element. The men we hunted for or killed were human beings who had families; before our invasion they would probably never have envisioned themselves waiting in the darkness to kill another human being. Likewise, some of my fellow soldiers engaged in acts that they would never have believed themselves capable before being deployed to Iraq.

What problem in transitioning back into a civilian life would surprise someone who has had no exposure to the military?

After returning from Iraq and expressing my views from a Shambhala Buddhist perspective many people were confused. Words like “compassion,” ”basic goodness,” and “Loving-Kindness” are not usually attributed to a soldier’s experiences during war time. My views were based on an effort to understand the Iraqis, but this conflicted with a general understanding of our enemies as terrorists. “You kill terrorists, you don’t waste time talking to them,” has sadly been an all too common approach to the war on terror.

Discerning wisdom is an essential quality of enlightened action, and it seems to have opened you up to much more. Can you recall some interaction with a family member, in the difficult times, that has discerning wisdom behind it?

My experiences in Iraq gave me unusual insight and wisdom into humanity. Sometimes, dark, sometimes illuminating. It certainly shattered any romantic notions of war and patriotism. When I came home on leave from Iraq I told a story to my father and his wife about an incident where I had been nearly killed. Dotted with bad language that I had acquired as a result of my active duty service, my father and his wife got up and walked away in the middle of my story. Confused at the time I forgot about it. But later I realized they had walked away because they had been not only offended by the story but by my language. This did not fit their preconceived notions based on a sanitized understanding of “war.” The reality was that war and its effect on soldiers is not a glorified experience. It’s not all flag waving and patriotism. It’s often ugly, something my father and his wife did not want to see.