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Frank Ostaseski is an internationally respected Buddhist teacher and pioneer in end-of-life care. Visionary founder of the Metta Institute and cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project (the first Buddhist hospice in America), he has accompanied over 1000 people through their dying process. He is the author of The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, and he has been honored by the Dalai Lama.
1440: The first invitation in your book is "Don't wait." You write: "Don't wait is a pathway to fulfillment and an antidote to regret." Can you explain why this invitation is so important to connection?
Frank Ostaseski: Someone once said, "Whatever we have done with our lives makes us what we are when we die. And everything, absolutely everything, counts." Waiting is full of expectation. Waiting for the next moment to arrive we miss this one. The habits of our lives, including those around connection, have a powerful momentum that propel us toward the moment of our death. The obvious question arises: What habits do we want to create?
Suppose we stopped compartmentalizing death, cutting it off from life. Imagine if we regarded dying as a final stage of growth that held an unprecedented opportunity for transformation. Could we turn toward death like a master teacher and ask, "How, then, shall I live?" Without a reminder of death, we tend to take life for granted, often becoming lost in endless pursuits of self-gratification. However, when we keep death at our fingertips, it reminds us not to hold on to life too tightly. Maybe we take ourselves and our ideas a little less seriously. We let go a little more easily.
When we recognize that death comes to everyone, we appreciate that we are all in the boat, together. This helps us to become a bit kinder and gentler with one another.
The two most important questions that are on people's hearts and minds as they come close to death are, "Am I loved?" and "Did I love well?"
All of our relationships will end in separation. The people we love will die. The question becomes how do I want to care for them and life now? If being loved and loving well are what is most important at the time of dying, well then that is what is most important now.
Dying folks taught me that.
1440: You talk about death as "lead(ing) us toward wholeness": what do you mean by that?
Frank Ostaseski: The word wholeness is related to "holy" and "health," but it is not a vague, homogenous oneness. It is better expressed as interconnectedness. Each cell in our bodies is a part of an organic, interdependent whole that must work in harmony to maintain good health. Similarly, everybody and everything exists in a constant interplay of relationships that reverberates throughout the entire system, affecting all the other parts. When we take action that ignores this basic truth, we suffer and create suffering. When we live mindful of it, we support and are supported by the wholeness of life.
To be human is much more than being born, getting an education, finding the right partner, and getting a pretty house on a nice street, just so that you can sleep, wake, work, go to bed, and do it all over again.
It is an invitation to feel everything, to come into direct contact with the strange, beautiful, horrible, and perfectly ordinary thing we call life. It is an opportunity to be conscious of the fact that some of us will make love while others make war.
To recognize the truth that there are babies like my granddaughter born into loving arms and caressed by a mother who kisses her bright future into her child's cheeks, and there are babies like Carolyn, a woman I knew, whose parents left her in a dumpster as a baby.
To be willing to see that there are teenagers being shot in our schools and others who are speaking truth to power. To embrace the night screams in Syrian refugee camps and the giggling of children in living rooms under tents made of couch pillows and bedsheets.
There is devastation and hopelessness, and there is passion and holy commitment to creating a better future for everyone.
There is me speaking and you listening and the separation between us, and there is the unity we feel almost immediately when we are reminded that there is love.
This whole life is a place where we can make real and right our dedication to awakening, in living and dying, in caring and being cared for. Being completely and vividly present for the rich details of our lives and...
1440: You've written that "love is what allows us to let go," and, yet, after letting go of a loved one who has died, many people still feel connected. (In your book, Samantha says about Jeff after he dies, "I thought I was losing him, but he is everywhere.") Can you talk about how our relationships with loved ones change after death?
Frank Ostaseski: Grief is a normal, natural response to loss. Most often, we think of grief as an overwhelming response to a singular event, usually the death of someone we love. Yet when we look more closely, we see that grief has been our companion for a good part of our lives. Everyday grief arises when we remember how the carelessness of our actions has caused harm to others. It comes in moments of not being recognized, at times when our expectations aren't met. Sometimes our grief is about what we've had and lost, and sometimes it is about what we never got to have in the first place.
Sadness is just one of the many faces of grief. I find it useful to think of grief as a constellation of responses, an ever-changing process.
Grief also includes the experience of loneliness and relief, blame and shame, and periods of numbness when we feel like we are walking through molasses. Grief is unpredictable, uncontrollable. Our fear of this lack of control leads us to ideas about managing our grief or getting over our grief. We need to allow for the full spectrum of expressions of grief, from the numbness and absence of expression to wild, out-of-control displays of emotion.
Grieving the death of someone we love is like being thrown into a raging river of powerful and conflicting emotions. It pulls us down, down beneath the surface of our lives and into dark waters where we cannot breathe. Frantically, we try to escape the whirlpool of this inner journey. Surrendering, we feel ourselves carried forward by gentle currents to a new destination. Emerging from the water, we step ashore with refreshed eyes, and we enter the world in a new way.
When someone close to us dies, we experience a tremendous sense of loss. At first, it's like reaching for a hand that has always been there, only to discover that it is no longer available. Gradually we see that the relationship continues. The person is in some way internalized, and you can carry them with you wherever you go. They might surprise you when a memory of them shows up when you least expect them. You can talk to them, they talk to you, they can be with you, and you can be with them. You are not crazy because you feel the presence of your loved one in your heart.
The grieving process is like a transitional space in your relationship. The physical presence of the other person used to be at the center of the relationship, but now that there is no physical presence, the center of the relationship is the sensitivity and love that lives within you.
We don't get past our pain. We go through it and are transformed by it.
1440: You've written that "Listening without judgment is probably the simplest, most profound way to connect. It is an act of love." In our world today, listening seems to be a lost art. How can we improve at listening? What steps can people take today to get better at this simple yet potentially profound act?
Frank Ostaseski: Perhaps the greatest gift we can give another human being is our attention. Each of us seeks to be understood. Every heart wants to be known by another.
In many ways our listening is a complete gift. We place no demands. We are not giving advice, imposing our reactions, solving problems, or driving toward a particular outcome. It is an offering.
Often in listening we don't allow the mind to simply receive reality. We actively influence our reality to make it fit into a preconceived story or structure and then assume that our embellished version is the truth.
First and foremost, we need to be self-aware. In Zen we speak of cultivating a "listening heart" through meditation practice. Listening is a healing practice. To listen generously we need to learn to listen from the belly, heart, and head. Listening from the belly, we attend to the non-verbal cues, the energetic qualities. This is where we cultivate intuition, what we call a "gut feeling." When we listen from the heart we cultivate altruism, kindness, compassion, and empathy. From the head, we listen to the storyline, the content, or narrative. We cultivate discernment, wisdom, and clarity.
I've always appreciated the guidance of the great humanistic psychotherapist Carl Rogers.
Before every session, I take a moment to remember my humanity. There is no experience that this man has that I cannot share with him, no fear that I cannot understand, no suffering that I cannot care about, because I too am human. No matter how deep his wound, he does not need to be ashamed in front of me. I too am vulnerable. And because of this, I am enough. Whatever his story, he no longer needs to be alone with it. This is what will allow his healing to begin.
1440: "Welcome everything. Push away nothing." That's the second invitation in your book, and some might say the hardest one to accomplish. Our natural inclination is to push away the uncomfortable, including death. How can we improve at welcoming everything that happens to us? And why is it important to do so?
Frank Ostaseski: We like the familiar; we like certainty. We love to have our preferences met. In fact, most of us have been taught that getting what we want and avoiding what we don't is the way to assure our happiness. Inevitably, though, there are unexpected experiences in our lives—an unanticipated move, a job loss, a family member's illness, the death of a beloved pet—that we want to push away with all of our might. When faced with the uncertain, our first reaction is often resistance. We attempt to evict these difficult parts of our lives as if they were unwanted houseguests. In such moments, welcoming seems impossible or even unwise.
When I say that we should be receptive to whatever presents itself to us, do I mean that we should let life walk all over us?
Not at all.
When we are open and receptive, we have options.
We are free to discover, to investigate, and to learn how to respond skillfully to anything we encounter. We can't be free if we are rejecting any part of our lives. With welcoming comes an ability to meet and work with both pleasant and unpleasant circumstances. Gradually, with practice, we discover that our well-being is not solely dependent on what's happening in our external reality; it comes from within. In order to experience true freedom, we need to be able to welcome everything just as it is.
At the deepest level, this invitation, like life itself, asks us to cultivate a kind of fearless receptivity. Welcome everything, push away nothing cannot be done solely as an act of will. To welcome everything is an act of love.