Embracing This Precious and Precarious Life with Frank Ostaseski 9.20.2015

A couple weeks back I had the opportunity to attend a workshop with Frank Ostaseki, the founder of the Zen Hospice Care center and someone who is a student of death, on the preciousness of life. Here are my notes from the workshop:

  • Background:
    • Founded Zen Hospice in 1987
    • Founded Metta Institute in 2004
    • Teaches Heavenly Messenger at Spirit Rock
    • Bill Moyers: Healing and Mind (http://billmoyers.com/series/healing-and-the-mind/)
  • Norman Fischer Into Emptiness: On the death of his mother
    • At first it was a shock to see her.
    • Body related as though it wasn’t hers
    • She gave up her dislikes and likes
    • Dim of awareness as it went
    • I knew she was gone, but it didn’t make sense. She was gone, but she was present.
    • Recited the heart sutra: everything is emptiness
    • Mom was alright, but it was going to be hard to get on without her.
  • A concept that was continually replayed throughout the course of the day: Don’t Wait, get ready to die
  • Important to Recognize how to do this
    • To die is natural but with technology age we may have forgotten how
    • There is an innate compassion and kindness in death
    • Holding someones hand as they are dying is precious
    • It is hard to imagine at the time of death to have the mental clarity and body strength to the learn the lessons of a life time. Now is a good time.
    • Don’t grab so much
    • Releasing and letting go brings kindness and gentleness
  • Someone asked the Buddha, what about eternity
    • The Buddha said, “Let’s say there are many heavenly realms, what does it matter?. Prepare.”
    • The Buddha said, “What if this is the only life? Then man should be kind.”
  • Being with someone dying will push you to your limits
    • It will challenge all your beliefs
    • Helplessness will be your companion
    • Doubt will plague you
    • All habitual patterns will come up
    • We want comfort and security during this time, but we get uncertainty. Is life really any different?
  • Zen Hospice
    • Began by helping the dying poor
    • In order to be of any use, I have to do my own work.
    • I had to be straightforward and honest, because otherwise patients could call it out quickly. They simply did not have the time to waste
    • In death, it’s hard to have hierarchy
    • I don’t lead with tools, I lead with humanity when sitting with death
  • Frank asked us to share out names and what brought us to the workshop. He said to steer away from “why” because Why lead us in circles
    • What brought you here? What vs why?
    • What is “I love them, I want to alleviate suffering;” and “Why is my friend died last month.”
  • Learning not to hold opinions so tightly >> this is something mom does very well
  • Love and loss is a packaged deal, but for whatever reason we don’t think about the loss part
  • Beliefs come and go, but in dying beliefs go out the window
    • Faith comes from inspiration
    • Verified faith: Some experience gives you confidence in a certain belief of what will occur
    • Abiding Faith: That it will workout even if it does not work out they way you want
  • Tracking Questions
    • Every evening Frank and his wife ask four questions:
      • What inspired you?
      • What challenged you? What made you stretch?
      • What surprised you? Surprise shows you where you can be flexible
      • What did you learn about love?
  • On Oprah Winfrey, she asked him what does he know for sure. He responded: I know we will all die. Books are going to go, your boots, everything. When you are not who you think you, then who are you. Don’t wait to answer who you are, until that everything and all things you identify with are gone
  • Just Be Human:
    • Touch your basic humanity
    • And your own helplessness and our vulnerability
  • What is the future of buddhism?
    • Service. We have been sitting on our cushions for a long time. My suffering is your suffering, and yours is mine.
  • Dying is Chaotic
    • Breaks out of all the boxes
    • All about relationships with myself
  • Characteristics of Being with Dying
    • The first aspect of dying is pain management, but this is no longer a problem with morphine
    • The second area is the yearning to understand meaning of this life, but this too will fall away. During this time, you notice people speaking nostalgically.
    • The final arena is that of master of this existence; the territory of unanswerable question. In this space, you can only hold awareness
  • Exercise:
    • Get into groups, and begin sharing your reflections on this question, “What will you do with this precious garden you have been given?”
    • When the month of your birthday is called, then go stand in heaven
    • My reflections:
      • I was about to share when the circle opened, and another lady began sharing. Moments later he called April, and I died and went to heaven. At first, I found it funny seeing everyone in the “world” but then I began to feel sad as everyone slowly died away and joined me in heaven.
  • What is the lesson: Don’t Wait
    • Don’t wait until you do not have the physical or emotional capacity to do a lifetimes worth of work
    • Don’t wait to say what you need to say
    • The fear of death will not go away and your ego can’t handle it
    • Whatever we can give space to can move
    • 3 things happen at death
      • Pain, but there is morphine
      • Meaning of life: A lot reminisce about old memories
      • Mystery of life: What is this life and where are we going
    • Most people want to be sleeping when they die, Frank wants to be awake to experience it. Dying is a significant part of the self-development path. I too felt scared of dying while awake, but after hearing this I think I want to be awake as well. I want to say bye and try to enjoy the ride wherever it takes me too.
    • The fear of death is not going away and will not, we have to find a part of us that can hold space for it — i.e. like maintaining a capacity for it
  • Helping vs. Serving
    • Helping comes from strength and creates debt
    • Serving recognizes the wholeness of the individual
    • Watch out for this story “it takes a lot of work to…” This prevents us from starting the work or doing the work. We don’t know what is going to happen, so we fill it with stories
  • Relationships do not end
  • Awakening and enlightenment feel far off; Frank prefers the practice of intimacy
    • What is the practice of intimacy? Becoming intimate with all things
  • Suffering
    • To be okay with our loved ones dying, we need to be okay with suffering. There is a labor to birth, there is a labor to death.
    • Trust in the process of dying
    • Release ourselves from roles
    • There is enough suffering, but we add to it:
      • The illusion of control, security and safety
        • You can’t control how reality unfolds
      • Demand for things to be different
      • Argue with what is. We regularly argue with the present moment
        • Norman Fischer never rushes and never makes excuses for late.
  • What is actually true right now? If I stay with what is true right now, more truth will unfold. For example, if I am true to what I am feeling in this moment, more truth will unfold.
  • Single most complex concept: my sense of self
    • Familiar self is tied up with the familiar world
    • Our beliefs are not neutral. They are not harmless and they divide us
    • Wisdom frees us
    • There is this fear, then the aversion — you have to keep stepping back
    • Things are always falling apart against the perfect back drop (in or our minds)
      • The backdrop is awareness
      • Can be infused with qualities of awareness and wisdom
    • With anger you have three options: (1) Express it, (2) Repress it, or (3) Contain it/hold it and feel it. Remember: hatred is a cheap imitation.
    • Being open minded
      • Exercise: Partner A will ask you “Tell me what is right about not being open minded.” And, Partner B will answer and you will listen without any reaction and after they have shared, Partner B will say thank you, and switchI have trouble being open minded. When we choose contraction we add to our suffering.
      • Vulnerability = open mindedness
      • Transparency
      • We are vulnerable, when we can be open and porous
      • Whatever you say in your head, say thank you. Let this be your mantra.
      • If we are arranging deck chairs on the titanic, we are missing the big picture
      • My job is to be available, not judge
      • Intimacy requires presence, not history
      • When we are compassionately present, others feel safe and no what, say thank you.
      • The process of meditation and dying is similar
  • The Transpersonal Arc
    • Born
      • Develop into individuals
        • We are forming ourselves as individuals and we repress other parts of ourselves
      • Death
        • Dying can accelerate the process of integration
      • When a child is born, they are one body with the mother they are known as a dual unity. For some months the child does not experience being separate. The moment the mom leaves the room, the fear of death forms. The child forms the mental image of safety with the mother.
      • I and Other
      • Time and Space
      • Mind and Body
      • At some point we start living in our thoughts. There is no mistake to it, and it is necessary part of growth
  • Last Words of the buddha
    • Coming together, means parting. This is the nature of life.
    • Stop do not speak, this is my final teaching. Seek the way of liberation
  • Frank ended with the following
    • If there is something useful, it has come from my ancestors
    • If it useful, chew on it. If not, spit it out.
  • Personal Reflection: The only thing that matters is kindness. People will remember nothing, but how you make them feel, not what you did. I want to measure myself by kindness, wonder and awe. The real miracle is walking on this earth in peace.