Frank Ostaseski: What the Living Can Learn From the Dying
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Aug 5, 2017
Guest: Frank Ostaseki Moderator: Immanual Joseph Host: Pavi Mehta
Pavi: Good morning, good afternoon and good evening. My name is Pavi and I will be your host for our weekly global Awakin call. Welcome and thank you for joining us. The purpose of these calls is really to share stories. Stories that help plant seeds for a more compassionate society while fostering our own inner transformation. We do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life who inspire us through their actions to live in a more service oriented way. Behind each of these calls is an entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers whose invisible work allows us to hold this space.
Today our guest is none other than Frank Ostaseski, someone who really embodies today's theme of what the living can learn from the dying. Thank you again for joining today's call. Let's start with a minute of silence to anchor ourselves.
Thank you and welcome again to our weekly Awakin Call today in conversation with Frank Ostaseski. Here's how the call works. In a few minutes, our moderator Immanual Joseph will engage in deep dialogue with our guest, and by the top of the hour, we'll roll into Q and A and a circle of sharing where we invite all your reflections and questions. I've opened up the queue right now so at any point you can hit * 6 on your phone and you'll be prompted when it's your turn to speak. You can also email us at email@example.com...that's firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'd like to take a moment to introduce our very special moderator for today's call, Immanual Joseph. Immanual Joseph is the CEO and founder of Kulture of Kindness, an app that looks to spread compassion in the workplace and in schools. He is a former cancer scientist, a writer, a published author and a volunteer for Daily Good. He's also a life coach and it is an honor to have him with us today. Thank you Immanual for your service in so many areas. I will hand over to you now for an introduction of Frank and set the ball rolling.
Immanual: Thank you, Pavi. Frank, it's a pleasure to have you here today.
Frank: I'm very, very delighted to be with you.
Immanual: Frank Ostaseski is a Buddhist and a leading voice in contemplative end of life care. In 1987, he co co-founded the Zen Hospice Project, the first Buddhist hospice in America. In 2004, he created the Metta Institute, to provide innovative educational programs and professional trainings that foster compassionate, mindfulness-based care. A primary project of the Metta Institute is End Of Life Practitioner Program that Frank leads with faculty members Ram Dass, Rachel Naomi Remen and others. Frank is a dynamic, original and visionary teacher. His public programs throughout the United States and Europe have introduced thousands to the practice of mindful and compassionate care for the dying. In 2001, Frank was honored by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, for his years of service to the dying and their families. In 2003, he was named one of America's 50 most innovative people in America by the AARP magazine. Frank's groundbreaking work has been widely featured in the media. Frank has served as a consultant to several healthcare organizations, N.G.O.s and foundations including Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Fetzer Institute and others. Frank is also the author of ‘Being A Compassionate Companion’ audio series. Frank has been a keynote speaker and consultant for hundreds of educational, healthcare and spiritual institutions and programs. Welcome, Frank!
Frank: Thank you...lovely to be with you. Thank you for organizing this. I just feel at the beginning...how grateful I am for the Awakin program and for ServiceSpace in general, and the sister sites, the Daily Good, Karma Tube and the others. It's a remarkable service that you offer the world and I'm always tuning into them and always reading the summaries that I get...I just think the world of it. It's a great example of mutual beneficial service. Thank you for doing it.
Immanual: Thank you, Frank, thank you. Definitely Pavi and the entire team...they're bringing amazing value to this world. I would like to start with a question for you, Frank...you are a brave man. Day in and day out, you deal with death and the dying. You have brought dignity and beauty to the last moment of more than a thousand people...and most of us shy away from the slightest discussion about death. What led you on this journey?
Frank: Oh boy, Immanual. I think it's difficult to say...our lives...at least, my life doesn't progress in a linear fashion, you know. It meanders a bit. This beautiful story that I share in my book about children going from village to village in India and the paths are always meandering...they'd go around the rock, over to a beautiful view, etc., and then they got sandals, and they started carrying heavy loads and the paths became very straight and narrow. I think I walked barefoot for a long time. I had an early relationship with death, my mother died when I was a teenager, my father just a few years later, and so death and I were companions quite early on.
I worked for a while in refugee camps in Central America and Southern Mexico where I saw a lot of horrible dying and that had a huge influence on me. When I came back to the States, the AIDS epidemic had exploded, and so, we were just beginning. We didn't know what we were dealing with, and so, we had a lot of friends and colleagues who were dying. We just jumped in to try and take care of people. And I think also honestly, when I was younger, I had a lot of pain in my life, a lot of suffering in my life. I tried everything possible to avoid it...everything. But at some juncture, none of it worked really...so at some juncture, you have to turn toward the experience, toward what hurts...and that's where the compassion is found. And so for me, meditation practice was a huge part of that turning toward the experience. It helped me to have the stability to go toward what I always wanted to run away from. So, I would say that Buddhist practice and its emphasis on the study of death has been an enormous influence on my life and a big factor in the work that I've done. We started the Zen Hospice back in the mid 80's and we didn't really know what we were doing. It was a kind of fusion of spiritual insight and practical social action. I thought there was a natural match between people who were cultivating what I might call the listening mind in meditation practice, for listening hard and people who really needed to be heard at least once in their life, folks who were dying. And in the beginning, that was mostly folks who were living in the streets of San Francisco, and so, they didn't care much about Buddhism. They just wanted honest relationships, and so, if we were going to be of any service to them, we had to really see our own relationship to these issues, sickness, for aging, to death, so that we could be a really true companion to people. So, that's a long answer to a short question but it gives you a sense of my work.
Immanual: That is a beautiful journey and it is also a very brave journey because not everyone turns towards their suffering and people usually walk away from it...but you've chosen to do it and that has made a difference for you and for thousand of the lives that you've influenced with your work. I want to congratulate you on your recent book, ‘The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully’ -- and your book has been gathering great reviews...Congratulations!
These five invitations that you write about in your book -- Welcome everything, push away nothing; Bring your whole self to the experience; Don't wait; Find a place of rest in the middle of things; and Cultivate a don't know mind -- these are incredibly powerful life practices. So, I am curious what led you to write this book and how did you settle on these five invitations?
Frank: Yeah well, I have to really give credit for the book - all the credit for the book - to my dear bride, my wife, Vanda whose idea it was to write the book. She really wanted me to do this and the thought that I had something useful to offer the world. And so, as an anniversary present, she gave me the services of a wonderful editor, MieMie Fox, who helped me develop a proposal for it and then we worked together on the book. So, I really have to give my wife all the credit. The Five Invitations, I wrote in an airplane, thirty thousand feet over Kansas. I was invited by Bill Moyers, the world-renowned journalist, to come back to Princeton, to help orient and teach his staff who were preparing for a television series called ‘On Our Own Terms’. So, I prepared this very salient talk to give at this conference but on the airplane, I was thinking about what are the things that people who are dying have taught me. On a cocktail napkin, I wrote down these five phrases that you just relayed, and I stuck it in my shirt pocket. And when we came to the event that Bill had organized, I was on a panel with some renowned experts, and they were terrific and had a lot of things to say but they ate up all the time, and I never got to give my salient Buddhist talk, and so, Bill pulled me aside and said, "Frank, could you just speak by yourself for just a few minutes about the heart of the work." So, I pulled out my cocktail napkin and on it I had written down - Don't wait; Welcome everything, push away nothing; Bring your whole self to the experience; Find a place of rest in the middle of things; and Cultivate don't know mind. I really have to give the people that I work with, the patients that I serve, the folks who are dying, who allowed me the great honor of being with them, for teaching me these things - they all came from them. It was my way of phrasing it, but they were my teachers, and so, it's what they...their greatest gift to me. So, I felt a responsibility to share it with a large audience of folks.
Immanual: That's beautiful and we're so glad you did, and I'm hoping that in this call you could guide us to those five invitations. Your first invitation is 'welcome everything, push away nothing'.
Frank: In the book, it's different, it's 'don't wait' but let's go with whatever order you want to go in.
Immanual: Ok, so I was thinking about 'welcome everything, push away nothing' just because that is challenging me personally in a lot of ways. When we welcome everything and push away nothing, that includes the good and the bad, and that involves a certain level of equanimity. And, I'm curious what does it really mean to welcome everything, especially in the reality of dealing with the death of a loved one? How can we cultivate this attitude?
Frank: Well, you know, I think that the most important thing to understand about this invitation is that the word welcome actually challenges our notion, our judgments about what's acceptable, what's not acceptable. Welcome everything, push away nothing doesn't mean you have to agree with it, that you have to like what's coming. It means you have to be willing to meet it. It's at your doorstep and are you willing to meet it? The great African-American writer James Baldwin wrote something beautiful when he said, "There are many things in life we must face that we cannot change but nothing can be changed until it is faced." So, to welcome everything means to be willing to meet it, to be willing to open to the experience, and when we have that capacity, then we actually have more options. We can see more of the picture. We're not held in the stranglehold of that thing that we're resisting. Now, it's of course, incredibly difficult when someone we love is dying, maybe the most difficult thing to do, save perhaps our own death, but for some even more difficult.
So, how do we come toward this not in some kind of Pollyanna way, not in some kind of, oh, it's all beautiful, because it's not. Death is difficult, it's messy and it's painful sometimes. Challenging in so many ways and it also can be transformative and mysterious. But most of all, it's normal. It's what all of us will go through at some juncture. And so, when we learn to turn toward the experience, we turn toward also what it has to offer us, what it has to teach us. When we know that life is absolutely precarious, Immanual, you know...it's so precarious. When we touch that, when we let that in, when we let that seep into our bones, then we understand just how precious it is, then we don't want to waste a moment. We want to jump into our life with both feet. We want to tell the people that we love them. So, it's the precariousness of life that shows us what's really important, what really matters. So, to welcome is to include, it is to be real, and say, "Oh, this is part of life." What can I do with it? What can I learn from it? How can it help me to love more?
Immanual: Wow...I would believe that it is a difficult thing to be in touch with, on an everyday basis. Do you have any cheat sheets for that?
Frank: Say that last part again, I'm sorry.
Immanual: I'm curious...it's such a difficult attitude to cultivate, and I'm wondering if you have any cheat sheets for us, any shortcuts.
Frank: You know, a friend of mine was talking to me about my book the other day. He said, "You know, it's going to be a slow burn, this book." In other words, it's going to develop on its own, because people are going to have to work at it. I think one of the things that we get caught in is imagining that there's a quick fix for just about everything. These are the big challenging issues of our life, and there aren't simple answers for all of them...but I think what's important to recognize is that all of us, each one of us, you and I, and everybody on this call has the capacity to meet the suffering of another individual, to embrace it as their own, that we have within us the innate wisdom and compassion and love which we need, to address these kinds of really challenging issues.
Some years ago, when I was a teenager, I was a lifeguard in a school for severely disabled kids and when they went from kindergarten to seniors in high school, I used to teach swimming in the pool, and these were very disabled kids...there was one girl, Jasmine, this beautiful sixteen year old, who would have been the homecoming queen of her school, except that she had spina bifida. The way the disease contorted her body, she was too self-conscious to get into a bathing suit and come into the pool but she loved to watch and she loved to make wisecracks, and she loved to flirt with a lifeguard. So, she would come to the pool every few days and I spent months really trying to encourage her to give swimming a try and I would playfully reflect back to her strength, her courage, her sense of adventure, and the beauty that I saw radiating from within her. When someone believes that they are beyond love, you can't convince them to love themselves but you can show them that they are loved. The poet, Galway Kinnell wrote a beautiful poem, ‘Saint Francis and the Sow’, he said, "Sometimes, it's necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness." And so, one day Jasmine came into the pool and she took off her orthopedic shoes and braces, and she slipped her feet up onto the marble slab at the side of the pool and dipped her toes in the water. Six months later, she showed up one day in a turquoise bathing suit, I remember, and without any prompting, she moved her body on to this marble slab, called me over, and leapt into my arms, like a seven year old. It was just beautiful to see.
But here's the thing that's really important for me about the story. I mentioned earlier that I had a difficult upbringing as a child, there was a lot of suffering in my life, and like all children, I always held up the hope that someday, someone will rescue me. And I imagined that I would be saved by love coming toward me. But it was just the opposite. I was rescued when love came through me. I discovered love through acts of kindness, offered to me, not offered to me, rather but by coming from me.
The experience of being with Jasmine and the other disabled kids, they had unlocked a kind of compassion. It was deep in the heart of my suffering. I discovered a love that was essential and reliable and undamaged really, despite the difficulties of my family life. And so, love has been my mentor all along. This has enabled me to do this work for 30-35 years now without ever burning out because I know the source of my actions is love and compassion. It's not something I manufacture, it's something I make contact with. It’s already here and each of us has that, each of us has those qualities.
Immanual: That is so so powerful, kind of reminds me of what I read once, I think it is attributed to Mother Theresa, that ‘we are pencils in the hands of god’. The fact that you allowed love to flow through you, instead of to you ... It's such a powerful lesson. Thank you for sharing that.
Frank: Yes, of course, of course.
Immanual: So another invitation that you have in your book is to bring your whole self to the experience and this was something again that I struggle with -- how is possible to live fully when we know that everything is impermanent, the clock is ticking away - kind of feels counter-intuitive. What are your thoughts on that, Frank?
Frank: (laughter) Well, yes, I mean, I think that we like security, we like familiarity, we like the known, but what we are given is actually uncertainty, you know; we are given constant change. Where's this morning's breakfast you know? Where is last night's love-making? Where, by God, has my blond hair gone to? I used to have it! Now I am old and grey. Everything is changing all the time, it's always coming and going, all right? That's in the very fabric of existence so to deny that truth is to suffer. To deny the reality of that is to cause ourselves a lot of pain. So instead, what would happen if we turned toward this experience? What would happen? I mean, I think that we rely on impermanence, that really boring dinner party that you are going to go to tonight, it's going to end. And, great dictatorships will fall and be replaced by thriving democracies. George Harrison, the great singer, reminded us that all things must pass. And, I think that to live in harmony in attunement, if you will, with this basic truth, when we start to realize that our nature and the nature of the world, is not fundamentally different, that the fact that things are constantly changing and they're not fixed, this becomes a liberating opportunity rather than a threat. So without impermanence, without constant change, your children wouldn't grow up. Pain would not go away. Our problems would never be resolved. So we need it. We actually need it.
Many years ago, when my son was 4 or 5 years old (he's a grown man now), I had a preschool with a friend of mine and we used to take the children, 4 or 5 years old, to the woods to find dead stuff. That was the object, that was the lesson of the day. They'd pick up a rusty old car part or a dead leaf or a twig or some bones, perhaps from a dead animal, and we'd gather them up and we'd put them out on a blue tarp and we'd have a kind of show and tell. The children were so curious about this, they weren't afraid at all. They weren't at all afraid of death. They were curious about it and they had great stories about how this piece of bark was a bed for a mouse and the rusty old car part was actually part of a space ship that had fallen down from the sky as it passed overhead. This one little girl said to me, ‘I think the leaves that fall from the trees are so generous to make room for the new leaves.’ Isn't that beautiful?
Frank: Yeah and so, I wish as adults we could recognize that, we could recognize that everything is changing in the world, right? Seasons come and go, we all have birthdays, governments come and go but we like to think that we are the only solid thing. Everything's changing except me, right? We are the only solid thing in an ever changing world. Well, No! When we do that we pull ourselves out of the stream of change; then, we isolate ourselves and we become frightened. When we recognize that we are in the stream with everybody else, that we are in the boat with everybody else, then I think we are kinder to one another; I think it engenders a certain kind of letting go, a relinquishing, a willingness not to take ourselves and our ideas so seriously. So I think there is a great benefit to this in living a happier life.
Immanual: "Not to take ourselves so seriously," I think that is a lesson that we can all subscribe to
Frank: Oh! Yeah! I can certainly get caught up in that, thinking my views and opinions are the most important thing and I have to prop them up; they are my sense of self, my idea of Frank. In meditation practice, one of the tools that are sometimes used in certain practices is to label your experience, name a kind of thought as comparing, judging etc...my favorite label that I use all the time is “creating a sense of Frank” because that is what I am doing a lot of times when I am propping up this identity that is subject to constant change. I am always trying to make it something solid and fixed. It isn't.
Immanual: That is awesome! The invitation that I wanted to come to, "Don't wait" - it is a simple yet profound invitation. Can you share your insights on this, Frank?
Frank: Yeah, "Don't wait. don't wait" I mean to imagine, first of all, that at the time of our dying that we will have the physical strength, the emotional stability, the mental clarity to do the work of a lifetime is a ridiculous gamble so we ought not wait until the time of our dying to learn the lessons it has to teach. As we've just been talking about, when we embrace the truth, it inevitably, all things (?) It encourages us not to wait, in order to begin living each moment in a manner that is engaged, so we stop wasting our lives on meaningless activity; we learn to hold our ideas and identities a little less tightly instead of pinning our hopes on a better future, we focus on the present. And we are grateful for what we have right in front of us. And, we say we love you more often because we realize the importance of human connection and we become more kind and compassionate, more forgiving of each other and of ourselves. I think "don't wait' is a pathway to fulfillment actually. And an antidote to regret. And, by "don't wait" I don't mean to suggest that it is a way of getting all the toys -- that's a mistaken notion. "Don't wait" means don't imagine you have limitless time and don't wait to go toward what you love most. I mean mostly we imagine death will come later, no use worrying about it now - "later" gives us the comfortable illusion of safe distance. But constant change, impermanence is not later, it's now; change is the norm. So, don't wait is a kind of invitation to really step into our life with both feet. Fully. Live now. And by that, I don't mean we should forget about the past or that we don't learn from it, that we don't try and make plans for the future...I'm just suggesting that we hold our plans for the future lightly.
Immanual: That's absolutely powerful, Frank. Before we go on to the next two invitations, I wanted to reflect on a question that is burning not only in my mind but I was looking at the Awakin call chat page and one of the things that is coming out is "How do you deal with death and dying" and, I think this is more relevant for people who have just been through the process or those who are caregivers for their own sake. How can we avoid compassion fatigue? And, how can we find spaces for self-compassion?
Frank: Well, that's a big, big question and I have to begin by saying that I think "compassion fatigue" may be a misnomer. I think what people are calling "compassion fatigue" is a kind of “empathetic overload” where they get so entangled in the suffering of another or the world, that they can't separate themselves out; they feel with the other person or with the situation that they are encountering and they get entangled in a certain way, in a way that is not too healthy. Compassion is something a little bit different than that. Empathy is "I feel with", Compassion is "I feel for." So, I can sit here in my own seat, I can have an empathetic relationship with you and the suffering that you've experienced, but I can also have access to my own wisdom and skillfulness so I can be some real support in actually eliminating or reducing at least, the suffering in your life. So that is the distinction between the two that we need to make.
But the other is to realize, at least from the vantage point that I work with, I come from a Buddhist tradition and in that tradition there are all kinds of treaties on the subject of compassion. But I tend to boil it down to two things. I think of what we might call universal compassion and everyday compassion. Now, universe compassion.is big and boundless and vast, and it's always been there and everybody, you and me and everyone else, has always been embraced by it even if we didn't know it. That's universal compassion--boundless, the limitless quality of love.
And then there is every day compassion. That's when we do stuff. You know we we feed someone on the street, or we change soiled linens in a hospice, or we stand up against social injustice. These are actions of everyday compassion. But what starts to happen in that is we get tired. You know, we want people to start saying thank you for our good work, you know, for our volunteer effort.
And we start to feel exhausted. So that every day compassion has to be grounded in what we can call universal compassion. It has to understand the source of it--that every day compassion. But now universal compassion as we just described it, big and boundless, it's beautiful but without every day compassion, without action, it's just a big idea. It's a big prayer. And if prayers were enough to solve the suffering of the world we would have solved them along time ago. So it needs, universal compassion needs you and I. It needs everybody on this call. It needs our arms and legs. It needs our eyes and tongues.
So that it can express itself in the world. That's how it manifests. And I have a friend of mine Bernie Glassman, I just saw him on a video conference the other night, he's a brilliant Zen teacher. And famous for doing what he called plunges into the most difficult circumstances. I helped him to lead a retreat at Auschwitz many years ago. Really powerful. But anyway he was teaching in Germany a few years ago and he was talking about the Buddhist deity of Avalokitesvara. She is the deity of compassion. And she has a thousand arms, and in each hand, depending on the depiction, it can be an ear or an eye to see the suffering of the world or to hear the crying in the world.
And thousand arms to respond. So Bernie was talking about this and a man raised his hand he said, "That's all well and good but I only have two arms. What should I do?"
And then Bernie said, "Well I'm sorry, but you're mistaken." And the man looked down at his body and he said, "No, I'm quite certain I have just two arms."
And then Bernie did a beautiful thing. He had all the people in the room, and there were more than five hundred people in the room, raise both their arms. And there it was--a thousand arms in the room.
Do you understand? We're always imagining we have to do it all by ourselves and we can't do it by ourselves. We need thousand arms. We need each other. That's what's so beautiful about you know what's happening here today on this call which Service Space does all the time. The kinds of beautiful stories you carry those are a thousand arms.
So every day compassion is grounded in universal compassion and universal compassion need our arms and legs to do the work, do it's work in the world.
We don't have to make this up, you know. We don't have to invent this. It's already here and what we need to do is turn our attention toward it. Let our broken hearts be filled with this compassion then naturally it overflows and we take care of others.
Immanual: That's so absolutely awesome. It kind of helped me realize the power of this community and the intentions which this community is built as well. Wow, refocusing our attention on universal compassion that is all around us and being a part of building it. I think that is amazing.
So one of the other five inventions that you write about is to find a place of rest in the middle of things.
And yet we live in a very restless world. How can we find rest in the middle of things?
Frank: Well you're right. We have an awful lot of encouragement to go go go. To the busiest person is the most effective person, etc.
We've lost ourselves in this process. I also think that we imagine it will find rest by managing the conditions of our life. We will get rest when we go on vacation or or when our list gets checked off, our e-mail box empty, but my e-mail box has never been empty ever since I have one and my list is never checked off. So if I wait for that, I'm in trouble. I have to learn to find rest right in the middle of what I'm doing, and I think we do that by by bringing our attention fully and completely to whatever it is that we are engaged in.
There was a woman at the hospice her name was Adele and she was a cranky, grumpy, wonderful eighty six year old Russian Jewish lady. I just loved her. She was a no-nonsense woman, tenacious. And the night she was dying, they call me. I came into the hospice. It was about three in the morning, and she was sitting on the edge of her bed in her hospital gown, a dressing gown, and a very good home health aide was sitting next to her. And I went in and I sat in the corner, because that's my habit to see is anything needed before I jump in to help. And I saw that she was breathing with great difficulty. Every in breath a struggle every out breath of struggle.
And this is despite the fact we made all the right interventions.
Well the home health aide that was with her, turned toward her and she said, "Adele, you don't have to be frightened. We are right here with you."
And Adele, who is this no nonsense gal, she turned toward her and she said, "Honey, if this was happening to you you'd be frightened."
So I I stayed in the corner.
But then a little while later this very well meaning home health aide turned to Adele and said, "You look a little cold. Can I put a shawl on you? Would you like a blanket around your shoulders?"
And Adele shot back, "Of course I'm cold--I'm almost dead."
I was watching this in the corner and I saw two things. And maybe we could see them in the story. The first thing is there was struggle. There was a labor to dying, just as there is a labor to get born. In her case, the labor was with the breath. And the second thing was that she didn't want any nonsense. She didn't want to talk about tunnels of light or after-death experiences. She wanted something real and immediate and authentic.
And so I pulled my chair right up in front of her. And I knew her for a few months, so I could be very honest with her. And I looked her in the eye, and I said, "Adele, would you like to struggle a little less?"
And she said, "Yes."
So I said, "Ok. I notice something. That you have difficulty breathing. I'm wondering what it would be like if you could put your attention on that little gap, that little pause, between the exhale and the inhale." Now remember, this is a Russian Jewish lady, 86 years old. Yet she is highly motivated in this moment to be free of suffering.
So she said, "Ok."
So I said, "Good, I'll do it with you." I didn't lead her. I didn't guide her. Just when she would breathe in, I would breathe in. And when she would breathe out, I would breathe out. We did this together for a while. Just like that. Just companioning each other, really. Not guiding her. I trusted that she knew what to do.
And I noticed that as she put her attention there on that pause, that little gap, between the exhale and the inhale. I noticed that the fear in her face just drained away. And she began to relax. And then, a little while later, she went back on her pillow, laid back in bed. And said, "I'm just going to rest now."
And a little while later, she died, very peacefully. You see, I think what happened is Adele found a place of rest in the middle of things. See all the conditions were the same: she was still dying; there was still difficulty or struggle with the breath. All of those conditions were still there, but she found a new relationship with them. She found a place of rest right in the middle of the chaos. And I think we can do that in our lives. But I think we have been so acculturated to try and change the conditions that we never think how we can be in those conditions.
I work with a man who was the head of a very large tech company in Silicon Valley. He was very troubled. He had all kinds of difficulties--stress difficulties, etc. And when I asked him what he did during his day, he said mostly he would sit in a room, a kind of board room, and people would come in from different departments and give him reports. And he would comment on them.
And I said, "Well, when do you pee?"
And he said, "Well, I'm very good. I don't have to do that so much."
And I said, "We are going to make a new rule. You have to pee every hour."
It was just to get him out of the boardroom and into the bathroom. And he went into the stall where he would sit quietly for a few moments. Even if he didn’t have to pee. And we worked with this for awhile. For weeks. And the bathroom stall became his meditation hut. And he would go there and find stability, and then he would come back to his meeting. After awhile he could just do that in the midst of his meeting. So how can we find a place of rest right where we are, right where we are-- just in the middle of the chaps of our lives? I think it’s a great, great tool if we cultivate that capacity.
Immanual: I totally agree - and I think this idea of bathroom breaks for mindfulness I should promote that to everybody.
Frank: There you go - there’s a quick fix right there! After we mastered the meditation in the bathroom stall we worked on walking slowly to the bathroom, doing a little walking meditation on the way. We are being playful here but it is amazing how we drive ourselves so hard you know. So much of our exhaustion is not about doing too much, it’s about doing it with an absence of whole-heartedness. I talk to doctors and nurses all the time, and they are trained -- particularly doctors are trained to override their bodily urges. They are trained to go without sleep for 48 hours, 72 hours sometimes. And you know when you think about it, there’s this kind of investment in being exhausted in our culture. When we tell people -- Oh I’m so busy -- what do we want from that? We want people to admire or pity us for our exhaustion, or to imagine that we are really dedicated to what we do. I think that’s a sign of imbalance, not of maturity.
Immanual: A question that pops up for me is there is so much divisiveness and hurt in our current political climate, and I’m curious how the awareness and acceptance of our own impermanence the lessons from death and dying, how can it help us with dealing with the divisiveness and hurt that we are dealing with? For me I am afraid to look at the news every day. I don’t want to see it any more because it’s so difficult.
Frank: Again, I think we really have to honor how difficult it is. We have to really recognize that. We can’t just try and find some quick fix to that. The world is suffering now. Last night I went to see Al Gore’s new movie about climate change and it was just really hard to watch - it was not only the difficulty of what is happening with our climate, but also how many setbacks we’ve had. How difficult it is to stay engaged when there are so many forces pushing us in different directions. So we have to honor the pain, I think that’s really important. My own sense is that when we recognize the precariousness of life, that death comes to all of us, I think we understand that we are in the boat together. And this helps us to see that death and grieving and loss and constant changes are common ground.
And that fear is also one of our common grounds, and we begin to recognize that in each other and move more kindly toward that fear. I think that’s one of the things that can happen for us. Death comes to prince and pauper - it’s the great clarifier, it shows us what’s really important right? And so a reflection on death is not morbid or depressing, it’s life-affirming, it shows us what matters most. So I think that the reflection on death, the willingness to contemplate it, it’s not just about preparing for some moment at the end of a long road. It shows us how to live our life right here, right now. So I agree with you, it’s difficult to read the newspaper. I think it’s compassion practice to read the newspaper, to read about the suffering of our world.
I had a student recently said "I stopped reading newspapers, it's too difficult", but I said "You must read them, first you need to stay informed about the suffering of the world, but second you need to see the good actions that are happening in the world.” One of the most terrible things I can imagine is school shootings and so I tracked them for a while. I read about them, I looked at all the school shootings over a period of a year and I saw these horrible stories but I also saw some beautiful stories.
Like a beautiful woman up in Oregon, a teacher by the name Reagan. She was a gym teacher, a phys-ed teacher. A kid came to school with a hand gun and he shot three times. He shot one girl in a leg, another bullet ricochet off another student and the other one fortunately didn't hit anyone. And this wonderful teacher with a great kind heart walked right up to this boy with a gun, not in a confrontational way but in a caring way. He turned over his gun to her and she held him, she held him and they both cried together. You know, what this boy did was wrong, this is not justifying his actions. But what this teacher did was extraordinary. Not only did she hold him and stop greater violence from happening, but she made him a promise. She said, "I will go with you everywhere.”
So she went with him to a police station where he was booked, where he went into a jail cell. She went to his court cases and sitting with him to show him that he was companioned and he meant something to somebody. I thought this was a remarkable expression of compassion in the world, you know. Just absolutely beautiful and if I'd not been reading about all the difficulties and suffering of those other cases. I wouldn't have seen this. And so, you know, the compassion is the willingness to turn towards suffering. Sometimes we can eliminate that suffering but sometimes what compassion does is give us the capacity to be with the suffering. To stay in the room when the going gets rough, you know. Or when the land of unanswerable questions. I think compassion is an innate quality in us. It's the kind of guidance that is particular to the encounter with suffering. We have other kinds of guidance in us. But the compassion arises to show us how to wisely move in the territory of suffering. And without that, we cannot make wise decisions in life. Wisdom and compassion are two sides of the same coin. Wisdom without compassion is kind of heady and compassion without wisdom is a bit mushy and sentimental. So we need the both of them. The two wings that allow us to take flight. And if we only have one, we tend to fly in circles.
Immanual: Wisdom and compassion, that's awesome. I think a lot of us kind of get caught in that space between just following compassion or being wise. Not finding the balance there.
Frank: Yeah! You know, in many countries and many spiritual traditions, you have Namaste or Gaisho or bringing the hands together in prayer. In the Buddhist tradition one way we think about that is when you bring your right hand or left hand into a prayer position, the coming together of wisdom and compassion is a recognition of inseparability, of not only to them but all of us. Each of us are uniquely different, differentiated, have entirely unique lines but yet we are not fundamental separate. We come off the same cloth. And we recognize that, we can appreciate our diversity without needing to separate in order to have that.
Immanual: I know we have a lot of questions but I have one question for you, which is the final invitation, the fifth invitation. What is the ‘Don't Know Mind’ and how do we cultivate it?
Frank: (Laughs) I felt obliged to put something zen like in this list so I used this phrase. To cultivate a Don't Know Mind is not about cultivating ignorance. Ignorance is not "Don't Know". Ignorance is we know something but it's the wrong thing and we insist on it. It's a misperception of reality. Don't Know Mind represents something else entirely. It represents the mind that's not limited by genders or rules or expectations, it’s free to discover, it’s a mind full of curiosity and wonder. And then when we are filled up with that knowing, you know, when our minds are made up, it narrows our vision. It obscures our ability to see the whole picture, and it limits our capacity to act. We only see what the knowing allows us to see, so wise person is both compassion and humble and knows what they don't know. So the cultivated 'don't know mind' is not about cultivating ignorance, it’s about cultivating a sense of receptivity, curiosity, discovery, and this is what enables us to enter our lives with fresh eyes, you know. To empty our minds, if it were, and open hearts. That's the 'don't know mind'
Immanual: How do we cultivate it?
Frank: Well I think we cultivate it by you know a friend of mine, when I began to teach, gave me a really good mantra and he said 'you should learn this one' and I said, 'what is it?' 'I might be wrong' and so whenever I go to teach, I often say that phrase before I start: "I might be wrong". So it’s really to cultivate a willingness to not, you know, imagine that we have all the answers, that's the first thing. We are not throwing away our knowledge, it's there in the background, ready to use it, aid us when we need it.But we don't get, you know, fixed on ideas, we let go of a little bit of control. So to cultivate a 'don't know mind' is to cultivate our sense of curiosity.
Let me give you an example: if there is a mountain lake that you love, right?; that you want to go hiking to on a sierra, let's say you are in California, well you are going to love the lake but it's a long hike up the mountain.It's a big deal to get up there now. But it's not enough to love the lake you also have to like the walk up to the lake. Otherwise when the mosquitoes come out you'll turn back, right? So love is the kind of fuel for the journey that gets you up the mountain and motivates you to go there along the way; but there is something else, I think it's if love is the fuel for the journey, joy is the spark that ignites the fuel. And one of the ways that I see joy, in my life, at least, where I cultivate this 'don't know mind' is a kind of place from us: you know when you see children play, they don't play for a purpose, they just play to discover, they just play to have fun, you know. I have a two year old granddaughter, and she is just all about discovery and I love being with her because it challenges my views, my way of seeing things. It's not that I am trying to become a two year old, but I am trying to learn from her, what if I could be playful? What if I tap joy?
So can we take something that we think is absolutely horrible and not in a Polyanna way, make it nice, I don't mean that, I am not trying to make a hallmark card out of life, I mean, really look and see, how could I see this different from a new perspective, And if I did, what might it have to teach me.
Immanual: Stop, stop, I am really curious to have a conversation with some of the listeners. No this is beautiful, this is beautiful, thank you so much. I just feel like I have tapped into a big river of wisdom and its overwhelming now. So thank you for sharing all this and I know there is a whole load of questions waiting for you, we have a huge number of people attending this call, so I would love to open it out to them and have their wisdom and questions to you as well.
Frank: Beautiful, beautiful that's ... half of the people who are calling in to boil down their question to the essence and what's most important is that we get as many of them as possible because I would really like to speak to as many of your guests as we can.
Pavi: Thank you so much Frank and thank you Emmanuel. Just a reminder to our guests that if you have a question press *6 and you will be added to the queue. If you would like to send it online you can write to email@example.com.
I wanted to read one of the comments, reflections that came in from our listeners. Laura Crowed, beautiful reflection for you and she says: "When my 28 year old son died in a motorcycle accident, just three weeks since moving home to finish his Phd, I learned what being sick to death actually means. I cried non-stop for weeks. On one of those occasions I was outside in my garden, I couldn't take a deep breath and felt as if I was having a heart attack. In a flash I felt something that I can only describe as a crack in my chest. I could feel the earth breathe, moan and sob with me, for a moment I thought I had lost my mind but it was very real. I could feel what all mothers who lost a child feel, and I knew I was not alone, in my suffering. Shortly after I read a quote: "The heart that is open never breaks.” In that instant, I believe, my heart was split wide open. The loss of my son opened me to the suffering of all beings and I felt a strange peace.”
Frank: Oh! Laura thank you for that, that's just so beautiful!
Wow, yes I mean, I love what she said about the heartbreaking open, you know. When people, you said in your direction, I was co-founder of a program called the Zen after's project, which was the first Buddhist hospice in America. When people would come to volunteer there, one of the questions I would ask them is: 'Are you willing to open your heart and have it be broken' and because I think it’s often in the broken heart, as Laura was describing, that we find what really helps. its often communicated in the silence between people. So we have to let all these wise words, that Frankmans is saying or .... is saying, let them really drop into our heart and feel them, you know, and let them guide our life. It’s the most beautiful and difficult thing to be a human being. It’s the most difficult thing.
Pavi: Thank you Frank, I am going to jump in with a couple of questions here as well and I wanted to ask: 'In the process of this work I imagine that denial is something that comes up often, either in patients or in care givers, and I was wondering how you see, what you feel to be the role of denial.
Frank: Oh boy, I think that we have this aggressive almost aversive relationship to denial in our culture, people are always trying to get others out of denial, and I am like 'don't take it away unless you have something better to replace it. With denial just, first of all at certain stage of our experience is necessary. It's a protective device in a way, cushions us. It allows us to kind of assimilate and metabolise some of our experiences too shocking for our system in a certain way. And so the usefulness to denial for a particular period of time. Now denial is promoted, over a period of time, just breathe ignorance and fear. I can't be free if I am rejecting any part of my experience really. But you know, when we are in shock, oh my!.
A woman died in our hospice while her sister was down the hall in the bathroom. When the sister came back, I said: 'I am sorry, your sister has passed, while you were down the hall' and the woman said: 'well she is not dead yet'. Now, in a way, ...., her sister died but she wasn't ready for that truth yet.
So I said: 'When was she most alive?' that was my first question to her.
She said: ' Oh! When she was a youngster, she was a spelunker and she went in a caves, and she was a great adventurer, you know. And then she found this political magazine and she was a firebrand, you know. And she kept going like that through the story of her sister's life, until she said, 'Remember Frank, we went to the hospital last week, and the doctor said that he couldn't do any more chemo, and now she is here, and then she was getting weaker and weaker and she stopped eating, remember?'
And she came to the current moment. Then we talked about washing her body and taking care of her. So it wouldn't have been of help for me to say 'no'. 'Step out, you are in denial, you know, let's get real here'. She just wasn't ready so she had to tell some of the story and get current, really with the situation. So denial is not the enemy, it's not the enemy.
Pavi: That is a really valuable re-framing to have, thank you. thank you for that. It brings to mind one of the things that we talk about often at ServiceSpace, and just a few years ago, Google famously announced its plans to 'solve death'. And I was wondering how you look at some of the trends in our current societal relationship to death, and where do you find the hope or the foothold in this momentum, that seems rushing towards, I don't know, like this wish for the impossible eternity or eternal life.
Frank: Yeah, well...I think...I was speaking with a group of folks in Silicon Valley not long ago and I said death is inevitable. And one guy raised his hand and he said, “I'm not so sure about that. A lot of us in this room are working on that.” And I said, “Great, great.” I said, “OK, let's step back from this word ‘death’ for a moment, let's just begin to look at endings. Let's just look at endings of things. You want to know what death has to teach -- look at endings.
The ending of exhale, the ending of a day, the ending of a meal, the ending of this sentence. You know, how do you meet endings in your life? Do you go unconscious around them? Or like, for example, when you're at a gathering of friends, do you leave, either emotionally or mentally, before the event is over? Do you ghost out the door because you think nobody knows that you were there, so they won't notice that you've gone? Or you are the last one in the parking lot, you know, waving to all the participants who came to the conference. Do you feel sad and teary-eyed with endings or are you anxious and indifferent with them? You know, do you leave before the event is really finished? Do you leave, in your mind and heart, before the event is really finished? Do you jump the gun, so to speak. Look at the way we meet endings! That’s a really useful thing. Even if we extend life 200 years, 300 years, at some juncture, Death will come. But in between all that, you know, death is not something that is happening at the end of a long road. It's in the marrow of every passing moment! So let's learn about our relationship to endings, yeah? And the way we meet this moment, and the ending of this moment shapes in a way, or at least in part, the way the next one arrives...
Look. Before the Greeks, people have always had a great wish for eternal life. But I think, eternity is not necessarily a long, long time. St. Augustine, the great Christian mystic, he talked about the ‘now’ as neither being ‘in time’ or ‘out of time’. The ‘now’ is the moment of eternity. ‘Now’ is not some millisecond or nanosecond between times -- it's outside of time. Yeah? And we've all had that experience of timelessness. We can have that, here and now.
Pavi: There is another great reframing of death, in terms of endings. Meeting it, in those every day, every moment, in a sense...I was thinking similarly the word ‘suffering’ -- maybe we magnify it in our heads and then, as a result, kind of separate ourselves from it. How do you define that word?
Frank: Yeah, it's kind of a big word. We throw it around in the Buddhist world, a lot. And I use it in my book a lot. And, you know, we think of suffering as something big that’s happened to somebody else. You know, refugees fleeing Syria or children starving in an African country. But, you know, suffering is just our relationship to life. There's physical pain, for example. But, then there's our relationship to that. You know, suffering is you buy an iPhone and then the next model gets announced next week! Or you fall in love with somebody and then, you know, you get to know them better. You know, all these things are suffering. The fact that you know your roof will leak is suffering. So it's our relationship to conditions.
This is a way to think about suffering. Ignorance is suffering -- it’s the biggest form of suffering. So, one of the ways to talk about this is that we have different kinds of relationships to life. One way that we suffer is that we demand that life be different than it is. That’s the first thing -- we have a kind of demand. And it’s this unquenchable thirst that things be other than they are and so whatever is here is not enough. And then there's the opposite of that, which is a kind of aversion to life as it is, you know -- we don't like the way things are; so, you know, we make an enemy out of everything and everyone. And we stay in this perpetual cycle of suffering. And the third, of course, is what we just mentioned, which is ignorance or delusion, which is, you know -- I don't really see the way life is, I don't see reality as it is, and so I keep tripping and falling into the same hole. So that's one of the ways I think about how we perpetuate suffering -- through a kind of demand of life, a sense against life and through delusion, a kind of fantasy about how life is.
Pavi: It's amazing. Listening to you talking about the work that you’ve done in a very specific realm of life and it feels like it applies to almost every dimension. And you know, I'm sure that the book ‘Five invitations’ has reached all kinds of diverse audiences. Have you been surprised by any of the unexpected corners that have been receptive?
Frank: Well, again, I have to really give credit to my wife, to Vanda, because she's the one who really saw that -- she saw that there was a whole audience of people out there, that could really benefit from the wisdom that we learn at the bedside of people who were dying. That’s applicable to the rest of our lives, for the rest of us, to so many of the demands of our lives...
So yeah, absolutely! I gave a talk at a thing called ‘The Long Now’, which is a very beautiful program that happens here in San Francisco, created by Stewart Brand, the Futurist. And it's normally a program for people who think in terms of trends -- 10,000 year trends. And the audience for it is usually people who come on their laptops and, you know, iPads and it's a very heavy crowd. And it’s 700 people in Jazz Center in San Francisco, and I spoke, as I’m speaking now with you. And it was really interesting -- everyone closed their laptops and put away their iPads. And they were riveted not because -- they didn't know me from a hole in the wall -- it was just the subject was so galvanizing, you know? It’s like -- it cuts through, death cuts through all of our, you know, pretensions, and again shows us what really matters.
So, yeah, we don't have to wait until we're dying to learn the lessons that dying has to teach. That's why I wrote the book! I didn’t want...you know, it's not about how you take your dying, people. It's about what you learn from dying that could help you live a life of meaning and integrity, a happier life.
Pavi: Wonderful! I have a bunch of more questions but I’m going to go to the caller in our queue.
Kozo: Hi, this is Kozo from Cupertino. And thank you so much for this call and the 5 invitations, Frank. I wanted to ask you a question about one of the invitations -- welcoming everything and resisting nothing, but from a different point of view. I know a lot of that is dealing with people who are dying and welcoming, you know, whatever's happening in that moment. And I’m wondering if you have ever seen it the other way around -- where people who are dying, are people, you could call it a death wish, you could call it the brokenness of life, and they're almost, like, giving up, you know, and I think about some stories that I've heard. Of a married person whose spouse died and within 5 months, they're dead as well, you know. Even though they were perfectly healthy before the spouse died. And I'm wondering if you’ve experienced that or have any thoughts on that?
Frank: Yeah, beautiful question, Kozo. Thank you for bringing it up. And I think this last part that you just mentioned, you know, a spouse dying after his/her spouse has maybe died after a long-term illness, is a really common phenomenon. You get that quite a lot. You know partly it's also a result of the fact that they usually work really hard to take care of them, oftentimes sacrificing their own health in that process, in part because the health care system didn't provide or wasn't able to provide enough support for that individual. So, you know, there are multiple factors that lead to that outcome.
And, yet, we know that there are some people in life who, you know, see death as the best solution for their problems, that life has become desperate and unlivable in many ways for them, and so they see death as a way to bring all that suffering to some kind of closure. But I'm not so sure that we can promise people that, you know -- that death will end all our suffering. You know, this is a story that we’ve told ourselves!
There was a woman in our hospice. She was an old Italian lady. And whenever you go into her room and ask her, “How are you today?”, she said, “Oh, I just want to die.” And we had a running gag in the hospice and I said, “Well, you're not taking her seriously!” So I went to her and asked her, “How are you today, Grace?” and she said, “Oh, I just want to die.” And I said, “Grace, what makes you think that dying would be so good?” And it was a counterintuitive question to ask, you know. And she thought, “What kind of a question is that to ask a 80 year old dying lady?” But she said, “Well, at least I’ll get out.” And I said, “Get out of what, Grace?”
You know Grace was a devoted wife to her husband who was a truck driver. And every day she'd laid out his clothes, paid the bills, made all his meals every day. And she was sick she couldn't imagine that he could take care of her, nor could her daughter. She was the giver so she came to the hospital expecting she would die quickly. I said, well I think you should talk to your husband about it. I didn’t facilitate it. They were married 50 years. I figured they could work it out. All I know is that a few days later Grace moved home and she lived in the care of her husband and her daughter for another six months and then died quite comfortably.
It was just the best strategy she had to deal with what she thought were workable problems unimaginable, unbearable problems. And so I think that sometimes it's really useful to inquire with people, ask a counterintuitive question, to let people know how much we care about their presence. And to really value the enormous healing power of Human presence, which I sense you have a sense of Kozo.
Kozo: Thank you.
Frank: You’re welcome.
Pavi: Frank I feel like the work that you do calls out the ways in which we might be bluffing to ourselves about how we are serving, and to serve at someone's death bed requires a kind of authenticity it seems like. What has serving in this way taught you about true service?
That’s a great question. I was overzealous in the beginning, I thought I knew everything. And what was right for everyone else and you know a few years ago I had a heart attack when I was teaching a retreat for doctors and nurses on compassion and that was really a great teaching. You know it was very humbling, and I really saw what it was like to be on the other side of the street. What a different view it is. One of the things that I learned in the course of my work is the value of humility.
But the other was to see myself in the other person is really important, and I don't mean in some kind of a psychological projection. I mean really to see my mother in this woman Grace that I was speaking of, to see myself in her. You know and when I do, that, when I see them in me, it fundamentally shifts the way in which I serve. For me service has always has always been about mutual benefit. It’s never a good guy riding in on a white horse you know to save the poor unfortunate one. That’s just more separation, it closes the heart. So to me true service is to recognize the mutuality of this experience.
In Zen Center there is what they call a mountain seat ceremony when the new Abbot is installed and students come forward and ask seemingly combative questions to test the Abbot’s capacity to lead the community with compassion. And at one ceremony a student came and asked, “Tell me what does spiritual practice have to teach me about taking care of others?” And the Abbot shot back in a very Zen way, “What others? Take care of yourself.” And the student said, “Well how do I do that? How do I take care of myself?” And the Abbot said, “Well of course -- serve other people.” In other words -- we’re in this boat together. We just are.
Pavi: That reminds me a little bit of the Dalai Lama’s quote, “Be Selfish. Be Generous.” I am going to our next caller here.
Alyssa: Hi, this is Alyssa in Seattle and I want to thank you this has been an absolutely amazing call. I am 100% present and it means so deeply to me what you have shared. I have two questions. When you were speaking of endings you said how you shape and deal with these endings is how you can shape and treat the new beginnings. And I wondered if you could go into a little more of what you meant by that.
Frank: What I was trying to get at, is the way in which we end one experience shapes where the next one begins. If you think about - you just had an argument with your partner or your best friend and then you have to step into some other situation, well the residual of that, particularly that residual that has been unresolved is there with you, you carry it into the next moment. For me, for example when I am in a hospital and move from one patient's room to the next patient’s room, I have to make sure I bring some honorable closure with the patient in the room, even if that person is in a coma I have to do that. And then I have to consciously step into the next room. So I have this silly habit, when I go into a patient's room I look to see where the hinges are on the door. If they are on the right I step in with my right foot. Now this can be considered a mindfulness practice or an obsessive compulsive disorder. I choose to think of it as mindfulness. It’s a way of me entering the room mindfully -- recognizing that I am crossing a threshold into a new world. So as much as possible being willing to conclude an exchange whether it’s with myself or another -- now we can’t always make it fully complete- so we have to promise ourselves I am going to come back to that later. I am angry now or I am upset now but I am going to come back to later. It’s not compartmentalizing-- it’s a promise.
Alyssa: Yes -- I’m having to move, and I’m thinking of how I’m being when I am moving and going to the next place - it shifted my perspective and how I am dealing with it. And with the right foot left foot, it could be -- maybe I am choosing something like openness, just being open and having that perception.
Alyssa: The other question I had was - it seems what I am hearing is that throughout there is this incredible - I don’t know if it is a gift you have but of having in your story the right questions and actions come with skill, a lot of it seems like you have this incredible skill from your experience, but in your stories I was wondering if a lot of this comes through, not from you?
Frank: Yeah I mean yeah yeah that's a good way to say it. That's a very good way to say it. I think that you know when we're present and present means first of all I'm here, I'm available, my mind is not scattered often the future or the past but actually present and that’s helpful. When I'm present I come into contact with something far more little different than that it's what we could call presence. Presence is some other way to fullness of mind may be and it has a palpable quality to it. Most of us have had some experience like this and then we we sort of tune in and make sense to a kind of inner guide is one way to say it. That inner guidance is coming from some archangels and that might be someone's belief in my case it just feels like it's an innate human quality and sensual human quality, essential quality of my being that rises up in response to the situation, appropriate response to the situation which I'm meeting as they said earlier, compassion rises in response to suffering.
Curiosity arises as a kind of guidance, playfulness arises as a kind of guidance. These are essential human qualities that we all have in us and really serve us I think.
So you know the question or the challenge of course is to get quiet enough to be able to listen, to be not full up with our knowing that we don't actually tune in or listen to what it is that is emerging, that might be of real benefit in the situation. So I sense that you are able to do that, you're just quiet yourself, calm yourself and then see what might I intuitively know that wonderful sixth sense of intuition.
Pavi: Frank what comes up for me listening to you and thinking about the thousands or hundreds of stories and experiences that you've borne witness to. What comes as the question is how do you work with all that in such a way that it doesn't weigh you down or it doesn't, or what is an honorable closure you need to experience there or in your practice that allows you to not paralyzed almost what is that for.
Frank: Sometimes I get lost and that's just very human. We're going to get lost. we're going to get overwhelmed. We're going to get swept away by our sadness or grief and I think just to recognize that when I'm with somebody else who's suffering for example I'm looking at my own fear. I'm looking at my own grief all the time so it's not like I'm one hundred percent over there with them. I'm actually keeping a percentage of my attention in my own experience so that's the first thing. Second, is that I have to do practices which can help keep me balance. In the midst of the AIDS epidemic sometimes I knew twenty, thirty people died in the week and it was an enormous grief in my life and so I would do three things the first thing is I went back to my meditation cushion to stabilize, to simulate, metabolize this experience to gain perspective so meditation practice was essential for me. The second thing I did was I went to a body worker and I went to this body worker once a week and he was a really great guy and I walk in his office and lay in a table and he would say, “Where should I touch today Frank?” and I would point to my shoulder and he put his hand on my shoulder and I would just weep for about an hour. I just cried for an hour and I get up from the table and I would say see you next week he thought ok we hardly ever had a conversation it was just that I needed that relational touch to help me contact and feel free to express the sadness that was in my life that when I think I did. The third thing I did was I used to go to a hospital with some friends of mine where nurses and I went on to the maternity ward where there were babies who were born to addicted mothers. And these babies were needed to be held and so before I would go home to my own children I would go to the hospital and I would hold these babies and I would sit in a rocking chair and these babies would shake so much. I was helpless and some moments to be with them and then what would happen is if I just stayed there with a loving presence they would calm down and they would be able to sleep.There was something about that tenderness, the ability to nurture and to calm little babies could help me enormously in working with the suffering and I couldn't do anything about it and I was helpless kind of sometimes and then I felt lost.
So those practices were essential to me in that work, absolutely essential to keep them kind of balanced and stay human and not become a technician.
People are doing this all over the place and we talk about the problems of health care but gosh, I wish I could share with you the stories I have of nurses and home health aides and docs and social workers doing remarkable things way beyond the scope of their job.
The minute I go in a big hospital and he's a nurse’s assistant and he’s got the grunt job and then after a after a code blue in the hospital where they come back he comes in and his job is to clean up the room and the patient is still there and he walked over to the patient and he leans over there and he says, “You've died now and I'm going to as respectfully as possible wash away all dust and confusion and bathes her body. This is beautiful and this is happening in the world and we need to know that that kind of basic goodness is there in the world that we could have a basic trust in our humanity and it won’t let us down.
Pavi: I think we're almost at the end of the call but as you were speaking I was just thinking that you didn't give us any details about your childhood. We know about you losing your parents young, know that it was a very difficult and troubled. I mean it's breathtaking to me what that troubled child has grown up to become the space that he's holding in our world we have many people in this community to work with at risk youth and children who have been going through all kinds of trauma and I wonder if you have any words or guidance for them.
Frank: The complexity of trauma and complexity of children at risk are living through these days is devastating. It is mind boggling that people can still be walking around but I only tell what helped me, just love them and love them until they can love themselves again. That's what really helped me. People loved me they showed me that it was possible to love myself and so I borrowed their love and they led me to a lovely self and I think that's the most important thing is love them until they can love themselves again.
Pavi: So many more questions just one more before the last one is this question is something that you mentioned about that dying process is not a medical process and it does its own work just like the birth process. Can you speak a little bit more about that?
Frank: Well, we treat dying in this country and in many countries as if it was simply a medical event and it is so much more than that. So much more profound and so there is no one single model not the medical model or not religious models that are large enough to embrace all that happens at the time of dying. So we have to really bring the model if you will there you know for me dying is much more about relationship, it's about our relationship to through the love to the suffering of experience to death itself to God or whatever image of ultimate kindness we hold and so the work of being with dying is about attending to those relationships and the first characteristic that we need in that relationship is mastery. We need to know what we're doing what I'm dying. I want doctor and nurse with me you can manage my pain control my symptoms. I need that but that won't be enough. I need somebody who's going to be comfortable in the spirit of meaning who help me find out what the purpose and value of my life is behind . This experience then it becomes a juncture in the dying process where meaning falls away and we're in a different territory. We're still asking grandmas better favorite piece of music and she's well past that. She's turning in a different direction. She's turning toward the toward the territory of mystery, the land of unanswerable question. We were all explorers where we're discovering together and that's the land where we don't have the answers and the best thing we can do is to stay present and bear witness. So mastering, meaning, and mystery -- we need people comfortable in all those territories that we need people skillful enough to accompany us and through the dying process and then we let the dying process lead to it. We trust and we know that there are certain conditions in the dying process that are conducive to helping us wake up to our life. It strips away all of the identities that we've been carrying and gracefully given up but they all go and then we can now do something far more essential in our lives, something much more fundamental, true, real that we can rely on and you know actually much more than a medical event.
So dying shows us that we can have good death. It shows us that we have a full rich life and again hopefully we step into our full hearts.
Pavi: What a profound reminder and inspiration to close on. We do have one final question that we ask all of our guests and that is, how can we as the extended service space Awakin call community serve you in what you're doing.
Frank: Serve me! .
Dying is an ordinary experience in a way that's all that none of us get out of here alive. So let's turn toward it, like, sit down with it, have a cup of tea with it, get to know it really well, you know. what he would have to show us about our lives so that the first thing that you could do is turn toward this experience when there's a friend or a family member that maybe is going through it or anticipating going through it, go toward them. Sit down, learn from them. There's museums where there are great paintings hanging where we go on and on a great artist. We want to be such places in our communities where people come to die, when we come to them we say, “Please tell us how to live” and that's the first thing. There's so many people living in nursing homes and residential care facilities that are totally alone. Go to one, sit next to somebody for a while and stare out the window with them.
Personally you're very kind to mention this book, the “The Five Invitations” -- Buy it. I don’t need the money, but buy it, read it, share it with your friends. Get a group of people together and talk about it. If you go to our website fiveinvitations, there is a how to do a book group and there are questions that could really help people navigate that book so I think if I wrote it as a gift. I wrote it to help people step more fully into their lives, mutual benefit here. Buy the book that helps me and helps people that read it as well.
Pavi: We will definitely send out the links to the website and get the resources that you mentioned to all the people on this call and we are a few minutes over but before I close with a minute of gratitude and I wanted to say that it just it really felt like speaking with you it wasn't just speaking with you, I felt like the spirit of all the people that you helped transition, all the care workers that you worked with, your wife who prompted you to write the book and get these messages out in the world. Thank you for bringing them all into this conversation and enriching our lives through your generosity Frank.
Frank: They're my true nature.
Pavi: Thank you Frank.
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