Frank Ostaseski on what death can teach us about living fully

Speaker Key:

AL              Andrew Leigh

FO              Frank Ostaseski


FO              I walked into the room and there was the mother and father, a few neighbours, friends of theirs, standing around this seven-year-old boy who died. And following my intuition, which I really trust, I went over to the side of the bed. And I leaned over, and I kissed this little boy on the forehead. And when I did that, the whole room broke into tears. Because while they had cared for him with tremendous love and great care actually, nobody had touched him since he died.

AL               My name’s Andrew Leigh, and welcome to The Good Life. A politics-free podcast about living a happy, healthy, and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full. With humour, pleasure, meaning and love. We’ll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers, about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast please take a moment to tell your friends or rate us on Apple Podcasts. Now, sit back and enjoy the conversation.

                   Frank Ostaseski is the co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, which is the first Buddhist hospice in America. He's helped thousands of people die. Frank’s book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, looks not only at what makes a good death but also how end of life can inform the rest of life. As he puts it, none of us get out of here alive. Frank, welcome to The Good Life podcast.

FO              Very nice to be with you. Happy to be with you and your listeners.

AL               You’re a calm man now, but you had a pretty tumultuous childhood. Your mother died when you were sixteen, your father just a few years later. How did that affect you?

FO              Well, I don’t know that my circumstance was so unusual, but certainly, it gave me an early introduction to death. Death and I met quite early in my life. It forced me into being an adult a little too quickly, honestly, but also, it helped me to really recognise how absolutely precarious our life is. And of course, when we come into contact with that precariousness we also come to appreciate its preciousness. Then we don’t want to waste a moment. And so, I think early on I got that message, to step into life, to jump in with both feet and live it as fully as we possibly can.

AL               What brought you to Buddhism?

FO              Well, as you said, I lived a rather chaotic life as a young man, a teenager. And I think what brought me to Buddhism is what brings a lot of people to mindfulness practice or meditation practice and that is their own discomfort, their own pain, their own suffering. We’re looking for ways to alleviate that, to reduce our suffering. And I tried lots of things, sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. But ultimately Buddhism practice…

AL               You were a Rock n’ Roll manager. You were…

FO              I was yes. But what Buddhist practice and specifically meditation practice gave me, and it need not be Buddhist practice, was a way to look. A way to inquire and examine my life and to really see what the actual causes of my suffering were other than the conditions which I grew up in. So, that was the initial motivation. And then, I think, also it made sense to me. It didn’t ask me to believe anything. I didn’t have to take on a belief system. I could really test out the teachings in my own experience, that was very helpful.

AL               For someone who doesn’t know very much about Buddhism, how do you normally describe it?

FO              Well, I think there’s debate around that. Some people think of it as one of the five great religions, others think of it as a philosophy. I think of it as a practice, something that I live into in order to understand. The Buddha, of course, was a historical figure whose really primary work was about relieving suffering. What are the causes of suffering? How do we relieve that suffering? That’s really the primary, the centrepiece of his teaching if you will. But I’m not so interested in being Buddhist, or I have no missionary zeal when it comes to Buddhism.

                   What I’m interested in is freedom. How do we actually have some degree of freedom in this life, so we’re not victim to our circumstances? We’re not limited by our stories we tell ourself, about who we are and what we’re capable of. And I think what Buddhism did is help me to expand beyond those limiting beliefs and stories.

AL               Your five invitations grow out of the principle that death is a secret teacher hiding in plain sight. They’re very straightforward. One, don’t wait. Two, welcome everything, push away nothing. Three, bring your whole self to the experience. Four, find a place of rest in the middle of things. And five, cultivate the don’t know mind. I wonder if we might go through each in turn, starting with the principle, don’t wait?

FO              Absolutely, but I want to just add that these principles or these invitations if you will, were really taught to me by people who were dying. In other words, this is what I observed in them. When we get close to the end of our life, what really matters becomes very evident. And so, these principles really are what they taught me, not just about the dying process, but again how we can apply them to our lives and live a whole, rich, wholesome life.

                   So, first, don’t wait. Waiting is full of expectation. Waiting for the next moment to arrive, we miss this one. I can’t tell you how many times, Andrew I’ve been with a family. And they’ve said to me, in one fashion or another, when is mum going to die? In waiting for that moment of death we miss all the moments in between. So, don’t wait. Please let’s not wait to tell someone we love until we’re on our deathbed. If there’s someone we love, let’s tell them we love them now. If there’s something in our life that really engages us, let’s step as close to it as we possibly can.

                   This isn’t about an urgency in life or immediacy, assuming you have a feeling like we have to have it all together and get it all really quickly. I don’t mean that at all. To don’t wait really is an invitation to step into this moment. To be fully present in the immediacy of our everyday life. And not waiting for some other time to start living our life.

AL               And you talk in your book about the number of people who’ve come to you and said, my relative is dying. When should I go and see them?

FO              Yes, there’s one story in the book that I share, which is a fellow who is actually on my board of directors and the doctor said his mother had six weeks to live. And she was in Toronto, he was in San Francisco, and he came to me and said, when should I go? And this is a quandary for a lot of us, we live at distance from our relatives or the people that we care for.

                   And I asked him, a little bit about his mother’s condition and then about her, and his relationship with her. And as I began to speak with him about his mother, I noticed the colour in his cheeks started to change. And I saw that his lower lip and chin began to tremble a little bit. And I said to him, I think you should go tonight. And he said, I can’t I have business tomorrow. And I said, no go tonight. So, he took the red-eye flight, the overnight flight from San Francisco to Toronto. And he arrived at ten in the morning, was sitting at his mother’s bedside when she died.

                   Don’t wait. It’s not just about dramatic moments like that one. It’s about, really engaging in what matters to us. The two big questions that come up, Andrew, at the end of life are not about regrets, honestly. Or they aren’t about, what happens after I die? Those questions emerge, but the two really big questions that emerge are, am I loved? And did I love well?

                   And if those are the two questions that are most essential at the end of our lives, well why wait until then to discover our responses to them? So, this, don’t wait is really an encouragement to live in the immediacy, in the very freshness of this moment.

AL               Speaking of the freshness of moments, I loved your description of the midwestern hospital that had a particular way of acknowledging when a new baby was born. Tell us about that.

FO              Oh, isn’t that a beautiful story? I was giving grand rounds in the hospital to a group of physicians. And as we were walking to the big auditorium where this was happening, Brahms’ lullaby began to play over the PA system. And I noticed as Brahms’ lullaby played, everyone stopped. They paused, literally, they didn’t keep walking. And I asked the head of nursing who was escorting me, what’s that? And she said, oh, she said, whenever a baby’s born in the hospital, we play Brahms’ lullaby.

                   And I said, you mean in the maternity ward? She said, no everywhere in the hospital. It goes into the operating theatres, and it goes into all the administration offices, it even goes into the morgue. It’s our way of acknowledging new life is coming into the world. And it was really interesting to see how this very small little gesture caused people to stop and pause, and smiles would grow on their face. It just seemed to shift the way they interacted with one another as well.

                   Very beautiful image I thought and a beautiful practice in this hospital. What a way to humanise a big glass and steel building where we tend to be more interested in protocols and procedures than human relationships, sometimes.

AL               And also more worried about death than thinking about new life. And I thought it was an interesting parallel with one of the ways in which you used to look after yourself, as you dealt with the stress of spending time around people who are at the end of their lives. And your experience of helping a friend, and holding new babies, who had been born to… Well, you tell the story.

FO              Of course I ran a hospice for many years, we took care of, as you said in the introduction, thousands of people. San Francisco was ground zero for the AIDS epidemic in the 80s. And so sometimes I would be with 30 or 40 people in a week that were dying, and it takes its toll on us.

                   Those of us, particularly those who are working in healthcare, or who are caring for family and friends, our normal coping strategies won’t be sufficient. Just to come home and have a glass of wine and watch the television, won’t be sufficient to integrate or to metabolise the suffering that we’ve been exposed to.

                   So, I had to learn new ways to really metabolise this kind of experience. And I did a few things. The first thing I did was come to my meditation cushion. Because I sat on that cushion and it stabilised me, it gave me emotional regulation, and that was very useful.

                   Another thing I did was, I went to the maternity ward at the local hospital, one of my friend’s, the nurses, would invite me in, and there there were babies that were born to addicted mothers. Mothers addicted to crack cocaine or to alcohol. And what I would do is I would sit in a rocking chair, Andrew, and I would rock these little babies for maybe an hour or so. Before I’d go home to my own four children.

                   Now, there was something so tender in this experience of these little babies that would be shaking, frail. And through this contact, this holding environment that I would create, in effect, for them in the rocking chair, they would settle, and they would begin to relax, regulate. In a sense what I did was lend them my nervous system, that’s really what was happening.

                   And what I saw in that was that it was really important for me to be able to soothe certain kinds of pain. And I couldn’t always do that at the end of life, frankly. I couldn’t always relieve the suffering that someone was going through, but with these little babies, I could. At least temporarily. And that gave me a kind of resilience to go back into the world where I couldn’t necessarily manage the suffering.

                   And then there was a third thing I did, actually, which is that I went to a bodyworker, about once a week. And this bodyworker didn’t do anything fancy with me, no California woohoo stuff. I would lay on his massage table, and he’d say, where today, Frank? And I’d point to my shoulder. And I’d say, just there. It’s a little tight. And he’d put my hands on my shoulder and the next thing I knew, Andrew I’d be weeping. I’d just be crying on the massage table.

                   And there was something about the physical touch, when we have contact with the body it gives us more access to our emotional life. And also, the relational quality of his care and concern for me that really softened me and allowed this grief that was, I was carrying around to be felt and expressed. I’d get up off the table, we didn’t talk about it, we didn’t process it very much. And he’d say, see you next week? And I said, yes see you next week. And I’d come back the next week. I’d go out the door, go back around my work.

                   So, there was something about having to care for myself that was really essential. I did that through meditation and regulation, but also this bodywork. And then also being able to really soothe others, sometimes when I couldn’t in the course of my work. They were very helpful in integrating, metabolising and cultivating a kind of resilience, which is essential in this work.

AL               The second invitation is to, welcome everything, push away nothing. Tell us about that.

FO              Well, do you have bumper stickers in Australia?

AL               We certainly do.

FO              Oh you do, okay because there’s such a culture of them here in the States.

AL               No, I think yours would be a great one.

FO              Yes, I think it would be. So, to welcome everything and push away nothing, it sounds good, but how do you do that? Is it even intelligent to do that? In this invitation I’m not suggesting that we have to like or approve of everything that comes, it just means we have to be willing to meet it. If it’s here on our doorstep, are we willing to meet it?

                   We can’t really find our way through difficulties in our life if we’re not able or willing to be open to them, to accept their presence. The great African American writer James Baldwin once wrote, he said, there are many things in this life that we must face that we cannot change, but nothing can be changed until it’s faced. So, to welcome everything is just that, it’s to invite it in and see what it has to teach us.

                   A friend of mine was going to dinner at a mutual friend’s house, a very eminent psychiatrist. But this psychiatrist had, in the last year or two, developed Alzheimer’s disease, and so he had difficulty recognising people. They rang the doorbell, he opened the door to his home, and he stood there for a moment, a bit bewildered.

                   And he said, I’m very sorry, I don’t really remember people’s faces anymore, and I can’t recall your names. But I do know that this is my home, and my home has always been a home where people are welcome. So, if you’re on my doorstep, I know that my job is to invite you in. Please come in.

AL               You draw the analogy with someone who told you a tale about how to install telephone poles and what to do if a telegraph pole is in strife.

FO              Well, one of the things that’s most difficult for us to welcome, of course, is our discomfort, our pain, our suffering. That’s the most difficult. We always want to get rid of it. So, all of our strategies or so many of our strategies are understandably oriented toward getting rid of an experience. When we’re so pushing on an experience, oftentimes we can’t really learn anything from it. So, I feel that it’s useful to turn towards suffering, to lean into it even, to get to know it really well.

                   And I was speaking about this at a program I was leading up in the north-western part of the United States. A rural part of the United States. And a man said to me, well that’s like telephone poles. And I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, to be honest. And I said, well tell me more. And he said, well I used to install telephone poles, they’re about 40 feet high, and when you put them into the ground they’re a bit unstable, and so they can fall. And if they fall on a man they can break his back or even kill him.

                   So, he said, the first day I was on the job, I said to my partner, an old-timer, if that pole starts to fall, I’m running that way. And he pointed in the opposite direction. And the old timer said, oh you don’t want to do that. He said, if that pole starts to fall, you want to go right up to it, you want to put your hands right on it. He said, it’s the only way that you’ll know which way it’s moving. And I think it’s a bit like that. He said, it’s the only safe place to be, actually.

                   It was a really wonderful way of talking about it. And I think our life is like that too. We’re so busy trying to get away from our suffering, that it has us by the throat. We are always a victim to it. What happens if we put our hands gently, mercifully, on what hurts? Not only on what hurts physically, but what might hurt emotionally and mentally for us, and get to know it really well. Sit down with it, have a cup of tea. See what it has to show us.

                   I have seen over the years that the healing that we’re often looking for is frequently found in the middle of the suffering. We just go looking for the healing elsewhere. So, I think this is another way we can welcome something in. Again, it doesn’t mean we have to like it or approve of it, that’s not our job. Our job is to meet it and to see what it has to show us.

AL               You have some extraordinary tales in the book, but I think one of the most heart rendering is your story of having to go to the home of the parents of a seven-year-old boy, Jamie, who had just died of cancer. How did you deal with that situation?

FO              Oh boy. Sometimes in this work, I would ask myself, is this even possible? Can I do this? And there would emerge in me some… Innate compassion, I want to call it. It’s not something that I cultivated or developed or perfected, it’s just something that we’re all born with and if we listen carefully it can guide us.

                   So yes, I was in my office one day. I think I was doing something administrative, managing a grant report or something for some funding we were trying to get, and the phone rang. And it was a gentleman on the other end of the phone, and he said, someone’s told me about you. And they told me that, when our son dies, you could help keep him at home, and that there was a ritual that you could help us with. And I said, yes of course, I can help you with that.

                   I’d never met this man before. I said, just simply at the time when this happens, call me. He said, no you don’t understand, my son has just died. He died 20 minutes ago. And I said, I’ll be right there. And I drove to the home of this family, I’d never met them before. And I didn’t know what I’d find, honestly, Andrew, but this is turning toward suffering.

                   I walked into the room, and there was the mother and father, a few neighbours, friends of theirs standing around this seven-year-old boy who died. And following my intuition, which I really trust, I went over to the side of the bed, and I leaned over, and I kissed this little boy on the forehead. And when I did that, the whole room broke into tears. Because while they had cared for him with tremendous love and great care, actually, nobody had touched him since he died. There was that fear that was there.

                   The whole room softened then because crying has a way of shaking loose the calcification around our hearts. I then explained to this mother and father that there was a ritual that’s been done in every culture for all times of bathing the bodies of people that had died. And that if they liked we could enter into that ritual together and we could adapt it in anyway that suited them. So that we weren’t imposing some idea on them. And they were great gardeners, they loved to garden. And they said, okay we know exactly what to do.

                   And they took me outside to their garden and they collected lavender and rosemary and sage and sweet herbs and flowers, and great roses. A beautiful big bowl of rose petals. And then we came back inside, and the mother very carefully went about the house and got her favourite towels and her favourite washcloths, so that all things were prepared for this ritual.

                   And then this mother and father started, and they began to bathe their young boy, seven-years-old, and they bathed him from the top of his head down his back. That’s where they started. And as they would bathe him down his back, sometimes they would stop, they would tell me a story about him. And it was a way of them not only sharing about him but getting current also, that there had been a whole life, a whole seven-year-olds life that had now come to this moment. It was a way of them beginning to recognise what had happened.

                   Or sometimes this mum would come to a little scratch or nick on his skin, and she would take care of it with so much love, so much tenderness. I remember she got to his toes, and she counted his toes. She said she had done that when he was born. And sometimes for the dad, it was too much. It was just really too hard for him, and so he would go and stand by the window and look out at the garden. So there had to be room for all of these different experiences. There was no force, there was a lot of allowing.

                   Then at this one juncture, I remember so vividly now that you’re asking me to remember this, this mother looking at me with these beseeching eyes. And without words, just with her eyes, she was asking me, can I survive this? Can any mother, can any parent survive this?  It was such an honest question, really, that really didn’t even need words, actually. And my job, Andrew was to hand her another washcloth, to orient her back to her son.

                   This is again what we were saying a moment ago because that’s where healing’s always found. The healing, in her case, would be found in the enormous love that she had for her son, and in the middle of the grief. So, she would just weep sometimes, and we would have to stop. Then the father would step in. It would go like this. It took hours to wash this boy’s body. There was no rush. That’s the thing with rituals, when you start a ritual you have to trust it, actually. It has its own time and its own magic if you will.

                   And so, as they washed him, they’re now washing the front of his body, and this mother got to his face. And it was so tender, Andrew, between them. By the time she got to his face she’d burned through a kind of grief. I don’t mean her grief was over, not by any means. It was that it wasn’t separating her so much from her son, at that moment.

                   It was so tender, between them, maybe like the moment in which he was born. Any mother who’s listening to this understands that moment of being with their newborn child and feeling like they’re one being. Mother and child together. It was like that in this moment too.

                   Then we dressed him in his Mickey Mouse pyjamas. And we invited his brothers and sisters into the room, and I asked them what he liked to do the most and they said he liked to make model airplanes. And so, we got his model airplanes, and we made a mobile out of them. And we hung them over his bed so that the brothers and sisters could somehow participate in this process as well.

                   And it was an exquisite time that I had no idea I would be stepping into that morning when I got out of bed. But that night, when I went home, I held my son very closely, Andrew. My son was seven years old at the time. And so, I held him really close. One of the things that doing this work showed me time and again was that we do have in us the innate compassion to meet what seems impossible. And that we can create what the English paediatrician Winnicott called the holding environment.

                   And what I mean by that is that, well here’s an example, when toddlers are learning to walk, what happens is they take a few steps, and they fall down. And then the mother or the father or some kind adult picks them up, holds them for a moment, and then sets them down again. And what we’ve found time and again is that little toddler will start to walk again, and often she will go a little bit further, partly because she has the confidence of the love and the caring in again, this holding environment around that child.

                   I think our work at the end of life, but maybe throughout life, is to help create such holding environments for each other and even for ourselves. There’s a lot made of mindfulness practice and meditation practice these days, but I think of it primarily as a kind of holding environment. We sit down in the stillness of… We allow our minds and bodies and hearts to relax and become still. And it becomes a holding environment in which whatever needs to occur, whatever needs to arise and show itself can.

                   But that’s what we did this day with this young boy and his family. And I think there was a great healing in it, there was certainly for me, but there was also for this mother and father. I left them. We said our goodbyes. I never saw them again. But I know this experience that was shared between us fundamentally shifted not only the way they grieved their child, but also perhaps the way in which they moved through their ongoing grief into the fullness of their lives.

AL               Thank you. Your third invitation is to bring your whole self to the experience. What does that mean?

FO              Well we all like to look good. We like to be smart or capable or at least appear to have it more together than we often do. And so, we have a self-image that we put out to the world. And oftentimes that self-image is a story that we’ve generated or constructed in some way, and we try and live into it, in a way. But here’s the thing about images, Andrew, good image, bad image, it’s still an image, it’s not reality.

                   So, to bring our whole self forward means not just to bring our strength and our intelligence and our beauty forward, but to bring all of it. And when I’m working with someone who’s dying, as I sit with them I’m also experiencing my own grief, my own fear. And I think it’s valuable for me to do that because it can create a meeting place with the other person.

                   Oftentimes, in clinical settings, hospitals, healthcare settings, we teach clinicians to be experts, and that’s important. I want the people taking care of me to have great skillsets. But I also believe that we want a human face on our medical care. So, to bring our whole self forward means to bring forward not just our strength and our expertise, but also our helplessness and our fear, and our confusion. Because these allow us to build an empathetic bridge to the other persons experience, so that they don’t feel so isolated and alone in it.

                   Like for example, a very dear friend of mine was dying of AIDS many years ago during the AIDS epidemic, and he was a wonderful guy. So, three or four of us were taking care of him, and it was my day to take care of him. I went to his home in the morning and overnight he’d developed this very strange neurological phenomenon in which he couldn’t speak in intelligent words. He couldn’t stand anymore, and he couldn’t hold a fork. All that happened overnight for him.

                   And I was sitting at the kitchen table with him, which was always a mess in John’s house, and I couldn’t find my friend. I so wanted to. I just saw him the night before, but I couldn’t find him now. He was in this state of confusion and neurological deficits of all sorts. John had, in addition to AIDS, he had anal tumours and constant diarrhoea, and taking care of him was a lot of work. We forget about this, it’s a lot of work to take care of people who are sick and dying.

                   So, we would make these trips into his bathroom, and we’d sit on the toilet, and then we’d move to the bath and back to the toilet. Dozens of times. And the evenings rolled into the wee hours of the morning and honestly, Andrew, I just wanted to go to bed. I was so tired, I was exhausted, and I was just hoping that somehow he would go to sleep and would wake up in the morning, and somehow this nightmare would be over.

                   I had just moved him back to the toilet and I’m washing my hands in the sink, and I looked in the vanity mirror, and there he was sitting on the toilet, and he was whispering something to me. And I really couldn’t quite understand at first what he was saying, and he hadn’t spoken all day. And then I began to understand that what he was whispering was, you’re trying too hard. You’re trying too hard. Oh, and I was, Andrew, I was trying much too hard, trying to be somebody special. Me, Mr Hospice, all of my years of experience, my expertise.

                   And I stopped in that moment, Andrew and I sat down on the bathroom floor, next to the toilet, and I just cried. And you know that moment was the most intimate, most tender of our whole friendship. Because you see, up until that point I was busy trying to be the helper and there was a certain distance between us. And in this moment, we were both helpless together.

                   Now, we didn’t stay helpless together, that wouldn’t be very useful. The situation showed us what to do next, but I couldn’t know that until I was willing to enter into the territory that so frightened me, frankly. I was afraid that if I went into that territory I would get lost. But there we were both helpless together, and the situation showed us what to do next, and we could move through it.

                   So, to bring your whole self to the experience isn’t to use the patient as a therapist, that’s not our job, but it is to build an empathetic bridge, to have some sense of understanding. It doesn’t have to be the exact same experience, but it does require our willingness to be vulnerable.

                   And I think, in a way, this is the most exquisite of human qualities, our capacity to be vulnerable. To allow the beauty and the horror of the world to impress itself on our souls, on our consciousness. And then, that enables us, I think, to again be more responsive, less reactive. More human with one another.

AL               And I think of it in a leadership context too, Frank.

FO              Oh really?

AL               As a distinction between good and great leaders. Good leaders have a mask and are in some way acting the confidence. Great leaders are willing to show a little of the vulnerability, to show sides of themselves that are unconventional, and to be as you say, their whole selves.

FO              Yes, wonderful, that’s a beautiful analogy. Thank you for bringing that in. We should share with your listeners that about a month or so ago I had a severe stroke. So, I’m still recovering from that process as I’m trying to do this podcast with you. And I have certain deficits, processing deficits, sorting deficits. I’ve lost half of my vision as a result of the stroke.

                   But last week I was doing a program for doctors and nurses, and I was quite vulnerable. And I allowed my fear to show. I allowed my grief to show. And they thought of it as being quite brave. I didn’t think of it that way, I just thought it was the easiest way for us to connect. We often think of vulnerability as our ability to be hurt, to be harmed in some way. And so mostly what we experience in vulnerability is the defensiveness, the walls that we put up. We try to be objective, for example, in certain situations.

                   Physicians are taught this a lot, to build armouring around their heart. The problem with that of course is that it doesn’t let the tenderness in, it doesn’t let the mercy in, it doesn’t let the healing in, oftentimes. So, when I think of vulnerability, I think it’s actually openness, it’s a kind of porousness, we could say. To again, allow the wholeness of what the world gives us, to touch us, in a way. And that gives us a lived experience which is so powerful in our interactions with one another.

                   That’s what I think the great leaders that you speak of have, they have lived experience. They’re not going just on intuition, and they’re not just going on what someone else taught them or what they’ve read. They’re coming into the experience with a lived confidence, a deep, basic trust. And that only can come about by making ourself vulnerable to the world.

AL               Your fourth invitation is to find a place of rest in the middle of things.

FO              Yes, this is one of my favourites actually, because we always think we’re going to rest later, when we go on vacation or holiday, or when our list gets checked off, or email box is empty. I don’t know about you, Andrew, but my email box has never been empty and I’m sure yours hasn’t either.

AL               Inbox zero is just a mirage.

FO              Exactly, and our to-do list., they’ve never fully been checked off. So, if I wait for those conditions, I’ll never rest. So, I have to find a way of resting right in the middle of what we’re doing. And I think we do that, to a large extent by bringing our attention fully and completely to whatever it is that we’re doing. That might be reading a book, or going to a movie, or sitting with friends, or doing it in a more formal way in mindfulness practice or in exercise or time in nature, is a wonderful way to think about that.

                   So, here’s an example, there was a woman in our hospice, Adele. She was a very ferocious woman. Tough cookie, we would say in the old days. And she didn’t like any nonsense, she didn’t want to talk about anything new age or spiritual or Buddhist. She didn’t like any of that stuff. But she was very honest. And the night she was dying, they called me, and I went to her room, as I did with most patients.

                   And there was a wonderful nursing aide who was sitting with her. So, I sat on the couch in the corner, that’s my way, not to jump in too quickly. I’d rather sit back and see what’s actually needed. So, sitting there on the couch I noticed a few things. The nursing aide said to Adele, Adele, you don’t have to be frightened, we’re right here with you. A beautiful, well-meaning, good-intentioned statement. But Adele, who was this tough cookie, she turned to her, and she said, honey if this was happening to you, you’d be frightened. Just like that.

                   So, I thought, I should stay on the couch. And then I watched some more. And then this very well-meaning nurse’s aide said to her, Adele, you look a little cold, would you like a shawl or a blanket around your shoulders? And Adele shot back, of course I’m cold, I’m almost dead. And so, I stayed on the couch. But I noticed a few things there as I was watching, and maybe you can even hear them in the story.

                   The first was, Adele was struggling. She was having difficulty breathing despite all the correct interventions of oxygen and morphine etc. There’s a labour to dying, just like there’s a labour to getting born, and she was in the middle of it. And so, one of the ways suffering was manifesting was in the breath. The second thing that I noticed was that she was very honest. She didn’t want any nonsense, she didn’t want to be persuaded out of anything, she just wanted real, authentic relationship.

                   So, noticing this, I pulled up my chair, close to the bed, and I had known her for some time, and I said to her, Adele, would you like to suffer a little less? And she doesn’t care beans about Buddhism or meditation, but she’s highly motivated in this moment to be free of suffering. So, she said, yes. And I said, okay. I said, I noticed something there. I said, I noticed that at the very end of your exhale there was this little pause, this little gap. I wonder if you could put your attention there for a moment. I’ll do it with you.

                   Now, remember meditation’s not her cup of tea. But again, she trusts me, she wants to struggle less, so she tries it. As she would breathe in, I would breathe in. As she would breathe out, I would breathe out. So, for a little while, we were just breathing together. Harmonising, if you will, our breath. But then I noticed something, I noticed that her attention came to rest in this little gap, in this pause that’s there at the end of the exhale. And as it did, the fear that had so characterised her face seemed to drain away, and I saw that she was relaxing.

                   And she said to me, Frank, I think I’m going to lay down on the pillow now. And I said, great idea. So, she did, she laid back on her pillow, and a little bit later she died very peacefully. Now I think that Adele found a place of rest in the middle of things. You see, she was still dying, there was still shortness of breath, none of those conditions had changed. Yet, in the midst of those sometimes very chaotic conditions, she found a place of rest.

                   Often in our day-to-day lives, we’re busy trying to manoeuvre or manage the conditions, manipulate the conditions in some way, imagining that will bring us our happiness or that will bring us freedom from struggle. But suppose we just learned to rest, relax, often, if you will, right in the middle of even the most challenging conditions, which is what Adele found. And she’d never done it before, it wasn’t like she was a 40-year meditator.

                   This was the first time she had ever done it. No one had ever asked her to watch her breath. But she found it there, at the end of the exhale, before the next inhale. And it’s there for all of us. What do we find there? Do we find in that gap some trust that the next breath will emerge, or are we frightened there? Do we want to manoeuvre the breath or want to manipulate it in some way?

                   So, to find a place of rest in the middle of things is just that, just that simple. Don’t be thrust ahead into the future so far. Stay with the immediacy of this moment, see what’s actually happening. And it happens for us all the time. It happens to us when we’re reading a book or watching a film, we get absorbed, we get engaged with whatever it is that is right in front of us. And we often find that to be not only restful but rejuvenating for us.

                   A friend of mine says, when we’re so busy trying to rearrange the conditions, it’s like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, we’re missing the big picture. So, here we were, someone was imminently dying and yet there could be a way of finding some way of rest even though the conditions were quite difficult for her.

                   And that gap there at the breath is one place to find it, but it’s always there. It’s the moment between stimulus and response. And if we just can sense it sometimes, we can be responsive rather than just being swept away by our reactivity.

AL               Your fifth invitation is perhaps your most zen. Cultivate the don’t know mind.

FO              Yes, zen is full of those kinds of statements. These illogical statements that are meant to push us, in a way, out of our common way of thinking, our habitual way of thinking. To cultivate don’t know mind doesn’t mean to cultivate ignorance. That’s not useful. To cultivate a don’t know mind is to cultivate a mind that’s not so full of knowing that there’s no room for anything else to enter. In other words, a mind that’s free, that’s full of wonder, for example, or curiosity.

                   One teacher called it the beginner’s mind. It’s the mind that really wants to know, as opposed to being so filled with its opinions and views. And when we can engage from that place, so many more possibilities emerge for us. It’s said oftentimes, in the expert’s mind there are few possibilities, but in the beginner’s mind, there are endless possibilities.

                   I’m with people who are dying regularly, and I don’t know how they should die. It’s not my job. My job is to find out from them how they need to die. What do they need in the situation? How can it be of best support to them? If I walk in the door full of my knowing, I won’t be able to understand that. Like, for example, there was a man who came to the Zen Hospice to die, and he was the head of the California Atheist Association. We have such associations in California. And so, he didn’t have any belief in afterlife or any of these kinds of things.

                   But I asked him a question, which I ask many people, as they die. I said, what do you think’s going to happen after you die? And it’s not like there’s a right answer to that or anyone knows exactly the truth, but I find that the way in which we think about what happens after we die, shapes the way in which we die and perhaps even the way in which we live our lives.

                   So, I said, what do you think’s going to happen after you die? And he said, nothing. And I said, well what’s that like, nothing? Like a dial tone? And he said, no it’s not like a dial tone. And I said, well what’s it smell like? He said, you don’t have a nose, you don’t smell things. I said, well is there sound? No, you don’t have ears. And I said, oh well what’s it like this nothing? And he said, oh well it’s like you’re this molecule and your molecule’s mixed with all the other molecules in the universe. I said, oh that kind of nothing. I thought, he’s going to be just fine.

                   Some people have very terrifying stories about what happens after they die. They’ve come from their families or the cultures or religious traditions even. And it’s really important to work with those and help people discover for themselves around this. So, when I don’t know I am more curious. I am more interested. A really open and dynamic mind is one that has some degree of spaciousness in it, but it’s infused with interest, and with creativity, with curiosity. That’s how I want to live my life, with that sort of engagement. I can’t do it if I’m fixated on all of my knowing.

                   Because I have a don’t know mind doesn’t mean I leave my expertise at home. I have a toolkit that I’ve developed over the years. A big yellow toolbox of tools. But I don’t lead with my tools, Andrew, when I walk into a patient’s room. If I set down that toolbox between myself and another person, one of us is sure to trip over it.

                   So, I don’t lead with my tools, I lead with my humanity. And then when I need a tool, no problem, it’s there. I can reach in my backpack or my toolbox, wherever it is, and I can pull out that tool and skilfully apply it. Believe me, if I’m having surgery, I want the surgeon to have good tools. I want him to know his expertise really well.

                   But when I’m dying I not only want a good healthcare practitioner, someone who knows their stuff who can help manage my pain and address my symptoms. That’s really important, I want that. But I also need somebody who’s comfortable in the territory of meaning with me. Who can help me ascertain or explore what’s been the purpose of this life? What’s the value of this life? What’s even the purpose in dying of this dying process and the [unclear] stuff.

                   So, I need somebody comfortable in the territory of meaning. But even that’s not enough. There comes a juncture in this process where you’ve seen it with your grandmother or whoever maybe you’ve been around someone’s death, there’s a turning that happens in the dying process. And it’s a turning away from this world and the meaning-making activities of this world, and more toward the quality of mystery. To the unknown, to what we haven’t discovered yet. So, I also need someone, when I’m dying, who can be comfortable in this territory.

                   This is the land of unanswerable questions. This is the land where, the best thing we can do sometimes is just simply stay in the room and bear witness, as someone is making this exploration for themselves. So, yes I want mastery in my physician or healthcare providers, but I also want them to be comfortable in the territory of meaning, and ideally who has some familiarity with the territory of mystery as well. Because all of those, those three are needed to accompany someone through the dying process, and maybe through our lives.

AL               Just a few final questions. What advice would you give to your teenage self?

FO              My teenage self? Oh, probably I would have said something like, don’t be in such a hurry. But teenagers tend not to listen to that. I would say, you’re going to go on a trip somewhere and you’re going to come to this place that’s incredibly beautiful. Stop, really enjoy it, but don’t think it’s the last beautiful place on earth. Be curious, keep discovering.

                   With my own children, I felt like when they had the passion of curiosity, they would be fine. That would lead them to love, that would lead them to compassion, that would lead them to full engagement with life. So, I would want to encourage that teenager to have a sense of discovery and interest in curiosity.

AL               What’s something you used to believe but no longer do?

FO              That suffering is a punishment. It’s just part of the human experience. I don’t think of it that way anymore. I think my religious upbringing and some of my culture and family, they saw it that way. And I think that it causes an enormous amount of guilt and regret in people’s lives that’s completely unnecessary.

                   So, suffering has value, and I don’t mean that in some martyrtive way, but one of its values is that it allows us to feel compassion for other people. Compassion emerges as an appropriate response to the presence of suffering. And not much contact with suffering, not much compassion. So suffering is the gateway, if you will, to compassion. It’s what invites compassion to come in.

                   In my tradition, in the Buddhist tradition, there is a great, we can call it sage or saint, they’re called bodhisattvas. They’re great beings of wisdom. And one of those great beings is called Avalokiteshvara. And Avalokiteshvara is considered the embodiment of compassion. And in many depictions, Avalokiteshvara has one thousand arms and in each hand, there is, depending on the depiction, an ear to hear the cries of the world, or an eye to see the suffering of the world. And a thousand arms to respond.

                   I was in Spain last year and I was talking about this to a group of people, and someone in the audience said, well that’s wonderful but I only have two arms, what should I do? And I said, I think you’re mistaken. And he said, no, and he looked, and he said, no I just have these two arms. And then I asked everyone in the audience, in Madrid to raise both their arms, and there were about 500 or more people in this audience and so a thousand arms went up in the room. And I said, do you see? those are the thousand arms. We don’t have to do it all ourselves.

                   We can appreciate our deep interdependence, our deep interrelationship with one another. Then we won’t feel so isolated, so separate and alone. And so, I think that when we touch suffering with some willingness it can introduce us to this understanding of compassion, and this way of appreciating compassion. That compassion’s not just a big idea in the sky. Some religious notion. Compassion has to be expressed through each of us. Through our arms and legs, through our tongues and eyes. This is how it takes shape in the world.

                   And so, we need that teaching on compassion, we need that ultimate feeling of compassion, the boundlessness of it. But that boundlessness needs us too, it needs us to express compassion in everyday ways. And I think that that’s what dying folks helped me to understand. Suffering is not punishment. We all suffer. This is the human condition. And when we begin to appreciate that I think we open our hearts to one another a little bit more easily. A little bit more gracefully.

AL               Frank, what’s the most important thing you do in your life to stay mentally and physically healthy?

FO              Well, I’m not really physically healthy at the moment, I just had a stroke. But I’m recovering slowly. I think that I do a number of things. I take care of each centre, the centre of the head, the centre of the heart, the centre of the belly or the body. So, I challenge my brain. I enquire, I investigate regularly, I study.

                   And I challenge my heart to turn toward what is uncomfortable and to meet what is impossible with some degree of love and compassion. And I challenge my body, I live on a houseboat in California, and so in the mornings I can jump off my back dock and swim in the cold water. Which is very invigorating and also helps to build strength and flexibility, but also, connects me with nature. So, I spend a lot of time in nature.

                   And the last thing I would say about that is, there are some things we can do in the fast lane, Andrew. We can do strategic planning. We can come up with brilliant ideas. But one of the things that we can’t do is integrate in the fast lane, that we have to do in the slow lane. So, we need some time, some way of slowing down and coming to some stillness.

                   And for some of us, that’s sitting on a meditation cushion and doing mindfulness practice, but that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. For others, it’s walking in the woods or being with our grandchildren. But I think, bringing some stillness into our life so that we can actually listen through the ruckus, through the screaming and shouting that’s so prevalent in the world today. That seems really important. And then we can make skilful decisions about how to lead our lives.

AL               And finally, Frank, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

FO              Oh wow. Well, I can think of a number of different people, but His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I’ve had some encounters with him. And in that tradition, he’s considered to be an embodiment of compassion, so that means that what I witnessed in him, is his ability to meet everyone equally, regardless of their station in the world.

                   I’ve been with him in hotels where he was meeting famous celebrities and politicians and leaders, but he took the time to make sure he shook the hands of the cleaning crew, the people who cleaned the toilets. And so, there was a way in which he really didn’t place one person above another because of their station. And I think that was an incredibly ethical stance to take in the world. Imagine if we did that more in the world? And imagine if we saw ourself in each other and saw them in us.

AL               Frank Ostaseski, thank you for taking the time to share your wisdom on the Good Life podcast today. And for people who want to know more about your thoughts, they can read your book, The Five Invitations, or log on to the website Which has not only information about the book but also a series of pieces of advice, resources, that people can use on living more fully and being a compassionate companion. Thank you again, Frank.

FO              Thank you, Andrew and thank you for doing this. It’s a great gift you’re giving the world. Good work.

AL               Thank you.

                   Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life. If you enjoyed this conversation, I reckon you’ll love past interviews, with Nikki Johnston, Liz Forbat, and Michelle Knox. We appreciate getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Spotify or Apple podcasts, it really helps others find the show. Next week we’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.