by Frank Ostaseski
In The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski, cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project and pioneer of compassionate end of life care, shares an inspiring exploration of the lessons dying has to offer about living a fulfilling life. We interviewed him about the motivations of writing this book, the Zen Hospice Project, his experiences dealing with death, and what lessons he had learned along his journey.
1. How did you come to break down the inspiring sections which make up the five invitations?—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.
The Five Invitations are my attempt to honor the lessons I have learned sitting bedside with so many dying patients. They are five mutually supportive principles, permeated with love. They have served me as reliable guides for coping with death. And, as it turns out, they are equally relevant guides to living a life of integrity.
I first wrote the five invitations down on the back of a cocktail napkin at thirty thousand feet somewhere over Kansas. I was traveling to join other critical thinkers on the campus of Princeton University to contribute to a six-hour documentary about dying in America called On Our Own Terms being produced by Bill Moyers.
I wanted to express the simple truths that dying people taught me.
I think of them as five bottomless practices that can be continually explored and deepened. They have little value as theories. To be understood, they have to be lived into and realized through action.
2. What is the most important lesson you wish for readers to take away from your book?
I have sat on the precipice of death with more than 1000 people. Witnessing the process of dying we come into contact with life’s precarious nature and also its preciousness. Then we don’t want to waste a minute. We want to enter our life fully and use it in a responsible way. Death is a good companion on the road to living well and dying without regret.
3. When did you first realize having an ever-present awareness of death would bring you closer to your truest self?
Dying is inevitable and intimate. Both my parents died when I was a teenager. Their deaths catapulted me into a process of trying to understand how to live with suffering. I wanted to find its root causes. Not just swap out one set of changing conditions for another.
Over the years I have found that meditation opened me to a kind of guidance. I’m not speaking about the sort of simplistic guidance that most people believe these days. Guidance doesn’t appear as an angel or a wise old man or woman standing in your room saying, “yes, marry her, she’s the one, the soul mate you have been looking for.” All of that can happen but it is not what I am referring to as guidance rising through meditation.
The guidance I am speaking of is intelligence inherent in our very being. We all need to learn how to discern that type of guidance. It is what allows our souls to unfold into maturity in an optimal way. Inner guidance naturally begins to function when we learn the precise attitude for discovering the truth. We need the correct motivation otherwise we can spin our wheels for year. The motivation we need is the sincerity of wanting the truth for its own sake- loving the truth for its own sake. This happens when truth becomes what we most want, what we value, what we appreciate, what makes our hearts happy!
In my mid-twenties, after a year in Asia I understood this is not just a matter of ethical sincerity, of telling the truth for example; the attitude here is almost devotional. It’s a state of heart.
4. What was your motivation behind cofounding the Zen Hospice Project?
The Zen Hospice Project was the first Buddhist hospice in America. It was a fusion of spiritual insight and practical social action. We believed there was a natural match between the Zen practitioners who were cultivating a “listening heart” through meditation practice, and those who needed to be heard—people who were dying.
The people I worked with lived in terrible conditions—in rat-infested hotels or on park benches behind city hall. They were alcoholics, prostitutes, and homeless folks who barely survived on the margins of society. Often they wore the face of resignation or were angry about their loss of control. Many had lost all trust in humanity.
Some were from cultures I did not know, speaking languages I could not understand. Some had a deep faith that carried them through difficult times, while others had sworn off religion. Nguyen feared ghosts. Isaiah was comforted by “visits” from his dead mother. There was a hemophiliac father who had contracted the HIV virus from a blood transfusion. Years before his illness, he had disowned his gay son. But at the end of life, father and son were both dying of AIDS, lying next to one another in twin beds in a shared bedroom, being cared for by Agnes, the father’s wife and the son’s mother.
For some, dying was a great gift. They made reconciliations with their long-lost families, they freely expressed their love and forgiveness, or they found the kindness and acceptance they had been looking for their whole lives. Still others turned toward the wall in withdrawal and hopelessness and never came back again.
All of them were my teachers.
5. Was there ever a point in your life that death frightened you? How did you come to overcome this fear, if so?
The process of dying can still be frightening. There may be pain or confusion, periods of isolation and loneliness, loss and grief. I am not romantic about dying. It is hard work. Maybe the hardest work we will ever do in this life. It doesn’t always turn out well. It can be sad, cruel, messy, beautiful, and mysterious. Most of all it is normal. We all go through it.
Our fear may never go away. The part of us that is scared may always be scared.
Our work is to learn to work with the fear by going toward it. By becoming familiar with the way it expresses itself in the body, heart and mind. It’s helpful to take a backward step. When we are aware of our fear we realize that fear is not the only thing in the room. There is awareness of fear which means that some part of us is not afraid. Then we can relate to the fear instead of reacting from the fear. Our fear becomes workable.
6. Has there ever been a time working in hospice you found difficult as you had to say goodbye to patients that became friends and their families?
When I am working with someone who is dying I am always exploring my own fear, grief attachments and relationship to dying. That is how I form an empathetic bridge to the other. It is how I touch their pain with compassion instead of fear or pity. When interviewing staff and volunteers to work in the hospice I often asked a question. “Are you prepared to open your heart to love someone knowing they will die?” All that is here today will be only a memory tomorrow. Intellectually, we may understand that our mother’s treasured vase will one day fall off the shelf, the car will break down, and those we love will die. Our work is to move this understanding from our intellect and to nestle it deep within our hearts.
To accompany a person who is dying, to make the journey through grief—these may be the greatest challenges we will ever face in our lives. But don’t turn away. When we take care of someone we love and do it with great integrity and impeccability, when we feel that we have given ourselves fully and completely, that we didn’t hold anything back, we will surely feel great sorrow. But there will also be gratitude and the possibility of opening to a reservoir of joy and love that we may have never known before. I call this an undying love.
7. How have your beliefs and teachings in Buddhism helped you achieve this inspiring exploration of the lessons dying has to offer?
The story of the Buddha begins with his encounter with sickness, old age and death. He was troubled by some of the same thoughts shared by our children. They wonder about birth and death. They try to understand why they get sick and why grandpa died.
Impermanence is a central teach in Buddhism. It is often referred to as the “Law of Change and Becoming.” These two correlated principles provide balance and harmony. Just as there is constant “dissolving,” there is also constant “becoming.” We rely on impermanence. The cold you have today won’t last forever. This boring dinner party will come to an end. Evil dictatorships crumble, replaced by thriving democracies. Even ancient trees burn down so that new ones can be born. Without impermanence, life simply could not be. Without impermanence, your son couldn’t take his first steps. Your daughter couldn’t grow up and go to the prom.
Each moment is born and dies. And in a very real way, we are born and die with it. There is a beauty to all this impermanence. In Japan, people celebrate the brief but abundant blooming of the cherry blossoms each spring. In Idaho, outside the cabin where I teach, blue flax flowers live for a single day. Why do such flowers appear so much more magnificent than plastic ones? The fragility, the brevity, and the uncertainty of their lives captivates us, invites us into beauty, wonder, and gratitude.
Attention to constant change can help prepare us for the fact that the body will one day die. However, a more immediate benefit of this reflection is that we learn to be more relaxed with impermanence now. When we embrace impermanence, a certain grace enters our lives. We can treasure experiences; we can feel deeply—all without clinging. We are free to savor life, to touch the texture of each passing moment completely, whether the moment is one of sadness or joy. When we understand on a deep level that impermanence is in the life of all things.
Embracing our own impermanence is a journey, taking us deeper and deeper into contact with the true nature of things. First we accept that things around us change. Then we realize that we, ourselves, are ever changing: our thoughts and feelings, our attitudes and beliefs, even our identities.
The beauty is that our impermanence binds us to every other human being.
8. What would you claim to be your most monumental experience with death after handling it with over a thousand people?
In the ancient Indian epic, Mahabharata, the Lord of Death asks, “What is the most wondrous thing in the world?”, and his son answers, “It is that all around us people can be dying and we don’t believe it can happen to us.” I never ceased to be amazed by our capacity to deny the truth of death.
At the same time, I have seen ordinary people at the end of their lives develop profound insights and engage in a powerful process of transformation that helped them to emerge as someone larger, more expansive, and much more real than the small, separate selves they had previously taken themselves to be. This is not a fairy-tale happy ending that contradicts the suffering that came before, but rather a transcendence of tragedy. The discovery of this capacity regularly occurs for many people in the final months, days, or sometimes even minutes of life.
“Too late,” you might say. And I might agree. However, the value is not in how long they enjoyed the experience, but the possibility that such transformation exists. If that possibility exists at the time of dying, it exists here and now.
This is a truly monumental experience.
9. What is your immediate goal of the moral behind The Five Invitations?
We can harness the awareness of death to appreciate the fact that we are alive, to encourage self-exploration, to clarify our values, to find meaning, and to generate positive action. It is the impermanence of life that gives us perspective.
However, the predominant view is still that dying is a medical event and that the most we can hope for is to make the best of a bad situation. I have witnessed the pain of people going to their deaths feeling themselves to be victims of circumstance, suffering ill consequences because of factors that were beyond their control, or worse yet, believing that they were the sole cause of their problems. As a result, too many people die in distress, guilt, and fear. I think we can do something about that.
To imagine that at the time of our dying we will have the physical strength, emotional stability, and mental clarity to do the work of a lifetime is a ridiculous gamble. I want to encourage people to sit down with death now, to have a cup of tea with her, to let her guide you toward living a more meaningful and loving life.
Frank Ostaseski is an internationally respected Buddhist teacher and visionary co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project and the Metta Institute. He has lectured at Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic, Wisdom.2.0 and teaches at major spiritual centers around the globe. AARP named him one of The 50 Most Innovative People over 50. His work has been highlighted on The Oprah Winfrey Show, featured by Bill Moyers in his PBS television series On Our Own Terms and honored by H.H. the Dalai Lama. A pioneer in end of life care he has sat on the precipice of death with more than a thousand people and trained countless clinicians and caregivers in the art of mindful and compassionate care.