Frank Ostaseski, an internationally respected Buddhist teacher and pioneer in end-of-life care, has accompanied over 1,000 people through their dying process.
Acclaimed author of The Five Invitations, Frank co-founded the first Buddhist hospice in America—the Zen Hospice Project. In 2005, he founded the Metta Institute, through which he has trained countless clinicians and caregivers, building a national network of educators, advocates, and guides for those facing a life-threatening illness.
Recently, Frank sat down with Jenn Brown, one of our partners at 1440 Multiversity, for a conversation around the lessons that death has to teach us:
1440: Fear seems to be the most common reaction to death. What is it that we’re afraid of, exactly?
Frank: People have three big fears when it comes to dying. The first is that it will hurt. These days we can do something about that—we can manage people’s pain fairly well, and we can generally address symptoms fairly effectively.
The second fear is something like, “I’m going to be emotionally abandoned because there’s no future relationship with me.” That is a big fear. We can do something about this one too—we can say, “I’m here.” We can be compassionate companions and keep our commitments.
The third fear is of something that’s a little more difficult.
Dying, particularly dying from a long-term illness, is a stripping away process.
We are stripped of all the ways we’ve self-defined—as a mother, a father, a journalist, whatever. All these identities go away and we’re left with the question, “Who am I?” That’s when we get down to something that’s much more fundamental or essential.
It’s terrifying and also liberating.
1440: When we are stripped down to that essential level, what do you see? Are we all the same or is there still a uniqueness to each of us?
Frank: It’s completely unique. Just like every birth is unique, every death is that way too. That doesn’t mean there aren’t commonalities among people, though. I worked with a lot of folks who lived on the streets of San Francisco, and most of them didn’t have deep religious practices. They also didn’t have a lot of trust in society. But I regularly saw them go through a very powerful transformational process in dying.
Let’s say it this way: in the dying process, people often discover that there’s something larger than themselves that also includes themselves. I’m hesitant to name what that larger thing is because people have many different names for it.
But it often happens that people discover themselves to be more than the small, separate self they have taken themselves to be. This discovery often comes in the last months, days, or moments of life. Some would say that’s too late, and I would agree.
We can discover what death has to teach us at any time.
We don’t have to wait until we’re dying.
1440: How can we access these lessons before our death so we can live a fuller life?
Frank: The process of dying and the process of going inward using spiritual or contemplative practices have a lot in common. There is this growing silence that happens along with a general withdrawing from the world, or at least from the outer circles of the world.
There is a slowing down and an appreciation of moment-to-moment experience.
There’s also the stripping away of separation. When you are born into a somewhat typical mother-child bond, you are swimming in a sea of non-separation. You don’t know that; that’s just your experience.
Gradually, you necessarily develop a sense of individuality and independence. You move away from that sense of pure unity and develop a personality. You develop boundaries and split the world into I and other, mind and body, etc. In the dying process, there is an opportunity to dissolve those false boundaries.
1440: What is this thing you refer to that’s larger than us and also includes us?
Frank: It’s the thing that gives people a greater sense of meaning in their lives and helps them step beyond their limiting beliefs and ideas. For some people, it’s religious conviction—faith. For others, it’s time in nature.
Perhaps the most common one for people is their relationships.
Having them is a common experience, but they take shape uniquely for each person.
We are all both individual and not separate. The image that’s used all the time is the wave and the ocean. The wave is absolutely unique and beautiful, and it’s also not separate from the ocean.
1440: In addition to the fear of dying, we also fear being the one left behind. What lessons have you learned that would be helpful for those who are grieving?
Frank: It’s curious to me in this culture how fixated we are on managing grief. People say, “It’s been six weeks, you should be ready to move on.” We do that with death and with the loss of a job or a relationship.
Grief is a thread, an underground stream that moves through all of us. When we turn toward it instead of trying to get rid of it, we learn something from it, like any other emotion or mental state.
I think the most important thing in working with our grief is to not turn away—or to come back to it if we do turn away—and follow it through all manifestations. Grief isn’t just sadness, it can be numbness or relief or guilt—it’s a constellation of experiences.
Whatever your grief looks like, you must turn toward it.
1440: Do you see a shift happening in our country when it comes to death and dying? It still feels like we have an abstract faith that medicine or science will save us.
Frank: I was at a dinner for tech entrepreneurs last year, and I said something like, “Death is inevitable.” Some guy raised his hand and said, “We’re working on that!”
It’s true that we have been a terribly death-denying culture, and I think that has a lot to do with how we have medicalized death over the last several decades. In past decades, and in many cultures, death was a part of everyday life. People planned for it and they experienced it close-up. When a loved one died, they saw bodies in their own homes and their neighbors’ houses.
I have a doctor friend who says that these incredible leaps in medicine and science over the past 50 to 100 years have morphed into the fantasy that we will be able to defeat all death. Now, the benefits of medicine are obvious. If not for them I wouldn’t be here talking to you (I had triple bypass surgery a few years ago). But in falling for the idea that we will be able to solve and treat everything, we have lost touch with the age-old ability to help people die.
Having said that, I actually think people are hungry to talk about dying.
I think they just want to talk about it with someone who is not so afraid.
And that’s happening more and more. There are more books, movies, and documentaries about the topic than ever before. I think the baby boomer generation, who has always wanted choice, wants choice around death too.
Death is coming out of the closet and people are seeing that it’s much more than a medical event.
I believe our task is to meet death. We don’t have to like it, we don’t have to agree with it, but we have to meet it. James Baldwin had that beautiful line, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” I think that’s a call to courage, to meeting what’s right in front of us.