The Impermanence of Everything and the Preciousness of Life

In Part 1 of his book, The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski discusses his first invitation and principle for living, “Don’t Wait”.  Frank, as founder of a hospice and end-of-life carer, has cared for more than a thousand patients during their dying process and death.  In this first part of his book, he highlights the impermanence of everything and the preciousness of each moment of living.   

Frank has been a companion to the deepest grief of friends and relatives of the dying and experienced a depth of vicarious grief that is difficult to conceive – it’s as if the collective grief of others had beset him and brought him to his knees, both physically and metaphorically.  Fortuitously, he was a colleague and friend of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross at the time who supported him in his grief and his work as an end-of-life carer.  Elizabeth developed the classic concept of the five stages of dealing with death and loss in her book On Death and Dying and was also the author of Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss.

The impermanence of everything

If nothing else, the Coronavirus reinforces the impermanence of everything through its pervasive impact on every facet of our daily lives – our home, work location, transportation, schooling and education, shopping, spending, entertainment, health, finances, sport and our very daily interactions and movements.  The on-off nature and varying intensity of imposed restrictions serve to reinforce this message of the changeability of everything.  In these challenging times, we are called to adapt to the unpredictability of our work, our changing home arrangements, the extreme challenge to our health and welfare, and the uncertainty of our income and overall finances.

Without the pandemic, we can still become aware of impermanence – the birth and death cycle for humans, animals and nature.   Relationships end, animals are killed and eaten by other animals in the endless pursuit of food and survival and leaves fall off trees to become life-giving compost for new plant growth.  

The impermanence of everything was brought home to me by two recent incidents.  The first was the disturbing story of a nurse killed suddenly in our city while cycling to work.  Her husband indicated that their day started as normal with a coffee and breakfast together but ended tragically when the nurse was only metres away from her work at the hospital.

The second experience of impermanence occurred when I was walking along the foreshore of Moreton Bay near our home.  I was watching the small fish full of life darting back and forth in the marina when a fast-moving bird dived into the water and retrieved one of the fish for its food – only to be followed by other birds dive-bombing the school of little fish. 

The preciousness of life

Frank describes the process of dying as a “stripping away” of everything including our sense of “self” – our sense of who we think we are and should be, all our roles such as husband/wife, partner, parent, neighbour.  We lose our professional identity, our personal orientation, e.g. as a “people person” and our comparative self-assessment such as well-off or impoverished and successful or an abject failure.  Frank reinforces his view of the inadequacy of the medical model to explain the breadth and depth of the “stripping away” at death.  He maintains that in dying everything is released/dissolved – “the gross physical elements of the body, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, conditioning all dissolving”.  Frank asserts that what is left to discover is “something more elemental and connective” that constitutes the real essence of human nature.

Our awareness of impermanence, accentuated by illness, can lead to anxiety or a readiness to appreciate and savour the preciousness of life, of our relationships and of nature.   Through appreciating the pervasiveness of impermanence, we can more readily accept change and more willingly give up our attachments – the things that we hold onto to define our self and our worth.   This is where meditation can help us both in fully living and preparing for dying and death.

The “Don’t Wait” principle reminds us of the certainty of death and the uncertainty of the timing of our death – that it will happen, but we don’t know when or how.  This principle encourages us to value every moment we are alive and to savour what we have in life and the experiences of living.  Frank’s heart attack reinforced this message for him – his sense of self and perception of himself as the “strong one” helping everyone else in need was completely undone.  He encourages us to be curious about ourselves and our preferences/attitudes/ biases and to work at letting go of the identities that we have become attached to.

 Frank maintains that “softening around these identities, we will feel less constraint, more immediacy and presence”.  I am learning the profound truth of this statement through softening my identification with being a “good” tennis player who never or rarely makes mistakes.  Instead of wallowing in negative self-evaluation, I am beginning to enjoy the freedom of progressively loosening this unsustainable identification as I grow older and less physically able.

Reflection

Frank’s book would have to be the easiest and most-engrossing personal development book I have had the privilege to read, and, at the same time, the most profound.  As someone who has had a deep interest in, and knowledge of, his subject, he can communicate his ideas in simple language and practical illustrations.  Each paragraph contains exquisite morsels of wisdom and the book is replete with moving but brief stories that impress indelibly – so, even if you don’t remember the exact wording of his principles, you certainly remember the stories that illustrate them.  Frank’s writing reflects the calmness, humility and depth of insight and wisdom that is evident in his many conversations and podcast interviews about the process of dying and “The Five Invitations”.

“Don’t Wait” is a challenging principle but Coronavirus has forced us to stop, reassess and protect ourselves and others.  It has been the catalyst for incredible acts of courage and kindness – by our health professionals and people from all walks of life.  The Pandemic Kindness group on Facebook©, with over half a million members, is but one of many efforts to encourage and support random acts of kindness in these challenging times.

The “Don’t Wait” principle incorporates many invitations to create change in our lives.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become increasingly aware of our attachments (including to harmful self-narratives) and progressively develop the discipline and self-regulation to create real change in our lives to live with more appreciation, thoughtfulness, kindness and compassion.  We can learn to savour every moment of our life and everything that it entails.

__________________________________________

Image by christels from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Living in the Light of the Lessons from Death and Dying

Frank Ostaseski in an interview with Rheanna Hoffmann about death and the process of dying, mentioned his book based on his experiences of being with a thousand people as they died.  His book, The Five Invitations: Discover What Death Can Teach Us About Living Life Fully, provides five principles or guides for living life with integrity, meaningfully and in alignment with our true purpose.  Frank was the co-founder and director of a thousand-bed hospice, so his book is based on lived experiences and real stories of how people faced death, as well as the distillation of the “wisdom of death” from these deeply personal and moving experiences.

Frank maintains that death is the “silent teacher”, imparting understanding and wisdom about how we should live.  He expounds his ideas and principles in a number of recorded podcast interviews, including What Can Death Teach Us About Living Mindfully. His recoded talk at Google focused on his book through the theme, Inviting the Wisdom of Death Into Life.   A succinct explanation of the principles in his book, which he describes as “invitations to living”, is provided in his 26-minute edited interview with Steve Heilig of Palouse Mindfulness.

The five invitations to living learned from the dying

Frank emphasises that these invitations to living have been taught to him by the dying and by compassionately helping many hundreds of people with the process of dying.   Understanding the following five principles and putting them into practice enables us to live life fully and mindfully:

  1. Don’t wait – we assume that life will go on as it always has, that our health, wealth and relationships will persist into the future.  If nothing else, the Coronavirus should disabuse us of this belief and the associated perceptions.  There is a tendency to put off changing the way we live because of this belief in continuity.  However, living is precarious, nothing is certain.  We can become absorbed in the busyness of life and put off any change – avoiding the need to slow down and really experience life and relationships.  We can spend so much of the day planning our next activity or sequence of events. Frank maintains that we are reticent to fully “step into life” – “waiting for the next moment in life, we miss the present”.  Frank urges us not to wait till our death to find out the lessons of dying.
  2. Welcome everything, push nothing away – whether it’s grief, loneliness, boredom or suffering, there is a lesson to learn if we don’t push away the feelings, emotions and thoughts that pervade our life.  Frank suggests that we should welcome grief and fear and difficult feelings because these “moments” of discomfort are pivotal in our life for developing sustainable personal change, if we fully face them.  He spoke of the grief he experienced working with the dying and how he adopted meditation, bodywork (the touch of a practitioner on a source of physical pain in his body) and holding and rocking newly born babies (a life-affirming activity) as a way to face the full emotional, physical and mental experience of grief – it’s as if he ritually experienced the life cycle of birth, living and dying as a way to manage his overwhelming grief.  
  3. Bring your whole self to the experience – Frank made the point that in his work with the dying, the part of him that was most helpful was his vulnerability and helplessness because it acted as an “empathetic bridge to their experience”.  These “weaknesses” became his strengths and enabled him to be fully present to them, to be-with-them.  He has stated previously that authentic presence and compassionate listening are healing and supportive of people’s transition in both the challenges of living and of the dying process.  He asserts that none of us is perfect but that we can bring our whole self to whatever we are experiencing – leaving no part of our self out of the interaction.
  4. Find a place of rest in the middle of things – we can find a place to rest amidst the turmoil and tenuousness of life and despite overwhelming emotions that beset us.  The “place of rest” could be a breathing exercise, a ritual, mindfulness practice or reconnecting with nature.  Finding such a “place” is critical as a self-care approach for healthcare professional, particularly in these challenging times. Rheanna Hoffmann, who volunteered to work in the Emergency Department of a New York Hospital during the height of the Coronavirus, stated that this principle, explained in Franks’ book, helped her deal with the exhaustion, grief and overwhelm she experienced in helping suffering and dying patients while working under unimaginably difficult conditions. Frank also recounts the story of how he helped a woman to find a place of rest who was dying and experiencing extreme difficulty breathing, a struggle to breathe exacerbated by fear.  He asked her, “Would you like to struggle a little less?”  He then helped her to put her attention to the gap/pause in her breathing and began to pace her by breathing in and out with her.  He reports that “fear left her face” and she died peacefully.  Frank pointed out that none of the conditions had changed for her (including difficulty with breathing), only her relationship to her experience of dying.
  5. Cultivate a don’t know mind – this is not designed to encourage ignorance.  Frank quoted a Zen saying, “Ignorance is not just ‘not knowing something’ but the right thing”.  Ignorance is knowing the wrong thing and insisting on its truth and universality.  The principle is not about accumulating information (the “what”) but cultivating a mind that is “open, receptive and full of wonder” – a mind that is curious and pursues the truth and understanding in everything.  Frank suggested that we should talk with our children about death and, in the process, learn from them (not tell them).  He recounts his experience as a Director of a pre-school when he organised for the children involved to go and collect dead things in the woods nearby.  He marvels at the insight of the children and their perceptiveness.  They had been discussing the theme of endings becoming beginnings, e.g. a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, when a four-year old girl said, “I think the leaves on the trees are very, very generous – they fall and make room for new leaves”.  Frank maintains that a “don’t know mind” is fluid and flexible and “infused with a deep interest to know” and to know what is true right now.

Reflection

Frank’s approach to fully facing all that life presents (both discomfort and joy) is in alignment with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s concept of Full Catastrophe Living and Frank’s personal process for handling his grief accords with Deepak Chopra’s recommendation that we adopt a ritual to symbolise our release from the stranglehold of grief.

Frank epitomises in his life and work what he advocates through his talks and video podcasts.  He pursues a life that is meaningful and purposeful.  For example, in addition to his book and public presentations sharing his knowledge and experience of the dying process and its lessons, he has established a creative approach to educating end-of-life carers through the Metta Institute.  His words and actions manifest a life of integrity, compassion and wisdom.

Steve Heilig, the person who interviewed Frank in one of the video podcasts mentioned above, has also found a way to live a life full of meaning and purpose.  One of his many mindfulness endeavours has been to collect resources and permissions from leading mindfulness practitioners, including Jon Kabat-Zinn, to enable him to provide a free, 8-week, online course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

As we grow in mindfulness, by employing the five principles that Frank espouses, we can live our lives more fully and expansively and truly aligned to our energy and purpose.  We can find our expansiveness and spaciousness which Frank evidenced with people who were dying – their capacity to find the personal resources to face their fear and death despite their belief that the challenge was beyond them.   We can also become a calming presence to others who are experiencing difficulties as we progressively overcome our own reactivity. If we develop the discipline of the daily practice of meditation, we can live in the light of the lessons of dying and death.

_________________________________________

Image by mostafa meraji from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Understanding Death and the Process of Dying

Rheanna Hoffmann recently interviewed Frank Ostaseski on healing grief through compassion and love.  Frank founded the Metta Institute whose mission is to provide innovative educational approaches to developing skills in “mindful and compassionate end-of-life care”.  Rheanna herself is the founder of The Whole Practitioner, dedicated to helping nurses move beyond frustration and burnout to “rediscover, health, balance and their core values”.

Frank and many other writers on the process of dying maintain that it is not just a medical event but is much broader and more holistic than this form of the mechanical model.  Increasingly, research is confirming too that consciousness is more than our physical brains.  Frank argues that the unwillingness in our culture to talk about death and the dying process is preventing us from learning the lessons that the dying can teach us and our children.  He contends that if we learn about the dying process and face the reality of our inevitable death, we can better appreciate the “preciousness of life” and live our lives more fully and in alignment with our values and purpose.

The process of dying

Frank describes dying as a process of “stripping away”.  It’s as if everything that is associated with our “ego” – our sense of self – is peeled away.  Undoubtedly, our mental and physical capacities decline, and this begins with the aging process.  But the stripping away is much more than that – it is losing attachment to everything including our spouse or partner, our home, our roles, our possessions, and the animals in our life.  Frank also talks about dying as a “sacred process of transformation” through which we see things in a new light, have a deeper understanding of the meaning of life and the value and true purpose of our own life – in other words “an awakening”, no longer limited by our concept of a “small separate self”.

Peter Fenwick, when talking about What Really Happens When We Die, suggests that the more we hold on to our ego needs and refuse to let go, the more difficult is the dying process.  Living our life in a selfless way – not totally self-centred — makes the process of dying easier because we are not absorbed in holding on to our attachments.  Being “other-centred” in the pre-transition phase of our life makes dying easier and enables the final transformation that Peter describes as entering a “spiritual domain” where you lose your identity as a separate self and become identified with the total cosmos – the universal whole.

Peter discusses the change in our level of consciousness in the light of research into Near Death Experience (NDE).  He maintains that consciousness research focused around NDE experiences confirm a “widening of consciousness” that manifests in:

  • Losing the self-narrative – the self-talk that we employ to boost or deflate our egos
  • Being just in the moment – not absorbed in the past or anxious about the future
  • Experiencing “unbelievable” happiness
  • Tending to be transcendent – losing a sense of duality (our self and others) and becoming merged with the cosmos.

Peter has co-authored The Art of Dying with Elizabeth Fenwick which provides personal accounts from those who have been dying and people (healthcare professionals, carers and family) who have been with them and supported them in the process of dying.   The accounts discussed, as well as other research into NDE experiences, confirm that consciousness is much more than our physical brains.  Monica Renz, author of Dying: A Transition, provides a process-oriented approach to end-of-life patient care that incorporates confirming the dignity of the patient, understanding the transition process of dying and being able to sensitively engage in the symbolic journey described by dying patients.  Her observations and detailed accounts are based on attending 1,000 cancer patients during the process of dying.  Monica describes the dying process as both an archetypal and a spiritual process and contends that, in the process of transition, patients move through fear into a “space of peace, acceptance, dignity and tranquillity characterised by connectedness and even luminosity”.

Reflection

Our cultural blinkers blind us to the reality of the dying process and the nature of our own inevitable death.  As we become more aware of the dying process through our own research and study, we can learn to appreciate how precarious our life is and how precious is the process of both living and dying.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditating on death and reflecting on its implications for how we live our life, we can progressively come into more alignment with our life force, our values and our life purpose.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­____________________________________________

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Building Resilience through Compassion Towards Others

In a previous post, I discussed Pema Chödrön’s ideas of developing resilience through self-compassion by “compassionate abiding” in our own pain and suffering during these challenging times of the pandemic.  This entails abiding in, or dropping into, the full depth of our painful experience through our bodily sensations and conscious breathing.  As we undertake slow, conscious breathing we hold our suffering with self-kindness and warmth.  Lulu & Mischka in their mantra meditation, Warriors of Light, remind us to “breathe into our hearts” because breath is our chariot enabling us to face the unknown and stand on our own.

In her interview podcast with Tami Simon of Sounds True, Pema extended the concept of compassionate abiding by moving beyond self-compassion to compassion towards others.  She maintained that embracing the pain and suffering of others particularly in these times, when everyone is suffering in one form or another, contributes to our resilience – we realise we are not alone and we are able to move beyond self-absorption and “panic storylines” to extending kindness to others.

Pain and suffering: a doorway to compassion for others

In these challenging times of the Coronavirus, we can be very sure that there are millions of people around the world who are experiencing suffering like we are.  People are experiencing all forms of loss – of loved ones, their jobs, their business incomes, their health, their financial security or their homes.  They may have become physically disconnected from their workplaces, their family and their friends, even stranded in a foreign country because of international travel restrictions.  They could be healthcare professionals working on the frontline and/or living away from their families for a number of months to protect their loved ones from cross-infection.  We can be very confident that there are people around the world who are feeling pain and suffering like we are.

Pema argues that abiding with compassion in our own pain and suffering is the doorway opening us to compassion towards others.  In experiencing fully our own suffering, not denying its intensity or pervasiveness, we develop a deep sense of connection with others who are also suffering at this time.  Pema spoke of the principle of Tonglen, a Tibetan word meaning “taking in and sending out” – taking in our own experience of pain and suffering and sending out desire for relief for others.  She suggests that once we become grounded in our own suffering (this may take 10-20 minutes), we can take in the suffering of others.  On our in-breath we can imagine others who are experiencing similar pain and suffering and on our out-breath, wish them relief and insight to enable them to move beyond their own discomfort, distress, grief or loneliness.  Connectedness and resilience lie in this mutual experiencing.

Pema maintains that we do not have to confine this compassion towards others to a time of extreme challenge, we can use our pain and suffering as the doorway to compassion and connectedness at other times.  We may be experiencing distress because a family member is suffering from Alzheimer’s or feeling panic and anxiety because someone we are carer for is experiencing the black dog of depression.  At these times, we can drop into conscious breathing, embracing our distress and anxiety with kindness, and gradually move beyond this abiding self-compassion to compassion towards others who are experiencing the intensity of our own emotions. 

Reflection

I think that Pema’s profound insight into compassionate abiding opens the way to develop self-compassion, compassion towards others and personal resilience.  As we grow in mindfulness through conscious breathing and extending relief to others, we can move beyond our self-destructive narratives, restore our inner equilibrium and peace, and develop the resilience to not only survive these challenging times but also be able to extend help and support to others. 

Compassion towards others can be expressed in many ways even in these times of social distancing – the virtual choir of women physicians singing “Rise Again” is but one example of many where people are moving beyond their own overwhelming challenges and distress to reach out to others.

Pema provides multiple resources including her many books, her free e-book titled, 5 Teachings of Pema Chödrön  and her online course, Freedom to Love, which expands on the principles and practice of compassionate abiding.

_______________________________________

Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Lifelong Learning through Reflection

Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt and Richard Teare in their edited book, Lifelong Action Learning for Community Development, highlight reflection as core to action learning and lifelong learning.  Hospitality entrepreneur and author, Chip Conley is an exemplar of lifelong learning through reflection.  In his podcast interview with Tami Simon, he emphasised the role of reflection in his entrepreneurial career.  Chip had a secret process of recording his learnings in a weekly bulleted list based on his reflections about the previous week and what he learned from each significant encounter.  His reflective Wisdom Books in the form of notebooks were developed over many years and provided the ideas for his five published books on leadership, entrepreneurship, peak organisational performance, psychology and marketing.

Mutual mentoring – the Modern Elder

Chip was the founder and CEO of a chain of boutique hotels, Joie de Vivre.  He sold them after 24 years following a near-death experience a few years earlier.  This “flatlining” experience was the catalyst for him to think about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life and also changed his orientation from an efficiency-driven “to do list” person to a “to be list” person who was prepared to slow down and appreciate beauty and aesthetics.

He came to a clearer understanding of the difference between intelligence and wisdom and began to repurpose his life around sharing his insights and encouraging people to develop wisdom.  Reg Revans, the father of action learning, had also highlighted the difference between cleverness and wisdom and pointed out that wisdom, not cleverness, is necessary when confronted with unfamiliar conditions or situations.  For Reg, admitting what we do not know is the starting point for the development of true wisdom.

Acknowledging what he did not know became a critical component of Chip’s new career move after the sale of his boutique hotel chain.  He had been approached by the three founders of Airbnb to work fulltime in the company as a mentor and strategic adviser.  He found himself as someone in his fifties mentoring people in their twenties.  This led to a mutual mentoring arrangement where he shared his knowledge and experience re strategy and marketing in the hospitality industry and gained knowledge from the founders about the digital world and its impact on business management and growth. 

Chip wrote his book Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder  to share his experience of being both a mentor and an intern”.   Jack Welch, when CEO of General Electrics (an action learning-based company), also employed the concept of “mutual mentoring” between senior executives and young technological experts within the company.

The Modern Elder Academy

This experience of mutual mentoring led Chip to establish The Modern Elder Academy to enable people to make the midlife transition in a way that was enriching for themselves and others.  Through his personal experience and insight, he recognised that there was an unmet need to help people in midlife to transition to their new reality (whether that be impending retirement, role as a carer, transitioning to a new career or experiencing the onset of chronic illness).  He maintained that rituals, training and tools existed for other transitions in life (such as puberty, graduation from school or university or marriage) but not exist for those who were transitioning to the midlife stage (35-70). 

The Modern Elder Academy is designed as a “place where people cultivate and harvest their wisdom” and “reset, restore and repurpose” their life.   Chip’s academy, described in a Forbes article as a “Cool School for Midlifers”, is very different to any other academy and incorporates learning entirely new skills such as surfing and bread making and incorporates the development of mindfulness through a “silent contemplation park” and periods devoted to meditation, reflection, yoga, “wisdom circles”, appreciating the beauty of nature, and a desert-based vision quest (in the extended version only).

 One of the core challenges people experience at the Elder Academy is what Chip terms “midlife edit” – letting go of old beliefs and patterns and acquiring a “growth mindset” where the emphasis is on getting rid of baggage, developing a flexible mindset and focusing on self-improvement and personal growth.  Cliff explains that his experience of mutual mentoring led him to adjust his mindset from that of a CEO and industry leader to an “Intern”, to acknowledge that he needed to learn about the digital world of business from millennials and to shift from “being interesting to being interested” – a transition that requires deep listening.  Participants who complete the one-week “curriculum” receive a “Certificate in Mindset Management”. 

Reflection

We can grow in mindfulness at any stage of our life.  However, what Chip offers through the Modern Elder Academy is a structured way of developing mindfulness, processes for changing fixed mindsets and an opportunity to repurpose our midlife in this transition period.  The added advantage is the community dimension – making this journey with others and developing a deep sense of connectedness to nature and others (by sharing our common humanity, midlife challenges and growing wisdom).

__________________________________________

Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.