Forgiveness: A Reflection

In a previous post I discussed an important topic, Don’t Wait to Forgive, based on the book by Frank Ostaseski, The Five Invitations.  Forgiveness is something that we tend to put off because it is too self-revealing and painful.  Frank suggests that we have to face up to who we really are and not who we project ourselves to be.  We have to look in the mirror, not into an internally fabricated image that shows ourselves in the best possible light.  The honesty required is disarming and can be disturbing.   Experience and research suggest that some principles can help us along the way:

  • Be grounded and relaxed – Forgiveness is a difficult pursuit at the best of times.  However, if you are agitated or highly distracted, it is extremely difficult to focus on forgiving yourself or someone else.  The starting point is to become grounded and relaxed.  Grounding in the present moment can involve tapping into your breath, your bodily sensations or the sounds around you.  I find sometimes that sounds can themselves be distracting because I am always trying to interpret them.  I like using a particular body sensation as a means of grounding, e.g. the sensation of fingers on both hands touching.  I find that I can use this practice anywhere, whether waiting for something or someone, or beginning a meditation.  It can quickly induce relaxation and focus for me.  Each person will have their preferred approach to grounding and relaxation – for some people, it may involve a full body scan to identify and release tension.
  • Manage distractions – Distractions are a natural, human frailty – they pull us away from our focus.  However, they can be more persistent and intensive when we are trying to focus on forgiveness because of the level of discomfort that we may feel when dealing with our shame.   Having a “home” or anchor such as our breath can enable us to restore our focus.  Persistence in returning to our focus builds our “attention muscle” over time – a necessary strength if we are to progress in our goal of developing forgiveness.
  • Start small – Self-intimacy around our need for forgiveness (for the multiple ways in which we have hurt others) can be overwhelming if we take on too much at once.  When you think about it, our need for forgiveness can be pervasive – impacting every facet of our interactions in close relationships, with work colleagues or with strangers in the street or shops.  We can think of times when we have interrupted someone, ignored people, been harsh towards them or spoken ill of them.   There are times when we have taken out our frustration or anger on someone who is not the trigger for our difficult emotions.  We can begin by focusing on a small, recent incident where we have caused hurt or harm to someone and gradually build to more confronting issues, situations or emotions.  Mitra Manesh in her guided meditation podcast on forgiveness suggests that a simple way to start might be to bring a particular person to mind and mentally say, “For all the pain and suffering I may have caused you, I ask for your forgiveness”.  This kind of catch-all statement avoids going into all the detail of an interaction.  Sometimes we can become distracted by what Diana Winston describes as “being lost in the story” – we can end up recalling blow by blow what happened, indulging in blame and self-righteousness.   Forgiveness is not a process of justifying our words or actions.
  • Forgiveness is healing for ourselves – We have to bring loving kindness to our forgiveness practice whatever form it takes – loving kindness for our self as well as for the person we are forgiving.  The process is not designed to “beat up on” our self but to face up to the reality of what we have said or done or omitted to do that has been hurtful for someone else.  It’s releasing that negative, built-up energy that is stored in difficult emotions and is physically, mentally and emotionally harmful to our self.  It is recognising that holding onto regret, anger, resentment or guilt can be toxic to our overall wellness.  However, like giving up smoking, it takes time, persistence and frequent revisiting of our motivation.

As we grow in mindfulness and self-awareness through meditation, reflection and daily mindfulness practices, we can learn to face up to our real self and our past and seek forgiveness.  However challenging this may be, we need to begin the journey for our own welfare and that of others we interact with.  Diana Winston in her forgiveness meditation podcast reminds us that mindfulness involves “being in the present moment with openness and curiosity” together with a “willingness to be with what is” – it entails honest self-exploration.  She cites Lily Tomlin who maintains that forgiveness involves “giving up all hope for a better past” – seeing our past with clear sight and honesty.

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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.

Don’t Wait to Forgive

In his book, The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski discusses in depth his first lesson, Don’t Wait, learned from many years of working with the process of dying and death.  He witnessed so many people dying while consumed by hatred, resentment, rage and anger.  He also gives examples of others who were able to offer profound forgiveness on their deathbed.  He urges us not to wait until we are dying to embrace forgiveness for ourselves and others.  He contends that all forgiveness is ultimately self-forgiveness and is hugely beneficial for us – mentally, physically and emotionally.

Resistance to forgiveness

Frank talks about our natural resistance to forgiveness – a form of self-protection, protecting our sense of right and wrong and our elevated sense of who we are.  To forgive is to acknowledge difficult emotions such as anger, regret and resentment.  We tend to run away from these feelings because they cause us pain.  However, the cost and pain of carrying resentment all our lives are far greater than the pain of facing up to those parts of ourselves we are embarrassed by or unwilling to acknowledge. 

We each have an area of darkness that we don’t like to shine a light on.  Recalling events also brings to mind and body, the recollection and re-experiencing of hurt – hurt from other’s words and actions, and also hurt and regret we feel for things that we have said and done that were hurtful towards other.   Facing up to the depth of our difficult emotions is critical for forgiveness and mental health.

Anger and resentment can consume us, constrict our capacity to express kindness and love towards others, even those in close relationships with us.  We can find ourselves constantly playing over events in our head as well as in our conversations, our hurt and resentment growing with each retelling.  Ultimately, forgiveness involves letting go – releasing ourselves from the sustained constriction of negative emotions and giving up others as objects of our resentment.  If we do not forgive others and our self, our difficult emotions find expression in self-defeating ways, including manifesting our anger in such a way that another innocent party is hurt by our outburst or abusive behaviour.

Frank points out that forgiveness does not mean to totally forget an event that was hurtful or condone the actions of another person that were unjust, hateful or revengeful   It does not require reconciliation – sharing your forgiveness with the other person.  It is an internal act encompassing mind, body and heart.  When we overcome the resistance to forgiveness, we open ourselves to kindness and love.

The long journey of forgiveness

As they say, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – forgiveness is a life-time pursuit, not something to begin at the end of life.  Frank recalls his own anger, rage and resentment towards a Colonel in a country at war, when the Colonel refused to assist a five-year old boy who eventually died a very painful death without the medical support the Colonel could have provided.  Frank points out that these complex emotions consumed him and sometimes found expression in his rage.  However, he instituted a daily ritual which, after many years, enabled him to let go of these emotions and find the freedom to forgive and love again.

Frank encourages us to start along the path of forgiveness by first taking on relatively small issues/events in our life, not the big all-consuming hatred or resentment.  He suggests even practicing with small annoyances such as being cut off by someone in traffic or having someone leave a wet towel lying on the bed.  You can progressively build up to dealing with the big issues/areas of resentment and anger.  The process of incorporating forgiveness meditation into your mindfulness practices can be a way to begin and to progress the long journey of forgiveness.

Forgiveness requires absolute  honesty (not projecting an image of ourselves as “perfect”), acknowledgement of our own part in a hurtful interaction, understanding of what is influencing the other person’s behaviour, recognition of our connectedness to everyone and a willingness to face up to, and fully experience, what we don’t like in our selves.   Frank’s strong exhortation is, “Don’t Wait!” until it is too late – until our deathbed when we could be consumed with anger, guilt, regret or rage.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through forgiveness meditation, mindfulness practices and honest reflection, we can more readily recognise when we need to forgive and the hurtfulness that we cause by our words and actions.  We can progressively face up to our “dark side” and our difficult emotions that are harmful to ourselves and others.  We can also bear the pain of naming these feelings and really experiencing their depth, distortion of reality and self-destructive nature.   Forgiveness builds our freedom to express kindness and appreciation and to love openly.

Frank maintains that the foundation for true forgiveness is learning to forgive ourselves with “compassion and mercy” – this is, in itself, a difficult journey and, ideally, a life-time pursuit.

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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.

Moving from Separation to Connection

Allyson Pimentel, a teacher at the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), provided a guided meditation podcast on the theme, From Separation to Connection, Silence to Speaking Truth, Stillness to Action. Allyson’s emphasis was on the power of meditation to increase our sense of connection, build our capacity to speak truthfully with courage and to take compassionate action.  Her meditation focus was on developing groundedness and stability through breath and formed part of the weekly, mindfulness awareness podcasts provided by MARC, UCLA.

Allyson explained that we are all connected in so many ways.  This sense of connection is heightened by the global pandemic and global social activity to redress injustice and inequality, epitomised by the Black Lives Matter movement.  This movement against violence towards black people has reverberated around the world with protest marches in many countries to show solidarity with those fighting against injustice. 

Sports teams are conducting public rituals to show solidarity and those who continue to promote hate and racism are being excluded from media forums that would otherwise give voice to their divisive comments.   Allyson noted that division and violence on racial grounds derives from a distorted sense of “separateness”, not recognizing our underlying connection to all other humans.  A  focus on separateness can breed “superior conceit”, a need to demonstrate that someone is “better than” another person.

Allyson’s professional work is focused on bringing mindfulness to bear on mental health issues and treatment.   She discussed mindfulness as paying attention to the present moment with kindness, curiosity and a sense of connection.  She stressed that breath meditation can help us to develop a strong sense of stability, self-compassion and compassion towards others.  She encouraged people participating in her presentation on Zoom to focus on one other individual participating in the global mindfulness awareness meditation and notice their face, their name, and their “place” and wish them protection, safety from harm, wellness and ease.  This process can deepen our sense of connection.

A breath meditation

During her Zoom drop-in session, Allyson offered a 20 minute breath meditation.  Her process involved a strong focus on our in-breath and out-breath and the space in between.  Allyson began the meditation by having all participants take a deep in-breath and let out an elongated out-breath while picturing their connection with others in the session doing the same thing – to create a sense of connection by breathing “as one”.   She suggested that people view the in-breath as self-compassion and the out-breath as compassion towards others, alternating between receiving and giving.

After this initial exercise during the guided meditation, Allyson encouraged participants to focus on their bodily sensations to become grounded fully in the moment – sensing their feet on the floor or ground and feeling the pressure of their body against their chair.   She suggested that if mental or emotional distractions intervened, returning to our bodily sensations is a way to refocus back on the breath.  A way to regain focus is to feel the breath moving the body (e.g. the in and out sensation of the diaphragm) and to feel the breath moving through the body – while recognising that many people around the world are experiencing constricted breathing through illness and/or inequity.

Allyson maintains that breath meditation and entering into silence fortifies us, provides stability and groundedness and enables us “to act for the good of others and to speak truth from our power”.  She suggests that meditation practice builds the personal resources to “speak wisely, truly and compassionately” in the face of unconscionable inequity.

Reflection

During the meditation session, Allyson quoted the One Breath poem written by Mark Arthur – a very moving reflection on connectedness and “collective social suffering”.  Mark exhorts us not to turn away but to turn towards the “deep, deep wound” as a way to express self-compassion. Then with loving kindness, “speak and act from the heart” with awareness that there is no separation between them and us, only connection through birth, breathing, living and death.

The space that lies between our in-breath and out-breath can be a place of rest and tranquillity and a source of spaciousness.  As we grow in mindfulness through breath meditation and exploring our connectedness to all human beings, we can access this spaciousness and learn to extend our thoughts and actions compassionately towards others.

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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.

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.

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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.

Accessing the Genius of Anxiety for Improved Mental Health

Karla McLaren discussed embracing anxiety in a podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True when having a conversation about Making Friends with Anxiety … And All Your Other Emotions.   Karla was able to draw on her own life experience and her recent book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.   She has spent a lifetime researching and writing about emotions.

In a previous post, I explored Karla’s concept of emotions as storing energy and providing a message and wisdom.  I also discussed effective ways to draw on the energy and wisdom of emotions.  Karla emphasised the importance of not attributing the characteristics of “good” or “bad” to emotions, including difficult emotions.  In her view there are real lessons and ways to move forward hidden in each emotion, even anxiety.

Trauma and anxiety

Karla herself experienced childhood trauma and many of her insights are drawn from her experience in overcoming the associated anxiety and depression.  Like other people who have been traumatised, Karla has had to deal with anxiety and depression throughout her life.  She found that she was ignorant about these emotions and tended to repress or suppress them.   However, through reading and research she has been able to develop practical approaches to addressing anxiety and depression.  She has learned to befriend these emotions and now views depression as enforced slowing down and redirection and has developed the ability to draw on the “genius of anxiety”.

The genius of anxiety

In her interview with Elizabeth Markle on embracing anxiety, Karla emphasised that anxiety is “an essential source of foresight, intuition, and energy for completing your tasks and projects”.  As with any emotion we have a choice – we can suppress, repress or “over-express” anxiety or, alternatively, listen to the message and wisdom that lies within this emotion.  We need to understand that emotion is a process – trigger, experience, response – we have a choice in how we respond to what triggers us and the feelings we experience as a result.

Karla suggests that the appropriate response to situational anxiety is to channel the energy of the emotion towards completing a task or project – much as a canal channels water.  Repression or suppression of anxiety blocks the energy flow, while over-expressing anxiety through panicked or frantic activity can dissipate the energy rather than direct it.  A starting point for channelling the energy of anxiety is “conscious questioning” – e.g. “What brought on this feeling?” and “What truly needs to get done?”   This approach enables you to work with, rather than against, the energy of anxiety and to simultaneously care for yourself by downregulating the impact of the emotion on your thoughts and feelings. 

Karla continued her discussion of “conscious questioning” for anxiety by referring to a sample of other questions featured in her book, Embracing Anxiety (p.85):

  • what are your strengths and resources?
  • are there any upcoming deadlines?
  • have you achieved or completed something similar in the past?
  • can you delegate any tasks or ask for help?
  • what is one small task you can complete tonight or today?

Karla argues that this approach involves “leaning into anxiety”, not artificially calming yourself.  She also alludes to the research that demonstrates that accurate naming of our emotions and identifying the level of intensity of them is another effective form of downregulating emotions.  To this end she encourages us to develop our emotion vocabulary and offers her blog as a starting point for emotion identification.  In her book she offers ways of describing different levels of emotional intensity, for example, low anxiety is described as apprehensive, mild anxiety as edgy or nervous and intense anxiety as overwrought or super-energised.

Karla suggests too that yoga and mindfulness are effective ways of downregulating that can assist the process of conscious questioning.  She offered very brief meditation to illustrate this calming effect.  The meditation basically involved focusing on the quietest sound in the room.  Karla provides a range of practices for each emotion in her book,

Different anxiety orientations: planner vs procrastinator

Karla drew on the work of Mary Lamia, author of What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success, to differentiate between two main manifestations of anxiety – planning anxiety and procrastination anxiety.  The planner maintains a low level of anxiety continuously and has a task “to-do” list(s) to manage their anxiety about getting things done.  The procrastinator, on the other hand, does not make lists but works to deadlines and has an immense burst of anxiety and energy the night before a deadline is due (and often achieves the task in the early or late hours of the morning).  The procrastinator can “chill out” while waiting for the deadline, the task person has difficulty “chilling”.

Mary points out that what is different in the two approaches to task achievement has to do with “when their emotions are activated and what activates them”.  The procrastinator, for example, is motivated by the imminent deadline and experiences “deadline energy”; the planner is motivated by the need to keep task commitments under control.   Understanding the difference between these two sources of motivating anxiety and your personal preference in how to get things done, can reduce conflict in a relationship and support success where partners have a different orientation.   Maria discusses the potential clash in orientation between procrastinators and non-procrastinators in her Psychology Today blog.

Reflection

Mindfulness practices along with conscious questioning and reflection can help us to focus the emotional energy of anxiety.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can better identify our emotions, understand what motivates others and increase our response ability

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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.

Meditation as Preparation for Dying

Meditating on death helps us to appreciate both the preciousness of life and its precariousness. Thinking about death and the dying process serves to motivate us to live our lives more fully and more aligned to our true purpose in life.  Much as we might like to, death is not something to be swept under the carpet – it is an every life reality.  Meditation itself can help us to prepare for death by helping us to face up to its reality and consciously build the capacity to die peacefully, with acceptance and equanimity.

The reality of our death

Irrespective of our belief about the existence of an afterlife, there are some inescapable facts about death and dying that we each have to face (not deny or ignore, despite cultural “taboos”):

  • The certainty of our death
  • The uncertainty of the timing of our death
  • The unknown about how we will die – there are so many potential internal and external causes of our death
  • The remaining span of our life is decreasing with each day (we are getting closer to death with each day we are alive – our life is inevitably running out, like the waters in an outgoing tide).

We can live our  life in the light of the lessons from death and dying or continue to ignore death’s reality.  One of the lessons Frank Ostaseski learned from observing the dying and practising meditation is that meditation is itself like the dying process.

What meditation and the dying process have in common

Frank identified a number of common elements between the dying process and meditation:

  • Stillness and silence
  • Being fully in the present moment
  • A focus on our inner life – “profound inquiry into the nature of self’
  • Accessing our inner wisdom
  • Progressive release from attachments
  • Deep sense of humility
  • Deep sense of expansiveness and connection to nature and everyone

The benefits of meditation for the dying process

The dying process is a solitary event – no external person or possession or power or wealth or physical beauty can assist us in the process of accepting the inevitable.  What can help us to make the transition easier at the time of death is release from all attachment, comfort with deep self-exploration and reconciliation with ourselves and with others.  What will help too are the positive states that we have formed through meditation – compassion, self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others, patience, wisdom and peace.  The more positive our life has been, the better we will be able to accept all that is happening to us at the time of death. 

Frank suggests that we should aim to replace guilt with remorse – not drowning in our guilt but expressing remorse for having hurt others.  Remorse then motivates us to do better and avoid hurting the people we interact with.  Forgiveness meditation is a powerful aid in this transformation.

Reflection

Once we accept that life is running out like the tide, we can value and appreciate every moment that we are alive, develop loving-kindness and build positive experiences where we contribute to the welfare of others.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, and especially by meditating on our death, we can create the positive states of acceptance, peace, tranquillity and compassion that will assist us in the dying process.  Meditation helps us to understand and accept the reality of our death and to prepare us for the inevitable (but uncertain) end to our life.

Frank’s book, The Five Invitations: Discover What Death Can Teach Us About Living Life Fully, can provide us with insights into the dying process and the lessons we can learn and, in the process, build our motivation to develop and sustain a daily meditation practice.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Healing Grief through Compassion and Love

Frank Ostaseski was recently interviewed during the 2020 Mindfulness & Compassion Global Summit by Rheanna Hoffmann on the topic, Grief and the Healing Power of Love and Compassion.  With so many deaths worldwide from the Coronavirus (410,000 at the time of writing), the issue of grief and its manifestations becomes increasingly prevalent.   Frank is the cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project (now called The Zen Caregiving Project) and founder of the Metta Institute designed to provide creative education in the art of “mindful and compassionate end-of-life care”.

Healthcare professionals may not have lost loved ones through the virus, but they can experience grief too with the loss of patients that they have been caring for – this is in addition to other stressors that challenge their resilience.  In his interview responses, Frank explained the nature of grief and the power of compassion and love to heal people who have experienced profound grief.

The nature of grief

Frank who has supported more than 1,000 people in the process of dying maintains that grief is not a single point but a process – an evolving process of “loss, losing and loosening”.  There is the initial shock of the loss that can result in physical collapse and total disorientation.  Shock impacts people differentially – some people may experience numbness, there is no “one way”.   Beyond the initial shock of the loss, is a process of “losing”, where in the midst of other things an overwhelming sense of loss returns accompanied by strong emotional and physical symptoms.  “Losing” can persist for many years and eventually become an intermittent event.  In the meantime, the process of “loosening” commences with progressive release of the hold that grief has over a person.

People grieve in different ways – some withdraw and have a strong desire to be alone with their grief, others experience tears and crying uncontrollably, while still others may take out their grief by aggression and violence (such as is occurring in the riots in America in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement).  Grief and our response may be aggravated in challenging times such as the pandemic where everyone is experiencing a form of “emotional inflammation”.

Frank maintains that grief has many faces, e.g. anger, rage, sadness, depression, fear and even regret.  He also suggests that grief results not just from the sense of loss of a loved one but also from the associated lost opportunities – a young life cut off in their prime, a missed opportunity to reconcile with a loved one, a lost chance to say goodbye or to be physically present with someone as they were dying.   For people exposed to dying and death as a result of the Coronavirus, there can be a collective grief brought on by the lost opportunity to save lives, as well as the lost opportunity of the lives lost.

Healing grief through love and compassion

The starting point for being able to show compassion towards the people experiencing grief is having an understanding of the nature of grief and its many forms of expression. It is important not to add to the stress of people who are grieving by communicating expectations of how their grief should be expressed.  Grieving is a very personal process and requires compassionate attending and listening, not the projection of personal preference.

Pema Chödrön discusses ”compassionate abiding” in our own grief and suffering as the pathway to expressing compassion for others.  Frank suggests that we need to “metabolize” our own fear and suffering by facing it fully, experiencing it in our body, mind and heart and converting it to compassion for others.  He maintains that when we can explore our own experience through self-observation and self-inquiry we can “build an empathetic bridge to other people’s experience”.  Otherwise we can be working out of our own distress and needs rather than the needs of others who are grieving.  Without this level of self-intimacy we can appear dishonest or disingenuous to others we are trying to help in their grief.

Frank explained that he has difficulty expressing self-compassion but has developed a number of processes that enable him to express compassion for others.  Each night before going to sleep, he focuses on the suffering of others – those who might be suffering through loneliness, those experiencing grief or those who are caring for others who are dying.  Through this process he feels love and warmth towards others and the emergence of his “innate compassion” that is broad and deep enough to absorb or dissolve his own experience of suffering.   In the morning, with his hand on his heart, he asks himself, “What would love have me do today?”

Reflection

Self-intimacy is a key to genuine compassion towards others who are grieving.  Compassion and love help to heal grief because they involve abiding fully with someone who is experiencing grief, not trying to fix them.  Our very presence, uncontaminated by unrealistic expectations of the other person, can be a source of healing just as “listening generously” can be.   As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop self-intimacy, calmness and peace and be better able to be present to and compassionate towards others.

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Image by Gordon Johnson 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.

Self-Care for Healthcare Professionals

Dr. Reena Kotecha presented at the 2020 Mindfulness & Compassion Global Summit on the topic of self-care for healthcare professionals.  Reena highlighted the irony of healthcare professionals caring for everyone but themselves and, in the process, suffering pain, disillusionment and burnout.  She shared her own story of depression, mental illness and suicidal thoughts resulting from working as a young doctor in an emergency department in a hospital.  She was drowning in self-doubt, suffering anxiety about the future and trying to cope with her present level of stress symptoms such as palpitations and sleeplessness.  Reena found her way out of the dark hole of depression through meditation.

She highlighted the stresses that healthcare professionals are experiencing in these challenging times of the Coronavirus.  Reena spoke of frontline healthcare workers who had to move out of home to protect their family and/or elderly parents, of the sadness and grief they experienced with the death of patients, of the frustration of having inadequate resources (such as personal protective equipment) and of their fear for their own safety in terms of the impact of their work on their mental and physical health.  Frontline professionals experience the intensity and immediacy of Coronavirus-related stress and emotional inflammation as a result of the risks to the life of their patients and their own life.

Barriers to healthcare professionals seeking help

Reena emphasised that healthcare professionals not only tended to overlook caring for themselves but also failed to seek help for their mental welfare when they really needed it.  She spoke of the barriers that stop healthcare workers from seeking professional support (some of which she experienced herself):

  • Training focus – all the focus of their training is on how to care for others, very little of the training is focused on caring for themselves or how to seek professional help for themselves
  • Priority focus – healthcare professionals are singularly focused on caring for others and they fail to give priority to their own mental and emotional health that would actually enable them to care for others more effectively and in a more sustainable way.  As Reena points out, healthcare professionals are much more comfortable and more proficient in the role of caregiver than that of “care-taker”.
  • Career focus – healthcare professionals become concerned about what others, including management, would think of them if they admitted to not coping and experiencing some form of mental illness (which still carries its own stigma).  They can be concerned about how others will judge them and what impact this would have on their career.
  • Expectations focus – the community has highlighted the heroic efforts of the frontline healthcare workers but this brings with it an unrealistic set of expectations that they are all strong and courageous, free from normal human emotions of fear, anxiety and self-doubts and the resultant experience of depression with its concomitant impacts of inertia, exhaustion, reticence and lack of energy.  In the light of this community expectation set, they are reluctant to admit to “weakness and fragility”.

Young healthcare professionals may begin their career with an unerring focus on their patients, giving priority to their caregiver role and ignoring their own needs.  They may feel really uncomfortable about being seen as “needy” or becoming a “care-taker”.  Professionalism is interpreted by them as being strong and efficient, able to cope with any situation.  Gradually, however, the singular focus on patients begins to take its toll and is compounded by the fact that no matter how hard or fast they work, demand continues to outpace resources and capacity.  They begin to experience stress, fatigue and sleeplessness.  Despite these signs of not coping they push on – driven by their own expectations and the perceived expectations of others, including the “worshipping” community.  Burnout results when the gap between what they are putting in and their intrinsic satisfaction with their work widens to the point where they lose belief in the value of what they are doing – burnout occurs on the physical, emotional and spiritual levels.

Mindfulness as self-care for healthcare professionals

Self-care for healthcare professionals is a lifetime passion for Reena, partly generated by her own early professional experience but also reinforced by the healthcare workers who seek her help and support during these highly stressful times.  She is the founder of Mindful Medics – an 8 week course for healthcare professionals incorporating mindfulness, emotional intelligence, neuroscience and positive psychology. Participants in the course have experienced significant benefits for their mental and physical health as well as in their overall personal and professional lives.

Reena is also a highly recognised public speaker on the topic of her lived experience.  For example she presented at the Happiness and Its Causes Conference in 2018 on the topic, Personal Story: Healthcare Starts with Self-Care.   In her Summit presentation, Reena provided a gratitude meditation designed to focus on appreciation for what we have in the present to displace a focus on a disturbing past or anticipatory anxiety about the future.  There is so much that we can be grateful for and savour in our life – nature and our environment, the development of our children, our achievements and rewards and the space of being alone

Reena in an article, titled I am grateful…, recommends strongly that we develop a constant practice of expressing gratitude for the simple things that we have in our lives and highlights the neuroscience research that supports the benefits of gratitude for mental health and wellbeing.

Reflection

It is important to express compassion for others, especially healthcare professionals and those directly impacted by the Coronavirus.  However, we have to recognise the enormous stress healthcare workers are experiencing in these challenging times and be more aware of not adding to that burden by perpetuating the expectation that they, individually and collectively, can cope with any challenge at no cost to themselves.  We can also offer our support for people like Reena who are helping healthcare professionals to develop mindfulness as a means of self-care.  The Mindful Healthcare Speaker Series is one ongoing event that we can support.

As we grow in mindfulness by focusing on self-care through mindfulness practices and gratitude meditation, we can become more conscious of what we are thinking and feeling and be better able to appreciate the present moment and all it has to offer in terms of overall wellness and happiness.  Mindfulness enables us to identify our barriers and expectations, acknowledge when we need help, develop strategies to cope more effectively and progressively build our resilience.

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Image by Petya Georgieva 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.