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.

Mindfulness as Self-Observation

Brian Shiers suggests that underpinning mindfulness is self-observation, the foundation of self-awareness.  This means, in effect, that there is no one right way to meditate – that paying attention to and noticing ourselves, in whatever way, is essentially mindfulness.  While there is a tendency for people new to meditation to judge themselves against a presumed standard, the experience they are having in self-observation is what mindfulness is about, not some prescribed level of awareness.  Mindfulness practices are designed to stimulate this curiosity about oneself in an open, exploratory way.  Tara Brach describes this lifelong journey as “waking up” – a deep shift in inner awareness that leads to equanimity and increased empathy and compassion.

In a recent guided meditation podcast, Brian asked the question, “What is “Myself”? and he encouraged participants to activate their “observational mind” in a relaxed manner.  He maintained that the fundamental question, “What is the “self”? is both an ancient and a recent question (through the pursuit of neuroscience).

Is the “self” my body, my thoughts, my roles I undertake, my affiliations, my emotions or my mind?  Brian sited the work of Dan Siegel, a founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), who believes that the “self” is not only what we are born with, but also the cumulation of billions of impressions that we are exposed to through interactions with others – thus shaping our perceptions and responses.  Dan’s perspective reinforces the uniqueness of our “self”.  Brian suggests, then, that the self is “intertwined in inter- relationships” – the direct and indirect influence of others throughout our lives.

Researchers have yet to establish what the “mind” is, even with the advent of neuroscience.   Brain stated that neuroscientists at Stanford University have estimated that we generate between 65,000 and 90,000 thoughts per day.  We are reminded of the admonition of Jon Kabat-Zinn that “you are not your thoughts”, thoughts that come and go like bubbles in boiling water.  Brain suggests that the “enterprise of mindfulness” is “self-observation”, including bringing to conscious awareness and guidance, the unconscious, spontaneously occurring thoughts that pervade our minds.  So, from Brian’s perspective, mindfulness is the pursuit of self-awareness through observation of the various domains of our existence, including our bodies and our minds.

A process of self-observation

Brian’s guided meditation podcast takes you on a journey of paying attention to your “self” through a process of self-observation of body and mind – noticing your body on the chair, engaging in mindful breathing, noticing your thoughts (but not entertaining them), undertaking a body scan while releasing tension, and participating in a reflection.

The personal reflection involves identifying a positive trait in yourself, e.g. wisdom. loving kindness, gratitude, thoughtfulness or resilience; and exploring how it manifests, its impact on others and how you could further develop this trait. Brian offers some guided questions for the reflection:

  • What is happening when you exhibit this trait? (you can visualise it happening)
  • What impact does it have on others?
  • Who is a role model for you in respect of this trait?
  • Who could help you develop it?
  • How can you further develop this positive trait?

As we grow in mindfulness through self -observation during the process of meditation, we can better understand who we are, how we experience the world, and what we bring to our interactions with others. We can also identify strategies to strengthen our positive traits and increase our motivation to use them to create a better life for ourselves and others.

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Image – Personal reflection during sunrise, Wynnum, Brisbane

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.

A Reflection: Seeing Our Self in Our Children

In our leadership/management development workshops, my colleague and I often have participants identify what their staff say or do that annoys them. Then we ask them to think about what they say and do that would annoy their boss. They are frequently surprised that their staff’s words and actions often reflect their own annoying habits. They are surprised too that this process of using their staff as a mirror opens up the possibility of their being honest with themselves. So too, we can use our children as a mirror into our own behaviour.

Seeing our self in our children

When we look at our son or daughter, we might acknowledge that they regularly withhold information or only provide information that puts them in a good light – and we might think of them as deceitful. They might regularly lie to us or mislead us – and we might think of them as dishonest. They might never clean their room or leave things lying around the house for us to trip over – and we might think of them as thoughtless. They might throw tantrums or angry fits when they don’t get their way – we might think of them as manipulative. They might be self-absorbed, ignoring your needs at any point in time – we might think of them as inconsiderate. They might carry grudges or disappointment for a very long time – we might think of them as resentful. They might accuse us of something they do themselves – we might think of them as incongruous.

Whatever negative characteristics we attribute to our children can serve as a mirror into our own words and behaviour – as reflecting who we really are. Often our self-reflection is full of “shoulds” and self-deception as we hide our real self behind a mask. Again, we may judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions, rather than by what we say and do.

It is a revealing and challenging reflection to apply the negative attributes that we ascribe to our children to our own self. We could ask our self for instance, “In what way do my words and behaviour in my relationships show that I am deceitful, dishonest, thoughtless, manipulative, inconsiderate, resentful or incongruous?” The adjectives themselves carry such negative connotations that we are reluctant to ascribe them to ourselves, yet we might ascribe them to our children. Facing up to the reality of ourselves as both meeting our own expectations and falling short is very challenging – but it is the road to an open heart and all the happiness and effectiveness that this portends.

Extending the reflectionlooking deeper into the mirror

It is challenging enough to acknowledge our own negative attributes; it is even more challenging to extend the reflection to look at how our words and actions impact or shape the words and behaviour of our children. We can readily deny that we have influence, either directly or indirectly, on what they say or do, but we are part of their learning environment – an influential force in shaping their character for life. Owning up to this impact takes considerable courage, insight and self-awareness.

However, whatever negative traits we attribute to our self through this reflective exercise does not define who we are – we are much more than the sum of these negative attributes. We have to move beyond the shame we feel (with the self-realisation from this reflection), to the genuine exploration of our inner depth and extend self-forgiveness and loving kindness to our self as we move forward.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation and reflection on seeing our self in our children, we can progressively overcome our self-deception, develop inner awareness, build understanding and tolerance and develop an open heart. We need to nurture ourselves through self-forgiveness and loving kindness if we are going to be able to deal with the emerging self-awareness.

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Image by Alexandr Ivanov 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.

Shaping Our Brains to Build Resilience

Richard Davidson, Founder and Director of the Center for Healthy Minds, recently addressed the Mindful Healthcare Summit on the topic The Science of Resilience. Richard, an internationally renowned neuroscientist, stated that his research and that of his colleagues has convinced him that we can shape our brains in a way that builds resilience and helps us to flourish rather than be tossed around “like a sailboat without a rudder on a turbulent sea”. Richard is the co-author with Daniel Goleman of the book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.

What is resilience?

Richard defines resilience as “the rapidity with which you can recover from adversity”. Linda Graham described this trait as “bouncing back“. Richard stated that neuroscience can actually measure the rapidity of recovery by exploring (through brain imaging) two key aspects of the brain that feature in dealing with stress or adverse situations, (1) the level of cortisol released by the brain and (2) the degree to which the amygdala is activated.

He highlighted the brain’s plasticity as proof that we can train our minds and take more responsibility for shaping our brains and determining the direction of our brain plasticity – which most of the time occurs unwittingly through forces external and internal to ourselves. The key is to understand how our brain develops resilience and to make a commitment to shape our brain in a way that builds wellbeing rather than diminishes it.

How to shape our brain to build resilience

Richard suggests that to actively build resilience we need to develop in four key areas through focused meditations and aligned action:

  1. Awareness – he describes this as attention to our own bodies and the tension within. Mindful breathing and body scan can help to develop this awareness and related ability to be grounded in our bodies. Calmness and clarity emerge from this aspect of shaping our minds.
  2. Connection – having and nurturing harmonious and supportive relationships that provide an effective buffer for us when we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Meditations that can help build social connection are the loving kindness and gratitude meditations. Positivity, expressions of appreciation and empathy can nurture these relationships.
  3. Insight – an in-depth knowledge of our personal narrative/self-story that generates negative self-evaluation and false beliefs that contribute to a lack of resilience and depression. We have to recognise these self-beliefs as merely thoughts, not reality. Meditations such as the R.A.I.N. meditation, S.B.N.R.R. process and reflections on resentment can help us shift this narrative from negative thoughts generating self-defeating emotions to a positive narrative that is enabling and builds resilience in the face of setbacks or adversity.
  4. Purpose – clarity about life purpose, and alignment of words and actions with this purpose, enable us to surf the waves of daily life and to manage the vicissitudes that inevitably disturb our equilibrium. Bill George describes your purpose as your True North and offers ways to discover it. In a previous post I offered a series of questions to help find your unique purpose and a path of action to pursue that purpose.

Developing a permeable self

Richard stated that the aspect of “insight” mentioned above is a key component of resilience. We tend to develop a fixed and stable view of our self which causes us problems in conflicted situations. It is this “fixed identity” that becomes challenged when our emotions overflow, especially when they “bleed” from one adverse interaction into another encounter. We need to be able to “shake loose the rigidity” by making our sense of self more permeable – open to new experiences, insights and feedback.

As we grow in mindfulness through exploring different forms of meditation on a consistent basis, we can develop a more balanced and permeable view of our self. We can build our resilience and wellbeing through developing awareness, connection, insight and purpose.

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Image by John Hain 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.