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.

Your Brain: A Source of Wonder in the Game of Life

The brain is amazing when you think about how much information it processes and how that influences our emotional and bodily response.  We have deeply embedded neural pathways that serve as short-cuts for determining an appropriate response.  However, our self-stories shaped by early childhood experiences can distort our perception and lead to inappropriate responses to situations that serve as triggers.

I am always amazed at the functioning of the brain when I play tennis.  When you think about it, the brain is taking in so many variables when a person serves or hits to you (all absorbed at an exceptional speed):

  • wind speed and direction
  • level of lighting
  • ambient sounds
  • sound of the ball on the racquet of the server
  • speed of the ball
  • nature of the spin on the ball (e.g. top-spin, slice, backspin)
  • relational information (where you are in the court and where your opponents are positioned)
  • attention level and readiness of your opponents
  • elevation of the ball (impacting the landing and bounce)
  • expected landing point of the ball
  • the nature and height of the bounce of the ball.

When you are receiving the tennis ball and returning your shot, your brain is determining how to respond to the information absorbed when the ball is hit by your opponent.  Again, your self-stories come into play here.  The inner game of tennis is critical as your self-belief impacts the choices you make re shot selection. 

When you think about it, you must make an instant decision about how you are going to respond to the serve/shot by your opponent:

  • the nature of your shot (e.g. forehand or backhand)
  • direction of your shot
  • speed and spin of your shot
  • positioning of your body for your returning shot.

How is it that your body responds unconsciously in some situations and does the perfect shot?  For example, when the ball is hit deep to your backhand side and your opponents are at the net, you automatically do a backhand, half-volley lob into the open court.  Some key influences here are your level of tennis competence (e.g. unconsciously competent as in the example situation) and memory embedded in your body.  Body memory is itself a complex process involving different elements such as proprioception (e.g. the capacity to know where a part of the body is such as the hand when you cannot see it).

Body memory is reinforced when you go to sit in the driver’s seat of your car and land with a thud (after your 6 feet 3 inches son has lowered the seat to suit his driving position).  Another example is when you are trying to put the forks away after dishwashing and someone has changed the positioning of the forks in the cutlery drawer (the other forks are not where you unconsciously attempt to place the clean ones).  The role of body memory in relation to trauma is well researched and documented which is why somatic meditation often plays a key role in recovery from trauma.

 Reflection

The brain is a source of wonder and yet we take it for granted so much of the time.  As we grow in mindfulness and awareness through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection, we can better appreciate the complexity and ingenuity of our brain, its role in our daily living and sporting activities and express gratitude for the wonder of it.  We are also better able to manage mistakes we make when playing tennis or undertaking other activities requiring complex information processing.

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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.

Breathing with the Earth

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC (UCLA), offers a unique perspective on developing mindfulness through breathing. In her meditation podcast, she introduces the idea of breathing with the earth – expanding consciousness of our own breathing to connect with the earth’s breath. She encourages us to deepen inner awareness of our breathing and, from this foundation, expand our outer awareness to connecting with every living creature and the earth’s breath. The process develops a sense of connectedness, calm and wonder.

The earth’s breath

Diana begins her meditation podcast by playing a video from Chilean artist, Glenda Leon. The video artistically depicts (with an embedded breathing sound) the earth breathing. Glenda has titled the video Cada Respire (Tierra), which is Portuguese for every earth breath. Diana suggests that as you watch the video you attune your own breathing to the sound of the earth breathing as depicted in the video.

In an article titled, The Earth Has Lungs. Watch Them Breathe, Robert Krulwich (writing for the National Geographic) highlights the NASA time lapse video depicting an “unimaginably vast planetary breathing system” over the cycle of a year. As the seasons change around the world, the growth of trees and their leaves (numbered in their trillions) act as the lungs of the earth breathing in carbon dioxide and releasing life giving oxygen. Robert highlights the fact that every leaf on every tree has thousands of “little breathing tubes called stoma” which enable the leaf to take in air from the outside. He uses a photograph by Robert Dash to illustrate the stoma on the surface of a leaf which has been magnified 150 times.

John Denver in the song Tremble If You Must recalls that “the trees are just leaves on a big breathing globe”. Eva Cassidy, in her amazing rendition of the song What a Wonderful World, reminds us that as we reflect on the ordinary things in our life, we can experience wonder if we open our eyes and minds. As we expand our consciousness of our breathing to that of the earth’s breath, we can experience connectedness and calm through awareness of the reality that surrounds us.

Breathing with the earth

Diana’s guided meditation provides a way to focus on your own breathing that serves as a gateway to breathing with the earth. For a start, she suggests that you become aware of your own breathing, focusing on your in-breath and out-breath wherever you can experience the act of breathing in your own body. This may be the air passing through your nose or the undulations in your abdomen or chest as you breathe in and out. You can expand this inner awareness to lower-belly breathing with a little practice.

Diana guides you to explore your breathing further by doing two things, (1) focusing on other parts of your body as you breathe, and (2) exploring the path of a single breath. She suggests that this expanded awareness can begin with focusing on parts of your body other than your torso to observe the sensations that accompany your breathing to see if their movements are attuned to your breathing, e.g. tingling in your fingers or feet. This can then be followed by observing the movement of a single breath through your body (if you cannot capture the explicit sensation, you can imagine this flow).

If you find that you become distracted from your focus on your breathing, you can let the thoughts or feelings pass and return to your breath. This requires discipline but will increase your capacity to focus over time. Once you have become grounded in your own breathing you can expand your awareness to the earth’s breath.

One way to consciously breathe with the earth is to envisage the earth breathing (aided by the earth breath video introduced above). This will build a strong sense of connectedness to the earth. You can then expand your awareness to the breathing of other people and every living creature on the earth.

What can strengthen your capacity to connect with the breath of the earth is to stand on the ground outside your home and feel the sensation of the earth’s movement, being conscious of the trees and plants and their life-giving breathing.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing, we can develop our inner awareness, enhance our external awareness, learn to breathe with the earth and build a sense of calm and connection to every living thing.

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Image by skeeze on 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.