Death and grief are not an easy topic to consider. We are rarely far from it, and yet it can feel distant when we’re not in it. Even a brief perusal of this section will bring up something about your mortality that might be disturbing. We encourage you to face this morbidity and keep going. You are not alone. This section offers a meditative tool to use as you move forward.
Consider these five invitations (not to be confused with the four agreements), developed by Frank Ostaseski in his book, The Five Invitations (2017). Ostaseski is an internationally known death educator and the founder of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, CA. These five invitations come from Ostaseski’s years of listening and being with dying patients. He urges readers to consider the transformative parts of all flavors of struggle, including grief and death. Below are summaries of each invitation, which we hope you will consider as you contemplate mortality.
1. Don’t Wait
Forget that old adage about “death and taxes” being the only constants because taxes are socially and politically constructed! Death, on the other hand, is truly universal. Along with this mortality, we share an inability to know the future or predict our death. Frequently, this unknown manifests as denial and ignorance of what we can do to prepare for the inevitable.
At one level, “Don’t wait” means prepare your loved ones with information about your financial, legal, and medical affairs. Now. Check out www.theconversationproject.org if you’re ready.
On a deeper level, this means you don’t have to wait until the very end of your life to reflect on your place in it. Don’t wait to tell that person how you really feel about them, don’t wait to practice forgiveness, don’t wait to be kind to yourself, or to forgive yourself, don’t wait to pursue the dreams and conversations you’ve always wanted to have, don’t wait to investigate where your particular flavor of death denial comes from…the list could go on.
Despite actuarial predictions, you do not have a set lifespan during which you will have time to completely self-actualize. You had yesterday, you have today, and maybe you have tomorrow.
2. Welcome Everything, Push Away Nothing
Being human is a painful and wonderful experience. Except for the most enlightened monks, there is endless suffering, craving, wanting, loving, losing – and that’s before the morning’s coffee! The dichotomy of joy and pain is more complementary than polar; the existence of one state depends on the other changing.
In the realm of death and dying, dying people, their loved ones, and those who work with them face rapid cycles of hope and despair. From great anguish (knowing a life is coming to an end) can come great forgiveness.
The concept of letting all in is the “opposite of rejecting,” Ostaseski writes (p. 80). It is about taking the world like a piece of used furniture: “as-is.” “Accepting life as-is means that we make peace with things as they are rather than trying to force them to be the way we want them to be (and getting frustrated when we can’t)…It is an opportunity to be conscious of the fact that some of us will make love while others make war” (p. 85).
Your “acceptance muscle” will grow as you recognize and accept these truths:
You were born and you will die.
Others have harmed you, and you have harmed others.
You make mistakes.
Life is not perfect. Life is not fair.
You will suffer.
Your heart will break.
You will never get this* right because reality lives outside of right/wrong.
* “This” = life, dying, loving, self-actualization
Suffering abounds in certain iterations of life and death. It is often cited as the thing people want to avoid in their final stage. Each person’s “flavor” of end-of-life suffering is different; it could be enduring physical pain, a loss of control, isolation, or meaninglessness. It could also be losing one’s ability to digest solid food, understand a TV show, pet their cat, or fry an egg.
The Buddhist adage rings true: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” How one approaches the natural pain of life contributes to experience of suffering. Ostaseski proposes a simple formula for this experience:
Pain + Resistance = Suffering
Fill in this formula for an example of suffering in your own life. As you do so, consider the following questions:
- What were you taught about suffering?
- What early memories do you have about pain, and how did adults respond to your pain?
- What were your specific “areas” of suffering when you were a teenager?
- When faced with something uncomfortable now, what is your first response?
- What are your go-to distractors?
- What are your go-to emotional states (sadness, anger, fear)?
- Whom do you turn to when suffering? Whom do you turn away from?
- What pain is surrounding/inside you right now, and what resistance are you adding? Fill out the formula.
If you were to meet yourself as a small child, at the moment they first encountered pain, what would you do? What would you say? Similar to being your own “fear-coach”, you can be your own pain-coach. You can soothe yourself, and gently guide yourself to turn towards the pain, rather than resist, which creates suffering. “When we open to suffering,” Ostaseski writes,” inquiring into it instead of trying to deny it, we see how we might make use of it in our lives.” Humans are natural learners, and every piece of data has something to teach us. Who knows what we could learn from painful experiences. Who knows what we can teach ourselves. “When we argue with reality, we lose every time. We waste our energy and exhaust ourselves with the insistence that life be otherwise” (p. 82). Of course, welcoming everything takes practice. You wouldn’t survive opening your front door to a tsunami; start with wading in shallower waters.
3. Bring Your Whole Self to the Experience
When you face your pain, grief, loss, whatever, who is showing up? Is it your emotional self? Is it your clean, curated outer presentation, who is kind and nonjudgmental (while seething inside?)? What feelings do you let rip through you, and which do you shun because they are too large, too shameful, exactly what your mentor told you to avoid? With the same spirit of “welcoming everything,” welcome all parts of yourself.
The German psychoanalyst Karen Horney (feminist psychology), suggested three human coping strategies for dealing with basic anxiety:
- Moving away: withdrawing, avoiding, holding secrets, silencing
- Moving toward: seeking to please and accommodate, negotiate, persuade, and explain
- Moving against: gaining power over others, rebelling, fighting back, yelling, slamming doors
Each of these reactions is the expression of part of one’s self: the fearful, the insecure, the aggressive. Each is an important part of ourselves, and pushing away one magnifies the response of another. By accepting all parts, and letting them run their course and teach their lessons, we can learn from all of our parts.
Repression is well-known in the world of grief (and all pain). And, as much as we hope our brilliant brains will block the pain from coming, repressing an experience does not make it go away. “It still lurks below the surface, encapsulated in its original form with all its associated energy. When we bury feelings or bypass them, the material is not available to us. We can’t understand it. We can’t use it in a constructive way. Repressed anger easily turns to depression, resentment, or fear. Repression generates mental reactivity and skews our perceptions” (p 152). “It is not the pain that awakens us; it is our attention to the pain. Our willingness to experience and investigate our suffering gives rise to compassion and kindness. Consistent, loving attention melts our well-constructed defenses and unleashes old holdings. We begin to invite the pain into our hearts. The thoughts, the physical sensations, the emotional turmoil that we have so long rejected and had so little room for…they begin to be held in the comfort of our awareness” (p. 163).
Loss is natural. Grief is natural. The desire to avoid loss and grief are natural too.
4. Find a Place of Rest in the Middle of Things
Allow yourself to breathe. Come up for air. You do not get bonus points for suffering continuously. “We often think of rest (death) as something that will come to us when everything else in our lives is complete: at the end of the day, when we take a bath; once we go on holiday or get through all our to-do lists. We imagine that we can only find rest by changing our circumstances…we can find a place of rest within us, without having to alter the conditions of our lives…This place of rest is always available to us. We need only turn toward it. It is experienced when we bring our full attention, without distraction, to this moment, to this activity. With sincere practice, after some time, we can come to know this spaciousness as a regular part of our lives. It manifests as an aspect of us that is never sick, is not born, and does not die” (p. 182).
5. Cultivate a “Don’t Know” Mind
“Don’t know” mind is one characterized by curiosity, surprise, and wonder. It is receptive, ready to meet whatever shows up as is. “Don’t know mind is not limited by agendas, roles, and expectations. It is free to discover. When we are filled with knowing, when our minds are made up, it narrows our vision, obscures our ability to see the bigger picture, and limits our capacity to act. We only see what our knowing allows us to see. The wise person is both compassionate and humble and knows that she does not know.” (p. 234).
Know that you know nothing, and that this wonder, this unknown, is intimately and infinitely more beautiful than utter security and control. Awareness and emptiness allow for newness to be created.
All citations are from Ostaseski, F. (2018). Five Invitations. [S.l.]: Flatiron Books.