No one alive really understands death. But as one woman who was close to death once told me, “I see the exit signs much clearer than you do.” In a way, nothing can prepare you for death. Yet everything that you have done in your life, everything that has been done to you, and what you have learned from it all can help.
In a beautiful short story, the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore describes the meandering paths between villages in India. Skipping along, guided by their imaginations or a winding stream, a detour to a beautiful overlook, or stepping around a sharp rock, barefoot children wove zigzag trails through the countryside. When they grew older, got sandals, and began carrying heavy loads, the routes became narrow, straight, and purposeful.
I walked barefoot for years. I didn’t follow a linear path to this work; I meandered. It was a journey of continuous discovery. I had little training and no degrees save a Red Cross lifesaving certificate that is surely now expired. I followed the Braille method, feeling my way along. Staying close to my intuition, trusting that listening is the most powerful way to connect, bringing forward the refuge of silence, and letting my heart be broken open. These are the ways I discovered what really helps.
Death and I have been longtime companions. My mother died when I was a teenager and my father just a few years later. But I had lost them years before the events of their deaths. They were both alcoholics, and so my childhood was characterized by years of chaos, neglect, violence, misguided loyalty, guilt, and shame. I became adept at walking on eggshells, being my mother’s confidant, finding hidden liquor bottles, clashing with my father, keeping secrets, and growing up too quickly. So in a way, their deaths came as a relief. My suffering was a sword that cut two ways. I grew up feeling ashamed, frightened, lonely, and unlovable. Yet that same suffering helped me to empathetically connect with others’ pain, and that became part of my calling to move toward situations that many others tend to avoid.
Buddhist practice, with its emphasis on impermanence, the moment-to-moment arising and passing of every conceivable experience, was an early and important influence for me. Facing death is considered fundamental in the Buddhist tradition. It can mature wisdom and compassion, and strengthen our commitment to awakening. Death is seen as a final stage of growth. Our daily practices of mindfulness and compassion cultivate the wholesome mental, emotional, and physical qualities that prepare us to meet the inevitable. Through the application of these skillful means, I learned not to be incapacitated by the suffering of my earlier life, but rather to allow it to form the ground of compassion within me.
When my son Gabe was about to be born, I wanted to understand how to bring his soul into the world. So I signed up for a workshop with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the renowned psychiatrist from Switzerland who was best known for her groundbreaking work on death and dying. She had helped many leave this life; I figured she might teach me how to invite my son into his.
Elisabeth was fascinated with the idea and took me under her wing. She invited me to attend more programs over the years, although she didn’t give me much instruction. I’d sit quietly in the back of the room and learn by watching the way she worked with people who were facing death or grieving tragic losses. This fundamentally shaped the way I later accompanied people in my practice through Buddhist hospice care. Elisabeth was skillful, intuitive, and often opinionated, but above all, she demonstrated how to love those she served, without reservation or attachment. Sometimes the anguish in the room was so overwhelming that I would meditate in order to calm myself or do compassion practices, imagining that I could transform the pain I was witnessing.
One rainy night after a particularly difficult day, I was so shaken as I walked back to my room that I collapsed to my knees in a mud puddle and started to weep. My attempts at taking away the participants’ heartache were just a self-defense strategy, a way of trying to protect myself from suffering.
Just then, Elisabeth came along and picked me up. She brought me back to her room for a coffee and a cigarette. “You have to open yourself up and let the pain move through you,” Elisabeth said. “It’s not yours to hold.” Without this lesson, I don’t think I could have stayed present, in a healthy way, with the suffering I would witness in the decades to come.
Stephen Levine, a poet and Buddhist teacher, was another influential figure in my life. My primary teacher and good friend for thirty years, he was a compassionate rebel as well as an intuitive and authentic guide who embraced multiple spiritual traditions while skillfully avoiding the dogma of any one approach. Stephen and his wife, Ondrea, were true pioneers, leading a gentle revolution in the way we care for those who are dying. Much of what we created at Zen Hospice Project was an expression of their teachings.
Stephen showed me that it was possible to gather up the suffering in my life, use it as grist for the mill, and alchemically change it into the fuel for selfless service—all without making a big deal about it. In the beginning, I modeled my work and sometimes my behavior on his example, as devout students tend to do. He was very kind and generously lent me his voice until I could find my own.
How do we come to be where we find ourselves? Life accumulates, exposes us to opportunities for learning, and if we are lucky, we pay attention.
While traveling in Mexico and Guatemala in my early thirties, I volunteered to serve Central American refugees who had suffered enormous hardships, and I witnessed horrible deaths. Back in San Francisco in the 1980s, the AIDS crisis hit hard. Nearly thirty thousand local residents were diagnosed with HIV. I worked on the front lines as a home health aide and cared for too many friends who died of this devastating virus.
It quickly became clear that my individual response wasn’t enough. So in 1987, working together with my dear friend Martha deBarros and a handful of others, we started the Zen Hospice Project. It was, in fact, Martha’s idea to create this center for Buddhist hospice care, and a brilliant one at that. She was the mother who gave birth to the program through the auspices of the San Francisco Zen Center.
The Zen Hospice Project was the first Buddhist hospice care center in America, a fusion of spiritual insight and practical social action. We believed there was a natural match between the Zen practitioners who were cultivating a “listening heart” through meditation practice, and those who needed to be heard—people who were dying. We had no agenda and few plans, but ultimately we did train a thousand volunteers. While the stories I share are primarily about my own encounters, no one person created Zen Hospice. We all did it together. A community of great hearts committed to a shared purpose responding to a call to service.
While we wanted to draw on the wisdom of the 2,500-year-old Zen tradition, we had no interest in pushing any dogma or promoting a strictly Buddhist way of dying. My slogan was “Meet ’em where they’re at.” I encouraged our caregivers to support the patients in discovering what they needed. We rarely taught people to meditate. Nor did we impose our ideas about death or dying. We figured the individuals we served would show us how they needed to die. We created a beautiful and receptive environment in which the residents felt loved and supported, and where they were free to explore who they were and what they believed.
I learned that the activities of caregiving are themselves quite ordinary. You make soup, give a back rub, change soiled sheets, help with medications, listen to a lifetime of stories lived and now ending, show up as a calm and loving presence. Nothing special. Just simple human kindness, really.
Yet I soon discovered that these everyday activities, when taken as a practice of awareness, can help awaken us from our fixed views and habits of avoidance. Whether we are the ones making the beds or the ones confined to them, we have to confront the uncertain nature of this life. We become aware of the fundamental truth that everything comes and goes: every thought, every lovemaking, every life. We see that dying is in the life of everything. Resisting this truth leads to pain.
Other pivotal experiences shaped the way I meet suffering and informed my understanding of what death can teach us about life. I joined other spiritual leaders and took a deep plunge into human suffering by helping to facilitate a unique retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I led grief groups, counseled countless people through terminal illnesses, guided retreats for people with life- threatening illness, and facilitated many—perhaps too many—memorial services.
In the midst of it all, I was a father to four children, helping them grow into remarkable adults who now have children of their own. I can tell you that raising four teenagers at the same time was often a lot tougher than taking care of dying patients.
In 2004, I founded the Metta Institute to foster mindful and compassionate end-of-life care. I gathered up great teachers, including Ram Dass, Norman Fischer, Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., and others, to form a world-class faculty. Ours was a legacy project aimed at reclaiming the soul in caregiving and restoring a life-affirming relationship to dying.
We have trained hundreds of health care professionals and also created a national support network of clinicians, educators, and advocates for those facing life-threatening illness.
Finally, several years ago, I faced my own personal health crisis—a heart attack that brought me face-to-face with mortality. The experience showed me how different the view was from the other side of the sheets. It made me even more empathetic to the struggles I have witnessed my students, clients, friends, and family members face.
So often in life, we move beyond what we imagined we were capable of, and breaking through that boundary propels us toward transformation. Someone once said, “Death comes not to you, but to someone else whom the gods make ready.” This sentiment feels true to me. The person I am today, living in this story, is not exactly the same person as the one who will die. Life and death will change me. I will be different in some very fundamental ways. For something new to emerge within us, we must be open to change.
Frank Ostaseski is an internationally respected Buddhist teacher and visionary cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project, and founder of the Metta Institute. He is the author of The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully.
Excerpted from the book The Five Invitations by Frank Ostaseski. Copyright © 2017 by Frank Ostaseski. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.