Frank Ostaseski (Ep.34): Have a plan, hold it lightly

Frank Ostaseski (Ep.34): Have a plan, hold it lightly

Here’s a controversial statement: contemplating mortality will make you happier. Frank Ostaseski is a pioneer in end of life care, he co-founded the Zen Hospice Project, the Metta Institute, and is the author of The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully.  Those who repress their fear of death, are missing what it can teach us. The anxieties we often discuss on this podcast, identity, acceptance, self-judgement, and loving unconditionally are all impacted by our views on death. And at the end of life, everything’s distilled into two simple questions: ‘Am I loved?’ and ‘Did I love well?’

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Growth happens in our edges

The changes we make in our lives, the growth - it doesn't happen in our comfort zones. It happens in our edges, and one of those is our fear of dying.

Frank on fear

There's three big fears: it will hurt, we'll be emotionally abandoned, and the third one is more complicated. All the ways we've identified ourselves, I'm a Buddhist teacher, a father, a mother, an investor. All of these identities are either stripped away by illness or they're gracefully given up in the process of dying. But they all go. And now, who are we. Who are we beyond all of these identities we're so wedded to?

On impermanence

Impermanence helps us appreciate life, when we know how precarious this life actually, then we see how precious it is. Then we don't want to miss a moment of it. We want to step into it. Completely.

A little more on impermanence

Sometimes we use impermanence as a club. We think that if everything is impermanent, we shouldn't invest in anything. I think it's the opposite. Because things are impermanent, we invest. We step into them. We engage completely with our lives. It's ok to have plans, we need to have plans. You need to prepare for your daughter's future. But also we want to hold it lightly. We know that all plans are subject to change. And if we try to ramrod our way through life, we have some degree of suffering. So have a plan. Hold it lightly. But don't let future prohibit you from enjoying what's here now.

The dangers of repressing fear – “managing the conditions”

We're always trying to keep `{`fear`}` at arm's length. Like with death, we project our worst fears onto it. We joke about it, attempt to manage it with euphemisms, we sidestep it whenever possible. We avoid the conversation all together. But we can run, but we cannot hide. It's here. It's a fact of life. And that's true with most of our experiences with fear. So when we press that fear, turn away from that fear, and override it. We don't learn anything about the fear itself. *All we've done is manage the conditions. And that's a bit like arranging deck chairs on the titanic. *We got all the deck chairs in order, but we're missing the big picture.

Manage the symptoms to go from reactive to responsive

So let's get to know it, so we can encourage that gap in the center of it - where we can move from reactivity to responsiveness. There's a stimulus that's arising now, what do we do? If we follow our knee-jerk reaction, we're just going to play out the habit we played before. And big surprise, that's probably not going to make much of a difference.

The fear of not living fully

For some people the fear of death is not the real fear. The fear of living fully is scarier for them. All their expectations of how their lives should be, how it's not measuring up are much bigger fears.

How can we familiarize ourselves with the fear of death

We can do the normal things that are helpful. Think about it. Spend some time allowing ourselves to think about it in a personal way. Talk about it with others. (...) Learn about it, like we do with anything else we're trying to understand and master. There's great books out there that look at death from the political, sociological, spiritual, metaphysical, and psychological. Let's stop burying our heads in the sand about it. And in fact towards the experience.

The two questions that matter at the end

When people talk to me about their dying process it always comes back to two basic questions. Am I loved and did I love well? And these are the two things that matter most. So why wait until the end of our life to answer and engage with these questions? The wisdom of what death teaches is not how many toys can you collect in this lifetime. But instead, what really matters. This makes us kinder to one another and it makes us more receptive to the world. We tell people who we love, that we love them more. Because we know that they won't be there all the time.

A theory about why happiness increases much later in life

One of the factors that may lead to happiness is curiosity, not being so wedded to our knowing. You know kids are not so wedded to their knowing, they're curious, they're open, they're receptive. They have a sense of possibility. Sometimes when we mature, we reengage in that quality of curiosity. And that could make a huge difference in the quality of our happiness.

The four questions Frank and his wife ask each other daily

+ What inspired you?
+ What challenged you?
+ What surprised you?
+ What did you learn about love today?

Embracing the mystery

When we only think of dying as making the best out of a difficult situation, we rob it of its holy significance. That it's there to show us more than getting through it.

A poem, by Mona (Sono) Santacroce

Don’t just stand there with your hair turning gray,
soon enough the seas will sink your little island.
So while there is still the illusion of time,
set out for another shore.
No sense packing a bag.
You won’t be able to lift it into your boat.
Give away all your collections.
Take only new seeds and an old stick.
Send out some prayers on the wind before you sail.
Don’t be afraid.
Someone knows you’re coming.
An extra fish has been salted.

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nick turchyn
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