Barry: Hello everyone. I’m Barry Boyce, editor-in-chief of Mindful Magazine and Mindful.org and this is the Point of View podcast. We’re here today with my very good friend Frank Ostaseski who in 1987 co-founded Zen Hospice in San Francisco and then in 2005 co-founded Metta Institute. And he’s just come out with a book detailing his work with people who are dying. It’s called The Five Invitations, Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully. And Frank is here today to talk about what he’s learned from his work. And I’d like to start out, Frank, by asking you how you got started in this work.
Frank: You know, I think it was a long and winding road it got me here, and, probably the truth is, we get called for this work. You know, it’s not something we choose on our high school skill set exam. My own mother died when I was quite young, about 16, and my dad a few years later. So that gave me an early relationship with death. Later I worked in refugee camps in southern Mexico, refugees fleeing from Central America. Buddhism and its study of impermanence was an early influence for me. And then the AIDS epidemic hit in San Francisco and we had 30,000 people die of this illness—30,000 people in the Bay area alone. And so I kind of cut my teeth, if you will, on that, caring for people. We had no idea what we were doing. We were making it up as we went along. You know, there were no services in place in those days. And so I was in the with the early responders on the frontlines of that epidemic. So all of these were factors that sort of drew me into this work. But, my life has always had a stream of service though it, you know, compassion and action has always been the focal point of my life, I’d say.
Barry: So what kept you going in this work? I mean, people who work in these difficult kind of situations where they see the kind of the pain that on the surface, we feel like we couldn’t handle that. In your book you talk about a son dying of AIDS has been rejected by his father—Can you tell us a little bit about that story?
Frank: In Zen Hospice, we began by working with people who were living on the margins of society, people who lived on the streets. And they didn’t trust very much. And so, if I was going to be of any help to them, first of all I had to be clear about my intention and real—you know they wanted authentic relationship. So yeah, I work with people who had nothing—I change diapers and park benches behind city hall. But I also work with people with enormous political power and great health insurance, and intact families.
We can’t hold the other person’s pain. We can’t take it on in that way. It’s not ours. We can be empathetic with it. We can compassionately respond to it but we have to let it move through us.
But then there were people like a Vietnamese guy who listen to ghosts and Isaiah his roommate who was very comforted by visits from his dead mother. And then there was this family that you spoke of, a man I worked with, he was a hemophiliac and he contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. But the year before this he had disowned his gay son who also was diagnosed with AIDS. And now the two of them were in twin beds in a single room being cared for by Agnes, the husband’s wife and the son’s mother. And, you know, it was incredibly difficult and challenging and moving, also, beautiful. The thing is that even in really difficult stuff, in situations like the ones I’m describing, there are moments of great beauty, there are moments of great tenderness, where people come forward and blossom, or where compassion shows up in ways that you couldn’t have imagined. And this is part of what keeps me going.
But also, years ago I mentored with Kübler-Ross, lived with Kübler-Ross. And she would bring me to her workshops and I would sit in the back of them, and in those days the workshops were mostly people who were dying or suffering a great loss. And so she would sit me in the back of the room and I would do this practice in the back of the room as a way of kind of, I thought, helping the room, but really it was just a way to protect myself. It was just a way for me to keep suffering at arm’s length. And one night I left one of those workshops I went down the dirt path back to my room and I just fell down on my knees and started to cry. And I just wept. And Elizabeth came along, you know, with a cigarette and a cup of coffee, and she leaned over to me and she said, Oh, you were trying to carry their pain. You were trying to hold their pain. You can’t do that. You have to let their pain move through you.
And that was a really great teaching and understanding for me, that buoyed me for the rest of my work, for the last 30 years. We can’t hold the other person’s pain. We can’t take it on in that way. It’s not ours. We can be empathetic with it. We can compassionately respond to it but we have to let it move through us.
Barry: So, do you respect that distinction between, you know, people say there’s compassion fatigue, but they are often saying now is that, really you can have empathy fatigue.
Frank: Yeah, I think that we get tangled up in the language, but, I think people get empathetically overloaded. You know, we feel with the other person and we feel so much do we get merged with them. And then it’s like two depressed people down a well without a ladder—You know you help him very much. So, you have to be able to stay in your own seat. You have to know that I’m over here and you’re over there and, there is a common ground in our suffering, but it’s your suffering and if I get lost in it I won’t be able to help you. So compassion is a kind of stability that allows me to use empathy as a bridge, but then to take skillful and wise action.
Listen to the full podcast to hear Barry and Frank discuss:
- The simple the power of human presence.
- How to walk into a room where someone is dying with an open, receptive mind.
- The importance of building relationships with your fear, pain, and grief.
- Why death is in the marrow of every moment.
- How reflecting on death is really a reflection on constant change, and contemplating the comings and goings of things can engender kindness for one another.
Plus, one of the main misunderstandings about mindfulness, and more. Listen:
Read More: Go Toward What Hurts
For a deeper look at what death can teach us about living fully, Frank Ostaseski shares his experiences from his decades working with dying people and those who are dealing with the death of loved ones in Go Toward What Hurts.