Lean In to Love with Frank Ostaseski

In this conversation with founding editor Barry Boyce, Frank Ostaseski opens up about the changes he experienced after suffering from a serious stroke and shares how he found strength and refuge in love, compassion, and curiosity.

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Real Mindful: Lean In to Love with Frank Ostaseski

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Stephanie Domet: Hello, and welcome to Real Mindful. This is where we speak mindfully about things that matter.

We’ll meet here twice a month to introduce you to some of the teachers, thinkers, writers, and researchers who are engaged in the mindfulness movement. You’ll hear all kinds of conversations here about the science of mindfulness, the practice of mindfulness—and the heart of it. 

I’m Stephanie Domet. I’m the managing editor at Mindful magazine and mindful.org. And this is Real Mindful.

On this edition of Real Mindful, a real treat for you. A few months back, our founding editor Barry Boyce had the opportunity to sit down with Frank Ostaseski. The two have long been friends and colleagues. Frank is a well-known and much-loved teacher of meditation, mindfulness, and compassionate service. The author of The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, Ostaseski co-founded the Zen Hospice Project, and has helped more than a thousand people on their way to dying.

In July 2019, a serious stroke affected his brain’s capacity. In the ensuing two months he had four more strokes, and as many aspects of daily life became more difficult, Frank found strength and refuge in love, compassion, and curiosity. He also found his practice still very much alive through the whole experience—and his ability to communicate the nuance of what we discover when we welcome everything remains intact. In this remarkable conversation between old friends, Frank shares some of what he learned and leaned on with Barry. We’ll bring you this conversation in two parts over the next two episodes of Real Mindful. We start at the beginning, with Frank talking about the experience of his first stroke.

Frank Ostaseski: The first stroke, if my memory serves me, was in July 2019. And I woke from sleep with gut-wrenching pain like someone was taking a welder’s torch across my skull. And I got up and I went into the bathroom to get some oxy. You know, everybody in America has oxy. And then I took it, but it didn’t touch the pain. And my wife very kindly called the hospital and they said, “he could be having a stroke, get him in right away.” Anyway, we went to the hospital and that was the most serious stroke, but in the next, I think, two months I had another four strokes, which varied in their symptoms, in their severity. Even though my brain was going through this calamity, my awareness was conscious of it. So we’re awareness could watch my brain go offline. Awareness could watch my inability to tell night from day, for example, to not find my way back from the toilet to our bedroom, to lose all track of time. All those things happened quite suddenly. But awareness was able to observe them. Frank was frightened, but awareness wasn’t frightened.  

Barry Boyce: Generally, we would kind of think, all right, if I’m observing what’s happening. It’s the frank part that we think of, like, what is happening to me? What is going on when you’re talking about awareness?

FO: No, it’s not exactly that, Barry, and I should use my language more clearly for your audience. So there’s Frank, the personality that can observe and watch things and have all kinds of reactions. But even if we’ve done a little bit of mindfulness practice, we’re conscious of the idea that there’s a bigger quality of awareness. That’s an action that’s available to us. And it doesn’t exclude anything. It has no need to exclude anything, and so it can include it, can welcome everything. And that’s what was in play at that particular moment. People call this awareness many different things, “presence,” there are lots of fancy words for it. If you and I were speaking and I asked you, are you aware? You would say—

Even if we’ve done a little bit of mindfulness practice, we’re conscious of the idea that there’s a bigger quality of awareness. That’s an action that’s available to us. And it doesn’t exclude anything. It has no need to exclude anything, and so it can include it, can welcome everything.

BB: Ya, I’m aware. I know what’s going on.

FO: OK, now for a moment, try to not be aware. 

BB: No can do. 

FO: Right. So it’s a natural, innate part of our being. It’s an action all the time, and we can relate from that place of awareness, or we can relate from solely from the experience of the personality or our conventional knowing. So awareness is innate, it’s nothing special. It’s just innate to each of us. That’s what it was observing in that moment. Now, without getting too technical here, we can be aware and not know. This is my experience. But in this case, I was aware and I was knowing what was happening. I was able to be cognizant of what was occurring. Certain activities I wasn’t able to, I couldn’t see clearly. I could not rally certain activities of my brain. But I was aware of what’s going on, and I knew what was going on. I didn’t know I was having a stroke. I knew that I was losing my sense of time. I knew I was losing my sense of direction.

BB: Can you talk about that fine distinction between being aware without knowing and being aware with the quality of knowing? 

FO: Knowing requires an ability to relate what we’re seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling to something in our databanks. One of the effects of my stroke, which I was going to say later, but here is a good place to say it, is that the quality of perception was altered. So one thing we know from our meditation practice is we see an object and then we recognize that object because we associate it with something in our databanks. So one of the things that happened with my brain is that the ability to perceive was altered. So one of the things that’s curious, after my strokes, was that the quality of perception coalesced very slowly. It wasn’t that I had aphasia and I couldn’t find the word, I would see something rectangular and yellow and black, and then slowly, slowly, slowly it would coalesce and coalesce, coalesce, into “school bus.” So it wasn’t that I didn’t know the word. It would take a while for that capacity to to function and sometimes it didn’t function. So what that meant is that sometimes I was in what I would call a “non-conceptual awareness,” an awareness that wasn’t filled with concepts, wasn’t filled with knowing. If this perception is coalescing slowly, Barry, around something like “school bus,” the sense of Frank is also coalescing slowly. So Frank, the normal way I perceived myself and the normal way I function was  coalescing slowly. It wasn’t that it was all gone, but it was coalescing very slowly, again and again and again and again. 

BB: You saw the process of Frank coming into…

FO: What I conventionally thought of as me, as Frank, I could see it slowly coming into shape, coming into form like I was describing about the school bus. And so a lot of the times I sat with, again, what I would call a non-conceptual awareness and I realized that that would have been very frightening for someone who didn’t have any mindfulness practice. Fortunately, I had some. So I was accustomed to being in that state of mind. And it wasn’t so frightening for me. Strokes affect people in many different ways, and it depends on where the stroke happens in the brain, etc. In my case? The part of my brain that was damaged, the two primary things, one is that it affected my vision, so my eyes are fine, but my brain doesn’t translate the images coming in through the eyes. I have what you might think of as tunnel vision. I have no perceptual, very little perceptual vision, which means I can’t drive a car, I can’t ride a bicycle, I can’t walk in many places, certain situations. I continually knock over things that are to the left or right of me, and I don’t see them. But the other more important thing to see is that it affected my sense of time and space. The part of my brain, the occipital lobe, that it affected, manages time and space. So I don’t know what day it is often. I rarely can track time, so I have to use devices to help me do that. When someone says I’ll be back in a minute, I don’t know how long that is.  

BB: You don’t have any feel for that.

FO: It’s coming back, but initially, it was hardly there so I wouldn’t know if I was having a conversation with you for five minutes or five hours. Right? That’s one of the things that it did. The other thing that it did was it affected impulse control. Which, in my case, didn’t seem like such a bad thing. When I came home from the hospital after the first stroke, the home health people were very concerned because I live on a houseboat and it’s unstable and my balance was off and they were very worried that I would fall. So they said, “don’t go down the stairs, be careful, don’t do these things,” etc. So the next morning, when I was at the top of the stairs.

BB: Your house has several floors, right?

FO: Yes, it has an upstairs and downstairs. So standing at the top of the stairs about ready to navigate the stairs, I realized I could fall. And if I fell, it would really hurt my family. And at the bottom of the stairs, I imagined my son. And I imagine how much my falling and hurting myself , how much pain  it would cause him. So, instead, I sat down and then I began to feel the love for my son. And that love was so supportive, so strong that it could support me, and it was as stable for me as the handrail. And so for the first few months, any time I went down the stairs, I would evoke my image of my son and my love for him. And it was a stable support to help me navigate the world that had become very difficult to navigate. So it wasn’t just an emotional state, it was a supportive state.

BB: And you would say you just kind of instinctually stumbled into that discovery.

FO: I stumbled into the discovery through the experience of empathy, which was if I hurt myself, it will hurt them, right? Empathy became a doorway to compassion, which is that I didn’t want to hurt them. I wanted to relieve that possibility of that suffering. So I had to make a vow to myself that I would be very careful and the driving force for that vow was love. 

BB: And does this also relate to the impulse control? Because some of the normal mechanisms were not necessarily intact.  

FO: Exactly, exactly. So it was a way to manage to not be stuck.

BB: Well, you had to rely on a bigger sphere, in a sense. The more immediate, ego-oriented sphere of “I need to control things in order to not hurt me.” 

FO: And by that, hurt them. And I think, Barry, that that was a result of two things, one is training. When we train ourselves in mindfulness, we become we can become much more conscious of both our inner and outer worlds and what it is that motivates our actions. And the second factor is that I’ve spent most of my adult life in service, cultivating, developing compassionate service, or cultivating the quality of compassion. And so it’s a very stable quality for me. And I think that that surfaced as a kind of guidance in this situation. 

BB: When you lost many, many reference points, it was still there, stable. And it seems that that was the same way with the ground of awareness. That wasn’t your first open discovery of that ongoing continuity of awareness. But did it strengthen your confidence in that in some sense. 

FO: I think that my confidence in our natural awareness was already pretty