Real Mindful: Lean In to Love with Frank Ostaseski
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 strong. However, if it failed, I always had Frank’s functionality to go back on. Right now, I didn’t have Frank’s functionality to go back on. I only could rely on the trust in natural awareness. And so it became more stable. I felt that I had more trust in it now and it became my primary guidance. I didn’t have a back door, you know?
FO: I could share another experience with you. So I think I mentioned I had about five strokes altogether over the last two years. In February, I was sitting at my desk and suddenly the impermanence of things started to show themself as if everything was getting pixelated. And at first, it was sort of interesting and then I thought, Oh, you could be having another stroke, Frank. So I called my wife who very kindly was not long and she came home immediately. She called the emergency services and said, “they’ll be here shortly with a gurney and they’ll wheel you down the dock,” which is about a four-minute walk down to the parking lot. And I said, “no, I want to walk.” And she thought I was very stubborn. Probably, I was. But I wanted to walk, I wanted to feel my feet. I didn’t know what was happening. I’d been through five strokes and I wanted to see. So when we walked down the dock, when I stood up on the dock, suddenly my whole being filled with love. As if every cell in my body was filled with love. It wasn’t something I was trying to evoke or promote, it simply was there. It was there as a kind of guidance, but it wasn’t just emotional love. It was stable. It was like I was describing to you about the staircase. I could lean into it and it would support me. And as I walked down the dock, I was quite unstable on my feet and I had to hold on to Venda’s arm to stay stable. But internally I was very stable. About halfway down the dock, I stopped. And I turned to look over the railing at the water. And then something changed. The love, instead of having this supportive quality, the quality that started to emerge was what I would call dissolving love. Love dissolving all sense of separation, any sense of Frank, any sense of me being separate from anything. And as it dissolved, I experienced something which, without getting fancy, I would just call absence. Absence, absolute absence. Absence of any separating boundaries. And I stayed in this position for a while, it wasn’t frightening. In fact, it just felt true. It was absent of emotions. Absence of any separation. Absent of any boundaries. We keep walking to get to the parking lot and we went a little further, and as we got to the parking lot, I saw an ambulance drive up so that was the first thing I noticed. That was different and as the ambulance drivers got out of the ambulance, they caught me because I had done a grand mal seizure. It must have been very frightening for my wife. You know, my body going rigid, shaking, foaming.
BB: Had you had seizures before associated with the other strokes?
FO: No, this is completely new territory. They put me in the ambulance, they gave me an anti-seizure medication, took me to the hospital. While in the emergency room, I went unconscious. It wasn’t absence. It was complete unconsciousness. No awareness at all. I begin, I guess, to come into consciousness and I hear voices and it’s Vanda speaking to the doctor and the doctors confirming my end of life wishes. And one of those is no CPR. So the doctor questioned this, and Vanda said she was uncertain. And I raised my arm and said, “No CPR.” I don’t know where that came from. I came out of some dark well and I said it.
FO: So here’s the part that’s interesting. They admitted me to the hospital and they put me into a hospital bed on a ward. And after being there for a while, I got quite paranoid. And I know now that it was probably a result of the medications that they were giving me, which I was unaccustomed to. They can be quite mood altering, right? So I’d gone through a very traumatic experience, and honestly, I’m not so trusting of health care systems. I’ve worked to reform them for many years. In any case, this paranoia stayed. And I was delusional. It was not clear. I was aware that I was delusional, but I couldn’t do anything with the delusion. Sensing my body, all the mindfulness tricks we know, none of them worked.
BB: So when you talk about this kind of extreme state of paranoia, you feel constantly in some kind of threat. Unknown as it may be, this is threatening.
FO: My imagination was going wild, I thought I was in a homeless shelter for a while. I different kinds of delusions. But what I want to point out is that the normal tricks that we use in mindfulness were not useful. So what I could do is I could repeat to myself, “right now, it’s like this.” And that’s all I did. That’s all I had, was to say that phrase, “right now, it’s like this,” because I have confidence in knowing that things change. I have confidence in knowing that I am not just my delusion. So I repeated that, and the paranoia stayed for almost 48 hours. It was a hell run. So here’s the thing. I asked my teacher about this. I said, “suppose that was the moment of my dying, and I first felt all this love and then I felt all this paranoia.” He said, “Oh, it would be all right.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, it doesn’t surprise me that you experienced the love you’ve been cultivating that most of your life. And if you died, your brain would stop, and the paranoia was a function of your brain, and the paranoia would go away, and awareness would return.” So that was actually a very deep teaching and very useful for me. But what I want to say is that our mindfulness practice has to be creative. Calm observing is not sufficient. It’s important that we have insight, that we know something. It’s not sufficient to simply, calmly observe. We have to have understanding.
BB: Isn’t calmly observing a conventional gateway to that possibility of seeing? But it is a place you could just stop and say, I’m going to watch this movie of life.
FO: If you want to be calm, I’ve got some tea I can give you. But that doesn’t necessarily give you any insight into your life or the nature of suffering in the world. There, we need understanding. We need clear comprehension.
BB: A little sidetrack here that does this difference between calm observing and insight is a significant one. There have been many attempts to measure the quality of people’s meditation practice. And one of the things that I found interesting is almost all of them seem to rely on measuring some state of calm. But in the experience of insight, you may be completely rocked by something. But it’s the remaining or returning to some connection, to greater awareness.
FO: Let’s take my example. The feeling of paranoia, by the way, the paranoia that I experienced, it’s not like psychotic paranoia. It’s not the same, but it’s similar. I couldn’t calm myself in the paranoia. Sensing my body, watching my breath, was not sufficient to work with this paranoia. I tried everything. However, awareness was there and confidence in what I had have studied and learned, the wisdom that has been acquired through that was helpful. Then I could say, “right now, it’s like this.”
BB: Yeah, and I think one of the significant things about “Right now, it’s like this,” is that it’s very direct and non discursive. You know, it’s not a little pep talk, it’s not a narrative.
FO: It’s not an assessment, it’s just a statement of truth.
BB: You often say that the part of you that knows you’re in pain isn’t in pain, and in this case, the part of you that for that moment where you’re able to say “right now, it’s like this,” that’s not paranoid. Correct?
BB: But it could be overtaken again.
FO: It emerged as a result of my training and I had to find skillful means and it wasn’t skillful to just keep sensing my body or to watch my mind. That wasn’t what was skillful. What was skillful was to make an intervention. We could say that was stabilizing. It stabilized my my mind, heart and body.
BB: It’s interesting. One of the classical metaphors for skillful means is some kind of weapon like a sword, it’s something that needs to be available to be wielded. This is a bit like a sword cutting there. Your training gave you that weapon, as it were.
FO: Exactly. And if I had only trained in calming the mind, heart and body, that wouldn’t have been sufficient.
BB: My word for what you’re calling a weapon is “discriminating wisdom” or some kind of wisdom that can cut through delusion.
SD: Frank Ostaseski in conversation with Barry Boyce. You can read a condensed version of their conversation in the February edition of Mindful magazine, on news stands now, or find it at mindful.org. And we’ll bring you the second half of their conversation on our next episode of Real Mindful.
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