I used to believe in something I called Cosmic Hints. Big signals from the universe about what I should or shouldn’t do, did or didn’t want. I believed the universe was looking out for me, particularly, and putting symbols and metaphors in my path that helped me see who I was and who I wanted to be. I was forever in search of the Big Why—constantly looking for meaning, making narratives that sewed together the events of my life, the coincidences and conditions and happenstances, into something that was leading somewhere, and meaning something.
I believed, strongly and vocally, that Everything Happens for a Reason.
Then my brother died, when I was 30 and he was 32. He had something called pseudomyxoma peritonei—a cancerous abdominal tumor. It affects about one person in a million. Talk about a Cosmic Hint!
Except, what was it trying to tell me? And why would it kill my brother? Was my attention that hard to get? And why did I think my brother’s death was about me, anyway? How self-absorbed do you have to be to derive that meaning out of something so senseless? And if that wasn’t what Chris’s death was about, then what was it? If Everything Happens for a Reason, what was the Reason for the death of a brilliant, otherwise healthy young man who had a wife who loved him and two kids under the age of three?
Desperately Seeking Meaning
It is almost 20 years later and I have been unable to sew up a narrative that fits.
I drifted rudderless and grieving, with no operating system, for some time. I had been raised with a Catholic vision of the afterlife, and though I liked the idea that my brother was playing rummoli and eating meatballs with our deceased grandparents and uncles and aunts—and the idea that I might someday join them—that whimsical notion didn’t give me a framework for how to live. And in the face of such an out-of-order death—parents shouldn’t have to bury a child, little babies shouldn’t have to bury a parent—I developed a new ethos. Anything Can Happen to Anyone at Any Time. So Live While You’re Alive.
For someone so dedicated to narrative and reason, this first felt dizzying. How do you Live While You’re Alive? What does that even mean? Seize the moment, I thought. Do all the things. I had been horribly struck by what cancer took from my brother’s body, the indignities it visited upon him. Intellectually, I knew I wanted to move my body well in order to honor my brother. Climb big hills, lift weights, maybe learn to run. I wanted to take big chances, see the world, strive and achieve!
How do you Live While You’re Alive? What does that even mean? Seize the moment, I thought. Do all the things.
Constitutionally though, I’m more of a “lie on the couch and read or think” kind of person. Obsessively plan the future, and anxiously ruminate on the past. Slowly write a quirky novel every seven or eight years. Putter around the garden. Pay some bills. Roast a chicken. That kind of thing. I am soft and round, and every time I find myself in a gym trying to do a side plank, gritting my teeth and exhorting myself to live while I’m alive, I just kind of want to disappear.
So, nineteen years into my life as a bereaved person, with all my fancy thinking, and my annual essays on the anniversary of Chris’s death, the additional loss of my father a few years after Chris, two novels and a third on the way all dealing with grieving and the reality of death and how to live in the face of it, and here I am: struggling, sweating, grimly determined to Live While I’m Alive.
An Invitation to Know More
There’s something about that, somehow, that feels not true to the original intention. But I don’t realize it until after my conversation with Frank Ostaseski.
Frank cofounded the Zen Hospice Project in 1987, and served as its executive director until 2004. Zen Hospice Project is a nonprofit committed to bringing mindfulness and compassion to end-of-life care. In his time with the Project, Frank sat with thousands of people in the final stages of life as a companion, listening to what they wanted to say, holding space for their silence.
“The eyes of the dying person,” he tells me, “are really clear mirrors, and they show us ourselves unlike anything else I know.”
His decades of bedside experience led him to write a book called The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully. Packed with scenes from Ostaseski’s own life, and the lives of those he encounters in his work, The Five Invitations offers practical, gentle, yet urgent advice for living well in the face of death. For Ostaseski, those invitations are most alive in the eyes of those who are dying.
“They show us where we’re clinging, where our aversion is, where our deeply held identities are, and they reflect our deepest capacity for love.”
By the time I arrived at the hospital where my brother was in the final stages of life, he was unconscious, in a medically induced coma. I didn’t know how to be, as I sat with him, silently trying to beam at him all the things I wanted him to know. Even now, when I turn my imagination to that hospital room, my body tightens, my throat aches, tears are immediate. My mouth feels profoundly shut. I still don’t know how to be with this. There’s grief in these cells, for certain, but alongside that grief there’s something more elemental. I recognize its prickling tentacles as fear.
Getting Close to Comfortable
It’s not surprising to find fear adjacent to death. “The obstacle to being able to accept dying is fear,” says Mirabai Bush. She co-wrote Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying with Ram Dass. The book emerged out of two years’ worth of conversations between the two friends, when Ram Dass was in his eighties and Bush in her seventies.
“I found that after those years I’m much lighter with it,” Bush says. “Not that I’m less sad, or that I miss my friends any less. But I feel closer to the rightness of it, or the naturalness of it, and the ease of it.”
With regards to clinging, aversion, and deeply held identities, Bush says, “It’s important to think about it and talk with your friends about it and look into your own fears about it. And in that way, mindfulness is really helpful. Notice what’s going on in your mind and your body when the subject comes up; notice what it is that’s keeping you from being fully there.”
Bush remembers years ago asking a visiting Tibetan teacher a simple question: “‘Why should we meditate?’ And he said, ‘You should meditate to prepare for death,’ and I thought, Oh well, I can put that off for a bit!” Bush laughs.
“Of course, the more you are able to become present in the moment, the more you can feel like, If death happened now it would be OK, I have led the best life I can. That’s hard for us, but that’s what these practices are for.”
It is indeed hard for us, I think, as I recall a Friday evening cocktail hour last year, in our living room, with my spouse and his brother, and his brother’s partner. My sister-in-law was talking about a man she knew who was living with cystic fibrosis. “He’s going to die young,” she said. My husband mentioned a woman he knows who was in kidney failure. “She could die any time,” he said. Solemn nods all around. Then I raised my glass. “I just want to pour one out for mortality, here,” I said. I could feel my husband give me a hard glance, the kind that said, Must you? I ignored it. “Any of us could die, at any time,” I persisted. I looked my sister-in-law in the eye. “You’re gonna die,” I said. I looked at my husband. “And you’re gonna die.” On to his brother. “And you’re gonna die.” I lifted my glass a little higher. “And I’m gonna die. It’s coming for all of us, and no one knows when.”
I don’t know what I expected. What I got was a beat of silence, and then the conversation continued, as if nothing had happened.
Going with the Flow
“We think death will come later,” Frank Ostaseski says. “But constant change, impermanence, is not later, it’s right here. And so, studying constant change, impermanence, is another way not just to prepare us for dying, but to see that dying shows us how to live.”
When it comes to studying impermanence, the place to start is with ourselves.
“We tend to think of ourselves as the one solid thing going through a changing world,” says Ostaseski. “But I am nothing but change. When I take myself out of the river of impermanence, of constant change, I step on the banks and I feel alone, I feel separate, I’m cut off from the flow, from the nature of reality. Then I feel like I gotta protect myself, I’m full of fear.”
If we can accept that we are part of the river of impermanence, not separate and solid, Ostaseski says, we can find freedom and opportunity in it.
If we can accept that we are part of the river of impermanence, not separate and solid, Ostaseski says, we can find freedom and opportunity in it. “This moment dies and then the next moment. That really boring dinner party is going to finally end. Presidential terms end. We rely on impermanence. So study it.”
In The Five Invitations, Ostaseski writes about these gorgeous blue flax flowers that bloom in Idaho and live a single day. “Doesn’t the brevity and fragility of them lead us into wonder?” he asks. And then, with urgency: “Not just that things end, but that things become.”
My blood thrums in my veins as I read these words, though I barely know why. There’s just something here that feels elemental the same way the fear I feel is elemental.
“The law of impermanence,” Ostaseski says, “is sometimes referred to as the law of change and becoming. Every thing is subject to change and alteration. Take for example the life of an individual. It is a fallacy to believe that a person would remain the same person during her entire lifetime. She changes every moment. She actually lives and dies moment by moment, as each moment leads to the next. So this is happening all the time—not just at physical death.”
As for what we become, Ostaseski points out, “religions and cultures have been speculating about it for millennia. I doubt it is a full stop.”
Just Do It…Imperfectly
Rabbi Rami Shapiro doesn’t have a bucket list. That’s because he spends ample time thinking about death, which, he says, is liberating. “It frees you from the obsession that life has to be perfect. If you know you’re going to die it leaves room for other imperfections in the system. I don’t have to worry about doing it all, being it all, and seeing it all. If there’s something I really want to do, I just do it. But not because I’m in a hurry and I’m afraid I’m going to die.”
The idea of accepting imperfections in the system is one I struggle with, daily. I am a systems-and-outcome-oriented creature, one who is always measuring and often striving. But this conversation with Shapiro, the author of dozens of books and a column in Spirituality & Health magazine, offers another way of looking at my determination to Live While I’m Alive. One that invites me to, perhaps, grit my teeth less while I perform self-punishing
Shapiro was a congregational rabbi for 20 years, and he is incredibly practical about living and dying. “I would push back on the notion that your life has to mount to something. It’s just an amazing thing that you exist at all.”
Like Ostaseski, he also chooses a water metaphor to talk about the flow, the nature of reality.
“I like the idea from Hinduism of the ocean and the wave. The ocean is god or tao or the great mother or whatever you want to call it—and everything in existence is a wave of that ocean.” Bodies, like waves, have form and presence. Waves build and crest—and then they die, just like bodies do.
“The form fades,” he says, “but your true essence is the oceanic reality and that doesn’t die at all. With that understanding of life, death is part of the process.”
For Shapiro, recognizing that we all share an essential nature allows us to open ourselves to others. This is what Bush has been working on, too, since 1970, when Hindu teacher Neem Karoli Baba first instructed her to love everybody. She allows it’s not always easy. “He didn’t say to like everybody. But to recognize that we are all humans here together, and that we’re all imperfect and we’re all trying to do our best however we see that.”
Bush often leads a practice called Just Like Me, in which participants sit in pairs, facing each other, while the meditation leader says variations on a theme of This is another human being, just like me. This person has had physical and emotional pain and suffering, just like me. This person has been angry, sad, disappointed by others, just like me. This person will die, just like me.
“It’s so powerful,” Bush says, “because it’s true, we forget! In that way, you can open up to other people and recognize that they’re failing and falling down in life just like you are.”
The Questions to Be Asking
Another way to describe that insight is love, which Ostaseski believes is the key. “Very few people talk to me about their regrets. I’m not so interested in people’s regrets. I’m interested in what transforms them. And the big question that’s on most people’s hearts is: Am I loved? And sometimes also: Did I love well? Now if that’s the most important thing, why wait until the time of our dying?”
Ostaseki harkens back to impermanence, to becoming—treasured objects fall and break, cars break down, people you love are going to die. So: “How do we want to care for them now? That’s what dying can show us.”
“We can cultivate loving, we can deepen it, through practices and simply through loving other people. That’s what we can do in order to lead a fuller life, a deeper life, and a life that will lead us to a good death.”
What does that mean, I wonder, Did I love well? Ostaseski says it’s not a judgment. “It’s really an assessment. Did I give all the love I had to give? Can I love more? That’s on people’s hearts when they’re coming close to the end of their lives.”
Mirabai Bush says it’s a muscle we can work. “We → can cultivate loving, we can deepen it, through practices and simply through loving other people,” she tells me. “That’s what we can do in order to lead a fuller life, a deeper life, and a life that will lead us to a good death.”
This is a tricky one, because it’s an unconditional kind of love Bush is talking about, a love that transcends “me” and “you.”
“We start out identified with ego, thinking that we are our thoughts and sensations and desires and personality.” With time and practice, she says, we can start to see the ways in which we are all interconnected by love—and thus to serve those we encounter in every facet of our life. This is another human being, just like me.
Love Is All There Is?
Here’s where I get stuck: Shouldn’t it be harder than this? I mean, can the answer to living a good life—a life in which I let myself be happy, even—be as simple as: Love more, love well?
Ostaseski says yes. In a bit of a roundabout way.
“We don’t have to get rid of the fear to be happy,” he says. “We’re always busy managing our conditions, trying to get the fear to go away, the grief to go away, the anger to go away. Happiness doesn’t come from lining up all the conditions and getting them just right, because inevitably those conditions change.”
That river of impermanence again. “Whenever we fight with reality, we lose. We say, ‘That’s not fair! Death’s not fair!’ But death is the most fair thing; it comes to everybody.”
This is what I was trying to tell my siblings-in-law and my husband over cocktails, but somehow it sounds different when Ostaseski points it out, probably because he quickly follows it with this: “When we understand our identity is changing like everything else, we don’t spend all our time propping it up in the same way. When I know that life is precarious, then I appreciate that it’s precious, then I don’t want to waste a moment, and that leads to happiness. I step in, I tell the people I love that I love them, I care for the world in a responsible way, I live with integrity because this is what I’ve got.”
It is indeed that simple, says Mirabai Bush. “Being in the moment in a loving, kind way, that’s it.”
So we’re back at Live While You’re Alive, but I think I can see a kinder, gentler way to conduct my living. What if I stopped using my grief worldview as a brickbat to clobber myself and others, and switched my métier to love? What if, in the middle of that side plank, I just marveled at my very existence, and what a body will do? What if, at Friday night drinks when someone talks about death as if it’s a distant possibility that probably won’t even happen, I just raise my glass to our friendship and love—and to what we become?