The Ultimate Quest to Find Meaning

What does it mean to live a full, meaningful life? Writer Stephanie Domet goes exploring with renowned mindfulness teacher Mirabai Bush, hospice pioneer Frank Ostaseski, and Rabbi Rami Shapiro and discovers what’s truly essential.

Shann Diego/Stocksy

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 dy