By Frank Ostaseski (after his heart attack)

I don’t know how to do this.

How could I? I’ve never done this before.

How do I include illness in day-to-day life? What adjustments are really necessary in my relationships, work, how I eat, sleep and move? What needs to be relinquished and what needs to be cultivated? How long can I enjoy the perk of being chauffeured around? How is this changing me?

I guess I’ll find out.

Anybody who has experienced a life-altering event knows there are certain predictable stages to recovery and its related challenges. But we each cope differently. There is no protocol for developing a new life. For being reconstituted by the impact of illness. No one size fits all.

Still people give you all sorts of well-meaning advice. “Try this…don’t do that…apples are good….chard is the best! Get lots of exercise….rest whenever you can….cancel all your commitments….you’ll be back in the saddle in no time….this is a chance to free yourself from old work habits…now you get to learn about receiving.”

All true.

But, I find that advice rarely helps. Better to do someone’s laundry or help them to figure out their insurance forms.

I need to live into this experience in order to know it for myself. I am trying to find out how to live a new normal.

I’m not sure I even believe in recovery. I am more drawn to discovery.

At the end of meditation retreats students often ask how they should integrate their meditation practice at home…when they “go back” to their real life. I always question why they think that their habitual life (rather than the retreat) is the “real life”. I also say, there is no going back.

Yesterday, for the first time, I tried meditating while sitting on a cushion. I soon realized that I don’t have the stomach muscles I had last month. I need to learn to sit with what is here now. I need to discover that. How will Presence manifest itself as form. strength in this form?

That’s it really… I am a new form.

Of course, this is happening all the time. Form and emptiness in a constant dance of uncertainty. Meditation practice revels how we are quite literally always falling apart and coming together in a new way. Co-emergence of the substantial and the ephemeral. Most of us ignore that. We choose comfort over truth sometimes.

I do.

We like to live in our happy delusion of habit. The American dream of rugged individualism and independence. The illusion of security. I used to imagine that one day I would reach some sort of platform of understanding on which I could stand securely. Well having a heart attack is a great reminder that those platforms have trap doors.

There is no going back.

I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to put on those old familiar clothes again. Even as I write, my personality is jockeying for position. It saying, “…your stronger now, soon all that sickness and dependence stuff will be history”. My personality wants to reclaim what it believes is its rightful place on the throne.

I feel the pull of habit.

The self-pity that pretends to be caring but is felt as cold and distant. It’s nothing like compassion. Compassion is warm and embraces, it snuggles up next to suffering and doesn’t leave it alone until its true causes are reveled. Or, my habit of drive that mimics true will and steadfastness. It has no trust. I think about my illusions of power that are enacted and reinforced by cutting off an experience or closing off to a person. That habit is just some form of hatred masquerading as discernment and wisdom. What about the hard, dense, rigidity, the forcefulness that I have sometimes mistakenly called strength? It’s nothing like the expansiveness, the free flowing, dynamic, passionate, vital, life protecting courage to be fully open and alive that I am fortunate to be guided by at times. When I live in that strength I sit like a mountain. The habits of personality are cheap imitations that appear because we feel cut off, deficient, temporarily abandoned by what is most real.

I feel the pull of habit.

I love to swim in the ocean. I am at home there. But, I respect its power. I know the waves could crush me or sweep me out to sea if I don’t pay attention.

Habits are like that. It’s easy to be swept away by them. I need to pay attention. And, I find it helpful to respect the power of habit. It is arrogant and foolish to do otherwise.

It’s like what Ram Dass said when someone asked him about pain. He said, “It’s a worthy adversary for my spiritual practice.” Maybe I can see my habits in a similar light? Although I don’t see them as an adversary, in the sense of them being an opponent. More like they are strong medicine.

Rejecting habits doesn’t work. Indulging them just encourages the little stinkers. What’s a guy to do?

Friends have been bringing me dinner and sharing their favorite heart healthy recipes with me. So please indulge my sharing my current favorite for dealing with habits. Probably heart healthy to boot.

Open, allow, get to know them intimately. Then trust what emerges.

I can’t know something well that I haven’t allowed to exist.
I can’t allow something that I am not open to.
I can’t be open if I am rejecting anything.

So, I am open to the fact I am still crazy after all these years. I try not to rush in to change me into a new and better version of Frank (that’s just more rejection). The ground of practice is being with who we are right now. Condemnation doesn’t help. It only perpetuates harming. It seems kinder to be patient with my habitual self.

I try to allow and acknowledge my habits long-standing commitment to my survival. (Sometimes I even thank them… but that doesn’t mean I give them the throne). When I’m able and feeling a bit of balance, I try to observe and feel the impact of my habits on others and myself. When possible, I befriend them. I inquire into how the habits play out. I take a stab at sensing what is real in me that they are mimicking. Sometimes….not always… but sometimes… when we stop arguing and they feel seen and understood… they relax and sleep like my children did when they were younger.

Inevitably what emerges is some contact with truth… and the true qualities the habitual self were pretending to embody…they show up! Yes, our parents were right ….the truth always comes out at some point.

Habit and personality are all about the past. That’s all they’ve got to go on. They don’t always make good guides for the future. But when I r get to know them….see the conditions they are rising up from….smell the sweet fragrance of what they are imitating and also obscuring….they are like breadcrumbs that lead me to something true and real. And truth is a most reliable guide.

That is the only kind of recovery I am interested in at the moment.



Frank Ostaseski is the founder of the Metta Institute and cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project and author of The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully.

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Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight, helping us to discover what matters most.

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