No one alive really understands death. But as one woman who was close to death once told me, “I see the exit signs much clearer than you do.” In a way, nothing can prepare you for death. Yet everything that you have done in your life, everything that has been done to you, and what you have learned from it all can help.
Death and I have been longtime companions. My mother died when I was a teenager and my father just a few years later. But I had lost them years before the events of their deaths. They were both alcoholics, and so my childhood was characterized by years of chaos, neglect, violence, misguided loyalty, guilt, and shame. I became adept at walking on eggshells, being my mother’s confidant, finding hidden liquor bottles, clashing with my father, keeping secrets, and growing up too quickly. So in a way, their deaths came as a relief. My suffering was a sword that cut two ways. I grew up feeling ashamed, frightened, lonely, and unlovable. Yet that same suffering helped me to empathetically connect with others’ pain, and that became part of my calling—for more than 30 years I’ve provided end-of-life care for patients and taught a contemplative approach to death through Zen Hospice Project, which I am co-founder of.
Buddhist practice, with its emphasis on openness, wisdom, compassion and impermanence, was an early and important influence for me. Facing death is considered fundamental in the Buddhist tradition. It can mature wisdom and compassion, and strengthen our commitment to awakening. Death is seen as a final stage of growth. Through the application of the teachings below, I learned not to be incapacitated by the suffering of my earlier life, but rather to allow it to form the ground of compassion within me.
In the Buddhist way of thinking, openness is one of the key characteristics of an awake and curious mind. It does not determine reality, it discovers it. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the charismatic Tibetan Buddhist teacher, spoke of the heart of Buddhist practice as that of “complete openness.” He described this openness as “a willingness to look into whatever arises, to work with it, and to relate to it as part of the overall process…It is a larger way of thinking, a greater way of viewing things, as opposed to being petty, finicky.”
Openness doesn’t reject or get attached to a particular experience or view. We cannot be free if we are rejecting any part of our experience. Instead we can cultivate a spacious, undefended, non-biased allowing. We can meet each new experience with fresh eyes. Openness is the nature of awareness itself, and that nature allows experience to unfold.
This openness welcomes paradox and contradiction. It permits whatever emerges to emerge. Openness means keeping our minds and hearts available to new information, experiences, and opportunities for growth. It means having tolerance for the unknown. Openness is not passive. It means we are receptive, ready and free for engagement. As James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Wisdom and Compassion
In Buddhism, wisdom and compassion are spoken of metaphorically as the two great wings of our practice. If the balance between the two is underdeveloped or immature, we cannot take flight and find freedom. Attempts at compassion without wisdom easily become sentimental and mushy. Attempts at wisdom without compassion can seem cold, indifferent, and cerebral.
The wisdom that gives rise to compassion is the clear understanding of our interdependence. We are each exquisitely unique and differentiated yet not fundamentally separate. When we release ourselves from a narrow sense of separateness, we open to a wider worldview. One that wisely appreciates that we are not alone, nor can we manage this life alone.
People don’t usually think of they possess wisdom. They believe it is something you must acquire over the course of a lifetime through experience. It’s true, there is an analytical wisdom that needs to be trained and developed over time. But we also have an innate wisdom. If we listen carefully we can attune to this self-revealing wisdom-nature through mindfulness meditation. Living an authentic life requires trust in a deep inner wisdom and the willingness to bring it into conscious and compassionate action.
Impermanence is an essential truth woven into the very fabric of existence. It is inescapable, perfectly natural, and our most constant companion.
Considering the impermanence of life, its constant change, gives us perspective. As we come in contact with life’s precarious nature, we also come to appreciate its preciousness. Then we don’t want to waste a minute. We want to enter our lives fully and use them in a responsible way. Death is a good companion on the road to living well and dying without regret.
An acceptance of impermanence helps us learn how to die. It also reveals the flip side of loss, which is that letting go is an act of generosity. We let go of old grudges, and give ourselves peace. We let go of fixed views, and give ourselves to not knowing. We let go of self-sufficiency and give ourselves to the care of others. We let go of clinging and give ourselves to gratitude. We let go of control and give ourselves to surrender.
Death comes to all. Whether we like that fact or not, it is certain to happen. Instead of avoiding this truth, it is useful turn toward it and see what it has to teach us about living. Facing our own mortality can shift our priorities and values, and profoundly change our views of reality. When people know they are going to die, that last year of their life is frequently the most loving, most caring, most awake year.
In Buddhism, the reflection on our mortality is a key component of spiritual practice. It is not seen as an ideology to be adopted as a protection against death. Rather, it is an opportunity to become more intimate with death as an inevitable part of life. While such reflections may seem morbid to some, I have found the practice of cultivating a wise openness to death to be life affirming. The value of these reflections is that we see how our ideas and beliefs about death are affecting us right here, right now.
Frank Ostaseski is a co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project and the Metta Institute, lecturer at Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic, and teacher at major spiritual conferences and centers across the globe. His new book, The Five Invitations: Discovering How What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, is now available.