by Frank Ostaseski
Flatiron Books, 2017
One of the rewarding aspects of medical aid in dying that is mentioned by surviving family members is the opportunity it offers for meaningful conversation before the person they love dies. The day of dying is chosen intentionally, and in the weeks and days leading up to it, truth is spoken. I think about this a lot, because my mother-in-law died from toxic poisoning of the liver in her fifties and her doctors never told us that she was dying. They said, no doubt meaning to be helpful, that “there was always hope.” She died, sooner than expected and without warning, and we had no chance for final conversations.
Frank Ostaseski, a pioneering teacher in the movement to improve end-of-life care, is a Buddhist teacher but not a proselytizer about his faith. In 1987, he founded the Zen Hospice Project in California, nationally recognized as a pioneering model in the movement to improve end-of-life care. He guided it for seventeen years and then, in 2004, moved to the Metta Institute, its name taken from an ancient Pali word meaning loving-kindness, friendliness, benevolence and non-violence. Here he trained clinicians and caregivers in the art of mindful and compassionate care. He sat with more than a thousand dying people, learning from them. His book shares that experience with us.
The Five Invitations is not about a theory or a cosmology, or about what the experience of dying is and means. Instead, Ostaseski shows us that death happens within a web of relationships and that we need to be present in those relationships with our heart. He offers five “invitations,” things we can do to bring meaning to each day, and thus to the entirety of our life, so that we do not face the reality of our life only two weeks before we die, and wish that we had lived it differently.
The first invitation is “don’t wait.” Don’t wait in order to begin living each moment in a manner that is deeply engaged. We must stop wasting our lives on meaningless activities. We must focus on the present and be grateful for what we have now.
The second invitation is to welcome everything and push away nothing. We must let go of our opposition to the experiences we are trying to avoid, “thoughts, feelings, and events included.” If we don’t let go of them, they will continue to consume us. “Pain,” Ostaseski writes, “is inevitable; suffering is optional.”
The third invitation is “to bring our whole self to the experience.” He writes, “We all like to look good. We long to be seen as capable, strong, intelligent, sensitive, spiritual, or at least well adjusted… Few of us want to be known for our helplessness, fear, anger, or ignorance… Yet more than once I have found an ‘undesirable’ aspect of myself, one about which I previously had felt ashamed and kept tucked away, to be the very quality that allowed me to meet another person’s suffering with compassion instead of fear or pity.”
The fourth invitation is to find a place to rest in the middle of things. This place of rest is always available to us. It is where we can begin to say “no” instead of feeling obliged to say “yes.” We ought to be able to find this place of rest before we die. Idleness is not an indulgence or a vice so much as it is indispensable. Ostaseski reminds us that “nearly all plants go dormant in winter. Certain mammals hibernate… All are guided by inner clocks to emerge again in the fullness of time, when conditions are right.” We need to do this because, he writes, quoting the late Angeles Arrien, “there are two things we can never do in the fast lane: we can neither deepen our experience nor integrate it.”
The fifth invitation is to cultivate “Don’t Know Mind.” We can get fixated on a certain destination, or we can walk on a path and not especially know where it is going. When we slow down enough to listen carefully, we can sense what is needed without relying solely on rational processes. “Not knowing” leaves room for wisdom to arise, for the situation itself to inform us.
The Five Invitations is filled with stories. My favorite may be the parable of the mustard seed. It tells the story of a woman whose young son suddenly died one day. “She was out of her mind with grief. She picked up her son’s dead body and walked through the village pleading with people to help her, to give her some medication that might help her son.” She approached the Buddha for help. He gave her a simple task. She had to bring him a mustard seed from a home that had not been touched by death. He did not seek to deny her experience, but rather to guide her toward the discovery of a powerful truth. Mustard seeds were commonplace in every home in her village, and there was not a single home that had not been touched by death. By walking from one home to another, and discovering this, she “learned that grief is our common ground… (and) a connective tissue that joins us together.”
Frank Ostaseski lectures internationally on end of life issues, has been featured on the Bill Moyers PBS series On Our Own Terms, and been honored by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Review by Susan Gillotti, PCV Board Member