Life and death are a package deal. You cannot pull them apart.
In Japanese Zen, the term shoji translates as “birth-death.” There is no separation between life and death other than a small hyphen, a thin line that connects the two. We cannot be truly alive without maintaining an awareness of death.
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. She helps us to discover what matters most. And the good news is we don’t have to wait until the end of our lives to realize the wisdom that death has to offer.
Over the past thirty years, I have sat on the precipice of death with a few thousand people. Some came to their deaths full of disappointment. Others blossomed and stepped through that door full of wonder. What made the difference was the willingness to gradually live into the deeper dimensions of what it means to be human.
To imagine that at the time of our dying we will have the physical strength, emotional stability, and mental clarity to do the work of a lifetime is a ridiculous gamble. This book is an invitation—five invitations, actually—to sit down with death, to have a cup of tea with her, to let her guide you toward living a more meaningful and loving life.
Reflecting on death can have a profound and positive impact not just on how we die, but how we live. In the light of dying, it’s easy to distinguish between the tendencies that lead us toward wholeness, and those that incline us toward separation and suffering.
The habits of our lives have a powerful momentum that propel us toward the moment of our death. The obvious question arises: What habits do we want to create? Fixed views and habits silence our minds and incline us toward life on automatic pilot. Questions open our minds and express the dynamism of being human. A good question has heart, arising from a deep love to discover what is true. We will never know who we are and why we are here if we do not ask the uncomfortable questions.
Without a reminder of death, we tend to take life for granted, often becoming lost in endless pursuits of self-gratification. When we keep death at our fingertips, it reminds us not to hold on to life too tightly. Maybe we take ourselves and our ideas a little less seriously. We let go a little more easily. When we recognize that death comes to everyone, we appreciate that we are all in the same boat, together. This helps us to become a bit kinder and gentler with one another.
We can harness the awareness of death to appreciate the fact that we are alive, to encourage self-exploration, to clarify our values, to find meaning, and to generate positive action. It is the impermanence of life that 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.
Shortly after the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow suffered a near-fatal heart attack, he wrote in a letter: “The confrontation with death—and the reprieve from it—makes everything look so precious, so sacred, so beautiful that I feel more strongly than ever the impulse to love it, to embrace it, and to let myself be overwhelmed by it. My river has never looked so beautiful . . . Death, and its ever-present possibility, makes love, passionate love, more possible.”
I am not romantic about dying. It is hard work. Maybe the hardest work we will ever do in this life. It doesn’t always turn out well. It can be sad, cruel, messy, beautiful, and mysterious. Most of all it is normal. We all go through it.
None of us get out of here alive.
As a companion to people who are dying, a teacher of compassionate care, and the co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project, most of the folks I have worked with were ordinary people. Individuals coming face-to-face with what they imagined was impossible or unbearable, walking toward their own deaths or caring for someone they loved who was now dying. Yet most found within themselves and the experience of dying, the resources, insight, strength, courage, and compassion to meet the impossible in extraordinary ways.
Some of the people I worked with lived in terrible conditions—in rat-infested hotels or on park benches behind city hall. They were alcoholics, prostitutes, and homeless folks who barely survived on the margins of society. Often they wore the face of resignation or were angry about their loss of control. Many had lost all trust in humanity.
Some were from cultures I did not know, speaking languages I could not understand. Some had a deep faith that carried them through difficult times, while others had sworn off religion. Nguyen feared ghosts. Isaiah was comforted by “visits” from his dead mother. There was a hemophiliac father who had contracted the HIV virus from a blood transfusion. Years before his illness, he had disowned his gay son. But at the end of life, father and son were both dying of AIDS, lying next to one another in twin beds in a shared bedroom, being cared for by Agnes, the father’s wife and the son’s mother.
Many people I worked with died in their early twenties, having hardly begun their lives. But there was also a woman I cared for named Elizabeth, who, at ninety-three, asked, “Why has death come for me so soon?” Some were clear as bells, whereas others couldn’t recall their own names. Some were surrounded by the love of family and friends. Others were entirely alone. Alex, without the support of loved ones, became so confused from his AIDS dementia that he climbed out onto the fire escape one night and froze to death.
We cared for cops and firefighters who had saved numerous lives; nurses who had tended to the pain and breathlessness of others; doctors who had pronounced patients dead of the same illnesses that now were ravaging their own bodies. People with political power, acquired wealth, and good health insurance. And refugees with little more than the shirts on their backs. They died of AIDS, cancer, lung disease, kidney failure, and Alzheimer’s.
For some, dying was a great gift. They made reconciliations with their long-lost families, they freely expressed their love and forgiveness, or they found the kindness and acceptance they had been looking for their whole lives. Still others turned toward the wall in withdrawal and hopelessness and never came back again.
All of them were my teachers.
The Five Invitations are my attempt to honor the lessons I have learned sitting bedside with so many dying patients. They are five mutually supportive principles, permeated with love. They have served me as reliable guides for coping with death. And, as it turns out, they are equally relevant guides to living a life of integrity.
An invitation is a request to participate in or attend a particular event. The event is your life, and my book is an invitation for you to be fully present for every aspect of it.
– Excerpt from The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach us About Living Fully by Frank Ostaseski, published by Flatiron Books, available on Amazon.
Watch a video preview of The Five Invitations here.
Frank Ostaseski is an internationally respected Buddhist teacher and visionary cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project, and founder of the Metta Institute. He teaches periodically with Ram Dass and has lectured at Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic, Wisdom.2.0 and teaches at major spiritual centers around the globe.
His groundbreaking work has been featured on the Bill Moyers PBS series On Our Own Terms, highlighted on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and honored by H.H. the Dalai Lama.