— Frank Ostaseski, The Five Invitations:
Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully
Dear Still Water Friends,
Frank Ostaseski, a Buddhist teacher and cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project, has written a wonderful book about his experiences of caring for people at the end of their lives. In his work, he has accompanied scores of people as they approach and go through the process of dying, often helping them transform their fear and regret into acceptance and wisdom. His portraits of all these people are loving and compassionate. In The Five Invitations, he proposes five principles that he has found to be “reliable guides for coping with death” and for living what he calls “a life of integrity.”
One of the invitations is “Bring your whole self to the experience.” He observes that we often don’t bring our whole selves, our full presence, to what is happening because we have judged parts of ourselves to be unacceptable. It’s as if we were doing a jigsaw puzzle that is a picture of ourselves, not just our physical body but all the other aspects of ourselves – mental, emotional, intellectual, spiritual. We pick up and look at pieces we don’t like – our nose or our fear or arrogance – and we put them aside. We don’t want to acknowledge that they, too, are part of ourselves. We end up with a puzzle full of holes because we’ve left out so many pieces. Ostaseski writes:
We all like to look good. We long to be seen as capable, strong, intelligent, sensitive, spiritual, or at least well adjusted. We project a positive self-image. Few of us want to be known for our helplessness, fear, anger, or ignorance, or want others to know that sometimes we are more of a mess than we’d like to admit. 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.
Ostaseski writes that a major obstacle to our being able to bring our whole selves to the experiences of our lives is that we listen to and believe our inner critic. This critic is the internalized voice of our parent, other authority figure, or society that tells us there is only one right way to be and to do, and we are failing at it. We can learn to recognize the voice of the inner critic when it arises and realize that we have a choice in how to respond. We can choose to not listen, or we can listen with skepticism, or we can ask the critic to be quiet. (Sometimes I tell my inner critic, “Now, I know you’re trying to help but, really, this is not helping.”) Instead of believing the judgment of our inner critic, Ostaseski writes, we can nourish our capacity of discernment.
There is an alternative to the critic. It’s found in the movement from judgment to discernment. Judgment is the harsh, aggressive habit that shuts down the conversation, binds us to the past and old behaviors, and closes off our access to other capacities. Discernment makes space, helps us to have perspective, and allows more of our humanity to show up. Discernment helps wisdom to emerge and enables us to choose a more beneficial future. Our innate discriminating wisdom is a kind, more objective voice that is available to all of us. It can differentiate, discern, and intelligently guide us forward.
I am realizing more clearly how much power my inner critic has wielded during my lifetime. Every time I have aspired to do something outside my comfort zone, the inner critic has told me that it will be too hard, that it won’t turn out well, that I’m not up to the task, and that everyone will see that I’ve failed. With that kind of self-talk going on in my head, it’s kind of amazing that I’ve ever gone ahead and made the effort to do whatever thing I was afraid of doing. (Pema Chodron wrote that, early in her marriage, her then-husband told her she was one of the bravest people he knew. Why? Because “I was a complete coward but went ahead and did things anyhow.”)
One of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver is “When Death Comes.” The last line is, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” When I read this poem, my heart’s response is resoundingly, “I don’t want to end up merely having visited this world, either.” I want to fully engage with this world, be fully present for what is happening in the here and the now. I don’t want to hang back or hold back out of fear or because I feel that I have too many “unacceptable” parts. When I observe in myself a tendency to distance myself, to hover on the margins of things, I can acknowledge “Oh, here is my habit energy.” I can practice, as Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) has taught us, to calm my body and mind and trust that, with time, insight will arise.
Thay has taught so much about how we can skillfully work with our negative habit energy when it arises. He asks us to envision our habit energy existing as a kind of seed within our deep consciousness. When it is stimulated, it “sprouts” up. With mindfulness, we can be aware of this energy when it manifests on the conscious level, and we can say hello to it. We embrace the negative energy with mindfulness to help it go back into the form of a seed. Every time we embrace a negative energy with mindfulness in this way, it loses a little bit of its strength.
We might notice that our inner critic does not have a role to play in this process. There is no criticizing, no berating of ourselves. Thay advised in a 1998 Dharma talk:
… the practice should be done in a very tender, non-violent way. There should be no fighting, because when you fight, you create damage within yourself. The Buddhist practice is based on the insight of non-duality: you are love, you are mindfulness, but you are also that habit energy within you. To meditate does not mean to transform yourself into a battlefield, the right fighting the wrong, the positive fighting the negative. … Mindfulness embracing anger [or any other mental formation, such as fear, anxiety, or not-good-enough feelings] is like a mother embracing her child, big sister embracing younger sister. The embrace always brings a positive effect. You can bring relief, and you can cause the negative energy to lose some of its strength, just by embracing it.
We hope you can join us Thursday evening. After our meditation period, we’ll begin our Dharma sharing by considering these questions:
- What does wholeness feel like in your body, heart, and mind?
- What does it feel like when you deny or leave out parts of yourself? How do you practice to gain a greater sense of wholeness?
- How do you manage to act despite the harangue of the inner critic?
Below, after the announcements, you’ll find excerpts from a beautiful Dharma talk about working with our habit energy that Thay gave at Plum Village in 1998. And after that, there is Mary Oliver’s poem.
With gratitude and appreciation,
Excerpts from a Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh, August 6, 1998, in Plum Village, France
Our joy, our peace, our happiness depend very much on our practice of recognizing and transforming our habit energies. There are positive habit energies that we have to cultivate, there are negative habit energies that we have to recognize, embrace, and transform.
The energy with which we do these things is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a kind of energy that helps us to be aware of what is going on. Therefore, when the habit energy shows itself, we know right away. “Hello, my little habit energy, I know you are there. I will take good care of you.” In recognizing it as it is, you are in control of the situation. You don’t have to fight it; in fact the Buddha does not recommend that you fight it, because that habit energy is you, and you should not fight against yourself. You have to generate the energy of mindfulness, which is also you, and that positive energy will do the work of recognizing and embracing. Every time you embrace your habit energy, you can help it to transform a little bit.
The habit energy is a kind of seed within your consciousness, and when it becomes a source of energy, you have to recognize it. You have to bring your mindfulness into the present moment, and you just embrace that negative energy: “Hello, my negative habit energy. I know you are there. I am here for you.” After maybe one or two or three minutes, that energy will go back into the form of a seed, in order to re-manifest itself later on. You have to be very alert.
Every time a negative energy is embraced by the energy of mindfulness, it will lose a little bit of its strength as it returns as a seed to the lower level of consciousness. The same thing is true for all other mental formations: your fear, your anguish, your anxiety, and your despair. They exist in us in the form of seeds, and every time one of the seeds is watered, it becomes a zone of energy on the upper level of our consciousness. If you don’t know how to take care of it, it will cause damage, it will push us to do or to say things that will damage us and damage the people we love. Therefore, generating the energy of mindfulness, to recognize it, to embrace it, to take care of it, is the practice.
And the practice should be done in a very tender, non-violent way. There should be no fighting, because when you fight, you create damage within yourself. The Buddhist practice is based on the insight of non-duality: you arelove, you are mindfulness, but you are also that habit energy within you. To meditate does not mean to transform yourself into a battlefield, the right fighting the wrong, the positive fighting the negative. That’s not Buddhist. That is why, based on the insight of non-duality, the practice should be non-violent. Mindfulness embracing anger is like a mother embracing her child, big sister embracing younger sister. The embrace always brings a positive effect. You can bring relief, and you can cause the negative energy to lose some of its strength, just by embracing it.
A practitioner is someone who has the right to suffer, but who does not have the right not to practice. People who are not practitioners allow their pain, sorrow and anguish to overwhelm them, to push them to say and do things they don’t want. We, who consider ourselves to be practitioners, have the right to suffer like everyone else, but we don’t have the right not to practice. Therefore, we have to do something, to call on the positive things within our bodies and our consciousness, to take care of our situations. It’s okay to suffer, it’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to allow yourself to be flooded with suffering. We know that in our bodies and our consciousness there are positive elements that we can call on for help. We have to mobilize these positive elements to protect ourselves and to take good care of the negative things that are manifesting in us.
When Death Comes
— by Mary Oliver
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
To receive the Zoom link for this and future Thursday evening programs, please register at https://swmpc.breezechms.com/form/3a13952343463126. (If you already have the Thursday Zoom link, there is nothing you need to do.)