The Five Invitations
Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully
By Frank Ostaseski
Flatiron Books Copyright © 2017 Frank Ostaseski
All rights reserved.
THE DOORWAY TO POSSIBILITY
It is almost banal to say so, yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.
— HENRY MILLER
As I washed his back, Joe turned toward me, glanced over his shoulder, and said resignedly, "I never thought it would be like this."
"What?" I asked.
"What did you think it would be like?"
He sighed. "I guess I never really thought about it."
Joe's regret at never having reflected on his own mortality was a greater cause of suffering than his terminal lung cancer.
The great Korean Zen master Seung Sahn was famous for saying, "Soon dead." A wry wake-up call.
Death is the elephant in the room. A truth we all know but agree not to talk about. We try to keep it at arm's length. We project our worst fears onto it, joke about it, attempt to manage it with euphemisms, sidestep it when possible, or avoid the conversation altogether.
We can run, but we cannot hide.
There is an old Babylonian myth, "Appointment in Samarra," which W. Somerset Maugham retells in his play Sheppey. A merchant in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace for supplies. But the man returns a short while later empty-handed, pale, and shuddering with fear. He tells his boss that a woman in the crowd bumped into him. When he looked at her more closely, he recognized her as Death.
"She looked at me and made a threatening gesture," the servant says. "Now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there, Death will not find me."
So the merchant lends his servant his horse. The man rides off in a wild fury.
Later, the merchant goes to the marketplace to buy his own supplies. There, he sees Death and asks why she threatened his servant earlier that day.
"That was not a threatening gesture," Death replies. "It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."
Like Joe, when we turn a blind eye to the inevitability of death, it takes us by surprise. Yet even running in the other direction, we always arrive at her door. Death only sneaks up on us because we haven't noticed the clues she has hidden in plain sight.
Mostly, we imagine death will come later. No sense worrying about it too much now. "Later" creates the comfortable illusion of a safe distance. But constant change, impermanence, is not later. It is right now. Change is the norm.
We set ourselves up for great disappointment when we cling, hoping that things will never change. It is an unreasonable expectation of life. When I was a teenager, my father would remind me often to "enjoy every moment. It goes by in a blink." I didn't believe him. A few years later, my mother died. I didn't have a chance to say good-bye, to tell her I loved her as I would have liked. I had been living in a kind of dream. I lived within the confinement of that regret for many years.
George Harrison told the truth when he sang, "All things must pass." This moment gives way to the next. Everything is vanishing before our eyes. This is not a magic trick. It is a fact of life. Impermanence is an essential truth woven into the very fabric of existence. It is inescapable, perfectly natural, and our most constant companion.
A sound comes and then it is gone. A thought arises and then quickly passes away. Sights, tastes, smells, touch, feelings — they are all the same: impermanent, fleeting, ephemeral.
My blond hair is long gone. Gravity is having its way with me — my muscles are weaker, my skin has less elasticity, my bodily functions have slowed. This is not a mistake. It's part of the natural process of aging.
Where is my childhood? Where is last night's lovemaking? All that is here today will be only a memory tomorrow. Intellectually, we may understand that our mother's treasured vase will one day fall off the shelf, the car will break down, and those we love will die. Our work is to move this understanding from our intellect and to nestle it deep within our hearts.
Evolution shines a light on this immutable law when it reveals change on vastly different scales, from the micro to the macro. The magnification of an electron microscope reveals the miraculous structure of a human cell. The nucleus, the oscillating field, the waves of rhythm, protons, neutrons, even smaller particles in constant flux, living and dying moment to moment.
Looking through the Hubble Telescope, we observe the same dynamic. Our ever-expanding universe is subject to the same processes. True, planets may live longer than human cells. The sun will likely continue on as it is now for many billions of years. But impermanence is a characteristic of even the vastest galaxies. They come into form from large clouds of gas, atoms bind together, and, at some point, stars are created. In time, some fade away and some explode. Much like us, galaxies are born, they live for a time, and then they die.
* * *
Years ago, a friend and I started a small preschool program. Occasionally, we would take the three- to five-year-olds into the nearby woods with the task of finding "dead things." The children loved this game. They would happily collect fallen leaves, broken branches, a rusty old car part, and occasionally the bones of a crow or small animal. We would lay these discoveries out on a big blue tarp in a grove of fir trees and have a sort of show-and-tell.
At their young age, the children had no fear, only curiosity. They would examine each item carefully, rub it between their fingers, smell it — exploring the "dead things" in a close-up and personal way. Then they would share their thoughts.
Sometimes they would craft the most amazing stories about the history of an object. How a rusty car part had fallen from a star or spaceship as it passed above, or how a leaf was used as a blanket by a mouse until summer came and it was no longer needed.
I remember one child saying, "I think the leaves that fall from trees are very kind. They make room for little new ones to grow. It would be sad if trees couldn't grow new leaves."
While we mostly associate impermanence with sadness and endings, it is not all about loss. In Buddhism, impermanence is often referred to as the "Law of Change and Becoming." These two correlated principles provide balance and harmony. Just as there is constant "dissolving," there is also constant "becoming."
We rely on impermanence. The cold you have today won't last forever. This boring dinner party will come to an end. Evil dictatorships crumble, replaced by thriving democracies. Even ancient trees burn down so that new ones can be born. Without impermanence, life simply could not be. Without impermanence, your son couldn't take his first steps. Your daughter couldn't grow up and go to the prom.
Like the confluence of great rivers, our lives are a series of different moments, joining together to give the impression of one continuous flow. We move from cause to effect, event to event, one point to another, one state of existence to another — which gives an outward impression that our lives are one continuous and unified movement. In reality, they are not. The river of yesterday is not the same as the river of today. It is like the sages say: "We can't step into the same river twice."
Each moment is born and dies. And in a very real way, we are born and die with it. There is a beauty to all this impermanence. In Japan, people celebrate the brief but abundant blooming of the cherry blossoms each spring. In Idaho, outside the cabin where I teach, blue flax flowers live for a single day. Why do such flowers appear so much more magnificent than plastic ones? The fragility, the brevity, and the uncertainty of their lives captivate us, invite us into beauty, wonder, and gratitude.
Creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin.
In 1991, His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited San Francisco. In preparation for his arrival, Tibetan monks created a sand mandala at the Asian Art Museum in Golden Gate Park. Using tiny tools, they mindfully funneled finely colored crystals onto the floor in an intricate design. The sacred piece of art depicting the Kalachakra, or Wheel of Time, spanned six feet in diameter. It took many days of tireless work for the monks to complete.
But one day not long after the mandala was finished, a disturbed woman jumped the velvet rope surrounding the fragile creation. She stormed through it like a tornado, kicking the sand wildly and completely destroying the monks' meticulous craftsmanship.
Museum officials and security forces were shocked. They grabbed the woman, called the police, and had her arrested.
The monks, however, remained unperturbed. They assured the museum officials that they would be happy to make another mandala; this one had been scheduled to be taken apart in a dissolution ceremony in about a week's time, anyway. The monks calmly scattered the sands of the demolished mandala off the Golden Gate Bridge and began again.
Ven. Losang Samten, the leader of the sand-painting monks, told reporters, "We don't feel any negativity. We don't know how to judge her motivations. We pray for her with love and compassion."
To the monks, the mandala had served its purpose. Its creation and destruction were intended from the very outset to offer a lesson in the nature of life.
The museum staff viewed the mandala as an irreplaceable work of art, a precious object. To the monks, the mandala was a process whose value and beauty existed in its teaching on impermanence and non-attachment.
In an everyday sense, we have the same experience the monks did in making their mandala when we cook. I love baking bread — the measuring, the mixing, the juggling of pans, the kneading, the rising of the dough, the bread browning in the oven, the cutting of the loaf, and the buttering of it. Then the bread is gone. We partake in a mini-celebration of impermanence with every well-prepared meal consumed with enjoyment.
* * *
At first, the news of impermanence typically generates a great deal of anxiety. In response, we attempt to make things solid and secure. We try our best to arrange the conditions of our lives, to manipulate the circumstances so that we can be happy.
I love to lie in bed, particularly on a cold winter morning. The sheets are soft and warm. My body is well rested and enjoys taking refuge under the blankets. My mind is at peace and has yet to leap forward into the day's tasks. For a while, all is right with the world. A moment of perfection.
Then I have to pee.
After a moment of resistance, I run quickly to the bathroom. Upon attaining the temporary ease of release, I leap back under the blankets in the hope of recreating perfection. But I can't get everything back the way it was just moments earlier. I can't create conditions that are capable of providing an enduring happiness that is resistant to change.
Like most of us, I appreciate good conditions. I am among the fortunate ones with enough food to eat; I have a supportive family and remarkable friends, a life of considerable joy and ease. I'm not advocating an ascetic lifestyle. I am talking about learning to live in a harmonious way with constant change.
Usually, we seek happiness through trying to arrange the world in such a way that we meet things that are pleasant and avoid what is unpleasant. That seems only natural, right?
We fool ourselves because sometimes we can manipulate the conditions of our lives to bring us temporary happiness. It feels good in the moment, but as soon as the moment passes, we are looking for the next satisfying experience or taste. We become like "hungry ghosts," those mythical characters with bulging stomachs, long, thin necks, and tiny mouths who can never be satisfied.
The truth of life is that its one constant is change. When we look closely, is there anything else?
Not living in harmony with this truth causes us no end of suffering. It strengthens our ignorance and sets up the habits of craving, defense, and regret. These habits harden into character and have a powerful momentum that frequently shows up as obstacles to peace at the time of dying.
One day, three large, formidable, middle-aged Jewish women came to see me in my tiny office at the Zen Hospice Project. They were sisters. One was a high-powered political consultant in the city. Their mother was dying, and her doctor, a brain cancer specialist, had told them to come see me.
I started to talk to them about our quality of care, what we did, how we respected everyone's beliefs. But I could tell they weren't buying it. They were taking in the sparse décor, the limited space in my office, where we could all barely fit.
Linda, the consultant, asked straight out, "Why should we bring our mother here? Let's put her up in a nice room at the Fairmont Hotel and hire caregivers to be with her round the clock. Why wouldn't we do that, when we can afford it?" I replied, "Sure, you could do that. And I could suggest some people to help you out." Then I paused and picked up a booklet of photos of our hospice. "But can I ask you to just do this one thing? Show your mom these photos so she can see what it looks like here, and get her input."
When they left soon after, I thought I'd never see these three women again. But forty-five minutes later, the phone rang. I instantly recognized Linda's sharp, forceful voice. "Mother wants to see you," she said.
I had been summoned. I went to the mother's hospital room at one of the finest facilities in San Francisco. There, I found not only the three daughters, but also their rabbi, their mother's brain cancer specialist, and a psychiatrist. The pressure was on.
I introduced myself to the mother, Abigail. She sat calmly on the bed, flipping through the picture book and asking me all sorts of questions. "Can I bring my china?" "Sure. You can bring some of it," I said.
"How about my rocking chair? I really love my rocking chair."
"Sure. You can bring your rocking chair."
Suddenly, Abigail froze. "Wait a minute. There's no private bathroom in my room? You want me to go down the hall to use the bathroom?"
I looked her in the eyes. "Tell me. Are you getting up and going to the bathroom a lot these days?"
Abigail sank back into her pillow. "No, I don't go to the bathroom. I can't walk anymore." Then she turned to her daughters and said, "I want to go with him."
I believe what Abigail liked was that I didn't rebel against her crabbiness or try to make her into someone else. She appreciated my honesty. She could trust that. She didn't have a clue how to go through this dying process, but she believed that I did. She knew she'd feel safe with us.
Abigail moved in the next day, stayed for a week, then passed away. All her daughters were there by her bedside when she died.
Abigail's attitude changed when she was willing to meet the truth that was right in front of her — to be honest, not balk at it or turn away. She recognized that she was impermanent and that all the conditions of her life were in flux. She stepped into alignment with the law of change and becoming.
That naming of what is going on in our present moment is so powerful. Instead of clinging to the past, we come into alignment with the truth of our present circumstances, and then we can let go of the fight.
Why wait until we are dying to be free of struggle?
* * *
Impermanence is humbling. It is absolutely certain, yet the way it will manifest is completely unpredictable. We have little control. We can either shrink in fear from this predicament or choose a different response.
The gift of impermanence is that it places us squarely in the here and now. We know that birth will end in death. Reflecting on this might cause us to savor the moment, to imbue our lives with more appreciation and gratitude. We know that the end of all accumulation is dispersion. Reflecting on this might help us to practice simplicity and discover what has real value. We know that all relationships will end in separation. Reflecting on this might keep us from being overwhelmed by grief and inspire us to distinguish love from attachment.
Attention to constant change can help prepare us for the fact that the body will one day die. However, a more immediate benefit of this reflection is that we learn to be more relaxed with impermanence now. When we embrace impermanence, a certain grace enters our lives. We can treasure experiences; we can feel deeply — all without clinging. We are free to savor life, to touch the texture of each passing moment completely, whether the moment is one of sadness or joy. When we understand on a deep level that impermanence is in the life of all things, we learn to tolerate change better. We become more appreciative and resilient.
In "Living and Dying: A Buddhist Perspective," Carol Hyman wrote, "If we learn to let go into uncertainty, to trust that our basic nature and that of the world are not different, then the fact that things are not solid and fixed becomes, rather than a threat, a liberating opportunity."
Everything will come apart. That is true of our bodies, our relationships, all of life. It is happening all the time, not just at the end when the curtain falls. Coming together inevitably means parting. Don't be troubled. This is the nature of life. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Five Invitations by Frank Ostaseski. Copyright © 2017 Frank Ostaseski. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
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