IN ONE OF LONG NOW’S MOST MOVING TALKS, Ostaseski began: “I’m not romantic about dying. This is the hardest work you will ever do. It is tough. It’s sad and it’s messy and it’s cruel and it’s beautiful sometimes and mysterious, but above all that, it’s normal. It’s a boat we’re all in. It’s inevitable and intimate.“ He said that people think it will be unbearable, but they find they have the resources to deal with it, and “they regularly — not always — develop insights into their lives in the time of dying that make them emerge as a much larger, more expansive, more real person than the small, separate self they’d taken themselves to be.”
That is one message that dying gives to living. “Reflection on death,” he said, “causes us to be more responsible — in our relationships, with ourselves, with the planet, with our future.”
Ostaseski summarized the insights he’s learned from the dying as “five invitations to be present.” 1) Don’t wait. 2) Welcome everything, push away nothing. 3) Bring your whole self to the experience. 4) Find a place of rest in the middle of things. 5) Cultivate don’t-know mind. For 2), Ostaseski quoted James Baldwin: “Not everything that can be faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced.” An example of 4): a woman who was panicking at her difficulty breathing was encouraged to try resting in the moment between breaths, and there she found the handle on her panic and relaxed into the situation.
Ostaseski ended with a story. One day at Zen Hospice in San Francisco he was in the kitchen reading a book called Japanese Death Poems. A tough old lady from the streets named Sono, who was there to die, asked him about the book, and he explained the tradition of Japanese monks to write on the day of their death a poem expressing the essential truth discovered in their life. He read her a few. Sono said she’d like to write hers, and did, and asked that it be pinned to her bedclothes when she died and cremated with her. She wrote:
Don’t just stand there with your hair turning gray,
soon enough the seas will sink your little island.
So while there is still the illusion of time,
set out for another shore.
No sense packing a bag.
You won’t be able to lift it into your boat.
Give away all your collections.
Take only new seeds and an old stick.
Send out some prayers on the wind before you sail.
Don’t be afraid.
Someone knows you’re coming.
An extra fish has been salted.
— Mona (Sono) Santacroce (1928–1995)
The above is a summary of Frank Ostaseski’s Seminar “What the Dying Teach the Living”, presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s Seminars About Long-term Thinking. Frank Ostaseski is a Buddhist teacher, lecturer, and author focusing on contemplative end-of-life care. His book is The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully.
To watch or listen to this Seminar, visit the Frank Ostaseski Seminar Page. To follow the series, you can become a Long Now Member, watch the videos, or subscribe to our podcast. Members help to support this series and can access tickets to the talks, our live stream, and HD video of our full catalogue of Seminars. Long Now started these monthly talks in 02003 to build a compelling body of ideas about long-term thinking.