Month: December 2017

62 – What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully – Frank Ostaseski

In this episode, I discuss the topic of death with Frank Ostaseski, author of “The Five Invitations: What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully”. Death is perhaps our greatest teacher, a close encounter with death can forever change our perspectives and priorities. Awareness of death is the secret to living more mindfully.


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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.

Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 62. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m sharing the audio of a discussion I had with Frank Ostaseski on the topic of death.

Death is perhaps our greatest [00:00:30] teacher. It’s awareness of death that can be said to be the secret to life, the secret to living life fully. Frank is an expert on the topic. He’s a Buddhist teacher, an international lecturer and a leading voice in end of life care. He co-founded the Zen Hospice project, which was the first Buddhist hospice in America. He created the Metta Institute to provide innovative educational [00:01:00] programs and professional trainings that foster compassionate mindfulness based care. He’s the author of a book called The Five Invitations, discovering what death can teach us about fully living.

I’ve been excited to interview him because the topic of death is perhaps, as I mentioned before, one of the most powerful topics that we can approach when it comes to trying to live more mindfully. [00:01:30] I don’t know of a single thing that can trigger a more profound shift of perspective than having a close encounter with death. Whether that be on a personal note a close encounter with death, or encountering a loved one, finding out a loved one has cancer, or finding out that a loved one just lost someone [00:02:00] that they care about. Any time we encounter death it seems to be the most impactful and profound change that we experience. It’s in those moments that we are keenly aware of just how fragile life is, that we become very mindful about what really matters.

Oftentimes we find in those moments that the things that we thought that really mattered don’t, and the things that we [00:02:30] kind of discard and don’t think they really matter, we find out those are the things that really matter. It has a tendency to flip things upside down almost. I’ve been wanting to have a discussion on this topic because I think it is a profound topic. Unfortunately death is something that we don’t think about or talk about very often in our society. I understand why, I think [00:03:00] it makes us sad. At the core of everything that Buddhism teaches is this premise that where there is discomfort we run from it. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want to think about it, because it’s not comfortable.

I love how the Buddhist approach is saying the opposite. It’s saying, “Wait a second, this is perhaps the only certain thing that we have in life. Why not look towards it? Why [00:03:30] not use death as an ongoing way of living fully, of living more mindfully?” Several years ago I tried this experiment myself, to think about death often. Not just my own death but the death of the people closest to me, the people that I love and care about. It is uncomfortable, but over time it’s settled into this sense of reality. I know that I’m going to lose [00:04:00] everyone that I care about. I know when I interact with people out on the street that they’re not going to live forever. I’m not going to live forever.

It has the ability to change the way that we interact with people. It has the ability to help us to not get so bent out of shape over things, because we start to see the impermanent nature of life and the impermanent nature [00:04:30] of every single moment. This moment passes away so that a new moment arises. It’s life changing to think this way. That’s why I wanted to share this topic. Frank is the best person to have this discussion with. In his book, The Five Invitations, he talks about five specific invitations that you can apply to your life [00:05:00] to start to see death differently. We discuss that a little bit in the interview, but I would invite you to pick up his book, The Five Invitations, and to read that, and then hopefully as strange as it sounds I would invite you to think about death often. Your death and the death of everyone that you know. Like I said, with time this can become a profound [00:05:30] way of living very mindfully.

The Buddha’s greatest teaching is the teaching of impermanence. Death is the ultimate expression of this teaching. Everything that is familiar to us ceases. I think that awareness of death is the secret to living mindfully. It’s when we’re reminded how fragile life is, that’s when we become aware of how precious every single moment is. Whether it be a pleasant moment or an unpleasant moment. [00:06:00] So with that as the background, I hope you enjoy this discussion that I had with Frank Ostaseski. Without further ado, I give you the audio recording of the interview I had with Frank. Thank you.

Okay, this interview is being streamed live now across the Secular Buddhism Facebook page, YouTube channel and probably a few other places. What I do at [00:06:30] the end of this interview, I failed to mention this to you a second ago, I’ll take the audio. The audio will be uploaded to the podcast, but the video, the raw video of the interview will reside on the Facebook page, where followers of the Facebook page or group can watch it later if they didn’t see it live.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Good, just send me a link to it. We’ll bring our people to [inaudible 00:06:52]

Noah Rasheta:                      Alright, well those of you who are watching or listening live, welcome. I am very excited to have [00:07:00] Frank Ostaseski with me, and to have a lively discussion on the topic of death today. It sounds a little humorous at times to speak lightly of death, and the same time I do want to emphasize the fact that from my perspective the teaching of impermanence in Buddhism is perhaps the most powerful transformative teaching.

The idea that at any [00:07:30] given moment, a moment passes away to give rise to a new moment. And then extending that thought all the way onto this experience of being alive and the ever present thought of this experience ending can be very profound. Frank is one of the experts on this topic. He’s a Buddhist teacher, an international lecturer and a leading voice in end of life care. In 1987, he co-founded the Zen Hospice project, [00:08:00] the first Buddhist hospice in America. In 2004, he created the Metta Institute to provide innovative and educational programs and professional trainings that foster compassion, mindfulness based care.

He’s the author of a book called, The Five Invitations, which I happened to read earlier this year, and then recently listened to him talking about the topic of death and his book on another podcast, [00:08:30] on Sam Harris’ podcast. I’m a big fan of Sam Harris’ podcast. I thought it would be really cool to invite me onto the Secular Buddhism podcast. He very graciously accepted the invitation and that’s why he’s here today. We’re going to talk about discovering what death can teach us about fully living. Thank you very much Frank for taking the time to join us today.

Frank Ostaseski:                   I’m really happy to be with you and happy to also be with [00:09:00] the viewers and listeners that will be taking advantage of this I hope. Yeah, I like that we’re going to emphasize the living part.

Noah Rasheta:                      Absolutely.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Yeah, what can death teach us about living a full life? Living a life characterized by love and meaning and purpose.

Noah Rasheta:                      Absolutely. It seems to me, and anyone listening would probably agree, if you’ve ever had a brush with death, a family member [00:09:30] or a loved one either passing away or almost passing away, it changes you. You start … Death seems to be the teacher that can at any given moment radically shift your priorities, radically shift your perspective. Everything changes in the face of death. It’s not necessarily that we have to wait for that final moment when we realize, “Uh oh, I am about to pass away.”

We get glimpses of this when we find out a good friend passed away, or a friend’s [00:10:00] cousin, or you know, any time we brush with death, it seems to trigger something in us, a more mindful way of living. And then it seems to wear off, and with time we kind of forget, and then we’re reminded again of our mortality and we’re right back at it, where suddenly priorities shift. With your work you seem to be, you’re immersed in this all the time, so let’s talk a little bit about how transformative that experience [00:10:30] is, being regularly reminded of death. How does that change the day to day living, the living part of this experience?

Frank Ostaseski:                   It’s a great question. The scenario that you paint is quite a common one. We have some encounter and then we kind of spring back into our old habits. We think death [inaudible 00:10:54] happen later, and later gives us that comfortable buffer between where we are in this moment [00:11:00] and when we think death will happen, at the end of some long road for example, or a long illness. But I talk about death as being the secret teach- [inaudible 00:11:07] … that is hiding in plain sight, showing us what matters most, helping us to really appreciate how to step into this life.

I don’t think we have to wait until even our to own dying, even to brush with death to understand something about that. It’s all the time here. It’s not just when we step [00:11:30] off a curb and a car narrowly misses us, it’s reading the newspaper or watching the evening news or, as you say, friends of friends having an encounter with loss. It’s not just that death comes and then it reminds us of life. It’s more that we start stepping into the every day, every moment coming and going of life. When we do that, when we recognize it’s [00:12:00] totally precarious, I mean it’s all precarious, then I think it also helps us to appreciate how precious it is, and then we don’t want to waste a moment. That’s what I find to be really useful about this experience. That it shows us we’re all in the boat together. I think this engenders us being kinder to one another.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, absolutely. Isn’t that fascinating, that death is perhaps the most certain thing we have? [00:12:30] We’re so uncomfortable with uncertainty in life, we chase after things to try to have a sense of control, a sense of certainty, and yet here it is glaring almost in front of us, this, the certainty of our death and the death of everything we hold dear, everyone that we know, and yet we seem to never want to think about it. Why do you think that is? At least in our society, why is it so taboo to think about the death of a loved one? Why?

Frank Ostaseski:                   [00:13:00] I think this has been our training since we were very young, to see death as the enemy, as a final curtain call, all that stuff. Instead really, what would happen if we began to speak with our youngsters, our children, more about death [inaudible 00:13:20] I think actually, in my experience, kids are really fascinated by this. They really want to know about it. They’re not scared of it at all. It’s just that we’ve told ourselves really scary [00:13:30] stories about death, so that’s happening, but it’s also changing.

I think that we’ve removed death from everyday life oftentimes in our experience, and that’s part of what makes it foreign. We made it technological and we’ve mystified it and we’ve turned it over to doctors and priests and undertakers. I think when we do that we rob us, ourselves really, of connection with the holy significance of death. I [00:14:00] think it’s shifting. I think people are wanting to have this conversation more and more. They just don’t know how to have it. They want to have it with people who aren’t so afraid to talk about it. I think that’s what we’re doing today. We’re just having an honest conversation about it. I think there’s been, traditionally, all of this avoidance and taboos, et cetera, but that’s a relatively new phenomenon. We have to really think, and we think in terms of the history of the human kind, [00:14:30] this is something that’s decades old.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. You know, something I’ve really appreciated from the Buddhist perspective, rather than seeing life as this force opposed as death as its opposite, the Buddhist approach really meshes the two. It helps you to get out of that dualistic way of thinking of life and death, and then you see it as life, death, it’s like the same. You can’t have one without the other.

[00:15:00] That mental approach for me was a pretty radical shift. To realize that you should, if you love life why should you hate death? Because you can’t have one without the other. I was having a conversation with my son, who’s eight years old, we were driving. He was asking me, I don’t remember exactly how the topic came up, but we were talking about death and I said, “What if instead of talking about it like death, like [00:15:30] the end, we just realize it’s a continuation?”

I started to give him examples. I said, “The death of winter is the birth of what?” Right away he’s like, “Spring.” “Yeah, and the death of spring is the birth of what?” We started going through this process. We talked about caterpillars, “What is the death of a caterpillar? It’s the birth of a butterfly.” Virtual in the context of the end of something is the start of something less. I think that was very [00:16:00] profound for him. Then he came up with scenarios and some were comical. That is, the death of a cow is the birth of a hamburger, or things like that.

I was saying, this is what I wanted him to grasp, this continuation. It doesn’t spell the end in the sense of non-existence. It’s transformation. I thought that was really neat and it was fun to have that conversation with him.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Yeah, it’s a beautiful way to have a conversation with a child, and to [00:16:30] really listen also to what they think about it, as opposed to us telling them all the time what it should be. I used to run a preschool years ago when my son was quite young. He’s a grown adult with his own children now. But we used to have these days in the preschool where we’d go out into the woods, nearby woods, and find dead stuff. The kids loved it.

They’d go out and they’d find a rusty old car part or a twig or a leaf or bones of a bird. We’d bring them all [00:17:00] back and spread them out on a blue tarp. Then we’d have a kind of show and tell. The kids would talk about what they’d seen. They were incredibly imaginative. They would talk about this piece of bark had been a bed for a mouse and the mouse didn’t need it anymore. This rusty old car part was a part of a spaceship that had fallen as it passed over the earth. Then this one little girl said something beautiful. She said, “I think the leaves on the trees are very, very generous. That they fall to make [00:17:30] room for new leaves.”

I thought that was a beautiful understanding from this four year old really. I think if we can have conversations like the one you were having with your son, or the one I’m describing with children, early on instead of frightening them, I think it really makes a huge difference in how we grow up in keeping death as our companion in a way. We learn then to harness an awareness of death to appreciate the fact that we’re really alive, to encourage self-exploration, to clarify our values, [00:18:00] to find meaning, to generate positive action in our life. I think it’s impermanence that gives us perspective. It helps us to appreciate the beauty of life.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, [inaudible 00:18:11] Your first invitation in the book is to not wait. We don’t need to wait to have these conversations. One of the things that stood out to me when I first about not waiting was also not waiting to think about all the scenarios that [00:18:30] could happen. I first came across this concept years ago, reading another book, but I remember having the thought, “What would it be like when I lose my parents?” It’s a thought that I had avoided.

I’m a twin brother and we’re very close, and that was another thought, “What would it be like to not have my twin brother?” It hit on emotions that I didn’t want to explore yet, and that sense of not waiting for me was realizing, “Well, why not explore that now? [00:19:00] What would it feel like to not have him in my life?” It made every moment more precious since that thought experiment, because it’s like, “I still have him and I still have my mom and I still have my dad.” So the idea of not waiting I think can be beneficial also in terms of not waiting to think of what it will be like when we don’t have the people that we currently have. Do you find that that, as a thought experiment is that … It can be difference, [00:19:30] no one likes to think of the loss of their loved ones, but once you get … Do you get used to it the more you practice it? What do you find with this thought?

Frank Ostaseski:                   I think that it’s an interesting exercise to do, as you’re suggesting. It can be kept as a kind of thought experiment and that keeps us in safe territory so to speak. I think it’s really important that we let that drop into our heart and into our bones and really know it to be true. It is true. It’s a [00:20:00] fact of life that all those who are dear to us we will be separated from. It’s inevitable.

So at first this is a scary thought and it brings up this kind of urgency. But that urgency isn’t all bad, it also is a reminder to really step in with both feet into our life, to tell the people we love that we love them now, not to wait for some opportunity for that. Again, I think it’s the precariousness [00:20:30] of this life that helps us to appreciate its beauty. Every year cherry blossoms explode on the hillsides of Japan. There’s a beautiful place where I teach in the northwest where there are these little blue flax flowers that last for a single day. Now, how come those flowers are so much more beautiful than plastic flowers? Isn’t it part of the fact that they have a brief life? The brevity of their lives help us to appreciate their beauty.

It’s not that [00:21:00] it’s all sad. It’s that it is really about stepping, really fully stepping into our life. I think that, don’t wait is a reminder that waiting for the next moment to arrive we miss this one. I’ve been with hundreds and hundreds of families who have said to me in one way or another, “When is mom going to die?” Waiting for the moment of death we miss all the moments in between.

[00:21:30] I think it’s more, it’s not that it should create a panic in us, but it’s like, don’t fool around, don’t fool yourself into believing you have endless time. That’s a ridiculous … I say, to imagine at the time of your death you have the clarity of mind, the emotional stability, the physical strength to do the work of a lifetime is a ridiculous gamble. Let’s not wait for that. Why? Let’s do it now. Let’s really step into our life, both feet.

Noah Rasheta:                      [00:22:00] You know, I found what you just mentioned, the passing of a moment, this thought experiment for me that started with people, with loved ones, transitioned into an almost constant thought of the passing of a moment. I catch myself in moments or in phases or in stages of life, anticipating what is the next one. One moment that I had that I still consider to be one of the more special or previous moments [00:22:30] I had with my youngest, who’s two right now, was the process of changing a stinky diaper with her, and the thought occurring to me that it will be so nice when she’s out of diapers.

It seemed to have … the process happened so quickly that when I realized the stage will come when diapers will no longer be a part of my life and I’ll look back, not that I would long for that, but [00:23:00] I’ll look back with fond memories of the stage of a toddler running around in diapers. I thought, “Why am I in such a rush to move passed this phase? Whatever the next one is, I’m going to be rushed to get passed that one and before you know it, all those stages are gone and they’re not even at home anymore.” Like I said, all that happened pretty quickly, while I was still changing the diaper, but it changed the experience of changing the diaper. It became a precious moment that I thought, “You know what, this is what I get to do right now.” [00:23:30] That was one way that it manifested for me, this idea.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Yeah. I think it’s the great value of having elders in our culture. We’ve lost a little bit of the wisdom of elders I think [inaudible 00:23:46] oriented, so living in sort of ghettos, these ghettos so to speak. I think that there’s something, there’s a wisdom that grows with age, not all old people are wise, I don’t mean to suggest [00:24:00] that. But there is something about slowing down, and it’s not just because the body gets old and crotchety. It’s that you start to see it goes by really fast.

It’s just, what I want to encourage is stepping into it, really enjoying it, fully [inaudible 00:24:17], not tasting it all. For me that’s really the most life affirming thing that I know, is being with people who are dying. Looking into their eyes, they’re clear mirrors. They [00:24:30] really show me where I’m holding to my fear and to my opinions and views.

They also show me something else. They show me what I sometimes call an undying love, a love that isn’t particular just to a single human being and doesn’t come and go with every moment, something that’s steady. [inaudible 00:24:54] is always coming together and falling apart, everything. This morning breakfast, where did it go? [00:25:00] Last night’s love making, where is it? My blonde hair, it’s gone, it used to be there, it’s not there anymore.

I could grieve all of that experience, and sometimes it’s necessary to do that, or I could recognize this is the way of things. I could appreciate that coming and going is happening, we could say against the background of perfect harmony. When we don’t see the background, we only see the coming and going, I think what happens is all we see is suffering. So it’s [00:25:30] really important to see all this is happening against a background of perfect harmony. We miss that oftentimes.

We’re so busy, we spend so much of our day planning for the next moment, or trying to distract ourself from the current moment in some fashion or another. But I think embracing the truth, that things will inevitably change, encourages us not to wait in order to start living our life in a matter that’s really deeply [00:26:00] engaging. We stop wasting our time on meaningless activities. We don’t hold our opinions or our desires or even our identity so tightly, instead of pinning our hopes on a better future we focus on the present and we’re grateful for what’s in front of us. As I said earlier, we say I love you more often because we realize the importance of human connection. I think we become kinder and more compassionate, more forgiving of ourselves and each other. [00:26:30] I think don’t wait is a pathway to fulfillment, an antidote to regret actually.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I like that. You were talking about grieving, and I think this is an important point to bring up with the second invitation, that we welcome everything, push away nothing. I think there’s a tendency to think, “Well, I don’t want to approach this stuff until I’m at a place in my life where I can approach it in a way that’s going to not be too painful,” [00:27:00] or something along those lines. But this invitation of welcoming everything includes welcoming the difficulty of encountering and dealing with death.

I had an experience with one of my college buddies who ended up being a business partner with me in a business venture about four or five years ago. Out of the blue he was diagnosed with stage four melanoma. [00:27:30] He was told he had months to live. It ended being about a year before he passed, but in that time what used to be our Tuesday lunch meetings to talk about business, turned into our Tuesday meetings to talk about life. It was a fascinating experience, to be able to talk to him about this process of what it feels like to be dying. [00:28:00] This thought of welcoming everything, pushing nothing away.

There were moments where I noticed a resistance, especially towards the end, of, “I don’t know if I want to go see him, because what do you say to someone who’s dying?” [inaudible 00:28:16] things like that, but then thinking, “Well, it’s okay to just feel whatever I’m feeling with him, and to have those open conversations.” It turned into this beautiful experience, where I have a good friend that, the last time we met for lunch [00:28:30] I was able to give him a hug and thank him for our friendship and thank him for the fun memories in college. How often do we really get to do that? But that’s what I thought of with this welcoming everything, welcoming the difficulty of it too.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Yeah, I mean just to back up, just so that people understand the context here. The book is called Five Invitations. An invitation is, if I invite you to my house for dinner or to my wedding, [00:29:00] it’s an invitation to show up actually. It’s a request for you to be present really. The five invitations are just that. They are requests for you to be present. What we’re asking you to be present for is your life.

Each of these five invitations, you’ve named the first two, really were given to me or taught to me by people who were dying, in one way or another even if they didn’t use that exact language. They helped to really see that, “Oh, this is [00:29:30] not only a way to help take care of people at the end of life, or as they’re in the dying process, but these really have a relevance for all of us in living a more peaceful, meaningful, productive life.”

The first one, as you said, was don’t wait. The second one is welcome everything, push away nothing. That sounds really good, this would make a great bumper sticker, but how do we do that? Welcome everything? As you were suggesting, we like certainty. We like to have our purposes met. In fact most of us have been [00:30:00] taught that getting what we want and avoiding what we don’t want is the key to happiness. But inevitably in our lives there are unexpected experiences, there are unanticipated moves or we lose our job or there’s a family member who gets an illness or there’s a death of a beloved pet. We want to push these things away with all our might. When we’re faced with uncertainty, the first response is usually fear and resistance.

[00:30:30] But I think an attempt to evict these difficult aspects of life from our everyday experience is a kind of cause of cause of suffering actually for us. I think to instead, when we cultivate a kind of receptivity to whatever is present, they don’t have such a stranglehold on us. I think when we’re open and receptive we have more options. [00:31:00] We’re free to discover, to investigate, to learn how to respond to these things in skillful ways.

If our life was just about being comfortable, we would just give people morphine and put them on a couch. They’d be really comfortable but they wouldn’t be very alive. They wouldn’t be very engaged with their lives. So with welcoming everything comes the ability to meet and work with both pleasant and unpleasant circumstances. I think [00:31:30] gradually with practice we discover that our wellbeing is not dependent on just having a happy external reality. Our true happiness, our true contentment actually arises from within. Think about yourself, the changes in your life, the real growth that you have made in your life, it probably didn’t happen in your comfort zones, right?

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, in fact I was just thinking as you were saying that, that I think some of the moments where I felt most alive where moments where I was experiencing [00:32:00] perhaps the most pain I’ve ever felt, or the most hurt. Those were moments that I felt, especially after the fact, looking back and thinking, “Those are the moments that really helped me to … ” Those were pivotal moments in my life, the difficult moments.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Sure. It’s not like we have to go hunting for them, they’re there. They’re part of what life delivers to us in a way, as it does also deliver, could be beautiful moments. But I think [00:32:30] to welcome everything and push away nothing, it’s a deep invitation, to cultivate a certain kind of fearless receptivity. Now that doesn’t mean that you don’t have any fear. People misunderstand fearlessness. Fearlessness means that fear isn’t the only thing in the room. When you’re afraid Noah, for example, let me ask you, when you’re afraid do you know that you’re afraid?

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, absolutely.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Right, how do you know? How do you know you’re afraid?

Noah Rasheta:                      I think you feel it, there are physiological [00:33:00] symptoms. There’s a strong aversion to whatever it is.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Often. Fear itself is an aversion. So there might be physical sensations, there’s emotional associations that occur, the mind starts planning about the future, how to get out of this scary situation. All that’s going on, right? But here’s the thing I want to point you to, which is that when you know you’re afraid, that means that some part of you is not afraid, the part that knows you’re afraid, [00:33:30] that’s aware of your fear? It’s not afraid. We can orient to just the fear, or we can orient to this awareness, to this knowing we could say.

It doesn’t mean the fear goes away. It doesn’t mean … we don’t have to get it to go away. What we have to do is learn how to deal with it skillfully so we’re not running away from it and it whacks us in the back of the head. [crosstalk 00:33:49]

Noah Rasheta:                      I think sometimes a considerable part of the suffering we experience is the wanting to get rid of it.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Absolutely. Absolutely. [00:34:00] Most of what we call pain, even physical pain, is our resistance to it, the not wanting it to be there. That’s the real cause of suffering, pain plus resistance equals suffering. That’s the formula we can understand.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. You know, I had an experience last summer talking about fear. I have what I consider an irrational fear of snakes. I understand that it’s irrational and I’ve tried to overcome it. It’s really difficult for me. But there was a snake in the [00:34:30] yard, and I made the conscious decision to … it was a little garden snake. All the little kids were playing with it, all my nephews. I said, “I’m going to go hold it. I’m going to touch the snake and hold it and realize this is okay.” The fear never went away in that process.

The fear was there, but it’s the observer that you’re talking about, there was part of me that could observe, “I’m experiencing fear. It’s okay. I understand that it’s not necessarily rational and I’m going [00:35:00] to still proceed to do what I’m going to do,” which is hold this snake. I was proud of myself after the fact for doing it. People who know me well who were there were like, “I can’t believe you touched a snake. That was brave.” I was thinking, “Well, if brave means I was very scared and still did it, then yes. But if brave means I finally lost my fear, no that’s not accurate.”

Frank Ostaseski:                   Yeah, very good. That’s a really good distinction. I think people imagine … we’re always talking about overcoming our fear, just as we talk about [00:35:30] overcoming our grief. It’s curious to me that we never speak about overcoming our joy. We don’t say, “How do we manage our joy a little bit better?”

I think that these experiences, fear, grief, these very strong mental emotional states, are something we live into and that we learn something about. Openness doesn’t reject or get attached to any particular experience or view. It’s spacious, our awareness can have about it a certain spaciousness, indefinite quality, [00:36:00] non biased allowing we could say. Openness is the nature of awareness itself, it’s the nature of our nature actually.

I think this is one of the things that people often discover in and around the time of dying. This thing that they always imagined would be only terrifying or unbearable or unimaginably difficult, they find within themselves frequently the resources to meet what they [00:36:30] thought was unbearable in remarkable ways. It isn’t because all their fear went away. It’s because they discovered they are not just their fear. They’re not just their illness. They’re not just their dying process. There’s more to them than that.

It’s not about a spiritual bypass. It’s not about spiritualizing the expectation. It’s recognizing more of what we are. What’s amazing to me Noah is not that we can expand. All of us can, through meditation practice and other [00:37:00] ways, experience expansive states of mind and heart and body. What’s amazing to me is that we take this expansiveness of who we are and shrink it down into such a small story about who we are. That’s what’s amazing to me. That’s what gets blown out of the water in and around the time of dying frequently for people.

The habits of our life have a very strong momentum and they carry through into the time of our dying. Sometimes those habits can be really constricting. [00:37:30] So we need to ask ourself now, what habits do we want to create, we’re willing to cultivate in this life? What do you want to teach your children? So going toward what frightens us or going toward the suffering is oftentimes where the healing is often found, like going and touching the snake.

Noah Rasheta:                      I think that’s very relevant with the grieving process as well, after the fact. Losing a loved one and [00:38:00] then dealing with that grief for, it could be the rest of your life, or I think perhaps it is the rest of your life. The misconception is that one day you’ll be done, you get over it. I see a lot of suffering arise out of that thought, that this is a feeling that I’m supposed to overcome, like we were talking with fear. It’s not that you overcome it, it’s that you harmonize with it. You make it a part of the everyday.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Yeah. It’s easy to throw … [00:38:30] when someone’s in the middle of deep grief, they don’t want to hear this. It’s easy to throw conceptual theoretical ideas at these experiences which are gut wrenching. I think what’s true, is our-

Noah Rasheta:                      Excuse me.

Frank Ostaseski:                   … our relationship to grief, for example, shifts over time. But time alone doesn’t heal grief, time and attention heals grief. So in the beginning we might feel like we don’t know whether we should turn left or right at the end of our [00:39:00] driveway. We can’t make a meal. We’re absolutely lost in the experience of grief. It’s emotionally overwhelming. It can feel like sadness, of course, but it can also feel like anger, and it can feel like fear and numbness, and even relief. Those are all faces of grief.

But it doesn’t stay, it doesn’t remain in that intensity forever. It starts to shift [00:39:30] over time and with attention. After some weeks, some months, and there’s not a timetable for grief, but often with attention and time it starts to relax a little bit. Our identity isn’t completely consumed by the grief and so we start to have a different relationship to it.

The experience, what you’re saying I think which is true, is that grief is part of the human condition. It’s there for all of us. It surfaces sometimes, it’s [00:40:00] like an underground river that surfaces sometimes, like for example around the loss of someone we love. But it’s always been there, in fact I think it’s our common ground with one another, one of our common grounds.

The first experience of grief, which feels like fragmentation and isolation, with time and attention and healing, can become a path to wholeness. But you can’t somebody that at the beginning of their grieving process. All you can do is hang out with them and make a meal for them and help them do the insurance forms [00:40:30] and have them tell the story of their loss 10,000 times, until it feels real for them.

I think that … When I was running Zen Hospice, I’m not anymore but when I was the director there, I sometimes lost 20 or 30 people in a week. I had to learn how to deal with that grief. One of the things I did was I went to my meditation cushion, and that was a way to cultivate stability and assimilate, metabolize [00:41:00] if you will, the experience of loss. But that wasn’t enough, grief is a physical experience also. So I would go to my body worker. I’d go to his office and he’s say, “Where should we touch today Frank?” Instead of him doing some kind of manipulation on me I’d say, “Just my shoulder.” He’d put his hand on my shoulder and I would just cry for about an hour.

There was something about the touch and also the relationship with somebody else that allowed this grief [00:41:30] to really come forward and to be expressed, and as a way of metabolizing it, including it. Then I did something else, I would go to the hospital nearby, where my friends worked in the maternity ward, the nurses on the maternity ward. On that particular maternity ward there were babies who were born to addicted mothers. Before I would go home to my own children I would go there to this maternity ward and I would sit in a rocking chair and rock these little infants.

There was something about being able to soothe their distress, and [00:42:00] have them relax in my arms, that was very important and very helpful to me. Because there were other times when I was people who were dying whose, frankly, suffering I couldn’t soothe. I couldn’t. They died in difficult conditions. So I had to find ways to work with that grief that really worked for me. Each person’s grief is entirely different. I’m a little suspicious of models of grief, that we have us managing people’s [00:42:30] experience. I think there’s wonderful great value to things like bereavement groups et cetera, but sometimes they don’t allow for the wildness of grief, and grief can be completely wild, feel uncontrollable. It can have a huge effect on the way in which we function in the world.

In the old days it used to be that there was … You wore a special kind of clothing or a black arm band or something, to let people know that you’re in an altered state and that they should treat you different. They shouldn’t expect you to behave normally. [00:43:00] Now, your mother dies and you go to a party and nobody mentions it, because we’re afraid to upset you. So we leave you isolated and alone in your grief. I think that, again, the book but also my work, and I think it sounds like your way also, is to help people turn toward their experience. Even if the experience first feels unnerving in some way. Stay with it. Stay in the room when the going gets rough.

Noah Rasheta:                      [00:43:30] Yeah, I like that. I have a question that somebody posted. This is Johnny and he’s asking, “Is it fair to say that when we experience fear we might want to take a step back and try to find if there’s an opportunity hiding behind it?”

Frank Ostaseski:                   Well, I think that’s true. I think it’s a wise comment. The only thing that I would want to encourage us to do is to [00:44:00] not do a bypass around the fear, to be willing to feel it, to see, as you did earlier, sense it in the body, feel the effect in the heart, mood, et cetera, and to sere what the activity is in the mind that’s occurring, so that we get really familiar with the fear. I think also when we get very familiar with it in that way, we can see it in its arising, before it’s in its full explosion, before it’s in its full bloom so to speak.

But I think, yes, what Johnny’s suggesting, to take a backward step, [00:44:30] to step back then from all that activity of mind, heart and body, and say, “What else is here?” That’s my favorite question, what else is here? So in addition to the fear and my reaction to it, what else is here? There’s some spaciousness here. There’s some understanding that’s growing here. There’s some empathy that’s emerging here. So to ask that simple question, what else is here, I think is a wise way to interact with almost any [00:45:00] difficult emotional or mind state.

Noah Rasheta:                      Thank you. One other question that somebody commented, and this is kind of a different topic but I think this might be a fun little tangent or segue to explore here. This is Derek who’s asking, “Some speculate that we will at some point reach a time when science will be able to extend our lives indefinitely, so that we could effectively live forever. How [00:45:30] does Frank think this removal of death would affect us?”

Frank Ostaseski:                   That’s becoming an increasingly popular question. I was with a group of Silicon Valley folks not long ago and I said something like, “Death is inevitable.” A guy raised his hand and he said, “I’m not so sure about that. We’re trying to hack that.[inaudible 00:45:49] you know.” I said, “Okay, great.” I said, “You know, so we’ll live for 250 years or we’ll live for 500 years.” I said, “Let’s take the word death out of the equation for a moment. Let’s just take it out of the conversation. [00:46:00] Let’s just deal with how we think about endings. How do we meet endings in our life right now?”

Like the end of a sentence, or the end of a meal, or when you leave a party, how do you leave the party? Do you just ghost out, or do you say goodbye to people? How do you meet endings?” I think the way in which we meet endings can in fact have a big influence on how the next moment arises. The way we end one things tends to shape the next thing emerges. So I think that if we [00:46:30] could think, just for a moment let go of the notion of death as [inaudible 00:46:35] some final event, and just think about endings. That’s a really good place to explore, because even if we live forever there will be endings. There will be endings continuously through that experience. So even if we live forever there will be endings.

Noah Rasheta:                      You I was thinking as you were saying that-

Frank Ostaseski:                   My teacher used to- I’m sorry, I just wanted to add one more [00:47:00] thing, which was that my teacher used to say, “Suppose you could live forever, no matter what.” When we talk about living forever we assume we’re going to be in great health for the entire time. Maybe that’s not so. We were talking earlier about impermanence, I think we rely on impermanence. I think it’s not only what shows us beauty, it’s also something that gives us relief. You know, that really boring dinner party that you’re going to go to on Saturday, it’s going to end. [00:47:30] Or this cold that you have, it’s going to end. Or evil dictatorships will fall and hopefully be replaced by thriving democracies. We rely on things coming to and end.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I agree. I was going to say, the stages, like we had talked about before, those are stages that end. Presuming I could plan on living forever, there would be stages of life that have ended. [00:48:00] Memories I think fit into that, because even now I don’t remember the five year old me. What did I feel? What did I think? I don’t even remember the specific experiences that I was having. So in a way, that part of me is dead and gone.

If we reach this point where we can live forever, 2000 years from now, is that me going to be significantly different than the me that was talking to you here today? [00:48:30] Would I grieve that old me? I don’t know, but I think you’re right there will always be the opportunity to still live fully by keeping in mind the endings that life will always be having, the phases and the stages and the friendships and relationships, so many other endings.

Frank Ostaseski:                   I think the question is an interesting one philosophically. What does that do to the structure of the society, et cetera, if people live forever? I don’t know. I can’t imagine knowing [00:49:00] that. The thing that I would want to be careful of is that we won’t use a question like that to bypass our direct experience that we’re having now. The truth, the fact of the matter is now we don’t live for 2000 years. We live for a limited lifespan. So I want to know, how do I do that really well? How do I do that with as much integrity and as much passion and as much joy and fullness as I can muster? How do I love as hard as I possibly can this [00:49:30] life that is fragile and vulnerable?

Noah Rasheta:                      One of the things that I just thought of, there are ideologies and religious views that are built around the idea of this being a perpetual experience. Sure life ends, but then you continue to exist in an eternal state somewhere else, let’s say heaven or something like that. What I found for me, looking back to when I viewed it that way, was it can be easy [00:50:00] to bypass the present experience in anticipation of that future experience. Then things will be better but right now won’t do what I need to do to change my life now because I am projecting it the future. I think this thought of extending our ability to live forever can do the same thing. It can remove us from the full experience of being mindful in this moment, the only true moment that we have, the present.

Frank Ostaseski:                   [00:50:30] Yes. Look, there’s a thousand ways to distract ourselves and that’s just one of them. But also it’s kind of fun and playful to play with, “What if … ” Those are fun things to play with. I like my mind’s ability to imagine. I don’t know what happens after we die. I just don’t. Maybe all the things that religions have been telling for millenniums will in fact be so. [00:51:00] I think what tends to happen is, we tend to take our sense of self, which for the most part we construct as something separate and apart from everything else, and we imagine that continuing forever. That I don’t imagine happens. This personality isn’t, thank goodness, is not going to go on forever.

I think when we live in that way, it’s both a little absurd to me and also a little arrogant. I mean, here’s [00:51:30] what we usually do, which is everything is changing, like your eight year old son told you, right? “Caterpillars turn into butterflies dad, and seasons come and go.” Everything is constantly changing, except me. I’m the one thing in all of reality that doesn’t change. We have that idea about ourselves oftentimes, and it’s absurd. For me it’s also, when I see someone I haven’t seen in many years and they say, “Frank, it’s great to see you. You haven’t changed a bit.” I’m a little insulted [00:52:00] actually, because I think there’s been a lot of change in my life, over these 66 years. The fact is, death is not this thing that only happens at the end of a long road, it’s happening right now. This podcast will come to and end. My sentence will come to an end.

Noah Rasheta:                      With that I want to touch on the topic of uncertainty. [00:52:30] I think a lot of our discomfort arises out of what you mentioned before, I don’t know what happens when I die. What if we were okay with saying, “That’s a perfectly acceptable answer. We don’t know.” It seems like we’re so uncomfortable with uncertainty that we feel the need to construct a certain narrative, even if it’s just a narrative or it’s fictional, but at least it’s certain.

We do this with not just thinking about death, but [00:53:00] an example I use often, we do this when we’re driving and someone cuts us off. It’s not okay for me to not know why that happened. I feel much more certain when I say, “That person’s a jerk, that’s why they did that.” I may be completely wrong but at least I’ve got an answer now. I wonder if our ability to increase our comfort around the discomfort of not knowing, what effect that would have on bigger topics, like the topic of death.

Frank Ostaseski:                   [00:53:30] Well, or climate or any number of other social issues that we have. I think the problem lies not in uncertainty but the fact that we feel not knowing with scary ideas, scary thoughts. The opposite of faith, we often say, is not doubt, it’s certainty. There’s a beautiful Buddhist teacher, Carol Hyman, and she wrote very beautifully. She said, ” [00:54:00] If we learn to let go into uncertainty and to trust that our basic nature and that of the world are not different, then the fact that things are not solid and fixed, this becomes a liberating opportunity rather than a threat.”

Noah Rasheta:                      I like that.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Everything will come apart Noah. This is true of our bodies, of our relationships, of our life. It’s happening all the time anyway, it’s not just at the end when the curtain falls. Coming [00:54:30] together inevitably means parting. Don’t be troubled by this, this is the nature of life. Our lives are not solid and fixed, no matter how much we try to protect ourselves and make white picket fences around our houses. I think knowing this intimately is how we prepare for death, also for any loss of any kind. It’s also how we really come to love and fully embrace constant change. We’re not just our past, we’re becoming. We’re not stuck. [00:55:00] We don’t have to be stuck in old grudges, we can forgive. We can free ourself from resentment and regret now, before we die.

Noah Rasheta:                      One of the, a common question I get when I’m exploring this topic in a workshop or somewhere is, if you have this mindset of just being anchored in the present moment, do you run the risk of becoming [00:55:30] indifferent to things in the future? Like, “I guess I’m not going to pursue this career path, because who knows where things will go now.” Is that a risk that we run? I have the answer I typically give for that, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on this idea.

Frank Ostaseski:                   I think initially it certainly is a risk. I know for myself when I first got introduced to notions of impermanence, I used it kind of as a club. It was a way to not invest in anything, in my relationships, in my early relationships [00:56:00] I thought, “Well it’s all impermanent, why invest here, why commit to anything?” But of course it’s just the opposite. It’s because things are impermanent, because they are so precarious, that they’re so precious. That’s why we love them so much. That’s we really we invest completely, not in some clinging craving way, but in a way that really honors and respects the fact that all relationships are characterized by constant change.

I think that that’s the first thing, [00:56:30] we can use it as a kind of defense against commitment and engagement. But the other is that it’s kind of freeing. It means that we’re not wedded to our past trauma. We’re not wedded to our future scary stories. The other thing I want to add here Noah, which I think is vastly misunderstood, is we often, and Buddhist practice is subject to this problem. [00:57:00] Which is that we talk about the present moment as if it were some nanosecond in time. Is that it? Did we just miss it? I think the present moment has to be understood to include past and future.

Eternity is not a long, long time. Saint Augustine wrote about this, he said, “The now is neither in time nor out of time.” So when we speak about the present moment, we’re talking about a moment that includes past and [00:57:30] future, not that avoids it. When I’m remembering my third grade teacher but I’m remembering her now, that’s a present moment activity. When I’m thinking about how I’ll be when I’m really old, that’s a present moment activity. It’s not like past and future are an illusion. I think that’s a misunderstanding. I think all of it exists here and now. That means that we have access to an awful lot here and now.

Noah Rasheta:                      [00:58:00] Yeah, I like that.

Frank Ostaseski:                   It means that we can fully invest without fear.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. You know, taking this concept and applying it in the present moment, I want to ask you about people who are currently going through a difficult stage, for example dealing with let’s say a child with mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, or the difficulties [00:58:30] of dealing with the possibility of death and feeling helpless. I think in scenarios like that part of the difficulty is recognizing the pain and suffering that a loved one is experiencing, and wanting to remove that from them. Talk to me a little bit about that, what tips or advice would you give to someone who’s going through a situation like that.

Frank Ostaseski:                   I’m careful about advice [00:59:00] you know because it’s cheap. It’s hard to give generalized advice without knowing the specifics of a situation. But I would say that one of the things that is helpful for me to keep in the back of my mind in part as I’m with someone in such a situation, is that to build an empathetic bridge to them I have to be willing to look at my own relationship to these issues. So I have to look at my own helplessness. I have to look at my own fear. I have to look at my own grief. [00:59:30] Otherwise, when I’m with them and I say I understand, they will know I’m just guessing. They’ll sniff out my sentimentality and my insincerity.

In order to really be of service to others I have to work of myself. That’s what enables me to be of service to others. Of course serving others I learn about myself, I grow and develop for myself, so there’s that mutuality of exchange that happens. But the other thing that I think is a misunderstanding, is that we often … Well, there’s a [01:00:00] lot of language out there around the confusion between empathy and compassion these days. [inaudible 01:00:04] that I feel with. Compassion is the action to do something to remove or alleviate the suffering.

We can get empathetically overloaded with people, even our own children. We need to feel with them, but we also … If I’m with granddaughter and she’s having a tantrum, I need to know that I can stay in my own seat and I [01:00:30] can use my wisdom and I can use my maturity and I can use my kind heart to comfort her. If I get over there and get lost in the tantrum with her, I can’t be of very much use, or I’m [inaudible 01:00:40] the action to her tension, I can’t be of very much use. So I have to really keep my own seat, that’s what I have to do.

Now compassion often is spoken about as taking away suffering or removing suffering. That’s good if you can do it, but you can’t always do it. I work with dying and I can’t take away [01:01:00] their dying. But what I find is that when I’m really abiding in a compassionate heart, that means that I’ve really done my homework, then they sense that and they’re willing to go to really dangerous places. Not because it’s going to be safe eventually, it’s because they’re companioned, they’re compassionately companioned. I think we underestimate sometimes the value of [01:01:30] simple human presence, particularly compassionate human presence, radical compassion that doesn’t always know what to do but it’s willing to be with the suffering, willing to stay in the room when the going gets rough. I think what happens is when compassion’s there, just one more thing on this.

When compassion is present, our defenses against what’s difficult fall down, and then we can see the deeper causes [01:02:00] of the suffering, and then we can actually intervene ourselves or help another to intervene in their experience in a skillful way. So compassion does more than just take away things, it allows us to stay with something until a deeper truth can show itself. Real actual truth of the real suffering can show itself, and then we can do something about it.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I like that. Thank you for sharing that. I think that touches on the second invitation [01:02:30] of welcoming everything and pushing away nothing. Recognizing that situations like that, there may not be answers. So you’re with that person and knowing that, “Hey, this is going to be a rough ride. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. But I’m here with you.” I think we can add … It’s already a moment of difficulty but we can add to it by adding that second [01:03:00] arrow, where now we’re there thinking, “This isn’t how this should feel. There should be an answer. There should be something that solves this whole problem,” and sometimes there’s not.

Frank Ostaseski:                   No, and you know the answer isn’t always to solve the problem. Sometimes the answer is in simply keeping company with people. I’ve been with some people in really horrible conditions and I couldn’t do much to make those conditions go away, but in fact I could keep company with them. [01:03:30] I think it also is useful not to just imagine … to use our skillful action, to use our wise hearts in action. I remember coming into a situation where there was a patient who was very sick, coming close to the end of life.

The volunteer was there and I said, “How is it going?” She said, “Well, she’s having a really hard time but we’re just being with it.” She was in this kind of mediative pose. I look at [inaudible 01:03:53] sweating up a storm. I said, “Well, it’s good that you’re being with her, but let’s get a cool rag, let’s cool down her forehead and [01:04:00] going to her some ibuprofen because that will help with the fever.” We want to make skillful interventions as well when they seem appropriate. We want to use our intelligence and our good kind hearts. Together they make for a very reliable guide.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I like that. Do you have any specific mediation techniques? Or are there mediations that facilitate [01:04:30] with this idea of becoming more mindful of death? It looks like I may have lost the signal there from Frank. I’ll give it a moment, see if he-

Frank Ostaseski:                   Are we still [crosstalk 01:04:49]

Noah Rasheta:                      There you are.

Frank Ostaseski:                   I almost lost you there. Sorry, you started to say something and then I lost your audio.

Noah Rasheta:                      Okay. Yeah, so my question was, do you know of any … [01:05:00] are there any meditative techniques or guided meditations that help us to be more mindful of death? I’m thinking something like meta-mediation for kindness and compassion. Is there something that’s the equivalent that deals with thinking about death?

Frank Ostaseski:                   Sure, there’s lots of them. There are various visualization practices, visualizing one’s own dying. There are these kinds of practices that we can do, [01:05:30] but I think it’s best to keep it simple and really look and see, what happens at the end of an exhale. What happens there in that gap between the next inhale? That’s a moment, right? It’s a moment of faith or a moment of fear. Do you really trust the next breath will arise and that you’ll be able [inaudible 01:05:53] or are you afraid that it won’t come and you feel like you have to manage? I think that learning to [01:06:00] be simple in our lives and deal with our everyday life, not thinking of some other meditation outside of our life but just before going to bed at night reflecting on one’s own day. Looking back and seeing with gratitude what this day was like, and that is important. My wife asks, and I sometimes, before we go to sleep we ask each other four questions. I just want to be sure you’re still there Noah.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, I’m still there.

Frank Ostaseski:                   The four questions were given to me by another friend, Angela [Sarian 01:06:30]. [01:06:30] The first one is, what inspired you today? Beautiful. Second question is, what challenged you today? Because we don’t just grow in our comfort zones as we spoke earlier. The third one is, what surprised you today? That’s a really good one. Children love surprises. You can play peekaboo with my granddaughter 10,000 times and she loves it, but throw a surprise party for an adult and they say, “Who’s responsible for this?” [01:07:00] So, what surprised you today? The last one is, what did you learn about love today? That’s a beautiful question to ask.

So, what inspired you? What challenged you? What surprised you? And, what did you learn about love today? These are a great practice [inaudible 01:07:18] my dear friend Angela Sarian who died a few years ago. Those are practices I think that help us. Wouldn’t they be great questions to ask as we come close to the end of our life? Why not practice them now?

Noah Rasheta:                      [01:07:30] I noticed question just popped and I know we’re kind of getting towards the end of the hour, so I just wanted to extend the invitation to anyone who’s listening, if you have any questions that you would like to ask, now would be a great time to post them. One already did, this is Johnny asking, “How important is closure before death?”

Frank Ostaseski:                   Well you know, it’s an ideal to try and [01:08:00] come to. But I’m a little suspicious of our ideas of closure, which is that everything gets wrapped up nice and tidy. My experience is that you close this and the next thing opens. So what I was saying earlier about watching the way we meet endings is really useful. Some people come to the end of their lives and they have meaningful conversations with family or friends or people that perhaps they’ve had challenges with, and that’s really helpful for [01:08:30] them to step into their dying process. For others that’s more of an internal process, and they come to that understanding within themselves, not through relational conversations.

I think what I really want to be careful of is that we don’t setup a kind of idealistic idea about what has to happen for death. One of the things that happens in this culture is we put a lot of weight on dying people to do it well or to die well or to [01:09:00] have a good death or all those things. Instead of recognizing that when we speak about a good death, we might not know what that actually is like internally and spiritually for someone. We don’t really know what it is that we need next oftentimes.

What I think we can do is look at the systems and say, “Did the system support this person in a way that really helped them? Or did the system abandon them?” We can evaluate the system and help us really look and see how to do that, how to help people when they’re dying [01:09:30] better. But I don’t think it’s so helpful to evaluate people’s way of dying as a way of understanding what a good death is. I’ve seen people die opening in great kindness. I’ve also seen people die telling the people in front of them that they hate them. Both of them in my view were actually [inaudible 01:09:54] appropriate to those individuals.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah, thank you for [01:10:00] clarifying that, because I agree with you on that view. I think it’s dangerous when we start to decide what is a good death, what is a bad death.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Again, I think we can say something about the system. From our healthcare system or other systems, how are we supporting this person? Did we take care of their symptoms? Did we manage their pain? Did we give them a certain degree of autonomy? What did we do? Those are things that we should evaluate I think.

Noah Rasheta:                      I [01:10:30] think if we were to take that and flip it to what is a good life, what is a bad life, we can run into some of those same issues. But ending this on a note where we’re talking about life, because your book has these invitations but the ultimate premise is that we’re discovering what death can teach us about fully living. So ending it on that note with this concept of what it means to be fully living, what do you have to [01:11:00] say with regards to the concept of fully living? What does that look like?

Frank Ostaseski:                   Well of course it’s going to look individually quite different to different people. I think that’s part of the beauty of this incredibly beautiful opportunity we call life. That said, I think that living a life that is multi-dimensional I think is really a good way to think about it. Our life doesn’t proceed in a linear [01:11:30] way. Living it on the horizontal but also on the vertical we could say. Those two planes of existence if you will I think are really important to consider.

Is it a life characterized by integrity? Is it a life characterized by meaning and purpose? Is is a life that includes or aims at belonging? These are the really big questions that really matter for us. Do we find ourself? [01:12:00] Do we recognize the interdependency of our lives? That everything we do and say affects everything else and everyone else, and that we are affected and supported by everything else that happens in reality. I think a full life or a life that’s fully lived is a life that begins to recognize these things as well and temper our notions of control. I think that’s really important [01:12:30] to conclude as well.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. That’s great. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you about this topic. Like I mentioned before, I’m grateful that you took the time to make this appointment work to be able to jump on live with someone you’ve never talked to, and to spend an hour with me talking about such an important topic. A topic that at some point brushes [01:13:00] up against every single one of us.

Frank Ostaseski:                   It’s brushing up against us right now Noah. You know what I mean? It’s not like it’s, again, it’s just something that happens at the end a long long life. It’s here in this moment. This podcast is about to come to and end, right?

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. [crosstalk 01:13:15]

Frank Ostaseski:                   So how do meet it? I want to end it by saying thank you. I really want to say thank you to you for doing it, first of all, and for inviting me to be your guest and to engage people in such a lively conversation. I don’t think my book or my life is about [01:13:30] just preparing for dying. I think that’s a short lived understanding. I think it’s, how do we use death, the presence of death, to really help us see what matters most in this life?

Inevitably, and most of the people I’ve worked with who are dying, they’ve asked two questions Noah. Not big philosophical questions, they’re more questions like, “Am I loved?” And, “Did I love well?” Those are the two questions that come to people’s hearts and minds as they [01:14:00] come to the end of their life. We don’t need to wait until death to ask ourselves those questions or to answer them. We can do it now. I want to leave your listeners and viewers with that reflection. You want to a reflection on death, ask yourself those two questions.

Noah Rasheta:                      I love that. I would add that for me the five invitations are absolutely invitations about life. Like you said, it’s a book [01:14:30] that uses death as the topic to really talk about life. It’s a book about life, and quite a powerful book. If you’re interested in learning about the five invitations in Frank Ostaseski’s book, you can pick that up I’m sure on Amazon. I will be posting a link to it on the interview that I’m doing. This interview will be transcribed, so for those who want to re-read it, or listen to it, or watch it, all of those links will be posted. [01:15:00] I’ll share with that you [crosstalk 01:15:01]

Frank Ostaseski:                   Can I add one more thing, if [crosstalk 01:15:04]

Noah Rasheta:                      Absolutely.

Frank Ostaseski:                   One is, I now continue to [inaudible 01:15:07] an organization called the Metta Institute, They can find us on the web, or they can go to and there they can find not only information about the book but lots of articles and podcasts and other things that help people in different domains of their life, people working with grief, healthcare professionals that want to know more about how to be a mindful healthcare professional. People who want to be compassionate companions in their life. [01:15:30] People who want to step into life more fully.

There are articles, blogs, all kinds of stuff on the site that we made available just as a gift to the world, so people can find it there on The other is that, you know, I’m not very good at self-promotion but, I want to encourage people to look at the book or to get the audiobook, which I read. Because I think it’s not just a good self-exploration but it’s a great conversation to have with people you care about. The book is a really [01:16:00] interesting way to have that conversation, people are doing it in book clubs and such. Get a couple for the holidays as gifts, and have the conversation with your family. Talk to your parents, talk to your kids about this. There isn’t a more important conversation to have.

Noah Rasheta:                      I want to endorse that message, because I wouldn’t have you on the podcast if I hadn’t read the book, and if I didn’t think the book was of tremendous value [01:16:30] to anyone who’s going to read it. So yes, I read the book, I wholeheartedly recommend it to especially the podcast listeners who are typically people who are trying to do exactly that, live more fully, live more mindfully.

Death is a great way to do that, the way Frank presents that is wonderful. I listened to it on Audible, and I don’t know if you noticed in this last hour, it’s a pleasant experience to hear Frank talk and [01:17:00] that’s who reads the book. So if you’re going to read it by listening to it, that’s another plus, it’s actually Frank who’s reading it. Are there any other sites that you would want to point people to if they want to follow you or your thoughts, do you have a Twitter account or anything like that?

Frank Ostaseski:                   Yeah, they can find me on Twitter. It’s @FOstaseski or @FiveInvitations. If they go to the websites they can find events and things. We just posting the stuff for 2018 now. They can find out where I’m teaching around the country, around the world for that matter. I teach [01:17:30] all over the world. There’ll be more information after January 1st on those sites. Thank you Noah, thank you again. I really appreciate the conversation and the directness with which you engaged me. Thank you.

Noah Rasheta:                      Thank you. I will stay in touch with you by email. I would love to maybe have the opportunity to have another conversation at some point.

Frank Ostaseski:                   Sure [crosstalk 01:17:54] happy to, really happy to.

Noah Rasheta:                      Okay. Happy holidays, thanks again, and thank [01:18:00] you to everyone who listened in live. We will catch you guys next time. Until next time.

61 – Mindful Relationships & Social Justice – Yael Shy

In this podcast episode, I am sharing the audio of an interview with Yael Shy. Yael offers expert guidance on beginning a meditation practice and explores how to bring that practice to relationships, social justice, and the general ups and downs of everyday life.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.
It looks like we are streaming live now here on the Crowdcast platform and on social media channels. Welcome, everyone who’s listening in live. I am Noah Rasheta, host of the Secular Buddhism podcast. I am excited to have Yael Shy with me here today. Yael is an author. Her recent book titled, What Now? is going to be one of the topics [00:00:30] of our discussion today, but really quickly Yael is the founder and director of MindfulNYU which happens to be the largest campus wide meditation initiative in the country.

She’s also the senior director for the Center for Global Spiritual Life at New York University. She leads meditation workshops around the country and around the world. She’s been published in the Harvard Business Review, [00:01:00] Huffington Post, the Journal of Interreligious Studies among other publications, and she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son. I’m really excited to have her on the show today because she offers expert guidance on not just meditation practice but I think more specifically how to bring mindfulness in this practice into things like relationships love, social media, how we interact on social media, [00:01:30] social justice, activism and just the general ups and downs of everyday life. With that, welcome, Yael. Thank you for being on the show.

Yael Shy:                                   So happy to be here. Thank you so much. I’m a big fan of the show and the podcast, whole thing.

Noah Rasheta:                      Thank you. Just to clarify for those of you who are following us live, this is streaming on the various social channels but the platform we’re using to do this interview is Crowdcast. Now, those of [00:02:00] you who are watching through the Crowdcast platform, have the ability to submit questions. Towards the end of the discussion, we will open up the questions specific to what we’re talking about today.

If you’re on Facebook, or Periscope, or YouTube watching this live and you post questions in the comments, we may not see those live. I’ll go back and look for those after the interview. Yael, if she has time, she may do that too, but the once [00:02:30] that we will certainly entertain are the ones that are posted on the Crowdcast platform. If you are watching this stream somewhere else and you want to join this one, the actual platform, it’s which is Y-A-E-L dash Shy. It’s kind of a complicated URL to give out on the spot like that.

I’m excited to talk about a [00:03:00] couple of topics specifically. I think the two I’m most excited about are the expertise that Yael brings to the topic of mindfulness and relationships because we are all in relationships. It’s not just romantic relationships which I think is key here but any relationship, relationships with siblings, with parents, with children and then the other overall topic is social activism. We’re going [00:03:30] to talk a little but about that. Specifically, how do we change the world without burning out?

Let’s start with the first one, mindfulness and relationships. Before we jump into that, tell us a little bit, Yael about how you got into mindfulness meditation Buddhism. Tell us a little bit about your journey?

Yael Shy:                                   Sure. I started meditating when I was [00:04:00] college junior and really I came to it from a lot of suffering, a lot of stress and not just the stress that people often talk about with college students like so much homework. Fights with the parents. Deep existential stress about what is the point of being alive, what is my role in this world, how am I supposed to [00:04:30] survive when all of these range of feelings just rushing through me in a lot of anxiety and fear just constantly. I was having panic attacks regularly and the circumstances of my life were falling apart around me and my parents were getting divorced.

I had ended a relationship, I felt very lonely and alone. I was struggling hard and so then I [00:05:00] was having a really hard time. I sought out a bunch of different kinds of advice, what am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to get better and my mother actually passed along to me a flyer about a meditation retreat, a seven-day silent meditation retreat. No concept of what that was, I’ve never meditated-

Noah Rasheta:                      [inaudible 00:05:22]

Yael Shy:                                   Yeah. It was crazy because I was imagining like a nice spa, vacation with [00:05:30] maybe hot tubs or massages and I get to that retreat center and it was really just seven days of … From morning until night meditation without much of a break at all. We weren’t allowed to talk to anyone. We weren’t supposed to be making eye contact. It was extremely intense. I had multiple panic attacks with a couple of days. I was having fantasies about hot-wiring cars and getting out [00:06:00] of that place.

Then about midway through in the retreat, I finally got to talk to a teacher about all the stress I was experiencing and I said, “I’m just so full of fear all the time.”He said to me, “Fear doesn’t like the light. If you shine a light on it then sometimes you can help to understand and fear will eventually disperse.” That began that process of trying to look at what was underneath all [00:06:30] that anxiety, what the root of so much of that panic and stress.

That really just started the journey for the rest of my life in this world and this meditation world because it almost immediately cracked through so much of that pain and anxiety that I was experiencing on a daily basis. Of course, it didn’t solve it right away but over the years, it almost transformed the chemical [00:07:00] makeup of my body so that … I really haven’t had a panic attack, I don’t know, like 10 years almost. That’s how I came to this practice.

Noah Rasheta:                      Wow. It seems intense suffering is a common path for people to find their way to this path, right?

Yael Shy:                                   Right.

Noah Rasheta:                      I know that’s certainly the case for me. It’s the case for a lot of people I’ve encountered. It seems [00:07:30] like these meditation retreats almost all consistently somewhere around that halfway mark is when people realize, “Okay, I can do this and then it becomes a really neat experience after that.” Why do you think that is? Is it because we’re just not used to doing anything remotely close to sitting in silence for that long?

Yael Shy:                                   Yes. I think we’re not used to it on multiple levels. We’re not used to it on just like our everyday consciousness [00:08:00] level but our bodies are not used to it. In the beginning, everything is screaming either in pain or I know many people who just slept through their first three days. I have no idea what it’s doing. You sit it down and you say don’t move. It’s bed time. There’s all kinds of things that come up. The Buddha call these things hindrances that come up when we sit down for meditation.

[00:08:30] Especially for beginners who do what I … I mean I did a crazy thing. Most people have had some experience, exposure to meditation before you do that but retreats are just incredible incubators of ourselves and most of us do not fit with ourselves and our minds for that intensity for that amount of time.

Noah Rasheta:                      When I think of meditation in general as the art of [00:09:00] becoming comfortable with discomfort, I think retreat is like what you’re describing. That’s bootcamp, right? That’s the-

Yael Shy:                                   It is bootcamp.

Noah Rasheta:                      You’re going to sit there and it’s going to hurt until suddenly at some point, you become more comfortable with that discomfort. I imagine that’s why it’s so transformative too.

Yael Shy:                                   That’s right. Yes, that’s right. It’s just that if anybody is thinking about doing one. You haven’t done one yet. The real key is just to have as much as you can to muster the faith that something will [00:09:30] happen. That’s what we promise whenever I lead a retreat that something will happen. You don’t know exactly what it will be but it’s just to hang in there through those tortures. For some people beginning time. Maybe not for everyone but certainly for me as an early day.

Noah Rasheta:                      Cool. Thanks for sharing that. Let’s jump in to the topic of mindfulness and relationships. You have a chapter in your book. [00:10:00] I’m trying to remember exactly what it’s called. Is it mindfulness and relationships? Oh, mindful relationships. That’s exactly what it’s called. In the chapter, mindful relationships, you bring together the … You merge the concepts of how does mindfulness benefit a relationship. Let’s talk about that a little bit, summarize the marriage of these two [00:10:30] things.

Yael Shy:                                   Sure. Like you said, everybody’s inversions of relationships. I think what we all crave out of relationships is to be fully seen and heard to be felt and seen for who we really are and to be heard, our voices heard or our needs heard even of the other person can’t always meet the needs or can’t [00:11:00] fulfill our dreams, our fantasies, to really be seen is so healing and what so many of us are seeking. In order to then be able to really see another person and to see them in their totality then I think the practice of meditation and mindfulness enables us to see ourselves to open up our own hearts to ourselves to see the [00:11:30] ugly and the difficult parts to see the parts that we believe are beautiful and strong and to have space

The more we do for all of those different elements. The more we do that, the more we cultivate a loving appreciative accepting relationships to ourselves, the more we have space to let in the totality of another person and to really see them rather than what often happens which is we use the frame [00:12:00] of another person to try and discover whether or not we are lovable and the person feels used and feels unseen and we feel frustrated because we’re not getting the right answers. We’re not getting to the right thing and everybody suffers.

The best metaphor I’ve heard about this is from a Zen teacher named Thich Nhat Hanh who I’m sure many of your listeners know. [00:12:30] He talks about how if you put a handful of salt in a glass of water and you try and drink it and you can’t drink it, it’s disgusting, but if you put a much even more than a handful of salt in a very large, clear lake, you can still drink it and there’s enough space for it to dissolve and the lake water can still taste delicious. The metaphor being that when we have a lot of room and space for the difficult things that arise [00:13:00] and for the different parts of ourselves, then we have that room and space for other people.

Noah Rasheta:                      I like that, the analogy of the salt. I think about from the psychological standpoint we have the negativity bias where … I forget the ratios but for every X amount of good things … For every one bad thing, it takes X amount of good things to offset that. [00:13:30] Do you know that ratios? Is it 4-10, something like that?

Yael Shy:                                   [inaudible 00:13:35]

Noah Rasheta:                      It’s happier. It’s like this.

Yael Shy:                                   Yes, exactly.

Noah Rasheta:                      I think in relationships that becomes really evident, right? Especially, romantic relationships your spouse can do 10 nice things but then they do that one thing and boom, that’s where the focus goes. I imagine this concept of the salt [00:14:00] being like that. It’s like if you’re just focusing on this, it’s really salty but increase your awareness and you … It’s not the circumstance has changed but the perspective changed. That’s something I like that you highlighted in your book, bringing it back inward because what we’re trying to do through mindfulness practice in general is that same thing and relationship through reality.

There’s reality and then there’s me. I feel separate from it and everything I’m looking for is out there [00:14:30] but then mindfulness tweaks this and you turn that shift, you start to look inward and realize it’s here, it’s me. I think that’s hard to do in a relationship because we’re programmed to think everything I’m looking for in the success of this relationship is contingent on that other person. It’s outward, right?

Yael Shy:                                   Yes.

Noah Rasheta:                      When you notice like when we start to acquire these principles, mindfulness principles into something [00:15:00] like a relationship. You brought up this concept of the mirror, that relationships are like a mirror. I really like that. so tell me a little bit about how does that really work in a practical sense? I’m in a relationship, with my wife for example and there’s this mirror. What are some of the common things that we hope to see if we don’t realize it’s a mirror but when I realize it’s a mirror what do we start to see, what changes?

Yael Shy:                                   [00:15:30] It’s a great question. I’ll use myself as an example because that’s the easiest for me to use. I was single for a long time, much longer than I wanted to be. I think I put a lot of hope and pressure if I met someone and they saw me as the one, the most beautiful, the best [00:16:00] person in their life that I would finally in the inside really feel that way about myself that I was worthy, that I was lovable. It meant so much to me that many potential suitors came along and if I sense even a little bit that any of them couldn’t do that for me, couldn’t present to me with that picture of you are everything [00:16:30] and then either it was my fear or something else just kept getting in the way and I kept thinking, “That person is not for me. That person is not for me.”

When I finally met my husband and we were getting serious then nearly all of our fights in those early years were from my … The ones that I started were sparked by this feeling of jealousy [00:17:00] that he secretly wanted to be with someone else that he really liked someone else better, that he thought someone else was more attractive. The feeling in me would be just so much shame and fear and anxiety and pain because I was still looking outward to get that inner feeling of I’m lovable, I’m worthy.

Even though he was giving me a lot of love and was giving [00:17:30] me a lot of support, as long as it’s outward, it will never be enough. That’s what I realized. We all want outward love and attention and that’s fine but when it’s to answer that core question about ourselves, then we’re never going to be happy. It’s never going to be satisfying and that’s where a lot of my mindfulness practice had to come in. I had to say in those most difficult [00:18:00] moments, you know what, this relationship is now, it is just about me looking in the mirror of myself and my own worth and whether or not I believed myself that it’s about my own worth, it be different if he was giving me a lot of evidence that he really wasn’t that into me but that wasn’t happening.

That’s where the mirror comes in once you see, you know what, this is happening over and over again. This is triggering something [00:18:30] all over and over again and once you see it then you have to go back in and every time I was about to start a fight along these lines and this has been until recent years really that I had to take a break. I had to take some space and I needed to bring a lot of love and compassion to my own painful experience of what that felt like to just not really fully have that strong [00:19:00] sense of I’m lovable, I’m fine, I’m beautiful, I’m okay. It took a lot to do that and then part of it is to grieve almost that the partner is not going to be able to do that for you. They can give you a lot of wonderful things but they can’t answer that essential question.

Noah Rasheta:                      I love that. Something I want to clarify. Can you hear that echo or is that just me?

Yael Shy:                                   [00:19:30] Maybe a slight one but nothing that’s distracting to me.

Noah Rasheta:                      That went away now. With this concept of looking inward and finding the contentment and the love there first, I want to clarify to anyone listening. We’re not saying that as long as I love myself I can stay in this unhealthy relationship with this person who’s abusive or something [00:20:00] like that. That’s not at all what this is insinuating. I think what I’m hearing and I want to be clear about it is what Yael is saying is the sense of completeness that comes in the relationship only comes when it’s complete here on your side when you are okay with you then you can be okay with it. That’s when the relationship can be completely whole.

I want [00:20:30] to correlate this to this societal view of my other half and the idea is that I’m half and someone else is going to complete me but with that other half, you’re not whole and this is saying, “No, that’s nonsense.” This is saying, “Mindfulness helps you realize you are it. You are essentially it and when you are whole, you take a whole and whatever the other is, that other maybe half or maybe … ” [00:21:00] It doesn’t matter. Wherever that other thing is, you work well with the other part because you are whole. Does that sound more of the lines of what you are insinuating?

Yael Shy:                                   Yes. The only thing I want to also clarify in there is absolutely, yes. This is not about a settling like if you can’t find someone that you’re matching with and you should just settle for them because it’s really all about you, don’t believe in that. Not a good idea or accepting people [00:21:30] being unkind or not good to you, absolutely not. That’s just really a lot of … It’s just more suffering. I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying with the person you really love and once you’ve had the chance to really see that person, then we come to that question of in each of these difficult interactions where are you and who is that and where is this [00:22:00] appropriate boundary?

My stepfather who is a very wise man always says this line. Love is boundaries and we don’t think of it that way. Especially in the Buddhist world, we are all one and we are interconnected which is very true but I think what it comes to relationships that seeing and understanding the boundary where someone else begins and you end is … Even in a relative [00:22:30] sense is really, really important. All kinds of relationships, romantic and otherwise.

Before I forget, the one thing I just wanted to adjust is that it’s not a static process. It’s not like, “I am at one with all of myself. I am fully enlightened and love myself. Now, I’m ready to be in a relationship.” It’s a constant process of back and forth, and figuring out what’s yours [00:23:00] and what’s the other persons, and just trying to be awake to the whole thing even if you’re still stuck in the really hard place. You don’t love yourself where you have a lot of self-loathing, just trying to be aware that it goes a long way.

Noah Rasheta:                      Thank you for clarifying that. From the Buddhist perspective we talked about and acknowledged that things are impermanent. In other words, everything is [00:23:30] changing, constant change. When a relationship … I mean this is extremely evident because then there’s the me that was me when I got married, for example and that’s not the me that I am today. Same with my partner, with my wife, she’s not the person I married and I hear this from people all the time. Concepts like, “Oh, that’s not who I married.”

It’s like, “Well, of course. That’s absolutely not who you married and you’re not who they married.” [00:24:00] This idea of looking in the mirror relative to time is you’re always looking in the mirror because you’re not the you, you were five minutes ago, much less the you that you were … When you got married or when you started the relationship. Emphasizing that this process is dynamic. If you ever think we got it, we figured it out we’re there, that’s when you should probably worry because you don’t get to the point as you’re always getting there and I think I like thinking about [00:24:30] that in terms of relationships especially romantic ones with my wife.

I’m thinking, we’ll never get there. That’s the point. We’re always building and working on the dynamic of our relationship. Who is the me that is in love today? Who is the person that I’m loving today because that’s not the same person from yesterday and the ability to keep it fluid like that, I think in our case has been really helpful. It was a period in a [00:25:00] time in my life when I felt like things were stagnant.

I’m the me that I’ve always been … That’s when there was conflict where I was thinking is this not my soul mate? Did I pick the wrong half? Is there another half that would have been more suitable because I was thinking in terms of that sense of permanence of the relationship but when I lean to look in the mirror that was a drastic change and when I understood [00:25:30] the aspect of impermanence in the relationship that changed the dynamic?

Yael Shy:                                   So well said. It’s this process of continually waking up and being like, “Who’s in front of me? Who is this person? When you’re together a long time, I think my understanding, I haven’t been together yet with my husband for longer than … I think we’re going into 40 years but I think it’s even more important to just really see the person instead of being like the kind of hazy, “I know who you [00:26:00] are.” Certainly if you have kids, if you have any of these relationships in our lives I think to really keep committing yourself over and over.

The same way we come back in meditation practice over and over again, what’s happening now, what’s real now. What a story in my mind, we come back to this person, who is this person now, how are we interacting now? Who am I now in this thing? It’s a beautiful practice. It’s a really [00:26:30] intense beautiful practice.

Noah Rasheta:                      I think it requires a lot of vulnerability too because to show up and just be seen like this is me. It seems like in relationship especially the romantic ones, we’re always adding layers. I did this for a long time in my marriage. I’m trying to be who I think she things I should be. I’m measuring myself who I am versus who I think … [00:27:00] The layers are insane here because it’s who I think you think I think you should … you know? It gets really crazy. You’re doing the same thing back. You’re comparing your partner.

It’s like are you allowing them to be who they are or who you think they should be or who they think you think they should be. It gets extremely complicated with the layers and masks that we put on and I think the mindfulness approach is just saying … Like you just said you show up and you just ask, “Well, who am I [00:27:30] and who is this and what is now? What is happening now? Why are we saying this? Why am I feeling this? That I think is a really powerful exercise.

Yael Shy:                                   Yes. The times when I felt like that [inaudible 00:27:43] love for my partner is often times those times when I’m like, “Look at this person that’s sitting on the couch with me,” that I’m like, “Did you pick up the milk yesterday?” I usually just kind of … Not ignoring, not taking for granted but just they were [00:28:00] a piece of the furniture but when I look and I’m like, “Wow. This a miracle. We’re trying this thing together. We’re doing this thing together.” That’s where this swellings of love come from because I think it’s impossible to feel that all the time. Moments are really special.

Noah Rasheta:                      Yeah. That’s been great. I want to take this concept and expand it a little to other forms of relationships, something [00:28:30] that you mention in the book that stood out to me was your understanding of the relationship of love in terms of your son. How old is your son?

Yael Shy:                                   He’s 13 months and I have another on the way, actually.

Noah Rasheta:                      Congratulations.

Yael Shy:                                   Thank you.

Noah Rasheta:                      You mentioned something that really resonated with me because I have three kids ages five, eight and two but you mentioned this realization that with your son [00:29:00] you would give your life up for him in a heartbeat, no questions asked. There’s this idea of conditional love that I think we get stuck in like I love you because you love me but if you didn’t love me then I probably wouldn’t love you back, right?

Then suddenly kids come along and you discover this new level where it’s truly unconditional. I don’t need anything out of it. The joy of it is that I get to love you and that’s what I was gathering as I was reading that [00:29:30] part in your book where you’re talking about your son. Let’s talk about that a little bit. It reminded me of like meta-practice where you’re trying to have that sense of unconditional love for someone. You start with someone where that’s natural.

When I do this exercise I start with my kids then expand it from there. How can I love my wife and that same unconditional way about my kids, parents, siblings and you move up from there. Let’s talk about that a little bit. How do you experience with [00:30:00] that?

Yael Shy:                                   I wrote in the book and I still feel this way like that is the edge, very interesting. Writing about that was in reference to the heart sutra which talks about just like a mother at the risk of her own life protects and cradles her only child. This we have a boundless love for the entire world. In this heart sutra, the comparison [00:30:30] is like a mother with your only child. You have the same boundless love for the whole world. When the first time I read that, it was before I had kids, I was like, “That sounds wonderful. I had that.”

Now, where we come back down to the kind of brass text of it, definitely not. I definitely feel a different way about my family than I do about the world even if I may not wish anyone harm in the world. That just [00:31:00] entire like a love that goes that deeply that I feel is so deeply connected is not present in the same way but I had a little moment, it’s like just actually maybe a year ago on a retreat, we had a light … We broke one of those light bulbs and I wasn’t sure of the light bulb was fluorescent or not. [00:31:30] You know how when you break a fluorescent light … Not fluorescent but one of those eco-friendly light bulbs.

Noah Rasheta:                      The ones that just explode when they break.

Yael Shy:                                   It’s so annoying. In mercury, and you’re supposed to abandon the area and air it out and all this kind of stuff. I was pregnant at the time. I remember when the light bulb broke, it was on the floor and in the room, it was a large room. We were about to do a meditation and they were [00:32:00] cleaning up the light bulb and we still at that moment didn’t know if it was that kind with the mercury and I said like, “You know what, I’m pregnant so I’m going to take my cushion and sit on the other end of the room. Then I’ll feel better.”

As I did that, and as I started seeing all of the retreatments come into the room and some sitting right next to the broken … Where that broken light bulb was. I just started to have this horrible feeling like what is the difference between [00:32:30] this life that I’m trying to protect inside of me and this beautiful life that’s over there sitting potentially near this source of poison. Just all of a sudden, I got up and I was like, “You know, wait. We have to actually figure this out. I can’t just protect myself. This is ridiculous.

I think it’s because I was in that heightened heart space of a retreat where I could actually tap into that. There is literally no difference. A life [00:33:00] is a life and everybody deserves that kind of love and care, so little pockets. It turned out it was not that kind of a light bulb. It’s just little edges of where the heart can be really expanded to include more and more people. I love the way you connect it to meta-practice because that’s we’re like going to the gym and weightlifting to expand our hearts that wide.

Noah Rasheta:                      [00:33:30] Similar to what you’re describing, for me it’s been in those moments of practicing that I get those glimpses either seeing somebody connecting for a moment. Maybe it’s just mentally doing meta-practice but it’s like for a minute, I can grasp the concept of truly loving everyone the same way I love my own children that feels incredible. Then you get back into the daily routine like the habitual reactivity of [00:34:00] life and it’s not was easy but I love that you just compared it to the gym because it’s the same way with the gym.

It’s like what makes it work is that you call the time and it’s consistent and you do a routine. That’s when after X amount of months or something. That’s when you notice you’re a lot stronger now. I think this is similar. It’s practice, practice , practice and then one day you realize, “It comes naturally to feel the compassion [00:34:30] and the unconditional love much easier than I did before.”

Yael Shy:                                   Yeah. A teacher said that it’s sort of like the heart is one muscle so it’s like open or close. It’s not like a dimmer switch that you can keep in one area? As you work that muscle, it’s going to keep opening and opening and more and more people can fit but when we’re tightened around [00:35:00] just a little nuclear family, it’s actually not … It’s not as liberating. Like you said, it doesn’t feel good. It actually doesn’t feel very good. It feels tight and constricted.

Noah Rasheta:                      Great. If you were to offer just one snippet of advice to someone listening who is saying I want to have a more mindful [00:35:30] relationship with whoever they’re thinking of whatever. What tips would you give? Are there specific meditation techniques or just advice to someone who wants to introduce mindfulness into their relationships?

Yael Shy:                                   I have a meditation on mindful love meditation in the back of my book and on that one, it’s about realizing, [00:36:00] coming home to and realizing how much you have been loved over the course of your life and how much you have loved because I think where a lot of us run into trouble and run into difficulty with relationships is feeling of like we’re coming in and we’re beggars and we’re empty and the other person must fill us or must meet our need because we don’t have anything here. This practice focus is from the beginning [00:36:30] even if people hurt you when you were a child, even if things were not wonderful which is the case for a lot of us, somewhere along the line to how do you survive until this day, so many people did acts of love to keep you alive.

Then you maybe without even knowing it have had enough in you to do acts of love for other people. Starting to tap into that fullness within oneself [00:37:00] in meditation I think is really helpful for relationships. That’s number one. Then I think number two is really helpful to do that practice that we were talking about really trying to see who is this other person and who am I and really going back and forth on those pieces.

Then there’s the communication piece that [00:37:30] when you’re really communicating with someone, when you’re in a fight know when you need to take time away. One of my favorite lines on this is strike when the iron is cool, never hot. Get really cool if you possibly can before you engage with somebody that’s triggering you. Then when you are engaged as much as you can through communication, see if you can fully let the other person feel heard and see [00:38:00] before you then say, “Can I now share my piece of this?”

That might be just repeating to them back exactly word for word what they say until they feel like you got a whole story right. You’ve got their entire side of the story right and then say, “Now, can I explain to you would you mind repeating it back to me.” That’s a tip from the nonviolent communication folks who have an entire curriculum around that but [00:38:30] I think it’s also deeply a mindfulness practice of being willing and able to be one with oneself to be with the boundary and meant to be with the other person.

Noah Rasheta:                      Great. Thank you for sharing that. One more aspect of it that I just thought of, we talked about the mirror and starting the process with learning to love yourself. You specifically mentioned in your book you had this moment where you’re looking at yourself in the mirror and you said, “Are you going to love yourself or not. [00:39:00] How do we start that process introspection in a relationship? I want to improve my relationship. How do I start with me? Is there a first step or something like that?

Yael Shy:                                   It’s accepting. It’s looking and accepting what is already there and it’s not going to happen overnight. We all carry a lot of judgment and pain but it’s almost we have to marry ourselves and be like I’m committed to [00:39:30] this with you and that was my moment when I asked myself, “Listen, are you in or are you out?” We have a life together, me and myself and if I’m really committed to opening my heart to myself, loving myself overtime, then I need to really accept what is there, and to form a friendly relationship even to the parts of myself I thought were so horrible and so [00:40:00] ugly that I never wanted anybody else to see just continually coming back to that, and holding it with love, and realizing that it was probably parts of myself that developed when I was very young in response to situations that were out of my control.

For me, all of meditation, all of this process of even just coming back to our breath and coming back to our feelings, coming back to the things that arises, it’s a practice of learning to love oneself. [00:40:30] It’s not a fast process but if you’re committed, if you put that ring on then that’s where the work happens and that’s where you will slowly and slowly just start to love this being that you are.

Noah Rasheta:                      Thank you. Again, just going to the gym analogy, we wouldn’t think … If I go to the gym today for 10 hours then I’ll [00:41:00] finally be strong. It doesn’t work that way. In fact, that’s going to be really bad where you probably tear all your muscles. Consistency and time, and that’s how it works very much the same way as going to the gym would.

Yael Shy:                                   The only other thing I would add which I think I didn’t before is that part of the meditation process is hearing our inner critics because otherwise they’re just running our life like, “Why are you such [00:41:30] an idiot? Why do you do things this way? You’re such a failure? These things that we just say to ourselves constantly without second guessing it and so I think another piece of the meditation practice where we start to hear this voice and then don’t believe it, slowly start to interrogate that voice and not kick it out but just not believe that it’s true.

Noah Rasheta:                      I love that. I do think early on or we focus a lot of energy on trying [00:42:00] to silence the voice or thinking that this won’t be okay until that voice is gone. You need to get rid of it. Then you’re just up for disappointment because the surprise is, “Hey, that voice doesn’t go away.” It’s the moment like you just said when you realized, “I don’t have to believe my own thoughts. Oh, well, now they can just be there. They can stay whatever,” and you’re, “Oh, there’s that thought again but it doesn’t have power over you anymore.”

Yael Shy:                                   If anything, you just have a lot of room for all of these voices that again [00:42:30] like we’re probably created when you were very young and they are still young. They’re not so [inaudible 00:42:35]. They’re not like these big evil demons that they feel like so much of the time.

Noah Rasheta:                      Sure. Okay. Let’s shift topics and talk a little bit about social activism now. One of the common things I hear and I’m sure you encountered this too, misconception that seems about mindfulness or living mindfully. [00:43:00] If you’re mindful, you’re just content with what is and there are bad things happening in [inaudible 00:43:06] in the world and I’m like, “Whatever. Let things be.” I think that’s a fundamental misconception so I want to address that a little bit. There’s social activism. Any form of social justice or work that we do in that arena how does mindfulness come and fit in? How does it improve social activism?

Yael Shy:                                   [00:43:30] This goes right back to that analogy I was saying in that meditation room that day where I thought to myself, I’ll protect my baby in the womb. I’ll protect myself and other people can work it out for themselves and the more that we really tap in, the more we open our hearts but also just experientially understand that we are deeply interconnected [00:44:00] and that we sink or we swim species as a world together, that kind of I’m here, I’m in this just for myself and maybe a couple other people and everybody else can fend for themselves, that starts to breakdown.

It starts to actually … You start to see not because it’s the right thing to do because actually that leads [00:44:30] to more suffering for myself and for others. It leads to more feeling of a wall of the division which then makes me feel imprisoned behind this wall, this imaginary wall I am separate from everyone else. The more that we practice and the more we really truly see how our faiths are completely tied in together, then the more that we can’t sit by when other people are deeply suffering and we always unfortunately lived in [00:45:00] a world where there are people suffering.

I mean hopefully this will not be the case sometime. I assume from my lifetime there will always be people suffering. It’s no longer an option to just be like, “I’ll just meditate so that I can feel calm on my day to day walk to work because you’re not going to feel calm. It’s not going to ease some [00:45:30] of that inside suffering that you have while other people are still in pain. That’s the connection in my mind.

Noah Rasheta:                      I really like what you shared in your book, a quote. This was I think from the aboriginal … The quote says, “If you come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let’s work together.” [00:46:00] That’s introducing the idea of interdependence again that we’re all connected. I think of that not just in the context of going and doing, building schools somewhere in the world like something big.

I’m thinking, wow, this is extremely relevant in my relationships just here with a friend who’s like, “Hey, I want to help you.” How different is that perception is if it goes like, “I’m helping me because I know what’s good for you and I know [00:46:30] how you need to be versus, “We’re tangled up in this together. Let’s work together.”

Yael Shy:                                   Right. The helping mentality is like asymmetrical power structure and adults don’t really like to be helped on a large scale, but everybody needs real solidarity and people working in alignment with them.

Noah Rasheta:                      Isn’t that fascinating? [00:47:00] We’re hardwired as social creatures to want to fit in. Almost everything we do revolves around making sure I fit in and then I’m not excluded and yet I think we have such a hard time feeling like receiving help. It’s like I want to be a part of a team but I don’t want you to do anything for me. If we’re doing it together as a team that’s great, that’s what I actually want. It seems like that’s another way to shift that mindset like I’m [00:47:30] on your team. We’re working together here.

Yael Shy:                                   I think that’s right. To some degree, it’s actually legitimate to not want to be helped by someone who has no idea what your circumstances are. When it’s a patronizing relationship, it can often feel like the person is trying to just help you for themselves and the same way like I want to help someone else is sometimes [00:48:00] just so that I feel better but then it’s all about me, it’s not really about them. It’s a realignment of that.

Noah Rasheta:                      I think sometimes in my past experience, I think sometimes, that’s aggravated by certain beliefs. If I want to save you, it’s like, “I’m not saved the way that I am. No, I’m going to save you.” I try to make sure that doesn’t … I think it’s easy to have that extent in a Buddhist practice where it’s [00:48:30] like, “You need more mindfulness like me. Look, how mindful I am.” It just doesn’t work to have that mindset that’s so far off the mark.

Yael Shy:                                   In that same way of trying to manipulate others is just using these different tools but people manipulate it because there is that manipulation happening even if you think you have the best intentions.

Noah Rasheta:                      Something I want to highlight with social activism [00:49:00] and kind of going back to that misconception of that Buddhism is really engaged socially. I think of someone like Martin Luther King as a good example of this where … I mean just imagine for a moment how ineffective all of his work would have been if he was hyperactive and highly emotional in his approach, very reactive. It would be completely ineffective.

I think [00:49:30] what made him such an effective power for enacting change was he was very common levelheaded and he had wise things to say and he could present things in a way that made people think, “Oh, yeah. Why are we doing this? Why are we not doing that?” I think that to me is the key of the connection between mindfulness and social activism is what we’re trying to accomplish through mindfulness is essentially skillful [00:50:00] means.

If I’m going to be engaged in a social cause, I want to be as effective as possible so mindfulness can help me to be more skillful in my engagement with whatever causing it. When I see it that way, then I realize mindfulness is a really powerful tool to increase the effectiveness of whatever social engagement I’m involved with.

Yael Shy:                                   Absolutely, without a doubt. At the same time, I want [00:50:30] to be careful also because it doesn’t mean that you don’t … I imagine and I think from what I’ve read of his writings, I mean Martin Luther King felt things.

Noah Rasheta:                      Absolutely.

Yael Shy:                                   Felt frustration and suffering and had those strong responses so I know that that’s not what you’re saying that you don’t feel even [00:51:00] furious or angry or deeply wounded or afraid like you so beautifully said that we developed the right strategy and skillful means to address it. Then the only thing I can add to that is that you could say that about anything that mindfulness could bring you skillful means to do a bank takeover or something like [00:51:30] that or to [inaudible 00:51:32] country which is true.

Noah Rasheta:                      The Italian Job, right?

Yael Shy:                                   It is actually to give you those tools of calming and focusing and being responsive and not reactive. It does give you those tools so in that case, it’s correct, but then if you coupled that with also the interconnection that we’re talking about and that [00:52:00] kind of commitment to relieving suffering, then it becomes that you not only have the skillful means bit you also cannot do things that harm people. You can’t even have … I write about this in my book, this line that I love which is how you do anything is how you do everything. I think [inaudible 00:52:24] who do engage in social justice often times find ourselves sometimes [00:52:30] in situations where the language is vitriolic against the other or it’s dehumanizing of the other side in a way that I think does not do us any favors.

I think it just perpetuates this again that sense of a division of those people are bad and we’re good and we just have to win and then we’ll be okay. That’s the real hard work that when you’re fighting for justice that nobody [00:53:00] can be left out. It doesn’t mean that you don’t hold people accountable or that you don’t restrain them when they’re doing harm or anything like that but that it’s all done with the spirit of we are connected. Then it’s an entirely different kind of a spirit.

Noah Rasheta:                      I mean for me I think that’s what makes it so powerful is knowing that the sense of wanting [00:53:30] to do something arises naturally out of understanding, understanding that we’re interdependent rather than this is what you should do? Why because it’s what you should do. It’s not compelled, it’s not a commandment, it’s not I’m supposed to love everyone so here I go. It arises very naturally out of understanding and that understanding arises through sitting and meditating or practicing mindfulness.

Then it’s like, “Why are we doing [00:54:00] this? Why aren’t we doing that?” All of that is natural. I think that’s an important part of the highlight because when it arises naturally, I think we can be more skillful and more determined with the cause. We’re doing this because this is natural. It’s not I’m doing this just because.

Yael Shy:                                   Right. Absolutely. There’s a Zen proverb that says, “In Zen, we do two things. We sit and we sweep the garden. It doesn’t matter how big the garden is and that’s the [00:54:30] proverb. That’s the spirit. When we feel just so overwhelmed by the state of the world, then I think when you’re like, “Time to pick up my broom and sweep my little tiny corner of the garden and I’m just going to do that until I die.” It doesn’t matter if the garden is as big as the whole world. That’s my challenge and that’s what gives you the sustainability to do that long-term.

Noah Rasheta:                      To do what I can, [00:55:00] where I can and what I can which is now. Not have that feeling overwhelmed like if I can’t … I do this with work when I have enough projects on my table or on my plate. I can feel overwhelmed to think, “Well, I’m never going to get any of it done so I guess I’ll just sit here not doing any of it.” I think that can translate to social activism. It’s like this is so overwhelming, I just won’t do anything. I think mindfulness helps us to take that [00:55:30] step back and say, “You can do something. I can do this. This little thing that I’m doing here,” and that’s where I start.

Yael Shy:                                   Absolutely. That’s right. Not only can you but it’s for the sake of all of us. It’s for the sake of yourself and for all of us. One of my teachers, Rabbi Alami once said, “Walking around the world,” we have sometimes this psychic [00:56:00] squint. We’re trying to screen out all the unpleasant, all the suffering, all the things that people are going to and we’re just trying to be happy just by ourselves. That psychic squint gives us headaches like it gives us entire life headaches.

To really commit ourselves even to our little corners of the garden means to really open our eyes and to say like, “I’m not going to wall myself away from this [00:56:30] anymore.”It’s tremendously freeing to do that. To me, it feels like, I accept, there is suffering and I’m going to do what I can and I’m not going to hide myself away anymore.

Noah Rasheta:                      I like that analogy of the squinting. The irony of a strategy like that is that the thing that you’re doing is the thing that’s causing it to be worse. It’s like I’m doing this because I want [00:57:00] to be shielded but that’s also what’s preventing me from taken in all the things that are great.

Yael Shy:                                   Exactly. You screen out the suffering, you screen out the joy. They’re all part of the same thing.

Noah Rasheta:                      For anyone who’s watching live who has questions, now would be a great time if you want to … If you’re on the Crowdcast [00:57:30] website, you can post your question or put in the chat. I’m just going to check really quick on the Facebook one and see what’s going on there real quick. I would hate to find out later that somebody has a question and we just didn’t see it. I’m assuming that even it all worked and it’s broadcasting the way it’s supposed to. It’s live.

[00:58:00] I see comments but I don’t see any questions there. I don’t see any questions on here either and we are approaching the one hour mark so I don’t want to keep you too long and take your precious time. Let’s just shift quickly to the idea of insecurity, intense emotions and insecurity in general. I think this ties [00:58:30] in to what we talked about. There’s insecurity in the relationships, there’s insecurity in the things that we do. Is what I’m doing helping? Am I just wasting my time? What should I be doing in life?

There’s a lot of insecurity in life and across all the age groups, I think it’s especially evident in those younger ages where you’re trying to decide, “Hey, this is where I picked the path that goes this way or this way. Uh-oh. What if I hit the wrong one? It’s evident later in life too because [00:59:00] you go down the path and you’re like, “This is the path I should have gone down.” Most adults have thoughts like, “Is this the person they should married? Is this the carrier I should have gone into? What would it be like if I was over there?”

This insecurity that we’ve seemed to live with at any given moment, we talked earlier about how mindfulness has a skill set as a tool. It’s trying to help us to get more comfortable with the discomfort and the fact is life is [00:59:30] uncomfortable. Thoughts like that are natural so again rather than thinking, “Uh-oh, I need to never think those thoughts,” is just saying, “Where did that thought come from?” Exploring it. Let’s talk about that just for a second. How do we become more comfortable with discomfort, with the insecurity?

Yael Shy:                                   I’m really happy you framed it that way because I think that’s exactly what it is. It’s not finding a solid ground [01:00:00] that you can stand on necessarily, it’s learning how to surf on waves that sometimes will take us under and sometimes will just be enough that we can kind of move our bodies and be flexible and surf gently on those waves, and then when we’re completely knocked over, we try and get back up on that surfboard again, and truly believe that the Buddhist message [01:00:30] that certainly my experience has been that the world is constantly, constantly, constantly changing.

We are constantly, constantly changing and that any solidity is just from releasing into the waves. It’s from releasing into our world that we can’t control and stopping fighting. It’s over and over again this [01:01:00] knowledge, this understanding that when we try, we can change as much as we can change obviously and we do as much as we can do when we try and get ourselves closer to feeling whole and feeling happy but when the world knocks is out again, trying to just say, “I’m knocked out or I’m on very unsteady ground and this is what’s true and really synching in to that. That’s the challenge.

Noah Rasheta:                      [01:01:30] I love the analogy with surfing because you can’t catch the wave if you’re not going with the flow. Anything static in surfing, that spells disaster. It doesn’t work. you can’t stay in one spot. If the wave us too big, I better go under it. If the wave us just right, I’m going to ride it. There’s a lot of dynamic stuff happening there but definitely nothing static. [crosstalk 01:01:57]

Yael Shy:                                   Things are really [01:02:00] bad. The thing that makes it absolutely worse is fighting it. Fighting that break time so you have to just swim into the current. That’s what they always teach you and that’s the journey of our life is to figure out like the serenity priority change the things you can change and to really accept and grieve or to mourn and to be with the things you can’t change [01:02:30] and the wisdom to know the difference.

Noah Rasheta:                      I love that. Great. This has been a really fun topic and I really appreciate you taking the time to join me for this call. For those of you who are listening or watching later, Yael’s book is called, What Now? Meditation for Your Twenties and Beyond. I read this and I was [01:03:00] telling Yael earlier that one of the things that was really evident to me is this stuff is for anyone. It’s written from the perspective of a lot of the experiences during those 20s and 30s but all of the concepts in here, every single one of them are applicable at any stage in life so if you’re interested in learning more about Yael’s approach with her book, What Now? Pick [01:03:30] this up.

I know it’s available in all of the major places where you can buy books and I will put the link on the Secular Buddhism website when I post this interview. I’ll have the video, the audio for the podcast and then I’ll have links to Yael’s website and to her book, at least on Amazon. Lea says, “Great surfing analogy. I haven’t realized you can choose to go under [01:04:00] the wave as a positive option.” That’s cool. Great. If you have any final closing thoughts you want to share with us, Yael?

Yael Shy:                                   Well, I just want to thank you so much for such a fun conversation. I had a really nice time exploring these things with you and I just want to let everybody know that in addition to my website which you’ll post, you can also find me on all the social medias @yaelshy number 1.

Noah Rasheta:                      [01:04:30] Okay, yaelshy1, that’s your Twitter. Is it the same for Instagram or Facebook and stuff? Okay. Awesome. Well, thank you, Yael. I’m going to end the live portion of this. Thank you to everyone who listened to and participated live. This will be posted on the podcast hopefully later today. Thank you, guys.

Yael Shy:                 Thank you.