kortina.nyc / notes
25 Apr 2024 | by kortina

Ostaseki // The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully

Frank Ostaseki’s The Five Invitations is a beautiful (and serious) book about what fully confronting death can teach us about life.

There were a lot of gem quotes in this book, but it was also a little long imo. Worth a read if you’re interested in life and death, though ;).

Notes and quotes…

179 I learned that the activities of caregiving are themselves quite ordinary. You make soup, give a back rub, change soiled sheets, help with medications, listen to a lifetime of stories lived and now ending, show up as a calm and loving presence. Nothing special. Just simple human kindness, really.

229 I first wrote the five invitations down on the back of a cocktail napkin at thirty thousand feet somewhere over Kansas. I was traveling to join other critical thinkers on the campus of Princeton University to contribute to a six-hour documentary about dying in America called On Our Own Terms. The room would be filled with the country’s leading health care experts, advocates for physician-assisted death, proponents for Medicare policy changes, and a group of hard-nosed journalists. There would be no desire for Buddhist rhetoric. Bill Moyers, the producer of the documentary, pulled me aside and asked if I could speak to the heart of companioning the dying.

When the time came for me to speak, I pulled out the cocktail napkin on which I had scribbled during the flight.

  1. Don’t wait.

  2. Welcome everything, push away nothing.

  3. Bring your whole self to the experience.

  4. Find a place of rest in the middle of things.

  5. Cultivate don’t know mind.

357 Each moment is born and dies. And in a very real way, we are born and die with it. There is a beauty to all this impermanence. In Japan, people celebrate the brief but abundant blooming of the cherry blossoms each spring. In Idaho, outside the cabin where I teach, blue flax flowers live for a single day. Why do such flowers appear so much more magnificent than plastic ones? The fragility, the brevity, and the uncertainty of their lives captivate us, invite us into beauty, wonder, and gratitude.

435 Impermanence is humbling. It is absolutely certain, yet the way it will manifest is completely unpredictable. We have little control. We can either shrink in fear from this predicament or choose a different response.

The gift of impermanence is that it places us squarely in the here and now. We know that birth will end in death. Reflecting on this might cause us to savor the moment, to imbue our lives with more appreciation and gratitude. We know that the end of all accumulation is dispersion. Reflecting on this might help us to practice simplicity and discover what has real value. We know that all relationships will end in separation. Reflecting on this might keep us from being overwhelmed by grief and inspire us to distinguish love from attachment.

863 The difference between don’t wait and non-waiting is like the difference between detachment and non-attachment. Detachment implies distancing ourselves from a particular object or experience. It can feel cool, like we are withdrawing or pulling away. Non-attachment simply means not holding on to, not grasping, not getting entangled. There is no need for distancing oneself.

Similarly, non-waiting is relaxed and spacious, a way of allowing experience to come toward us without the need to reach out and grab it. We come to know our experience by revelation, not by wrestling meaning out of it or by manipulating it into being the way we want it to be, or by encumbering it with our previous knowing. Non-waiting is a quiet welcoming, more of an invitation than a demand. When we stop leaning into the next experience by hoping for a particular outcome, or leaning into the past by hoping we might somehow change it, only then are we free to know this moment completely.

926 Before every session, I take a moment to remember my humanity. There is no experience that this man has that I cannot share with him, no fear that I cannot understand, no suffering that I cannot care about, because I too am human. No matter how deep his wound, he does not need to be ashamed in front of me. I too am vulnerable. And because of this, I am enough. Whatever his story, he no longer needs to be alone with it. This is what will allow his healing to begin.

976 In my experience, people typically arrive at a place of forgiveness when they realize, “I don’t want this to interfere with my capacity to love. I don’t want this to be a legacy that I leave behind or with my children.” We forgive because there is no point in waiting to unburden ourselves, no point in wasting time by holding ourselves back with old resentments. We forgive because we don’t want to reach the end of our lives filled with sighs and regret. We forgive not because it is “bad” not to, but because holding on to our pain hurts too much and keeps us from loving fully.

1022 To remind myself of this intention, I asked a master calligrapher to paint my favorite quote from the Buddha: “Hatred can never cease by hatred in this world; by love alone does hatred cease. This is an ancient and eternal law.” This work of art has rested at the center of my altar for more than thirty years and remains there to this day. It is the first thing I look at every day when I sit to meditate.

1064 The words of forgiveness I recited while gazing at the colonel’s picture on my altar day in and day out didn’t ring true for almost two years. But I continued repeating them, anyway … and one day they finally felt right. I was able to open my heart to the colonel. His actions were detestable, unforgivable, but over time, the man came into clearer view. Eventually, I understood that the colonel’s actions were the result of unknown causes and conditions in his life that had hardened into ignorance. That ignorance had caused the problem, and it wasn’t going to help me to keep holding on to my hatred for him. I knew that intellectually all along, but I needed to experience my resistance in all its facets before I could let go.

Finally, I saw that my lack of forgiveness was acting as a defense against my feelings of failure. I was scared that if I forgave the colonel, I would be abandoning this boy again. But in reality, I had fought that battle—and I had lost. Buried far, far underneath the rage, like an ancient barnacle-crusted ship lost at sea, I found the hidden treasure, the crux of the issue: I had to forgive myself. I blamed the colonel for the boy’s death, but I felt that I had failed the child, as well. This self-loathing was getting in the way of my letting go. I had to accept that I was human and had done all that I could. Circumstances were beyond my control.

1070 Perpetrator and victim live within each of us. If I could forgive the colonel for his ignorance, then surely I could forgive myself. Over time, this practice led me to the understanding that forgiveness is always for our own benefit. We might extend our forgiveness to others or ask for forgiveness from them, but primarily it is an act of self-interest, not about changing the other person. When we forgive, we give ourselves the medicine that is most helpful, touching ourselves with radical self-acceptance.

1842 Fixing and helping are draining. Over time, we may burn out. But service is renewing. When we serve, our work itself will renew us. In helping, we may find a sense of satisfaction, but in serving we find a sense of gratitude.

2413 When our nonjudgmental attention responds to exactly what hurts in another, the heart opens. It feels cared for and seen. Compassion is cognizant of the spectrum of considerations, but attuned to what matters most in this moment. Sometimes that attunement is so intimate that we may feel ourselves engaged in a “soul-to-soul” meeting with the other.

2723 One night after my heart surgery, I awoke at two o’clock in the morning from a painful, fitful sleep and a difficult dream. I felt frightened and resistant to my suffering. Then I heard a voice. A voice from my soul. It was giving me guidance. Offering me my own words. “Find a place of rest in the middle of things,” it said.

I thought, Okay, Frank, just try to rest.

Then I smiled.

The thing is, trying to rest is not resting; it’s just more trying. Effort is necessary in life. You can’t lift your bag into the trunk of a car if you don’t extend effort. Yet when we apply this same sort of effort to resting, it backfires. We can’t seek the deepest rest through striving to change the way things are. We can only relax the activity that obstructs our contact with rest.

2860 I used to view mindfulness as something to achieve. The degree to which I could focus on my breath equaled success. I would often critique the time I spent in meditation, such as, “Well, that session sucked. My mind wandered way too much. I got too fidgety.” I also found myself labeling almost everything that entered my mind during meditation as “good” or “bad.” I believed that keeping a scorecard would motivate me to “be better” at meditation, making my sessions more productive and efficient. I wondered if anyone else felt this way, but when I looked around the room, they all seemed so good at meditating. Sometimes I wondered why I had signed up for the course. I never liked practicing (just ask my mom about piano lessons), but I wanted results, so I kept hanging in there.

Then one day, some of your words got my attention: “Mindfulness results in a non-judgmental way of being.” This sentence was a catalyst for change in my world. The utter relief I felt at not having to spend so much energy judging everything (including myself) was freeing, wide, and expansive. My whole body chilled out. My shoulders dropped, my neck stopped hurting, and I stopped cracking my elbow all the time. I began to develop true mindfulness, understanding that it begins and ends with a simple choice to pay attention to what is so. Period. No scorecard. No grade. No labels. No pressure.

Now when I am being mindful, I feel open to things without assigning them a value: pain, joy, sorrow, anxiety. Past, present, and future all become the same. It can all be there, and that’s okay. There is room for everything to exist. I am here to notice and learn, not to run away from my most challenging emotions or to crave one state over the other. In fact, when I do run away, crave, or attach value, I suffer greatly because I want things to be different than they are. Yuck!

2932 It’s what Rumi is referring to in his famous lines:

Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

3087 This story of a samurai and a monk illustrates the unshakeable warrior courage and integrity needed to release our attachments and face fear directly.

A samurai climbed a mountain to reach a small temple. There, the warrior found a monk calmly sitting in meditation. “Monk,” the samurai barked in a voice accustomed to obedience. “Teach me about heaven and hell!”

The monk looked up at the warrior and replied with utter disdain, “Teach you about heaven and hell? I couldn’t teach you about anything. You are ignorant, dirty, a disgrace to the samurai class. Get out of my sight.”

The samurai grew furious. Overcome with rage, he pulled out his sword and prepared to slay the monk.

Looking straight into the samurai’s eyes, the monk said, “That is hell.”

The samurai froze, recognizing the compassion of the monk who had risked his life to show him this lesson. The warrior put down his sword and bowed in respect and gratitude.

The monk said softly, “And that is heaven.”

j 3263 The attendant, who was not caught up in the drama, replied, “Ma’am, today I pack the books up, and tomorrow I will unpack them. If this gives a sense of control to a woman who has lost so much, well, then, it’s okay with me. It doesn’t matter so much. I just like being with her.”

Gillian suddenly saw her own powerful need to be in control of the situation, and this gave rise to compassion for her mother’s experience of helplessness. The daughter sat down on the living room carpet and enjoyed spending time with her mother that afternoon, right there in the middle of the mess.

The next day, Gillian entered the living room to discover that the attendant had indeed returned the books to the shelves.

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