Every day I run into circumstances where my mind’s habitual response is resistance. Last Saturday, one of the things I resisted most vehemently was leading a discussion entitled, “Welcome Everything, Push Away Nothing.”
My personal history with the traditional mindfulness teachings is befuddlement. I almost never get the point. Everything I’ve learned has come from doing the exercises. So when my meditation group invited me to lead a discussion on one of the teachings from Frank Ostaseski’s book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, my inclination was to decline.
I recently wrote about What Death Teaches Us About Life, so I wanted to move on to different material. But listening to the interview the author and co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project and Metta Institute gave to Sam Harris on his Waking Up podcast confronted me with another primal fear that I habitually resist.
Serious as a Heart Attack
Sam Harris asked how Frank Ostaseski’s experience of having a heart attack affected his work.
Frank Ostaseski: Oh, boy. Well, you know. I used to think I knew a lot about dying. I’ve been with a lot of people who died. I thought I knew something about it. And then I realize that the view from the other side of the sheets is really different.
It was humbling actually. Really humbling.
I come out of surgery, and I’m in the cardiac care unit, and I’ve got tubes coming into every possible orifice, including I’m intubated, which means a machine is breathing for me. And I’m in this kind of anesthesia fog. And my son, who’s an adult at that point, about twenty-nine, and my best friend, a meditation teacher, are with me.
And into the room comes this respiratory therapist who says, “Let’s pull out that tube and see if you can breathe.” That’s how he introduced himself.
And I waved my arms back and forth “no, no, no.” I couldn’t speak, of course, because I had this tube in my mouth. And I took a pad of paper and I wrote, “I’m scared.”
The Practice of Acceptance
Mr. Ostaseski’s fellow meditation teacher reminded him to calm himself by focusing on his breath, but he couldn’t find his breath because the machine was breathing for him. He couldn’t tune into his bodily sensations either because he was of the anesthesia. Then he remembered a story about another famous meditation teacher who had faced a similar challenge.
Mr. Ostaseski: I grabbed my friend the meditation teacher, and I pulled him close to me. And I put my ear next to his mouth; and I listened to the rhythm of his breath. And my son, who I love beyond words, he just kind of slipped his hand in on my chest, and it was like a conduit to God. It was just pure love, actually.”
Those two things allowed Mr. Ostaseski to welcome the respiratory therapist’s request to take out the tube.
Resistance to Helplessness
Sam Harris: How long was the whole recovery process?
Mr. Ostaseski: The whole process took roughly about a year for me to sort of heal. And in the early stages of that I was quite disabled. I couldn’t do things like go to the toilet by myself or shower by myself. And so I felt tremendously weak at home. I felt dependent after my heart attack. I was depressed. I just felt helpless.
“In welcoming everything,” he writes, “We don’t have to like what is arising. It’s actually not our job to approve or disapprove. The word welcome confronts us; asks us to temporarily suspend our usual rush to judgment and to simply be open to what is happening. Our task is to give our careful attention to what is showing up at our door.”
Mr. Ostaseski: Gradually, what I noticed as I paid attention to these things and allowed these states is that that helplessness, that dependency, it became something more like vulnerability. It became something more like porousness, or transparency even.
And I began to experience much of the same things that the patients I had worked with had experienced.
Transforming the Experience
Mr. Ostaseski: I was very fortunate. I had great people around me who took care of me. I got really wonderful, supportive letters from people all over the place. And that love that came to me was really helpful. And it was beautiful that people loved me and it was nice to feel that reassurance. But what it really did was introduce me to, more intimately, the love of my own being.
Liberation and Confidence
“We tend to protect ourselves from the experiences and situations we don’t like,” he writes. “But there is a sense of liberation and confidence that gets built up within us when we do the opposite, when we push away nothing.”
Mr. Ostaseski: I felt this deep, deep trust, not in something other than me, but in reality itself. And with this trust arose a kind of rest. A deep, deep rest. Body at rest, heart at rest, consciousness at rest.
There’s this great sense of being at peace with the way things are. Not fighting against life. And then there’s this kind of absence of struggle for a period of time. And this went on in my case for several months where there was not so much a sense of Frank there. Not my ordinary personality wasn’t so much in charge, if you will.
It came back. It reasserted itself. It came back one day and said, “Don’t worry. Here I am. I’m back. I’m in charge.” But once you’ve had those experiences and they’re not just some spiritual highlight but actually deeply integrated, you can’t fool yourself anymore that you’re in charge.
Putting Out Fires
Frank Ostaseski’s story reminded me of two important reasons I continue to perform these mental exercises every day.
Ten Minute Exercise
To practice welcoming everything and pushing away nothing, try this version of choiceless awareness.
1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.
2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.
3. Sit comfortably with back straight to allow for easy flow of the breath.
4. Focus attention on the breath or any other sight, sound, smell, taste, feeling, or thought.
5. As your attention moves from the breath to another sense object, simply allow that to become your focus.
6. When attention moves on from that object, follow it to the next object, etc.
7. If the mind gets caught in the past or the future, gently return to the present.
8. When the timer sounds, take a moment to note that the attention shifts happen without any effort.
9. Take a moment to notice how the mind and body feel right now before continuing with your day.
Extra Credit: Whenever you find that you don’t have to engage your attention on any particular object (like when you’re waiting in line or in traffic), try staying with it in this way wherever it chooses to go.