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Hello, listeners, first, I want to thank everyone who contributed to the summer fundraiser for the show unpatriotic. It's been so inspiring to see so many of you reaching out to support the podcast. If you haven't contributed already and you'd like to help out, please go to Patreon. Dotcom slash happening. Even two to five dollars goes a long way to help grow and expand the show. Today is the final rebroadcast episode before we begin Season ten with all new episodes starting July 28th.
Today's rebroadcast is an episode that originally aired in 2014. And of all the interviews I've done, it's one that has had the most profound personal impact on me. The storyteller Frank Ostrosky founded the Zen Hospice Center in San Francisco over 30 years ago. In the decade since, Frank has helped over a thousand people transition through the dying process. Sitting with Frank, you get the sense that you were in the presence of a true master who fully embodies the wisdom he has gained from working at the outer edges of life itself.
I feel so fortunate that Frank granted me this interview and I'm so grateful to be able to share it again with you today. See you again in two weeks for the launch of season 10. Welcome to the Permitting Corporation. A presentation of the audio podcast, this is actually happening. Episode forty three, what if you witnessed a thousand deaths? So the profundity of the dying process is so enormous. Any notion we have that we're going to be able to manage this experience and control this experience or have it turn out the way we think it ought to turn out is an absurd gamble.
You know, it's just ridiculous idea, actually. So only thing we can do is really learn how to be as present as possible in the moment that it's occurring and to see if we can meet what's right in front of us. Yeah. So I don't have any illusions anymore that I'll be able to manage the dying process, not for myself or for anyone else. In a way, I grew up in a really protected, safe place. My father was a chauffeur and we lived in a big country estate.
It was kind of a Garden of Eden, you know, and at one juncture, we had to move off that out of that garden and into a different set of circumstances. And my parents had a very hard time with it. They fell apart. They became alcoholics. So I lived my early years with a lot of pain and a lot of confusion. And I tried everything in my life to. Avoid that pain. Another network that some juncture, you just decide to turn toward what hurts.
And know it, and I think that becomes the ground for real compassion. Turning toward what hurts us. My parents died when I was young, when I was young. My parents died when I was a teenager. So I was out of my own, really early developed, tried to develop a really strong self-image that was impenetrable. But after a while, it doesn't work. You know, I think at first it was I started taking care of other people.
That's a way of avoiding my own pain. I thought if I was with other people whose pain was a lot worse than mine, mine might not seem so bad. I think that's a pretty common helper's disease kind of syndrome. So I took care of kids that were seriously disabled. I remember I used to be an attendant to a young kid with muscular dystrophy and I would have to get up every hour in the night and turn it because he couldn't turn himself.
And I used to say to myself how fortunate I was, you know, but it was just a way of running for myself. I was just a way of running away from what really hurt. I had a lot of early encounters with dying, my own parents dying. I worked in refugee camps where I saw a lot of horrible dying. And when I came back to San Francisco, the AIDS epidemic was exploding. It was ground zero for the AIDS epidemic.
And a lot of my friends were dying. And while I'd done hospice work and even helped to start another hospice program, what I was really curious about is what would it be like to bring together people who were cultivating what I might call the listening mind and meditation practice and people who really needed to be heard, people who are dying. So the Zen Hospice project started in 1987, and it was a kind of fusion of spiritual insight and practical social action.
Let's put together people who know how to listen with people who know who need to tell their story. And it was as simple as that. So we started by working with people on the streets of San Francisco. People were living on park benches. So I changed a lot of diapers on park benches behind City Hall. And when there was room, we would sometimes bring somebody back the Zen center and care for them through their dying process. Until after a while, we were able to establish a freestanding hospice across the street from San Francisco Zen Center where we took care of people.
And then we went into the camp where we worked with the county to develop a hospice unit in the largest long term care facility in the country, a place called Laguna Honda Hospital. Over the course of the years, we cared for thousands of people who had died and accompanied thousands more family members and friends and all of them, every one of them or my teachers. I think being with dying and Buddhist practice were the two things that saved my life.
You know, Buddhist practice didn't ask me to believe anything, but said, look, things aren't permanent and if you resist that truth, you suffer and don't take it also personally. And being with dying, verify that. And I got to watch it over and over and over again. And so it caused me to reflect on myself, to see that this was true for me, too. And then what happened is all that pain and misery and stuff that I was trying to get away from that became meeting places for the people I was working with.
I know what it's like to try and avoid pain. I know what it's like to drink yourself into a stupor because you can't go on. It's not that their experience was exactly the same as mine. That doesn't matter when I could build a bridge from my experience to theirs and it was some way in which then I discovered the mutuality of service. I nurture myself so that I can care for other people and my caring for other people as a way of nurturing myself.
That's really different. That's way different than helping. You know, I'm not the good guy with a white hat. You know, when I'm working with someone who is grieving, I'm looking at my own grief and I'm working with someone who's dying. I'm looking at my own fear of dying and the people I know and work with. They know that they trust that. You know, I haven't got all the answers I'm discovering right alongside them, you know, and that's what keeps the relationship honest.
There's no help or out in that relationship. We're just walking through birth and death together, holding hands. I mean, to imagine at the time of our dying that we're going to have the mental clarity to discern what's wise and unwise, to imagine that we'll have the emotional stability at that time to deal with the flood of experiences and feelings emerging in that moment, to imagine that we'll have the strength of body to stand up to to be with all that's occurring.
This is an absurd gamble, you know. And so it behooves us to practice now to live into these things now to understand that. You know, when I look into the eyes of someone who's dying, it's the clearest mirror I've ever seen. In that case, there's absolutely no place for me to go, you know, and there's no place for me to hide. And so it shows me my places where I hold my own aversions, places in me that are scared.
But also it shows me something else and it reflects something else. And that is the kind of tenderness and kindness and compassion that lives in all of us. Also, I see that in those eyes. So being with dying is a practice for me that opens me in a way like no other practice ever has. One of the common fears that a lot of us have that I have is, am I left? And I really loved, you know, not for what I did or for the things I accomplished, but just because of who I am.
The second question that's there with them a lot that I see is the flip side of that, which is that I love. Well, that I. Really care for the people in my life that are important to me, that I love them, well, those seem to be the two most important questions near the end of our life and my love that I love. Well. Mostly it's about. Love everything doesn't mean I have like everything or I agree with everything, but love everything, everything that comes into me receive it, welcome everything, push away nothing, welcome everything, push away nothing.
But how do we do that? I mean, it sounds great, right? It's like a make a good bumper sticker. Yeah, but how do you actually do that in your life? And you know, we can't do that just from our personality. That won't be enough the personality to get overwhelmed. So we have to find some dimension of ourself, some aspect of ourself which is large enough to actually include everything. For me, the easiest way to name that is love.
One of the qualities of love that at least for me in my life that I saw joy is its receptivity. It just receives whatever comes in contact with. And so to welcome everything and push away nothing is just to do that means to include it all. I have this image of our life. I suppose we could make a picture of who we actually are, everything, you know, all three dimensions of us. Then we spread it out on the floor and try to reassemble ourself, make ourself whole again, and maybe there'd be some part of us, you know, that we think we should get rid of that.
All my hatred, my spiritual teacher told me that's not good. Or on my last. No, that just gets me a lot of trouble, you know, or all my fear. I wish I could live without fear. And we leave those peace out and there'd be no way for us to really recognize ourself. Only way we could recognize ourself is to bring it all in, to include all of it. You know, we can't be free in this life if we're trying to eliminate anything, if we're trying to exclude anything.
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One of the saddest things and the hardest things to be with around dying is people's regret. You know, I mean, it's so sad to me that our most vulnerable moment, you know, when we most need our mercy, we most need our kindness, that we club ourself with self judgment, with criticality. Yeah. And we are really adept at this in our culture. We're really good at it, you know, and it's a hard habit to reverse.
There is another word which I like, which is remorse, and it's an older word in a way, and for me what it implies is letting myself really feel a sadness or the hurt of a situation in which I didn't act skillfully and to really let myself be informed by that hurt so that I don't I'm inclined to do it again. So there's a real value to that in me. And that's different than beating myself up with that guilt tripping myself.
It's not, you know, getting caught in some kind of regret about something I can't ever having it anymore shows me how to lead my life now. A friend of mine says, can you let your curiosity be greater than your criticality? Can you be curious about the mistakes you've made in your life rather than just beating yourself up around them? Yeah. Then we can live with some joy and interesting playfulness, even, you know. Most of us live into some image we have of ourself, how we're supposed to be, and it's as if we toss this story out in front of us and then we try and live into it instead of living with what's actually here.
The actual experience of our life is we live in the story of our life, the idea of our life, afterthought of our life in order to get what we want in life, we present an image that satisfying to the people around us, and we repress those things that don't get us what we think we need love, attention, food. And so we take all these parts of ourself and we bury them. We push them down into some dark corner of our experience.
One of the things that's fascinating to me about being with dying people is all that stuff comes forward again. It takes a certain energy to repress those parts of ourselves that we don't want others to see in the dying process. We don't have the energy to sustain that repression anymore, nor do we necessarily have the interest to sustain it anymore. So that cap comes off and when the cap comes off, all kinds of things come forward. And sometimes they're horrible things, ugly things, but sometimes they're really beautiful things.
Like there was a guy I worked with who lived in institutions in prisons most all his life. He was really a tough cookie. I mean, really tough guy. He came to us on compassionate release. And have been in jail his whole life. And he had cancer and he came to our hospice and compassionate release and I didn't tell everybody his story because I wanted them to just meet him where he was. He kept falling down and he wouldn't let anybody help him.
And I sat down, I talked to my son. You let the girls help you. And I said, no, I can do it myself. You know, he's a real tough guy. One day I came into his room and he said, Frank, I let the girls help me today. And I said, Really? Well, what do you do? And he said, Oh, they give me a shower. I said, How was he said it was OK.
You know, I worked at Zen Hospice project for almost 20 years. The only one who ever threw me a birthday party was this guy. And he saved up his money from his Social Security check and he bought a cake and he got me some presents and he made a surprise party for me and it was the biggest act of kindness. If he'd let himself if he'd let his vulnerability be seen when he was in prison. He even killed if he'd let that kindness come forward, even he might have been in danger.
But here in this new environment of the hospice, what had been repressed actually came to the surface. This in a kindness that was part of his life, you know, and it came out as a birthday party for me. And my job was to receive it completely. This guy goes down in the annals of our hospice as one of the kindest beings that ever met to this day, I think there's only a handful of people who know that he came to our hospice on compassionate release when I said earlier, welcome everything, push nothing.
It means just that when somebody comes through that comes to the door, the hospice where I was working, I want to include all of that, every part, part of them. It was miserable and awful and also this innate kindness, which is part of his life in. I think that people sometimes blossom in their dying, and it's beautiful to be around them, but, you know, other people turn away in anger and resignation and loneliness and they don't come back again.
We like to have the story that is dying, everything gets wrapped up nice and neat with a bow, but it doesn't always work out that way. Dying can be really messy. And so I'm hesitant to use this term good death because it's a bit of a subjective idea. A long time ago, I was working with a woman who'd had a tough life in her family. She'd been badly abused. Her family had abandoned her and she had a lot of anger at them.
And as she came closer to the end of her life, she became more simulant. She began to sleep a lot more, wasn't in a coma, but she wasn't responding so much. And during that time, her mother came to visit and they'd had a tough life together. And her mother came and sat by her bedside and really just began to pour out her heart to her daughter, really, in a way, asking her daughter for forgiveness. I was sleeping with her mom would just retell stories of things that she knew she'd done wrong.
She kind of confessed that I would ask for forgiveness. And then right in the middle of one of these conversations, this daughter who hadn't spoken in days, sat up in bed like a rocket and she looked at her mother straight in the eye and she said, I hate you. I've always hated you. And then she leaned back and she died right after saying that. And, you know, there was so much suffering in the room, everybody was suffering, you know, the mother of those of us who are bearing witness to this, maybe the daughter, too, you know, was our worst nightmare, right?
Every mother's worst nightmare, certainly. And yet there was also something else in it that I saw which was very powerful, and that was that she told the truth and maybe it took her whole life to get to the place where she could say that truth. It wasn't a happy truth, wasn't a pleasant experience to bear witness to that. She was telling she was saying what was true for her in that moment. The mother just collapsed. Because she wanted something different.
But the mom had hoped through her confession and through her asking for forgiveness that in fact there would be a reconciliation and it wasn't. You know, and so I work with that mom for another six months working on her for giving her daughter and then learning to really forgive herself. Elizabeth Cooper Ross famously laid out those so-called five stages of loss or five stages of dying, you remember them anger, bargaining, the rest, the last of which is acceptance and acceptance is a beautiful state, but it's really just the beginning stage for transformation.
When my marriage breaks up, I can accept that it's true, but it doesn't mean I'm happy about it. And it doesn't mean that my life doesn't fall apart after my marriage breaks up. So acceptance is not some final stage. After acceptance often comes a kind of chaos. I now know that I'm dying and this opens me to a certain kind of chaos in my life, that my sense of self, the way in which I define myself, who I've told everybody I was, all of that is challenged by the process of dying.
And this brings about a tremendous sense of chaos. And they're out of this chaos comes a much deeper state than acceptance. Out of this chaos comes something we could call surrender. And it's infinitely deeper than acceptance. And acceptance is still me choosing in surrender. It feels like it's choosing me. There are certain things that engender surrender. One of those is faith trust. But there's something else that gender's surrender and that's exhaustion. People get exhausted and they stop fighting.
And when they stop fighting and when they stop trying to prop up this separate sense of self, this opens the door to a still a deeper kind of transformation, a kind of transcendence, if you will, that's infinitely deeper than the inner work that we've been doing all our life, so to speak. We construct the reality that protects us from this underlying sense of uncertainty and insecurity, which lives just below the surface for most all of us, the dying process grabs us by the throat and says, pay attention, you know, to this.
But we can also choose to do that. We can choose to turn toward that experience. You know, that's what all of the special traditions, traditions, rather, have encouraged us to do for millennia or turn toward this anxiety, turned toward this underlying suffering of your life that you've been afraid to look at and get to know it, sit down with it, have a cup of tea to know it really well, you know, so we can make that choice before it chooses us, before we're chosen in the dying process.
All the ways we define ourself are going to be stripped away by illness or the dying process, and then we never come down to a much more fundamental, fundamental question now where my humor without all these trappings. Yeah, and it's that fear that's that's what drives this existential anxiety. Who am I without all these props and ideas that I've been telling myself? One of the most beautiful things about being with people who are dying is their confrontation with that question.
Yeah, it's scary sometimes, but also it's really amazing to see what happens when people settle into that question, when they come into some recognition of who they are and then they relax, that that's a deep relaxation. You know, I worked with a guy who was the head of the California Atheist Association, such a thing. And he came to Zen Hospice and we had great conversations, you know, about what happens when you die. Nothing he'd say to me, that's a really nothing like to hear things.
No, you don't have any ears. I said, well, you smell things. No, you don't have any nose. He would say to me, I said, Well, what's it like that? He said, Oh, he said, you just become part of everything else. He said, it's like a molecule and you become part of everything else. He was perfectly comfortable and, you know, was great. I had another woman that I knew who was a Christian Scientist.
She was well into her 90s, actually love God had total confidence that she would just come to rest in the lap of Jesus, had tremendous faith and her granddaughter came to visit. Her granddaughter was a well-meaning young woman who'd read some books about dying and tunnels of light and such things. And she said to her, grandma, grandma, when you die, you don't have to worry. You know, it's going to be OK because everybody who's died before you, they'll be there to meet you and greet you and welcome you.
And Grandma became terrified. Fine. Grandma told me the true story. The true story was that her husband had been beating her most of her life and that he died five years before. And now, because her granddaughter had suggested that everybody would be there to meet her, she was afraid that she would meet Edgar again and that she would have to spend eternity with him. The story we hold about what happens after we die shapes the way in which we die.
And I don't feel it's my job to give anybody else a story. It's my job to find out what their story is and to see whether it's supporting their dying process or causing them some kind of difficulty. You know, I probably witnessed a thousand or more people who have died, and one's completely different from the next. There's no one way that we die, you know, no more than there's no one way that we get born. I mean, there's patterns to it, of course, you know, but each dying is completely unique.
That's what's extraordinary about being with dying people. Some people blossom and they're dying is this beautiful gift that we get to witness, you know, and some of them just stay in this habit of not trusting and they die in resignation and misery, you know, and sometimes they just come to the point where they no longer want to keep propping up the sense of self, the identity, the self image that they have spent so much time creating because it's too much work, it's just too much work.
And then they got the energy to sustain it anymore. You know, and that's actually a really interesting point. That's a place where where real growth happens for a lot of people because they're not so interested anymore in how others see them. And so they can just be open to whoever they are. I don't do this work because it sometimes turns out good. I do this work because I love it. I don't think being with dying peoples any more important than any other work is that more important than, you know, taking care of your garden or raising your kids or making podcast.
You know, dying folks are my teachers. I bow to them, you know, and before they die, I always say thank you, I say thank you for showing me this. Thank you for teaching me this. I needed to learn this. And we have great galleries, museums, where we hang exquisite pieces of art, and I have this dream, this hope that one day we'll have great places where people will come to die and we'll honor them, you know, about them and ask them to teach us what they are learning sitting there on the precipice of death where there's no bullshit.
When we let ourself feel in a visceral way that everything is constantly changing, that this life is totally precarious, then actually we don't hold on so tightly, we don't take ourselves so seriously. We don't think our ideas to be so important. You know, we let go a little more easily. And I I think this agenda is a certain kind of timeless actually. We actually step into our life with both feet. We are impoverished because we don't include death.
We miss half of what life has to teach us when we don't include death. To be human is to have a fear of dying. I think it's the most human thing. And there's that aspect of my being completely terrified by dying, despite the fact that I've been around a thousand people have died who have taken myself to be my self-image. My story of myself is a construction and it's fragile because it's a construction and it's always worried about that construction falling apart.
It's always worried about it's dying. And I don't think that's ever going to grow up. I don't think that part of me is ever going to not be afraid. So what I have to find is a part of me that's not limited by that. I have to find the part of me that's aware of that fear, for example. And when I'm aware of it, that means there's some part of me that's not afraid. The part of me that's aware of my fear is not afraid, and I can function from that awareness.
I get back from that awareness. I don't have to be limited by my fear. Like, sometimes you're confused, right? There's a part of you that knows you're confused, that partner not confused, and it's that part that helps you get out of the confusion in a similar way. There's a part of us that knows we're afraid and that part that knows that aspect of our being that does can help us with that fear, to negotiate that fear.
So we weren't swept away by our. But my teacher used to say love is the fuel for the journey, like you got to love things in life. You got to hike up a mountain, you got to love the lake at the top of the mountain. But you also got to love the journey up. But you won't go you'll turn back. Right. But then he would say to me, Joy is the spark that ignites that fuel. Like, that's what gets the thing going.
Your sense of curiosity, discovery, you know, and love keeps things going. But this wanting to know this is innate. You know, we want to know, you know, it's just so alive when we have this guy. That's the way I want to go to my dying. I hope to God my dying, wanting to know what you're going to be like. I'm not interested in figuring it out in advance. I want to be able to discover I want to be open to discover.
I don't want it to be like my adventures. I want it to be completely new.