This article was previously published at https://www.justinaharnish.com/post/pandemic-life-lessons. It was republished by permission of Justin A. Harnish.
Like most of you reading this, my dreams have been altered and entering the grocery store leaves me breathless. Every stranger walking toward me is the enemy and every time I touch my face, I feel as though I’ve pulled the pin on a grenade. No matter if I release my aggression on a hard uphill run or become the space for fear and calm to swirl like Tabasco and ice cream in meditation, the global pandemic is the greatest challenge of my social and intellectual life.
There could be many triggers. As a news aficionado, there is non-stop reporting; as a political junkie, Trump’s lies seem more malevolent and likely to stall progress; as an engineer, the data is worrisome and, at least in America, less than we should be able to muster; and as a professional, the macroeconomics of recession and depression impact my livelihood. But none of these is the trigger — the trigger is the ever-presence of death.
Like the silent specter of the grim reaper, coronavirus might be in the asymptomatic person you meet or on the box that was delivered to your door. Your health may be there one day, swept away with your ability to breath the next.
My heart breaks for these lonely, almost transparent, haggered men and women caught inside plastic tubes — untouched and frightened. More than the statistics of deaths and cases, the unknowns around where the virus is and if it was transmitted to you; more than even the mode — the strangulation of COVID-19 fatalities — it has been the social fabric, already weakened in America, that has been damaged the worst
With a pandemic raging and all of us physically distancing, I needed to figure out a way to put on a brave face in front of a faux beach backdrop. I needed to find some way to come to terms with my fears and, if possible, to appreciate life even as death was all around. I wanted to honor the dead with a life newly invigorated, not as some invective useful to prove a point.
So I turned to a book (recommend on the Waking Up app and Making Sense podcast by Sam Harris), to an author who has served as a witness and a guide to thousands dying at the Zen Hospice Center he founded. Frank Ostaseski wrote the book Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully from his thirty years serving in hospice care. During the pandemic, it is a balm for all of our souls caught up in a global cycle from loss through losing, loosening, to a wiser form of living.
“The contemplation of life, death, and the inherent mystery in each moment is too important to be left to our final hours. Coming to terms with our fears and discovering what dying has to teach us about life are essential to our transformation. These Five Invitations are a call to that transformation. They can take you to the threshold, but it is up to you to walk on.” – Frank Ostaseski
The Five Invitations
Ostaseski’s book cannot be distilled into bullet points. Instead, its power to persuade us to walk through the threshold to the life that death invites us to live is in the many stories of the rich and poor, mindful and grumpy, managed and messy people he has served in their last days. With that being said, Five Invitations is focused on the lessons, the invitations, that dying teaches us about life. The Five Invitations are:
Welcome everything, push away nothing
Bring your whole self to the experience
Find a place of rest in the middle of things
Cultivate don’t know mind
In this short list, there is something for everyone to work on, something that is more poignant now during the pandemic. My difficulties are always in welcoming everything, even my fears and weaknesses, into my self-consciousness, and in reducing the cerebral attachment I have to the models I have built for myself in my mind palace. However, in our current lock down, we are all seeing the benefits of the invitation not to wait, to seek out relationships and kindness in others, and to cultivate positive experiences. Furthermore, the pandemic puts us in an uneasy state of confinement with our thoughts and fears, making the ability to find rest within it more necessary than ever.
With death now a global concern and our lives altered as we live with the virus, we should consider the invitations of life set (as it always has been) against a backdrop of death.
Live like you were dying
The first three invitations can be succinctly summarized into the Tim McGraw lyric, “Live like you were dying,” an invitation to appreciate the preciousness of life and act on it by living each day as if it was your last.
“Don’t wait is an invitation & encouragement to step fully into life. Never miss a moment waiting for the next one to arrive. Don’t wait to act on priorities. Don’t get stuck in the hope for a better past or future; be present.” – Frank Ostaseski
We often fool ourselves into believing that our life will reach a state of Hakuna Matata–free of problems–when that is not a true read of existence. We grasp for a life that is not possible and that squanders our life to one of mediocrity. Entropy will always prevail. At best, we have the knowledge and the motivation to solve each of the problems that are presented to us in our work, lives, and relationships with others.
Whether we are ignorant of our capability to contain our problems or actively avoiding dealing with our pain, this resistance causes suffering. If we welcome everything, push away nothing, pain and entropy will still arise, but suffering will be minimized.
“Now the blues can come to you in any shape or form… Now I got the blues and I’m not ashamed to say, I been tryin’ to shake them, each and every day” – Albert King
The most poignant balance sheet cashed in by the approach of death is our relationships with our loved ones. Do we hold grudges or offer forgiveness? Even better, can we short-circuit this faulty wiring in our false sense that there is an “unchanging us” that was wronged and let go of our selfish narrative for a shared one? Our sense of self, this model that there is an “I” at the center of experience, is not only a model that evaporates upon deeper reflection, but this self is also often playing a game of realpolitik with those we are in relationship with. Instead of seeing a slight as a fault in faulty creatures, we see the impact it has made on “us” and keep these past ills with us to inform the conduct of our present lives. As we will discuss later, it is better to share in the field of consciousness with other sentient creatures, than it is to act semi-autonomously as an avatar for the thought of “yourself.”
“There are these people who come in the room and tell me to love. Then there are these other people who come in the room and tell me to let go. Which should I do first?”… “You are going to know what to do, and you can trust that. But the thing is, they are almost simultaneous actions. Love is what allows us to let go.”… “You can’t love and cling at the same time. Too often we mistake attachment for love.” – Frank Ostaseski
The pandemic has meant that we are all dying, grieving, and/or sheltering. All of these have been performed over Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime. We are separated by a few filaments in fiber optic cables from someone saying goodbye to a loved one, we are a small selection of bits in a link from the last lines of forgiveness. Each of us can accept the invitation to bring our whole selves to the collective experience of accompanying those dying of COVID-19. Our grief, loneliness, and desire to be of service to others can rise above “thoughts and prayers.”
To accompany a dying person, to make the journey through grief ourselves–these may be the greatest challenges we will ever face in our lives. But don’t turn away. Bring your whole self to the experience. When we take care of someone we love and do it with great integrity and impeccability, when we feel that we have given ourselves fully and completely to our grief and didn’t hold anything back, then we will surely feel great sorrow. But also we will feel gratitude and the possibility of opening to a reservoir of joy and love that we may have never known before. I call this undying love. – Frank Ostaseski
This is a global pandemic where our statistics and protocols dehumanize the victims. Death tolls are massive but goodbyes digitalized. Our grandpa’s last breath is behind a plastic shield, our aunt’s final tear of regret drys on her cheek in a refrigerated tractor trailer. Humanity–the act of supporting the well-being of humans–requires we grieve with great sorrow for the loss of each life. Don’t hold anything back: anger, fear, or cynicism. Be real, know that eventually death comes for each of us; but also, be of service to those in pain. Finding the gratitude for the front-line professionals is warranted and easy, but developing a grace and compassion for the suffering of those inept in collective consciousness, even those actively aggressive against improving well-being outside their tribe, is what will be required to improve society as a whole.
The Place of Rest: Loving Awareness
Rest is the conversation between what we love to do and how we love to be. – David Whyte
Maybe the most enduring lesson of mindfulness or vipassana meditation is that existence and our experience are related but different. Meditation teaches us to move beyond our models of reality, our labels and attention to what things are, and appreciate experience itself. What is it like to sit there and read this? How is the sensation of a warm wind blowing across your damp face different from your idea of it from the English words that convey it? And, one level deeper, what is this context, this formless space, where it is like something at all?
Scientifically, when we talk about this subjective likeness we are talking about consciousness. Consciousness is this context of experience, the construct where all qualia are loaded, only for us. On this side of experience, I see my laptop and living room, hear a fly buzzing nearby and my family in the next room, smell the cleanliness at the end of a warm spring day, and hope that you enjoy what I’m writing as much I’m enjoying writing it. Consciousness is uniquely mine, difficult to distinguish, and extremely hard not to explain without slipping into esoterica.
One way that consciousness has been labeled is as loving awareness. This conception takes some getting used to. The awareness part seems fine, awareness is after all a large part of what consciousness is, especially the more full your mind is of awareness and not your thought-of-self. More than attention, which trains awareness on just one thing (like the breath) as a practice drill to lessen the thought-of-self’s grasp on your mind, awareness is the act of being consciousness. None of this is to be taken on my word alone, but to be experimented with in meditation, to briefly and then more decidedly see if the self-ish center of consciousness drops away leaving just the context of awareness.
But what is loving about what it is like to be consciousness? Is there something further to find beyond the aware space for all present experience?
One possible offering of awareness on the road to lovingness is restfulness, especially the restfulness of the fourth invitation–to find a place of rest in the middle of things. In the middle of the pandemic or during the loss, losing, and loosening of a loved one, an oasis of rest for our emotions, thoughts, plans, and relationship issues is an Amazon Prime from a very gracious god. Rest in this case is not a nap, but instead a fully aware timeless view of the situation and its causes.
“The Fourth Invitation teaches us that we can find a place of rest within us, without having to alter the conditions of our lives. This place of rest is always available to us. We need only turn toward it. It is experienced when we bring our full attention, without distraction, to this moment, to this activity. With sincere practice, after some time, we can come to know this spaciousness as a regular part of our lives. It manifests as an aspect of us that is never sick, is not born, and does not die.” – Frank Ostaseski
The preventable death and the large numbers of dead bothers me to the point of anger, sadness, and distraction on a daily basis. Sometimes I vent with friends and family over the phone, sometimes I limit my news intake, and at other times I silently rage or cry. None of these activities offer me rest in the middle of it all, for that I turn to meditation, the practice where over time more of the spaciousness of consciousness opens up to me.
My emotions all have different causes and feel different in my gut, back, and buzzing nervous system. Thoughts can trigger these emotions and both thoughts and emotions can cause me to lose awareness on other sensations or what it is like in this moment. Emotions and my sense of self are just thoughts, programs my brain runs in reaction to other programs, or inputs from my senses. It is not up to “me” to control them or ignore them, but like everything, to be aware of their nature, as I experience them. Being consciousness. I do not have power over them, but can take refuge from their effect on me, seeing my experience of them as just being waves in the ocean of awareness.
Resting in awareness of present experience–being consciousness–is not as we learned before, an escape from pain, but instead allows us to accept the lemons of life and thereby reduce our suffering. The context where all experience is articulated is formless and emotionless but also intimate–it is your felt subjective worldview. Even if the fabric of the universe is made of consciousness, the way it seems to work for us is as its own little laboratory, movie production studio, and interactive SIMS game that moves through us all at once.
“Meditation is all about learning to be intimate with ourselves, with others, and with all aspects of this worldly life, bringing the healing power of loving awareness forward so that we can meet what is scary, sad, and raw.” – Frank Ostaseski
And it is that intimacy–between your thoughts, the world you perceive around you, and the fact that it is illuminated in its likeness where you are–that make it loving awareness. As D.E. Harding said in maybe the most profound book ever written, On Having No Head, “I take delivery of the universe… and lend it unlimited enchantments.” There is this beautiful ability that every human has to not only be consciousness, but through our appreciation of the dynamic computations between existence and experience, create something beautiful and indeed, loving.
The fourth invitation than is inviting us to practice meditation–to find the restfulness, the loving-kindness of awareness and to bask in the appreciation of mystery.
“It seems to me that most people are afraid of death because they don’t know how to be with the unknown… We don’t just observe mystery; we realize that we are mystery. It lives through us.” – Frank Ostaseski
“Once we have seen ourselves in others and seen others in us, it fundamentally transforms the way we live in the world. The shift in perception brings about a change of heart.” – Frank Ostaseski
The fact that the universe is illuminated from where you are is also one of the main reasons why we are able to join in the joy or share in grief with others. We can imagine how experience–overlaid with different upbringing, genetics, and luck–would be and find loving-kindness for whatever situation, good or bad. Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is an act in our shared humanity.
Even if this pandemic has not caused you or your loved ones any physical or financial harm, we have all faced loss and hardship in some measure and have feared that we would not be able to cope with the outcomes. These shared narratives of loss, fear, illness, and hardship allow us to navigate the deep waters of suffering with concern and care.
Our world is very politically divided, but this does not mean that we cannot understand the pain and fear the other side of the aisle is going through. We may react differently to suffering depending on where we came from and the lessons we have learned, but in the end, it is important that we try to understand and offer loving-kindness, even if it is just for our benefit.
The Buddha told a woman, grief-stricken over the death of her son, that if she returned with a mustard seed from a family that had not been touched by death, he would bring her son back to life. As she searched in vain to find such a family and shared in the common narrative of mourning, she came to realize that her grief, while still profound, was lessening in measure with the compassion she shared in hearing the stories of those that had also suffered a loss.
Most of us have not experienced a pandemic before, so while the scope is new, the nature of illness, pain, suffering, and loss is shared and can be approached with individual compassion. This can give us a way to start, to just take a moment to wish the world well. From there, we can be available to those that need us, and to be nonjudgemental of the ways others express fear and grief.
“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.” Frank Ostaseski
Death invites us to engage in and appreciate life. Don’t wait, live an examined life, and interrogate experience as it is, before your preconceptions. Instead of aversion to the suffering of others, we can deal with grief on a global scale by finding rest in the middle of it all. Get intimate with your experience and find the loving awareness that makes space for all of the universe and the mystery of being. Finally, know that the song-of-yourself shares a chorus with all of humanity, and even humming this tune can help others in a time of need. We must be better to one another, to be that courageous presence we want to have at our side when death visits us.
Frank Ostaseski has invited us to be the grace we want to see in the world. If more of us pick up this invitation, our post-pandemic world could be a better place.