Stephanie Domet: Hello and welcome to Real Mindful. This is where we speak mindfully about things that matter.
We meet here twice a month to introduce you to some of the teachers, thinkers, writers, researchers who are engaged in the mindfulness movement. You’ll hear all kinds of conversations here about the science of mindfulness, the practice of mindfulness, and the heart of mindfulness.
I’m Stephanie Domet. I’m the managing editor at Mindful Magazine and Mindful.org. And this is Real Mindful.
On this edition of Real Mindful, we pick up the thread of conversation between our founding editor, Barry Boyce, and his longtime friend and colleague Frank Ostaseski.
Frank is a well-known and much-loved teacher of meditation, mindfulness, and compassionate service. He is an author, a healer, and a great friend of Mindful Magazine. In July 2019, a serious stroke affected his brain’s capacity and in the months to come, he had four more strokes and many aspects of daily life became more difficult for him.
Frank found strength and refuge in love, compassion, and curiosity. He also found his practice very much alive through the whole experience and his ability to communicate the nuance of what we discover when our ability to welcome everything remains intact. And he shared some of that with Barry and with us.
So we pick up this remarkable conversation between old friends as Frank talks about the nature of our minds and how a useful comparison can be the ocean and its waves.
Frank Ostaseski: OK. So, in many schools, there’s a simple metaphor that’s given all the time. “Of the ocean and the wave. It’s often used to describe a sense of oneness that we have with other things or lack of separation. But another way to understand it is at the surface wind is creating wave. Wave isn’t innately different than the ocean, it’s still wet and salty, etc. But conditions are making it into a wave. There’s no inherent wave. It’s just the ocean taking that shape. But any scuba diver, which I was for a period of time when I loved it, will tell you that if you dove down deep, you’ll find calmness.
That is also true is that’s true of our minds. The surface of our minds and the conventional, ordinary mind, as we could call it—the ordinary, everyday mind—is constantly being windswept by conditions, past history, trauma, etc. However, there is a dimension of mind which is always calm. Always calm and will not abandon us. We can rely on it. It will not abandon us, and it doesn’t require being somebody special or being enlightened or any of these things. It simply is naturally there. It’s just that we’re so caught up, so preoccupied with what’s at the surface that we don’t recognize it. We don’t see it. Training is required in order to see it. Just as you were going to go become a scuba diver. It’s good that you take a few lessons before you dove down, you know, 40 or 50 meters down.
Barry Boyce: Well, I think ‘see’, it’s also perhaps Frank more than see; it’s to have a more total experience of that.
FO: Yeah, but what I’m trying to get at is it isn’t something special. It isn’t the domain of enlightened beings, it’s available to everybody. Just like anybody can learn to scuba dive. We can learn to do this.
BB: So, we all have that, and I appreciate that. That’s it’s innately there and available. To explore this imagery a little bit further, it seems at times we’re drawn to the notion that we could live down there at the bottom of the ocean and that we set up this kind of dichotomy that the surface is this problem that we need to escape from. But we need we always need to navigate the surface, right? Even though we have that depth available. Am I not making sense or…
FO: You are making sense; I’m just trying to find the way I would frame it.
I don’t know when, but maybe early in our life, we tend to bifurcate our personality. What we call the personality here—I’m not going to use any fancy psychological words—and this quality of what I would call, ‘deep mind.’ And when we choose, we wind splitting them apart and living in one; we live in the personality. That doesn’t mean the other is gone. That just means we forgot to access it. We don’t live in that territory enough, and we’re preoccupied with what’s at the surface, the wind is blowing on the surface of the water. So, no, they’re not different, actually. They’re not different. Everything comes out of that depth, including all the stuff that’s happening on the surface, all the drama.
A friend of mine showed me a cartoon the other day. And the first panel is a person carrying a lot of bags on their back and they said childhood trauma, relationship issues, work stress, covid. And then they come to a curb at the side of the sidewalk and on the curb, it’s written life’s minor inconveniences. And then the next panel is this person weeping into a puddle, having encountered one of life’s minor inconveniences because we’re carrying all that stuff with us. And then we encounter something, and we think, oh, the damn curb, you know, but we’ve actually been carrying along all along. So that’s why I say understanding is necessary. It’s not just transcendent. We have to understand something about our psychology, our emotional life, etc., so that we aren’t only looking through those lenses.
BB: Well, I think that’s very clear. I’d like to come back to baggage a little bit later on, but I want to touch on something that you talked to me about not long after your first stroke when we had probably lunch together.
FO: Yeah, usually we eat
BB: And it was about sequencing. That this kind of basic function of, “OK, the socks are here, and the shirt is there,” say a little bit of that. That is that must have been very disorienting and practically quite challenging.
FO: Well, honestly, I feel fortunate that the impact that the strokes had on me weren’t more severe. I wasn’t paralyzed; for example, I had no physical paralysis, just balance issues. So, again, the part of my brain that was damaged time, space, direction, and sequencing. So, when we would say, “Let’s go to the supermarket,” and on the way we’ll stop for a coffee and maybe on the way back we’ll get a bite to eat. Those are things that my brain could not track; I couldn’t put those things in order. Putting things in order is part of how we make sense of things. It’s part of how that perception that we were speaking of earlier, functions. You know, this happens so quickly that we don’t notice it. We see color, shape and then there’s that almost seemingly automatic recognition of School Bus. It is actually a sequencing. It’s a process of sequencing. If that’s capacity—sequence—isn’t there, then our ability to recognize and perceive the world as we perceived it before is altered; dramatically altered.
BB: Now, how is it that you didn’t just crumble in the face of that the lack of such basic reference points?
Frank O: Well, I did crumble often. It was important to recognize that I’m nobody special here. I just kept learning from the experience.
BB: So, your ass kicked in a sense?
FO: Absolutely, and I mean, I would just take [myself] to bed, curl up in a fetal position and weep. And sometimes that’s how it is, right? And so, we have to recognize that that’s not the only way it is, but it is that way now.
So, I don’t think we can be free if we are rejecting any part of ourselves; including the parts of ourselves that are not so functional sometimes or damaged in some way whether that’s emotionally, psychologically, or physically damaged. So, again, I think I had the support of really good people; my wife was incredibly supportive, and I was very fortunate to have that and I have a community of people who were also adding and helping to care for me. And I had a practice which gave me stability.
BB: As you’re talking about the need to include all the parts of yourself, it reminds me of how we often talk about othering and compassion. You know, in the wider world, if everybody isn’t included, no one is included in a sense. So, you’re saying that also happens in the realm of all the different parts of one’s own being. It begins there.
FO: It happens on the micro and macro levels if you will. Or, said another way, this is the reality that’s here and whenever I argue with reality, I lose.
BB: It’s like Gary Snyder’s nature, Bats last; reality. Yeah. Go ahead.
FO: And I have to recognize—or I don’t have to— it helps me to recognize that the things that are occurring are not adversaries; something I have to get rid of. But rather something that has some usefulness for me [and that] can show me something valuable. Now, I can’t see the value in it if I’m Helter-Skelter, but if I’m stable I can understand something.
Here’s an example I think I shared with you before. After the first strokes, my doctors spoke a great deal about recovery. They talked to me a great deal about the benefits of neuroplasticity, which we speak about in mindfulness all the time. I realized in the beginning or close to the beginning that I was not as interested in recovery. I was interested in discovery; I was interested in seeing what this can show me about myself and life? If I never get any of these qualities back, which is a strong possibility, what will I discover? And that became my road, that became the path that I followed because I didn’t know if anything would recover, but I knew I could keep discovering. So that that was a kind of resilience that emerged from me that helped me enormously. It didn’t require hope that I would one day recover everything I’d lost. It required only trust and curiosity that I could continue to discover.
BB: Well, that’s a meta-metaphor, if you will. Because, when we think of covid and the incessant narrative that we’re going to get back to normal, they’re…
FO: I think going to normal is a lack of imagination.
BB: So, discovery rather than recovery is…
FO: We may never recover; we never go back to normal. We can’t go back. And in my case, I might not have recovered any of my capacity. Some of them, for example, my vision; it’s actually not my vision, [but] my brain’s capacity to process what the eye sees is not likely to come back, neuroplasticity doesn’t work very well in that particular function. So, it’s unlikely that I will be able to drive a car or do those things. Neuroplasticity doesn’t work with that particular function. Well, only about seven percent of the cases. So, if I hold out for recovery, I’m going to suffer.
BB: Yeah, this isn’t just a kind of tripe, birthday card slogan ‘discovery over recovery’. You needed that.
FO: Absolutely, I needed it. It’s the way that I could continue to function in the world. It didn’t require hope, as we normally think of hope, which is the flipside of fear. It required clear intention and continuously letting go.
BB: It’s interesting, as you talk about things that you may not recover in the conventional sense. So, I’ve known you for decades. And I’ve seen a lot of different you’re another Frank now, clearly. it is a phase change and some continuity, which is pretty interesting. I think that’s how it is with us if that makes any sense.
FO: Yeah. So, bringing it back to the practice of mindfulness. I don’t think our mindfulness practice is about having some kind of transcendent experience. That wasn’t my experience with my strokes. What I do think it does is shift our identity; it shifts how we see ourselves, who we believe, and who we understand ourselves to be. I think that’s what occurs through mindfulness practice, and that’s really useful.
BB: You don’t get an experience. You don’t get to a place. But you’re transforming your relationship to who you are.
FO: Yes. We’re not only transforming our relationship to who we are; the locus of our identity is shifting.
BB: Right. The parts that we left out when we bifurcated.
FO: Exactly, that’s right.
BB: Yeah. So, you’ve talked about—I want to return a little bit to this— including parts of yourself. I’ve heard you talk about a practice you do in the morning, the morning practice and an evening practice. The evening practice, just describe that nighttime practice.
FO: Well, earlier I said that sometimes I fall apart, and I am in a fetal position, crying. Well, that’s not an uncommon experience for me. So, at night when I’m scared or I’m confused, I’m worried that I won’t recover. If that happens, I lie in bed and I think about all of the people who might be alone, frightened, or in suffering. And this evokes in me a certain kind of compassion, a deep wish to relieve their suffering. To be honest with you, Barry, I’m not very good at self-compassion. I’ve never been good at it. But really, what happens when I invoke my compassion for others is that it spills over onto me because I can’t have it for others and not include myself. But when I start out with just me, it doesn’t always work. People always say you have to be compassionate toward yourself before you can be compassionate to others. And I don’t agree.
BB: Knowing you and having an intimate relationship with your book, I know that you had a long habit of beating up on yourself in the way that seemed to take you to these practices. Is that accurate to say?
FO: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say I have a very strong self-critique. I had a lot of trauma in my childhood; abuse and other things. So, yes, I had a habit of not treating myself as being the most important being. I had a habit of not always kind to myself.
BB: And this practice you just described covers both.
FO: Well, yes. So, when I awoke my compassion for others, because of what we said earlier that we can’t pull ourselves apart from everybody else, it has to include me. Even if I wanted to hold myself out on the margins, I can’t because it doesn’t fly. So that’s my practice in evening. I go to bed, I lie there, and I try and evoke compassion for those people who are suffering. It’s not a Hallmark card. It’s not wishy washy. It’s genuine. I can feel it because I feel my own suffering. I haven’t yet felt my own compassion, but I feel my own suffering. So then in the morning when I wake, I lie in bed before I meditated or any of these things and I again try and think of people in the world, and I ask myself the question, “Love, what would you have me do today?” And it’s a motivation for my day and it’s a way of orienting myself toward serving in the world, but also serving in the world with some degree of kindness and clear intention. And it comes back to love becomes my support for the day. It’s not just, “Oh, I’m a really good guy and I’m thinking about everybody else when,” when I evoke that love it infuses me with a certain kind of support.
BB: that infusing love supported you as you were walking on the on the gangway.
FO: Exactly. So, love has many different ways of expressing it. For example, love can be receptive, or it can be expressive. It can express itself in many different ways. If you and I were speaking in Buddhist rhetoric we would say, there is emptiness, right? [Saying] there’s boundlessness is maybe a better way to say it. Things emerge out of that boundlessness; life emerges out of a boundlessness. Now, what’s the force that causes that to happen? I mean, that’s a very great philosophical thing, but in my experience, it’s love.
BB: Like, that’s some kind of movement.
FO: Right, that’s what gives birth, if you will, to two forms in the world, to people in the world, et cetera. And what also dissolves it? It’s also love. It dissolves it back into its original nature, if you will. The force is love. And when I evoke that force, it’s incredibly supportive. It’s not a Hallmark card. It’s not a romantic idea. It is evoking the strength and the support of that particular quality, which is innate to each of us.
BB: Well, that stands in contrast to the conventional motivation to control the outcomes. Wake up in the morning that I’m going to be driven by controlling these outcomes.
FO: Yeah, well, I couldn’t control my strokes happening. Things are going to happen to us that we have no control over. And, you know, we say we have control over our response to things, but we don’t even have control over that most of the time. But we got a better chance of responding skillfully if we’ve trained ourselves and if we’ve cultivated our contact with certain, we call them, essential qualities in our nature. One of the most essential qualities in our nature is love. Now, it’s too simplistic to think it’s all love. That’s New Age gobbledygook. We are more than just love. We have other qualities as well, but none of them can’t take love out of the fabric.
BB: At one point when we were talking a while back in the early stages. My recollection is you said something to me about…Prior to the stroke, you would be able to rest in open space. And it may be misremembering this, but my recollection is you said, well, that particular methodology was not as easily available because open space also was disorienting, is this bringing up any recollection of what you might have been talking about to me?
FO: No, I actually think it’s the opposite. Initially after the strokes, I had what I called non conceptual awareness; it just basically open space. And the doorway to that open space was vulnerability. Vulnerability was the gate to it, because what we normally think of vulnerability is his weakness or the susceptibility to being harmed, but actually sensing the vulnerability, what it is, is open space, which has a certain permeability to it. And that’s how I actually felt after the strokes. Now, what did not help me was what I learned, that’s is a better way to say it.
I kept trying. I kept having altered states of mind, heart and body. And so, I use my mindfulness practice as I have been trained in an effort to stabilize and work with them, and sometimes it helped, but what I realized was that it didn’t always help and I had to develop new skills. And I did that by speaking to other people who had strokes. And they helped me to understand. For example if I was having emotional deregulation, as it’s called, normally I would use mindfulness practice, stabilize, etc., allow the emotion, etc.. When I do that, after a stroke, it can just take over. So, what I learned from other people with strokes is that sometimes I needed to do something different. For example, I needed to discharge the emotional activity, not stay with it. So, it helped if I could shake my arms right, or shake my head or concentrate on something on one thing like my coffee cup, and then that with those things would help; just calmly observing it all didn’t actually help.
BB: Right, this is exactly what you were telling me about. Yeah, that makes that makes a great deal of sense.
FO: So yeah. When, when people when people close to me saw a kind of emotional reactivity, they said, you’ve got to manage that better. But what I recognized talking about people with strokes, was that this was a physiological response. It’s a bit like sweating or having a tick. I could no more stop my sweating by mindfulness practice than I could stop these experiences, However, I could sometimes discharge the energy and then recharge to my mindfulness practice, and that was a skillful thing to do. It’s like when you’re sitting at a retreat, a mindfulness retreat, and you’re getting too stressed out or you’re getting too uptight, then it’s sort of go for a walk. And after you go for a walk, then you could sit down again. But anyway, that’s what I so I learned about the relevance and the importance of discharging physical energy.
BB: Well, I think there’s a bit of a lesson in there for us all in terms of the… it’s not necessarily always going to work to create a safe distance.
FO: That’s right. And mindfulness is not you know, I know in our world today, mindfulness is the new black, you know. And when I say new black, I mean, you have everybody in New York wears black in the in the fall or something. It’s not the fix all for everything., I know people who have tremendous concentration, but they have lousy interpersonal skills. And, you know, they can sit for hours, but they have lousy interpersonal skills, right? And the opposite is true, right? People who have great interpersonal skills, psychologically, emotionally, very aware, but they are continuously restless or agitated. So. it’s not the fix all, and we have to if we have to bring in other practices that are complementary and support mindfulness practice.
BB: In order not to wear you out, I want to let you know that I just want to talk about just a couple of more things. This has been a wonderful conversation. I’m going to tell you what they are, just so you know I’m tracking this.
I want to talk a little bit about time, a little bit about your capacity for listening, and finally service. So, let’s talk a little bit about time. The world, particularly, the modern world, has continues to progress our connection to clock time to measured time seems even greater as compared to like what some people call horticultural time or where like C sections have gone up because the medical world wants to put birth on the clock. There’s many, many dimensions to time which enables us to say, wow, that dragged on when in another situation, the same amount of clock time flew by, so. What what’s been your relationship with time and how time is carved up by the regular world and just say a little bit about that.
FO: Well, again, my stroke’s, particularly the first stroke, played with my sense of time. My life became, in a sense, a certain kind of flow, which sounds really wonderful and yummy, but actually was challenging at times.
It wasn’t easy for me to track what I call tick tock time. And this had both pragmatic and also emotional challenges. One example is when I got out of the hospital after my strokes, my wife asked me where did I want to go? And I said, I want to go into the redwood trees. I wanted to lean against the big redwood tree. And so we went to a neighboring town where there’s a library located in the redwood trees and while we were sitting there, she said, I’ll be back in a few minutes. I’ve got to go get something from the car. Now, remember I said earlier I could interact with a few minutes worth; here’s the practical side. While I was sitting there not knowing when she would come back, I had to pee. Now what do I do? I can go pee in the bushes, but I might frighten off the young children, or I could be in my pants, which didn’t wasn’t a very attractive option. So I decided I would find my way into the library and that’s a direction issue. That’s a sequencing issue. So, I came up these rugged staircases and found my way into the library and even found my way to the men’s room. And when I had finished, I was coming out of the library and I heard my wife screaming, where are you, Frank? Where are you?
She was terrified. She didn’t know where I was. And I could hear—oh, my heart broke for her. And I came out of the library, and I followed the sound of her voice, and I came to I said, I’m OK, I’m OK and I held her. I just held her because she was terrified; she didn’t know what had happened to me. So, there was a very pragmatic issue, but also emotional consequences from my inability to track time right now. And as we’re having in the pandemic, people are having lots of emotional responses to the fact that a great deal of time has gone by and they’ve lost track of their normal sense of what a month is and what a year is, for example. Yeah. And sometimes we have to comfort each other as I needed to comfort my wife.
BB: So, while from the realm of the deep ocean and non-conceptual space, tick tock time is Not so significant, it’s a very important skillfull means…
FO: I think it is significant. I think it’s quite important that we you know…it’s not a mistake that we have an ego structure. It’s not a mistake that we develop a sense of individuality. This is not an error; this is how we develop. And it wasn’t something imposed upon us, this is how we develop. Again, coming back to our image of the ocean; each wave is incredibly beautiful and unique, just as you and I sitting here; beautiful when I look at you. But we’re not separate. And so we can be unique, we can be individual without being separate. And it doesn’t take a big philosophical stance, we just have to look around and we see it to be true.
BB: That’s beautiful. And in terms of the arena of time, the tick tock time and the big time can be reconciled…
FO: They’re not different. They’re just two expressions of the same thing. Just like the wave is an expression of the ocean and its depth is an expression of the ocean; not different.
BB: See, I bring it up because so many folks that we work with are trapped by their tick tock time, you know, if I only had more. But the possibility of learning how they are not different, the big time and the small time,
FO: They are of the same origin, so to speak, they’re not apart; We bifurcate them. You know, my wife very commonly said to me whenever I complained about time, she said, you know, Obama has the same twenty-four hours that you have, he just seems to get a lot more done in it. You know, it’s not the time that the problem.
BB: Well, I think in terms of what you were saying about ego structure and structures in generally, you know, the many, many structures that make life. You know, they’re not a mistake. The only error is in solidifying them as one solid thing, or something we have to fight. It seems to me the problem of identity isn’t that there is identity, it’s when it sees itself as only that; as a separate.
FO: Right. That’s well, that’s very well said, thank you. I mean, our ordinary mind, is patterned by various conditions that others have created for us and we’ve lived through, etc., The problem is not that it’s patterned, the problem is how we use our ordinary mind. The fact that we get stuck in the patterns and forget that there’s any other options. That’s the problem.
BB: Right. Lack of imagination, you said earlier.
FO: Yeah, exactly. I mean, when you think about our ordinary mind, it’s pretty amazing. I mean, when I watched my granddaughter, who’s now almost six, how I have seen her I’ve seen her brain and mind develop is phenomenal; learning a language, conceptualizing time and space. It’s phenomenal. You know, ordinary mind is really necessary. I mean, you think of apple, right? Right. We all have Apple, right. We have an understanding of what apple is conceptually, we have an image of it, we have context for it, we can think of it’s many varieties, how it gets used in apple pie, etc. That’s pretty phenomenal. But if we cut open the brain, we couldn’t find apple anywhere.
BB: Well, you know, I find that it’s almost what you’d call an ordinary kind of magic; that air comes out of our lungs, is cut into pieces by the mouth, an apple comes out and you see an apple. And your granddaughter is doing that for the first time, maybe. It’s beautiful.
Frank O: Let’s not disregard the ordinary mind. Let’s not throw it out. Let’s see that we need it, and I would go on to say that we need the ordinary mind to understand, we need the clarity of the ordinary mind, to understand what I’m calling, ‘the deep mind.’ It’s not separate. Even if you have some state of illumination, Barry, you need clarity to know that state of illumination and that clarity is developed by the ordinary mind.
BB: Yeah, now that…
FO: Maybe too much for your article, but let’s you and I talk.
BB: No, no, no..
FO: The problem isn’t the ordinary mind, the problem is the way we use it. If we only stay with what’s familiar and known, we’re stuck.
BB: Would you say that the stroke had to push you farther along on your path in a sense choice, choiceless-ly?
FO: Yes, I would say that. I would say that my sense of curiosity grew. It was pretty strong before, but it grew as a result of the stroke because I now had to find new pathways through the woods. I couldn’t rely on my previous knowledge alone, I had to discover again that word a new way of thinking, functioning, emoting in the world.
BB: It reminds me of when, in your early days of coming to meditation, you finally came around to talking to your teacher at that time, Steven. God bless him and rest his soul. He pushed you in a certain way and it occasioned a lot of growth and to me, not to make it too fancy, but the stroke has been a teacher like Steven.
FO: Yes, and I don’t recommend it as a as a hack.
BB: Yeah, no shit. I know somebody who lost a lot of weight on opiates, and had to get off of them, said, hey I don’t recommend this is a weight loss program.
FO: Yeah, exactly. I mean, my dear friend Ron often spoke about his stroke, his fierce grace from his teacher. At the very beginning, he didn’t experience it as fierce grace. It took him a little while to get to something I’m understanding now.
BB: Yes. And both you and he have been fortunate enough in being able to have more function than a lot of people end up with. And also, you’ve probably been helped along by your approach to resilience, but nevertheless. Alright, last things…
FO: OK, go ahead. I just feel like I wasn’t clear earlier when I talked about identity, you know.
BB: Oh, no, I’m Frank. I think it was pretty…and, you know, we can clean that up later, too. This is this will all be transcribed, and I mean, if you want to try it again but it seemed pretty clear to me. But if you want to take another swing at that’s fine, too.
FO: I mean, I don’t want it to get too heady. I mean, what I meant to say is, you know, our practice, our relationships; like you and I, the long friendship we’ve had you know, they’re important in our understanding. You know, Practice, sometimes suddenly and most of the time gradually, there’s an identity shift through it, right? We stop seeing ourselves solely as the child of our parents, we stop seeing ourselves only as the accumulation of our drawbacks and our difficulties in life, which have all been at the center of our lives. And we start to see ourselves as something more than that.
Like my friend Norman Fisher; wonderful, great teacher. When his mother was dying, nice Jewish lady, she said, “What do the Buddhists think about what happens to you after you die?” And Norman, I’m paraphrasing him, but he said something like, “well, it depends on who you think you are.” You know, if you think that you’re just this body, mind and heart and just these memories and experiences that you’ve acquired and just the relationships that you’ve had over your life, well then death is very bad news because you’re going to lose all that. But if you think you’re also more than this, something that maybe you don’t even understand but you have some confidence in then it’s going to make your dying a lot easier and even you can be happy when you die. Because you know yourself to be more than the small, separate self you’ve taken yourself to be.
BB: That’s lovely. That was a very poignant time in my life when my mom asked me the very same question. We were driving out in the country, and she had avoided ever talking about anything, even approaching the topic of death, and then she came out with that. And I feel like it occurred because of something I learned from you about listening in this very big way, you know, welcoming. I mean, that’s one of the reasons we were driving in the country. And so, I want to ask you about listening, because I have observed that you’ve cultivated, somehow, a quality of listening that is… to give an example, I’ve heard you speak to somebody [and say] when your manifestation is you’re just a phone on a table and somehow, it’s conveyed to the person that you’re hearing and feeling at all. And that seems so important in the work of helping people in their worst moments.
FO: Well, I think I’m more than a phone on the table, but I understand what you’re saying. I’m trying to make myself someone special, but I think that there’s a generosity in it. You know, there’s a generosity, and I don’t mean that I am magnanimous. I just mean we listen generously; we listen without interfering. So, I live on the boat, so there’s a wonderful expression that you probably know, ‘coming along side.’ You don’t head straight into the other boat; you’re going to come alongside them. There’s a gentle process there where you don’t impose yourself on the other person.
And so often when we’re listening, we’re busy trying to figure out what we should say next. And listening is coming alongside. That’s all that’s required. And it’s a kind of, I don’t know how else to say it, it’s that gentle and that easy. It doesn’t have an agenda; it doesn’t have a set of shoulds and judgments.
BB: Well, that’s a super simple guideline that speaks volumes and, you know, when I said you’re just manifesting as a phone on the on someone’s table, somehow, they knew that you were coming alongside, and I just think that’s because you’re not filtering.
FO: So, the image that I use, and I’ve used it with you before is, I have a lot of tools that I have acquired over the years; a big toolbox full of them. But I don’t set that toolbox down between me and someone who needs to be listened to. I don’t lead with my tools; I lead with my humanity. And when I need a tool, fine, I can pick it out of my back pocket and use it.
One of the great teachers in my life was Carl Rogers, the great psychologist. And for years, I carried around this tattered piece of paper in my back pocket with a quote from him that I’ve always loved and I’m going to paraphrase, but basically he says: ‘Before every session that I have with a client, I take a moment to remember my humanity.’ And he says, ‘there’s no experience that this man, this woman has had that I cannot share with them; No fear I can’t understand [and] no pain I cannot be with because I, too, am human. And no matter how deep his or her wound may be, they don’t need to be ashamed of it in front of me because I, too, am vulnerable.’ That’s what he says. And that’s what allows the healing to begin. I’m paraphrasing, but something [along those lines]
BB: I don’t know that well, but we can find the quote too, but that and coming alongside really speaks to it. It seems, Frank, that by doing that, repeatedly, it became instinctual or becomes instinctual?
FO: Yes, I think I agree. Of course, a really important facet of that is listening. Meditation is deep listening. Mindfulness has deep listening that is an internal process, of course, but also is externally expressed in the exchange with the other person. So that’s primarily what mindfulness practice is deep, listening to ourselves and the world until we have such an intimacy with ourselves and the world that we don’t feel that sense of separation anymore.
BB: So not listening just with the ears in a sense…
FO: No, listening with your whole being. You know, when you do enough mindfulness practice, what happens? I mean, the object of the mind or body and heart arises, and you know it immediately. It’s not like you’ve assessed it and said, ‘oh, there’s this and that.’ You just know it immediately. It’s one thing. The object, whether it’s a thought, a feeling, or a physical experience, and the knowing of it; it becomes one thing. So the intimacy here isn’t so much about, ‘I get close to it,’ it is, ‘I am intimate with it [and] I know myself not apart from it.’
BB: Last question. Your adult life has been characterized by service and you’ve aged, you’ve had a lot of alterations in your circumstances, you’ve had some plans dashed here and there, have the ways you’re able to serve shifted? And do you feel limited in any way or more available? How is the service manifesting, now, for you?
FO: Well, of course, now we’re in the time of covid, so I’m not getting on airplanes and flying to be with groups of people to teach retreats or seminars; I’m doing it on Zoom, and like everybody else, I have to adapt to that medium and what I have found is that what’s most important is the quality of presence.
When you’re resting in presence—and I don’t just mean being available like being present; really resting in presence has a palpable quality of awareness—the medium doesn’t matter so much. So, I try as best I can, to cultivate my contact with presence. If I have a single practice berry, it is that when I wander away from presence, I realize it and I try to come back. And then the presence guides me in what to say or do next. It isn’t my ‘shtick’, it’s how I’m being informed by the quality of loving awareness, let’s call it and as *Ron would call it, and the nature of the relationship that you and I, for example, are having now.
BB: So, you had certainly had some of that quality when you’re physically present way back when you were learning to work with patients in the hospice, all these years later in tick tock time, how is it different, in addition to the COVID thing.
FO: Well, I’m more familiar with my vulnerability now; there are fewer defenses now, there are fewer barriers between myself and the other, so I’m more available in a way, to them and to myself.
Having been on the other side of the sheet, being a patient in the hospital, it gives me a great deal more empathy, not only for the patients, but for the clinicians and caregivers who are being driven mercilessly by the systems in which they work. You know, when I was in the hospital as a patient, I wasn’t so much worried about myself honestly, but I was really worried about the clinicians who were taking care of me. They were a mess.
BB: Right, and that empathy is a gateway to compassion, as you were.
FO: It can be, it can also be a gateway to overwhelm. We need to be careful about that; not to be empathetically overloaded. You know that is where mindfulness practice becomes important because it becomes a balancing factor for empathy. And you know, I’m speaking to the choir here, that there’s a big difference between when someone suffering and I want to do something to them to relieve their suffering so my personal distress will be relieved; that’s me focused. Compassion is other-focused; I do something to relieve suffering because it’s the guidance of my deepest, wise heart now.
BB: Well, and as you were saying earlier to conclude that suggesting, that functioning ordinary mind can help us to see those kinds of distinctions. It’s very helpful in that way.
FO: That’s right. It’s important that we have, ideally, some cognitive clarity.
SD: Frank Frank Ostaseski in conversation with Barry Boyce. You can read a condensed version of their conversation in the February edition of Mindful Magazine, which you’ll find on newsstands now, or you can read that conversation at Mindful.org.
Listen to the first part of this conversation here: Lean In to Love with Frank Ostaseski – Mindful
Find more from Frank Ostaseski here:
And more from Mindful here:
In this conversation with founding editor Barry Boyce, Frank Ostaseski opens up about the changes he experienced after suffering from a serious stroke and shares how he found strength and refuge in love, compassion, and curiosity.