« Making Sense with Sam Harris

#104 — The Lessons of Death

2017-11-14 | 🔗

In this episode of the Making Sense podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Frank Ostaseski about death and dying—and about how the awareness of death can improve our lives in each moment.

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
One thousand eight hundred and eighteen, today's topic is a topic we all think about, while doing her best, not to think about it. The topic is death and how we think about death changes depending on whether were thinking about dying ourselves or about losing the people we love, but whichever side of the coin we take here, death is really an ever present reality for us, and it is so whether were thinking about it or not. It's all. always announcing itself. In the background on the news in the stories we hear about the lives of others-
In our concerns about our own health, in the attention we pay when crossing the street, if you observe yourself. Mostly you'll see that you spend a fair amount of energy each day, try not to die and has long been noted by philosophers and contemplatives and poets Death makes a mockery of almost everything else. We spend our lives doing just take a moment to reflect on how you ve spent your day. So far, the kinds of things had captured your tent, the things you ve been genuinely worried about. Think of the last argument you had with your spouse. Think of the last hour you spent on social media overlap.
days have been spending an inordinate amount of time trying to find a new fund for my podcast. This is literally absorbed hours of my time. So if you have stopped me at any point in the last forty eight hours and asked me what I'm up to what really concerns me? What deep problem I'm attempting to solve this if no, which seems most likely to bring order to the chaos and my corner the universe. The honest answer would have been I'm looking for a font now I must say that everything we do has to be profound in every moment, and sometimes you just have to find a font, but contemplating the brevity of life bring some perspective to how we use our attention is not so much what we pay attention to,
the quality of attention it, how we feel while doing it, and if you need to spend the next hour looking for a fond, you might as well enjoy it, because the truth is None of us know how much time we have in this life and taking that fact to heart brings a kind of moral and emotional clarity and energy to the present, or at least it can and I can bring our resolve to not suffer over stupid things very take something like road rage. This is probably the quintessential example of. misspent energy, your behind the wheel of your car, and somebody does something erratic or probably just driving more slowly than you want, and you find yourself getting angry and I would submit to you if that kind of thing is impossible. If your
mindful of the shortness of life. If you are aware that you are going to die and the other person is going to die and that your boy, going to lose everyone. You love. and you dont know when you ve got this moment of life this beautiful moment. This moment, where your consciousness is bright, work is not deemed by morphine in the hospital on your. last day among the living and the sun is out or it's raining. Both our beautiful and your spouse is alive. And your children are alive and you're driving and you're, not in some failed state, were civilians are being rounded up and murdered by the thousands you're just running an errand and that person in front of you Who you will never meet whose hopes and sorrows
you know nothing about. But what, if you could know them. you would recognise or impressively similar to your own is just driving slow. This is your life, the only one you ve got and you will never get this moment back again and you don't know how many more moments you have, no matter how many times you do something there will come a day when you do it. For the last time, you ve had a thousand chances to tell the people closer to that. You love them. In a way that they feel it and in a way, that you feel it and you ve missed most of them. And you don't know how many more you're going to get you ve got this next interaction. With another human being to make
the world they marginally better place. You got this one opportunity To fall in love with existence, so why not rely acts and enjoy your life really relax, even in the midst of struggle, even while doing harm work even under uncertainty, or in a game right now, and you can see the clock. So you don't know how much time you have left, and yet you are free to make the game is interesting as possible. You can even changed the rules. You can discover new games that no one has thought of yet you can make games that used to be impossible, suddenly possible and get others to play them with you, You can literally build a rocket.
to go to Mars so that you can start a colony there. I actually know people who will spend some part of today doing that, but whatever you do, however, seemingly ordinary, you can feel the preciousness of life. And an awareness of death is the doorway into that way of being in the world and there If people who are more aware of death and the lessons it has to teach us, then my guest today today, I am speaking to Frank, asked assess key Frank as a buddhist teacher and a leading voice in end of life care in nineteen. Eighty seven, he cofounded the Zen hospice project, which was the first Buddhists hospice in America and two thousand for he created the Metal Institute to train health
their workers in compassionate and mindful and of life? Care and Frank has been widely featured in the media on bill? Moilers television series on our own terms in the PBS areas, with our eyes open on the upper Winfrey, show an admin print publications he's been honoured by the Dalai Lama for his work in this area, and is the there of a new book. The five invitations discovering what death can teach us about living fully. If you want more information about Frank and his work, you can find the relevant so my blog and I'm sure you'll hear. In the next hour of conversation, that francs as the voice of man who has taken the time to reflect on the brevity of life and a wonderful voice. It is so now I bring you frank,
I was asking I'm here with Frank US dusky, frank thanks for coming on the packet there needs to be with you thanks for having me so we win many people in common, we were introduced by our mutual friend Joseph Goldstein, who was old friend of mine and one of my first meditation teachers. It was he a teacher for you as well. He was, as was Jack and sharing in the early days in many of the other asian teachers who came to town of well, so I had it. directions to that world of turbine the bus and practice, but also in zen practice. When I came to, I start the Zen hospice project in San Francisco, which was the first first buddhist hospice. Actually nice, where I would definitely have to focus our conversation on death and die in which it, which is really your area of expertise. Since it amazing that some one can be an expert in that, but you are certainly one of them just before we begin tell people what.
hospice care is so you could think of hospital care is something on a continuum of healthcare that usually access when people are in the final six months to a year of their life generally oriented toward comfort care, managing symptoms, joint people's pain, helping people. Why have chosen not to necessarily pursue more cured of therapies, ass became, might happen in people's homeward might happen in a facility and, of course, now we're seeing a plan, a blending of hospital care and what is called palliative care, a comfort care, that's even happening in acute care facilities, So what was different about Hospice we did all the normal things at any other hospice. We do, but we try to add to that mix them component of my father. we wondered what would it be like? You know, to bring together people
who were cultivating what we might call listening mind or listening heart through meditation practice in people who needed to be heard, at least once in your life folks were dying in our case, those folks for people who live on the streets of San Francisco, at least initially Now, as this during the AIDS epidemic, no, the AIDS epidemic was started around one, eighty or so in San Francisco level earlier and this isn't about meat, eighties rats looking for both peoples, eight and also people with cancer. Mostly, we were tending to people that the system that can fill the gaps in the system, and how did you first get into doesn't want and what was your first encounter with death? at what point your life? Did you begin to have a more than average interest in contemplating death at an end using it as a lens through which to view
your life and envy you how you could actually be of help to the people. The will mean. Doesn't I got you know reduced early on my mom died when I was about sixteen and my dad years later, so death came into my life quite early buddhist practice, with its emphasis on impermanence was another kind of path that help me come too this work for a while, I worked in refugee camps in Southern Mexico and Central America, where I survive horrible dying actually and was quite helpless to do anything about that. At times there, when I came back to San Francisco, the AIDS epidemic edges You know just begun, we didn't even know it was. Stephen Line, who was a teacher in dear friend, was a big influence both on my own personal life, but also on the creation of an hospice project. Much of what he did, it taught influenced how we set up a hospice
and how we care for people, so you I think I was really. I was introduced it s really early on and it wasn't so much that damn it wasn't just about the study of death. It was about. How can we really be of service to people in their most vulnerable moments and what happens in that exchange? You know these days. Of course it's not just about how we prepare for our dying it's more about. What can we learn from the wisdom of death can help us live a full, happy, meaningful, rich life. Give me to imagine SAM at the time of her dying, that we will have the physical strength of emotional stability to mint
I'm to do. The work of a lifetime is a kind of ridiculous gamble, and so I dont suggest that we wait until that time. I suggest that we reflect on these issues and reflect on this fact of our life now they're, not so much so that we have a good day from baby sure that is anymore, but really sought it. You know we can really get how actually precarious this life is, and when we understand something about that, we come into contact with that directly in our bones. I think we also come into contact with his tat, precious slices, and then we know what a waste of money
How do you wanna jumping with both feet? We wanna tell people, we love that we love them. So I think that this is really the great great learning this come to me from being. The folks were dying, which is that it is easy to take life for granted and when we do exist with is easy for us to get caught up in our neurotic concerns on, and I think that's the beautiful thing about a beautiful legacy that I have some people are dying. Is it really show me what matters most yeah. He also everything you just said can be valued in a in an entirely secular and atheistic context contacts. I am most people given the nature of my audience, who are here in this conversational, be fairly sure
that when they die, that will be the end of conscious existence and then they will be certainly many them reluctant to think about the significance of death in any form of other worldly context. Here the idea there said that one would want to have a good death or be prepared to meet once death for reasons that extend beyond the moment of death because through their they imagine, there's there's nothing beyond the moment of death, and I must confess I am fairly agnostic. On that point, I think that, obviously there are good reasons to believe that when you're dead you're dead, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about what might happen after death, but I spend a lot of time thinking about death and about the shadow cast back on the rest of life and the way in which that shadow can Clare.
if I live and cause us too to prioritize things that we will wish, we had prioritized when our lives come to an end and whether that end comes by surprise or or in a way that is more orderly. I'm happy to talk about anything you may may not believe about the global significance of of death, but to focus for a moment on. Just what can be learned in the context of this life? It doesn't presuppose belief in anything beyond it, one of them the things that people are most confused about, most surprised by what what? What? What is waiting there to be discovered by someone who really hasn't thought much about death and has data avoided thinking about it. Frankly, And what is the value of of learning those lessons soon. Rather than later great question, you do I mean
I dont know what happens to we die SAM. I dont know we'll find out rang I think that, without a reminder of death, we tend to take her life for granted and we become lost in these endless pursuits of self gratification. You now, But, as I was mentioning, we keep a close at hand. You know our fingertips I think it reminds us not allowed so tightly and I think we ourselves in our ideas a little less seriously, and I they go a little more easily When I find is it, windows, a reflection on death. We come down here and that were on the boat together, and I think this help. To be kinder gentler to one another, actually the habits of life? They have a powerful moment right, the propellers toward you know right until the moment of death, and so the obvious question arises. What habits do I want to cry
not whether or not they give me a better after life, but here in this life you know my thoughts were not homeless. My thoughts take shape Johnson? You know, you know the old story. They develop into habits and heartening to character, so an conscious. Relationship with my thoughts leads me to reactivity.
And I want to live a life. That's more responsible and more, I want to say clean as the best working I would describe it. Air living with an awareness of death is obviously a an ancient. Spiritual practice means an admonition that one should do. This dates back is as far as Socrates and the Buddha and several books in in the old testament like Ecclesiasticism, and I think that all three of those who are more or less contemporaneous with one another, but it got you must go back further than that, and so it is no accident that monk sin and
On see its and contemplatives do this very deliberately: they focus on death and they live their lives. They seek to live their lives as though they could end at any moment in there and they are trying to prioritize those things that will be the things that make sense in one's last hour of life again. This is often framed by a kind of other worldly belief, but certainly not always remember. Stephen Levine, who you just mentioned at one point, decided to live a year consciously doing this consciously living a year as he would want to live a year if it were going to be his last year- and this is struck me as an amazing thing to do, but of course he had more than one more year to live. In fact, I think he had at least twenty at that point it he died a couple years ago, and it is a bit
a paradox here, because that there are many things, many good things in life, not merely superficial things that we can only engaged. We can only seek with real energy, based on the assumption that we will live a fairly long time and evidence as they like. The decision to have a child or to spend five or more years on on your next project and in most cases it is a safe assumption that we have at least an average span of time in which to do these things. How do you square that, with this, this imperative that we not take life for granted and that we use the clarifying wisdom of impermanence in each moment, insofar as were able yeah I mean, I think, that one of the things it one of the ways we can shift the conversation Even the one that you and I are having, Is it isn't all about preparing for my death and is it all about? this moment at which I still breathing
but more about how do I live my life on an ongoing basis. You know I had a heart attack a few years ago and one of the things I did after the heart attack, as I did reading other people who had heart attacks, and one of the people I met up on was Maslow, a mezzo sucker to me, a fake heart attack in one point in his life and and after what you wrote this beautiful thing. He said the confrontation with death and the repeat from the reprieve from it makes everything look so precious, so sacred, so beautiful that I feel more strongly than ever to impose too low
to embrace it and to let myself be overwhelmed by had he said, my river has never looked so beautiful death in its ever present possibility makes love passionate love more possible. That's beautiful is not just about preparing for this final moment, but really looking at seeing. How does it what happens if these? If we stop separating life and death, we start pulling them apart. You know We saw them is one thing so for me, one of the things that that does is help me really see the beauty of life. I mean: do you think about the cherry blossoms that cover the hillsides of Japan every spring, this place right, each in Northern Idaho, whether these blue flax flowers at last for a single day. How come they so much more beautiful than plastic flowers isn't it they're brevity? Isn't it the fact that they will end the is part of their beauty? So I think that
true with our human lives as well. It's not like get ready death is coming. You know, don't screw it up, it's more like. Oh. How do I appreciate this so for me being with dying is a law that has built in built up in me a tremendous gratitude and appreciation for the fact that I'm alive And so it isn't just about training, crammed protest, refuge. finally test. We, we think we're gonna pass fear, I don't know what happens after we die. I don't know, we'll find out how it is spent what I do know, and this is interesting. Sam is everybody's, got a story about what happens after they die in. My experience is that that story shapes in which they die and in some ways even the way in which they live their life. We can talk about that. That's in I remember being with it presently the California Atheist Association who came to send hospice to die. I was really proud that he came
now that he didn't feel animals can apportioning downward him. We were gonna talk him into some kind of belief, system. And it could go the way he needed it go so my job to convince them of something. Otherwise, you know it's my job to find out what his vision and how does he need to go through this act? I want to ask you that, because it has struck me more and more that secularists an atheist are really lacking resources to guide them both when they get second and need to think about their own death or world confront the death of those close to them. It just- the fact that there isn't a strong, familiar secular tradition, around path to perform a funeral right, and who do you call when great, when someone close to you dies? Norman
or how atheistic you are. Many people are left calling the rabbi or their priest or interest asking them to dumb it down, because the only people who know how to perform funerals and the only the only language around these moments in life is just Possibly framed by by religion in ITALY, in Eden B I mean you, I didn't hundreds of memorials for people and through the AIDS epidemic in most of them had. No, you know as you, some of them had early religious training. We can talk about how that influences the way in which we die by the way, but you know so. We had to create thing We had to draw up a ritual how you nowadays with ritual, which your has this way of bringing food. the truth is already there in the real away. True ritual different than ceremony evokes something fundamental
ass, we could say it might draw on an ancient wisdom or some we know ancient practice, but really it's about how we evoke the truth. It's right here right now. That's often what what characterize the lot of the memorial service I, but one of the things that I saw with people whether they were had religious training or not. One of the things that really mattered. Most of them was relationship. What's the relationship with themselves with the people that they cared about in their lives, you know with reality, However, we might define that and so one of the tickets, and if you will were one of the pass in for people who even had sworn of religion
years ago was some sense of interdependence we buy card or or connection with a better way to set that was there. That was very little. I can t hundreds of stories with you about people who had no religious training at all, but love their time in nature, and so we would work with that. We work with that experience as a way of helping them he's into mystery of what happens in time. I mean look dying. Is we know? At least this much? We noted dying is much more than a medically that, and so the profundity. What occurs in a dying process is too big to feed into any more What is at a medical model or religious model to dig it shake this loose have all of our day. All the ways we find herself all the ideas we ve carried over all these years. There
stripped away by illness or their gracefully given up, but they all go then, who are we? Then? I think these are questions that people wrestle with time and as they come closer to the delight, of course, if they have some religious or spiritual training, it influences that that exploration, but we know it doesnt them if he comes up for people anyway,. even those people who think going is a dial that they know where there's nothing that happens even them there, the reflection on their relationships and how they conducted those relationships is really import I mean, is really big question. The initials lives is usually something that, like you know, is their life after death, but it's something more like am I loved and did I love, I'm always struck by the the ace symmetry between?
in dying and having others die obvious? I haven't died, so I don't know first hand what that's like, but you're having lost people close to me an unseen other people go through this expire. Hence it is different being the one dying and obviously the person who dies loses everyone, but here sheathed also loses the experience of having to live with the with that experience of loss, and here, she doesn't have to live in a world where, where everyone is just carry on as before, and where persons grief becomes a kind of embarrassment or or something that other people have had to figure out, what to do with what were navigate around in some way are. The two sides of this meat is: is the death experience and the bereavement experience
Importantly different in any way. Yes, we can make some you'd like to continue listening to this time, can you'll need to subscribe, SAM Aristotle, you'll, get access to all full length, episodes of making sense Pontiac into other subscriber only content, including bonus episodes, and I am as in the conversations I've been having on the waking up making, says podcast breed and rely entirely on with your support, and you can subscribe now fanfares that work.
Transcript generated on 2020-10-08.