New year, new book, new invitations ...

Friday, Jan. 5, 2018 9:13 PM

A teacher at a retreat on living and dying I recently attended has written a book that has captured my attention.

The title is The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully. The author, Frank Ostaseski, is the co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco. He writes in a grounded and understandable way, using real stories and examples from the many people, both living and dying, he’s worked with over the years.

The book is about the connection between our lives and our inevitable deaths, and how maintaining an ever-present consciousness of death can bring us closer to our truest selves and what matters most to us.

Reflecting on death can have a profound impact not just on how we die, but on how we live. In the light of dying, it’s easy to distinguish between the tendencies that lead us toward wholeness and those that incline us toward separation and suffering.

The five invitations show us how to wake up fully to the rest of our lives, offer support for coping with loss, transition or crisis and guide us toward appreciating life’s preciousness. The invitations are not just theories, they are to be lived.

Invitation No. 1: Don’t wait. All things end, so living this truth encourages us to be more with what is in front of us. Questioning all the meaningless activities in our lives, we can come to focus more on being grateful for what we have now. Human connection, kindness, compassion and forgiveness come more easily. What are we waiting to do? Invitation No. 2: Welcome Everything, Push Nothing Away. We don’t have to like everything that comes into our lives. Rather than approval or disapproval, it’s more about trusting it all, listening and paying careful attention to the changing experiences around us. We’re always entering new territory and don’t know how things will turn out. It takes courage, flexibility and balance to just be open to the mysteries. What are we pushing away right now?

Invitation No. 3: Bring Your Whole Selves to the Experience. This invitation is about knowing and understanding all the parts of ourselves – the good, the bad and the ugly. Do we react to criticism by moving away, seeking to please or moving against? It is this knowing our inner life that enables us to connect to other human beings more deeply.Invitation No. 4: Find a Place of Rest in the Middle of Things. This teaches us to find some stillness in the middle of our busy lives. When we bring our full attention to what’s happening in this very moment, we can find spaciousness and calm. I have tested this out just trying to breathe deeply when I’m hurried. How many breaths does it take to calm ourselves down? Invitation No. 5: Cultivate Don’t Know Mind. This mind is more open to curiosity, surprise and wonder and not so limited by agendas, roles, expectations and plans. By allowing situations to develop without having to control them, listening more carefully to our own intuition and trusting this inner voice, we learn to look with fresh eyes and meet whatever shows up as it is. How did we respond to a surprise recently?

This is a book for all ages – millennials to elders. It is an inspiring exploration of the wisdom dying has for all of us. Instead of New Year’s resolutions, these invitations may have more of an impact on us as lasting practices to enhance our lives, however long or short they may be.

Martha McClellan was a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus to the other end of life and has written the book The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at