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An Article From:

inspiring a revolution of the mind
Issue 8, 1997



Exploring our Intention
in Service
by Frank Ostaseski

Frank Ostaseski is the Founding Director of the Zen Hospice Project, a nationally recognized programme of conscious care for the dying in San Francisco.
Inspired by the 2,500-year-old Buddhist tradition of contemplating sickness, old age and death, the Zen Hospice Project encourages and supports a mutually beneficial relationship between volunteer caregivers and individuals facing death. This innovative model of conscious care provides a spectrum of collaborative volunteer programmes, residential care, and training which aim at cultivating wisdom and compassion through service. Founded in 1987, the Zen Hospice Project is the oldest and largest Buddhist hospice in America.

A long-time Buddhist practitioner, Frank uses his knowledge of both Buddhism and Western psychotherapy in his work of de-mystifying the care-giving process.

frank ostaseski
The following article is based on a talk given by Frank Ostaseski at the Munich conference on Death, Dying and Living in November 1996.
This afternoon we are going to explore our intention in service, and I think it's helpful to start with the basic, but true premise that real service does not happen unless both people are being served. At an installation ceremony at the Zen Centre, a student asked the abbot, 'What can the Dharma teach me about serving others?" The abbot answered, "What others? Serve yourself!" The student persisted, "How do I serve myself?" To which the abbot responded, "Take care of others."

Every day I work with people who are dying, and some of these people are very tough. They may have been living on the streets for some time, or be angry about their loss of control. Often they have lost their trust in humanity; turning their heads to the wall, they withdraw. Most of them don't care beans about Buddhism. These people don't trust easily and if I am going to be of any use to them at all, I have to be particularly clear and honest about my intention; if I'm not, they will quickly sniff out my insincerity and sentimentality.

Some of the individuals I work with blossom, and the way in which they die will be a great gift; they make reconciliations with their long-lost families, and they find the kindness and acceptance they have been looking for their whole lives. It can be quite wonderful to be around these people. But I don't do this work because it can turn out so well. Chasing such rewards brings exhaustion and ultimately leads to manipulation because we're so busy trying to create the conditions that lead to a reward. In so doing we miss the current situation. I do this work because I love it and because it serves me. I try to see myself in each person that I serve, and I try to see them in me. Those I work with know and trust that, in fact they come to rely on it. They understand we are in it together.

You see, at the very heart of service we understand that the act of caring is always mutually beneficial. We understand that in nurturing others we are always caring for ourselves, and this understanding fundamentally shifts the way we provide care. I'm not the good guy coming to the rescue; I have no white horses. Instead we become what I call 'compassionate companions'. 'Compassion', when literally translated means ' suffering with others' and 'with' is the most important word, because it implies belonging. 'Companion' is 'one who travels with another'. So in this relationship there is no guide, there is no healer and no one healed; we simply accompany one another. And as my friend Reb Anderson says, "We are simply walking through birth and death holding hands."

If we are paying attention as we walk into the room of someone dying, we immediately understand, in a visceral way, just how precarious this life is. As we understand that, we also come to see how precious it is. When we keep death close at hand, we become less compulsive about our desires, we take ourselves and our ideas a little less seriously, and we let go more easily. We become more open to generosity and to love. Paradoxically, working with the dying will make us kinder to one another. In the face of death everything we normally identify with ourselves will either be stripped away by illness or given up gracefully-but it all goes. 'I'm a father', 'I'm a mother', 'I'm a hospice worker', 'I'm a sexual deviant'-whatever our notion about our identity, it will go.

On the surface, the lives of the people I work with seem to be very different from mine: they're black, I'm white; they shoot heroin and have AIDS, I don't; they're homeless and alone, I pay a ridiculous amount of rent and I have four teenagers. It would be easy to convince myself that we are separate, after all a few months ago we might have just walked past each other on the streets. But the wonderful thing is that now, in the hospice, we are thrown together in the most intimate of circumstances. And suddenly in the midst of all the activity, in the details of service, we find a meeting place. We find that we belong together. 


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