5 Ways of Thinking That Will Help You Live More Presently

Frank Ostaseski is a Buddhist teacher and leading thinker in end-of-life care. This is what he's learnt about appreciating life while you have it, and being truly present.


I moved into a fourth-floor walk-up in Park Slope in 2008. Directly below lived a couple that had moved into the Brooklyn building in 1945. Every time I’d see the gentleman climbing the stairs he’d known since age 18, he’d offer a smile while repeating his mantra: “Aging isn’t for the faint at heart.” 

No, it’s not, though we certainly do rage against it at every turn. Between dreams of extending consciousness artificially to freezing our bodies to excessive body modifications to retain a semblance of youth, we don’t want to die. Or maybe we don’t want to grow old, considering we won’t really know death until we’ve vacated the planet. 

This biological imperative has turned into an emotional obsession. And so we rely on illusions of immortality (or, at least, extended mortality) to comfort us even though we are all aware that this all shall pass. 

Not everyone avoids this knowledge. In fact, focusing on death offers a sense of liberation during life otherwise unattainable if you avoid the topic. While many religions have invented heavens and other concoctions to assuage the saddened soul, Buddhism turns its inner eye at the world as it is now. Frank Ostaseski is one such Buddhist. 

Thirty years ago Ostaseski founded the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco; 17 years later he founded the Metta Institute, with end-of-life care being an organizational focus. A primary criticism is how Americans treat death. He argues that we’ve made caring for the elderly and dying a task and burden instead of honoring it as a natural progression of life. The dying process has become so professionalized, he says, we’ve lost touch with nature’s process. Dying is too profound to be a medical event. 

In a recent talk at the Longnow Foundation he shared valuable insights into the wisdom of death, which is really about cultivating awareness during life. In his talk he discusses what he calls “five invitations to be present.” 

Don’t wait. 

In 2012, Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative nurse, recorded her top five regrets of the dying. All of them in some capacity deal with putting things off: working too hard so that you don’t enjoy family and social time; living in a way that feels more authentic; allowing yourself to feel and express feelings more often. 

This is encapsulated in Ostaseski’s first invitation: don’t wait until the end to allow yourself to feel and express what you want. Death does not have to be threatening, but can serve as a reminder that an entire range of emotions and possibilities are at hand. He sums it up:

"When we look through a concept, when we look through a construction, we lose the immediacy of our lives. If we learn to let go into uncertainty, to trust that our basic nature and that of the rest of the world are not fundamentally different, then the fact that things are not solid and fixed becomes a liberating opportunity rather than a threat."

Welcome everything, push away nothing.

An especially useful bit of advice during a moment of societal fracturing. Yet this has always been a Buddhist precept: do not push away what you immediately dislike. As Ostaseski puts it, you don’t have to like what’s arising in front of you. This has nothing to do with seeking only what’s pleasurable. “Our task is only to meet what’s showing up at our door.” 

Acceptance is not resignation, he continues. This has nothing to do with being a “door mat.” Ostaseski quotes James Baldwin: “Not everything that can be faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced.” This invitation leads us into a deeper world of possibilities. The practice of inviting in whatever appears allows us to develop the skills to respond to anything. Maybe instead of fighting, freezing, or fleeing in the face of challenging (but not life threatening) stimulation, we develop our nervous system in such a way as to listen and then make an informed decision. 

Bring your whole self to the experience.

We like to present our most attractive self, Ostaseski says. But such a practice is often useless. When he enters a hospice room he has an entire toolbox to pull from, but if he brought it with him it would only confuse the situation. Instead he chooses to lead with his humanity, which requires a stripping down of the layers of identity we build up to protect ourselves against vulnerability. 

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 2016 was its most successful year: 290,000 cosmetic breast augmentations; 131,000 face lifts; seven million Botox injections. While many of these surgeries occur later in life, this drive to present our “most attractive self” is infecting the youth. There were 229,000 cosmetic procedures performed on teenagers in 2016, including this fast growing field: male breast reduction. 

“Wholeness doesn’t mean perfection,” Ostaseski says. “It means no part left out.” Our increasing cosmetic surgeries represents a neurosis of unattainable perfection. Ostaseski shares a story about rummaging through a sales rack at a department store and seeing price tags listing items “as is.” He says this is how we should always present ourselves: as is.

Find a place of rest in the middle of things.

The most shared article I’ve ever published on this site is about how busyness kills creativity, which is an indicator that many people know we’re taxing our bodies and minds. Ostaseski sees this as a real problem as well. We imagine rest will come on vacation or when our inbox is empty. But if we keeping wait for that, we’re in trouble. We need to rest inside of the perceived busyness. 

Ostaseski tells the story of Adele, an 86-year-old Russian Jewish woman in hospice care who was suffering greatly. She didn’t care about spirituality or “California woo.” She just wanted to be free of pain. Since she was having trouble breathing, Ostaseski breathed with her. He asked her to put her attention on the gap between inhale and exhale, which is also a mediation technique. Within a few moments her body softened, the pain loosening its grip. A few minutes later she peacefully passed away. 

Ostaseski says she was able to find rest in the middle of things, namely the biggest thing that will happen to everyone one of us. Yet we needn’t wait for that moment of passing to implement such a simple yet effective strategy of finding that pause between each breath. 

Cultivate don’t-know mind. 

Buddhism has all sorts of great concepts: nothingness, emptiness, no-self. Add to this list “don’t know mind,” which Ostaseski says is characterized by curiosity, wonder, awe, and surprise. Every time he plays hide and seek with his granddaughter, she’s genuinely surprised, whereas adults walking into a surprise party immediately want to know who’s responsible. The “don’t know mind” is one “that’s open, it’s ready and free.” 

We all know the dangers of confirmation bias even as we live through them. “Don’t know mind” is an opportunity to approach every situation as if you had no biases. This is not an invitation to ignorance, Ostaseski warns. It just has to do with a softening of rigid beliefs, of staying, as he is a fan of saying, open to the possibilities, which seems to be a theme running through all five invitations. 

Potential is always at hand should we stay emotionally flexible enough to welcome them. This also offers us a sense of meaning in life. Should we live this way there would be no regrets to relay to the nurse at the end of our journey. We can learn from death in life, should we keep paying attention and staying open.

You can watch Ostaseski's full talk here.

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Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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