These Zen Priests Could Make You Less Fearful of Death

Sensei Robert Chodo Campbell and Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison on "10% Happier."

ByABC News
May 25, 2016, 1:56 PM

— -- For many of us, thinking about death -- our own, or that of anyone we love -- is supremely difficult. So, most of the time, we don’t think about it at all -- until we have no choice.

But two Zen Buddhist priests are using meditation, and a generous dose of humor, to show people that the dying process does not have to be scary, and can even be uplifting.

Sensei Robert Chodo Campbell and Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison are the co-founders of the New York Center for Contemplative Care in New York City, and have trained doctors, nurses, hospice care workers and social workers in 32 states.

“The reality is that this life of ours is short. This life is not infinite,” Campbell said. “At some point, this is going to be me in that bed. So, do I want to spend the rest of my life fearing that or embracing the life that I have? And that might mean having a lot of fun.”

During their interview with ABC News’ Dan Harris for his podcast, “10% Happier with Dan Harris,” the duo talked about how they teach people to embrace death’s inevitability as a push to live a fulfilling life -- Zen Buddhist practice forces followers to look at this reality repeatedly -- and also teach them how to treat a dying loved one with compassion instead of fear.

“The reality with being with dying people and sick people is so extraordinary because there’s something that strips away that the veneer that we put on it in society,” Ellison said. “We put the old people in the nursing home, we put the sick people in the hospital, we put people in hospice, but learning how to enter those spaces and with an intimacy and to realize I am also that -- I am also you -- person in the bed.”

“The intimacy is the piece that’s missing,” Campbell added. “Fifty years ago, this wasn’t the case, people were dying at home. We knew how to take care of people who are dying, we knew how to take care of Grandma ... [but now] everyone’s out in the work force. There’s no one to take care of Grandma if she got sick. It’s such a mark on society, how far we’ve come and how far back we’ve fallen in this area of care-giving.”

Watch the full interview in the video player and download the "10% Happier" podcast on iTunes.

Campbell and Ellison offer a nine-month course “in the art of relating to the patient.” They take about 35 students a year, showing people how to incorporate meditation practice and caring into their bedside manner with patients and in their relationships with loved ones. They also have a book out now called “Awake at the Bedside: Teachings on Palliative & End of Life Care.”

“To me, the greatest fear I think all of us have is meeting the realities of our aging, illness and death,” Ellison said. “The reality of it to me makes life so vivid and beautiful. ... For me, it’s about how do you want to live your life. How do you want to live this day, and to me it brings this kind of awareness.”

During the “10% Happier” interview, it was clear their love of caring for people starts with each other. Campbell and Ellison, who have been romantic partners for 15 years, joked around, pushed each other’s buttons, nudged each other over who would be allowed to be speak next, then in between, they would stop to calmly explain how they came to run a center teaching better hospice care.

Both men had very different upbringings. Ellison grew up in a Jewish household in upstate New York and said he knew he wanted to become a Zen Buddhist monk at 8 years old after he saw a photo of one in a National Geographic magazine.

“And he was so still and I thought, 'Wow, I would like to be like that,'” Ellison said.

He started meditating at age 17 and never looked back, though he said it took him 10 years of practice to realize he actually enjoyed it after he started caring for his ailing grandmother.

“She always had a lot of difficulty with ‘the Zen thing’ as she called it,” he said. “Coming from a family of Holocaust survivors, it was really difficult for her. Culturally, it felt like a betrayal ... for her.”

But towards the end of her life, it was his grandmother who told him he should start an organization with Campbell to help ailing patients and their caregivers have an easier time with hospice care.

Campbell’s upbringing couldn’t have been more opposite. Born to a neglectful and alcoholic teenage mother in Birmingham, England, Campbell said he was bounced around between relatives and went on to live a life fueled by drugs, alcoholism and violence. He left home at 16 and traveled Europe. He worked as a DJ in Spain, spent a few months on a kibbutz in Israel and then worked in the fashion industry, first in London and then New York City.

“Coming to New York for me was like a kid in a candy shop,” Campbell said. “It was 1983 in New York. The club scene, the disco scene, the drug scene, and for three years I really took that on 100 percent. ... What I was doing was pushing the envelope more and more and more -- how dangerous could I really make this life of mine be?”

Eventually, he got sober and starting working at an institute caring for addicts and other troubled adults. A chance meeting with a female Buddhist monk led him to start practicing Zen meditation.

“I had been sitting for about two years, practicing meditation, and I realized I needed to do something else then just sitting on the cushion,” Campbell said. “I wanted to be of service so that’s when I started volunteering at hospice.”

He met Ellison as he was caring for his grandmother and after her death, the two started the center together.

When it comes to contemplating their own deaths, again both had different views. Campbell said he feared the “lack of control” about the dying process, and said he wouldn’t want to prolong his suffering and hated the thought of Ellison having to care for him. Ellison, on the other hand, has a more open approach.

“I don’t find death scary but I don’t know what it will be like when I’m dying,” he said. “When I’m actively dying I don’t know what that will be like. Maybe I’ll be very at peace with it, maybe I won’t. ... To me it’s about being open to what that moment will be, I have no idea, but the idea of it is not scary to me, I’m actually quite curious.”