A new subscriber wrote recently to lament The Sun’s seeming focus on death and dying. He wanted to know whether, in future issues, he could expect some humor and a lighter touch.
I assured him I wasn’t against humor; I love it when we make people laugh. But I don’t shy away from challenging our readers, either — or from making them cry — with words that speak truthfully, sometimes painfully, to our innermost heart.
Death and dying is a subject most magazines avoid. To devote much of an issue to it, as we did recently, may seem excessive — evidence of some morbid preoccupation. Yet isn’t the unconscious fear of death at the root of much of our suffering? Isn’t it odd that those willing to face death, to recognize and acknowledge death, to turn it into an ally, are also able to radiate a joyously felt reverence for life?
As long as we deny death, Stephen Levine suggests, we deny life: our essence, our source, the deathless core of our being. Thus, we stay confused about the true nature of healing. For there is a healing possible, he says, that can take us beyond our greatest suffering — even beyond our concepts of “life” and “death.”
Originally a Buddhist meditation teacher, Levine became associated in the early Seventies with the spiritual teacher Ram Dass, with whom he co-authored Grist For The Mill. At Ram Dass’s invitation, Levine joined the Hanuman Foundation’s Dying Project, which he co-directed with his wife Ondrea for seven years, helping hundreds of people bring more consciousness into their dying process. His books based on these experiences are classics in their field: Who Dies?, Meetings At The Edge, and, most recent, Healing Into Life And Death.
Levine was in North Carolina recently to give a two-day workshop on “Conscious Living, Conscious Dying.” Ralph Earle reports:
“Levine sits cross-legged on a pillow at the center of a rambling, L-shaped room whose windows face a wooded hillside. He begins by asking his audience to relax, breathe softly, and be aware of their bellies. If your belly is soft, Levine explains persuasively, your mind is more likely to stay gentle and open. In this condition, compassion is possible. Only when he feels the audience is soft-bellied, receptive, and compassionate does he begin his formal talk.
“At his side, in silent meditation, sits Ondrea, with whom he jointly conducts workshops. She seems to radiate a calming, grounding influence. Levine tells the audience that she is communicating precisely the same message as he is, except that she ‘sends’ it out instead of speaking it.
“Later in the morning, when her husband leaves the room for a few minutes, Ondrea fields questions in a pragmatic, down-to-earth style that comes as a surprise after the other-worldly impression she has made. The continuity between her answers and his discussion supports his assertion that the two of them differ mainly in their style of presentation.
“A smallish, wiry, bearded man of fifty, Levine is earnest and compassionate, and not without humor. Even though (and perhaps because) he believes that a statement such as ‘I create my reality’ would take several lifetimes to comprehend, he finds it necessary sometimes to take healing and soul-searching lightly. ‘Just think of this as a Woody Allen movie,’ he says.”
THE SUN: In the introduction to your book Who Dies?, Ram Dass talks about the days when people believed the Earth was flat, and says that the first people who suspected it was round had incredible courage to risk sailing over the edge. He makes the analogy to your pioneering work with the dying. I wonder whether there was a time in your own life when you were afraid of dying.
LEVINE: Let’s see, I was flying on Friday. . . . [Laughs.] Your question makes me recognize that my experience of getting into this work was not one of courage, but gratitude.
THE SUN: How so?
LEVINE: There’s nothing more intimate than being at the bedside of someone who’s dying. It’s intimate at many levels, because of the life review that goes on. But more than that, dying people play at their very edge, and not just the edge of their fears, but the edge of their growth, at a place where they see that many of the ways of escape that used to help them cope no longer apply. Death is no time to be coping; it is time to fly, and coping is too dense. What an intimate sharing! I would always leave a bedside feeling that I had been honored, and had been let into someone’s heart. I don’t know that courage was the quality required of me.
THE SUN: Did you find, as you entered more deeply into the work, that courage ever became a major issue?
LEVINE: If you met a great teacher, it would take some courage to speak, because you would feel self-conscious. But that would be minor next to the immensity of what was going on. As the teacher spoke to you, courage would no longer be an issue.
Courage might be the first step in approaching a dying person, but it’s a minor step when the momentum’s so enormous — as it is when someone’s in physical pain. Also, when you’re working with one person who’s dying, there are a dozen others around the bed who are in profound grief.
For me, I think it took more courage to approach my own grief than it did to approach death. Once, I was with a child, a blond, blue-eyed little girl who was dying, and she looked and spoke like and had the coloration and tonality of my own daughter, who was about the same age. There’s also just the grief we all have, that we carry from day to day, the fear of our fear, the anger at our anger, the doubt about our doubt.
But you have to realize that I came to this work through being a Buddhist meditation teacher, so I had viewed and approached a lot of this material — and to some degree resolved it — in sitting. If I had come to the work with the dying before I came to the meditation work, I’m sure it would have been much different. I think it takes more courage to sit with your suffering, your self-interest and your greed and your distrust — and to let those melt into God — than it does to be with someone who’s dying.
THE SUN: Have you been at the bedsides of people who were close to you?
LEVINE: When my mother died, she was eighty-three. Anything that had separated us had long since dissolved. We were very loving, with lots of touching and many — ad nauseam to her, probably — conversations about the dying process, and the deaths in her life. After she died, I just felt pleased to have shared a part of our lives together. I think gratitude, again, was my predominant experience of her passing.
My father is still alive; we have wonderful conversations. He’s eighty-nine.
THE SUN: How does he feel about having death so close to him now?
LEVINE: It’s interesting — when I would talk to my mother about dying, we’d talk about it on all kinds of levels. She’d be interested about how people worked with pain, and what happens after death. We’d be talking, and I’d look over at my father, who would be smoking his cigar, with The Wall Street Journal in front of him, and every once in a while, at a particularly cogent moment, you’d see a puff of smoke come up from behind the paper.
He is a man who never spoke of God, except to say “God damn” or “Oh, Jesus.” He was in a coma a couple of years ago, and when he came out of it he said to me, “The Lord runs the place, but I’m sure we can do business.” It was the first time I ever heard him express any piety at all. He had probably had a near-death experience. But as we talked about it two days later, he was very strict. He’s a scientist, and a Bostonian. There are various forms of deeply conditioned blocking there, but his dignity demands that he not talk about it. So it’s not for me to put it on him.
You know, if somebody doesn’t ask about something, and you give them information, you really have to wonder what you are up to. What’s my motivation? What is this fascism in me to think they have to change to be OK?
THE SUN: So only if people ask, then, do you explain your insights into the dying process and your methods for working through it?
LEVINE: Only if they ask. Otherwise, I just tell them everything’s going to be OK. My father’s attitude is, “I’m so old now I don’t care what’s going on.”
THE SUN: The focus of your most recent book is the healing process rather than the dying process. Does this represent a change in direction for you?
LEVINE: Well, not really. What’s happened, I think, is that as Ondrea and I have become more profoundly involved in people’s processes, we have experienced that, spiritually, there isn’t the separation between life and death that there seems to be in the world of the body and of material things.
What we’ve really come to see is that healing is not limited to the body. The body may live or die, but the healing we took birth for occurs in the heart; if that quality of heart is not there, no matter what happens to the body, healing is absent. So in that sense, our work has not changed at all, since our work has always been to learn to open our hearts in hell, to become one with pain, so that it does not turn into suffering and separation from God. I think that the only service one can do, in a very real sense, whether in serving the dying or those who are healing themselves, is to remind people of their true nature — the uninjured, the deathless — which is the very source of healing.
In the sense of what we do from day to day, our work is always changing. If there isn’t change in one’s work or one’s life, then probably growth is not occurring, since growth occurs at the edge, at the limit of our exploration. One always meets fear in growth. The exploration of fear at that edge is what allows us to go beyond. So I don’t know that our work is really changing so much as it’s evolving naturally, into greater open-heartedness and deeper participation in the process we all share.
We’ve seen that some people’s dying has been a perfect healing, just as we’ve seen that some people, having — so to speak — “cured” cancer, have gone on to live lives that are very unhealed and very separatist, full of anger and judgement and aggrandizement.
THE SUN: How would you describe the relationship between dying and healing?
LEVINE: Well, in a very real sense, you could say there’s no relationship: healing is the work of a lifetime and dying is a moment in that work. If we’ve lived our life in a healing way, letting go of judgment and entering more mercifully and mindfully into the moment, then dying will be as natural a part of the continuum as waking up in the morning or going to sleep at night. Our relationship to life is our relationship to healing, although many ironically see their relationship to life in terms of dying. I think we’re missing the boat if we look at the continuum as something that will end. We survive our death. We receive the opportunity to look back on it as another part of our healing: our recognition of who we have always been, or, as the Zen tradition says, our face before we were born.
Healing, in a very real sense, is a relating to that “face before we were born,” our underlying essence or “suchness,” out of which personality, thought, and feeling arise and into which they dissolve. If our dying is a dying into God, then it’s a healing. If our dying is a dying out of separation, then it’s a healing. But I think that most people die as they’ve lived, with some degree of confusion at times, with fear or distress. But in that dying moment is a potential for healing unparalleled in our experience. It is the ultimate act of letting go — of face, of body, of reputation, of confusion, of doubt — and entering into the sacred heart of the moment, in which all the healing we have ever sought is always to be found.
THE SUN: In your most recent book, you stress that healing in its early stages is disorienting. Could you explain why?
LEVINE: I think that healing is disorienting at first because it causes us to review — to observe again as well as to recall — that which separated us from healing in the past: our unhealed and unhealing ways, you might say. True healing means that at last we come to look at pain directly, which is very unusual, since our conditioning is to escape from pain. When we walk across the floor and stub our toe, the energy that we send into that throbbing toe is not an embrace of mercy and healing kindness, but rather hatred and aversion.
In healing, one starts to relate differently to pain, to touch with mercy and lovingkindness that which we have withdrawn from in judgment and anger. Healing is a whole new way of looking at life. Healing means coming to see that pain is not automatically suffering, but rather sensations in the physical sense or stimuli in the mental sense. Pain is a given of life, and arises out of our desire system. If you want something, you’re not always going to get it, and even if you do, it might not quite be what you thought it would be. So there’s always the potential for pain in life, as long as we have desire, or anything to protect — and most of us do.
To see pain simply as a fact is to be able to meet it with mercy and lovingkindness. But to experience pain in the mind or the body as “the enemy” is to go to war with our healing. To try to force the pain away is to suffer. Perhaps the difference between relating directly to pain and allowing it, through the mind’s ancient conditioning, to flip over into suffering is the difference between healing and continued injury.
THE SUN: One phrase jumps out at me from Healing Into Life And Death: “The terrible truth of our separation from ourselves. . . .” What is that separation and what makes it terrible?
LEVINE: Our separation is not so much our fear, anger, or distrust as it is our total identification with those things whenever they arise. We follow ourselves like weeping beasts, attempting to discover our peace, not recognizing that what keeps us separate is simply identification with what seems separate. In fact, the exploration of the separate will lead us to the underlying oneness in which it floats. Our separation is our belief that we are separate, our forgetfulness that we are God. Nothing is more agonizing than our separation from the experience of our deepest nature. What makes experience enjoyable is our oneness with the experience. What makes an experience unpleasant is holding on to memories of other unpleasant experiences, of ducking toward safe territory. Rumi, the Persian poet, says, “For the person who loves God, their water is fire,” which means nothing keeps them separate from the moment; even pain is another opportunity to see deeper who is in pain, who is separate from God.
There is within us a profound homesickness for God, which draws us toward beauty, both in the aesthetic — such as music or painting, or the luminescence of a newly opened flower — and in our true natures, the absolute, unbounded, limitless spaciousness of our underlying being. I think much of our spiritual work is drawn forward by this homesickness. It is hard in a sense to understand why, conditioned as we are, we should do the hard work of spiritual practice at all, except for this profound inner leaning toward our absolute nature.
THE SUN: Is a spiritual path, then, such as a meditation practice, necessary for healing?
LEVINE: If you mean bodily healing, such as in uprooting cancer, I don’t think a spiritual path is a prerequisite. But if we’re speaking of healing as being able to love wholeheartedly that which we think we love, I don’t know what would be a greater aid than a spiritual practice which would encourage seeing the whole and not being limited to the tiny increments of mind that arise and often block the heart. Nothing will do for us what a daily meditation practice will do. It’s not the only way in, but it is a profound access that allows us to go beyond the mind to our true nature. It could simply be said that meditation is just an intensification of awareness. And when there is awareness, there is healing. Awareness of anger heals anger in the sense that it gives anger an opportunity to float, and then we are better able to respond to it instead of having to react automatically to it.
In that sense, a meditation practice is invaluable for deepening the quality of awareness that allows the healing in. But meditation isn’t easy. As one teacher said, meditation is just one insult after another. This also speaks to your earlier question about how the first stages of healing are disorienting. As you go in, you see you aren’t who you think you are; often, we’re confronted with the truth of our grasping, greediness, lustfulness, self-interest, and general ignorance of ourselves and the world. But meditation allows truth to arise, and even if the truth is an unpleasant one for a moment, it is the truth. It is beautiful and feeds us, energizes us, heals us. Meditation takes us beyond the mind to who we really are, the shared heart of being.
THE SUN: In what other ways has Buddhism influenced your work?
LEVINE: Buddhism is the basis of our practice. I’ve been sitting in Buddhist meditation for well over twenty years, and still meeting myself anew in ways that are unusual and very healing — unusual in the sense that people don’t normally enter their pain; they usually pull back from it. It is uncommon for the conditioned mind to enter the unpleasant with any sense of confidence or joy, but that’s what meditation allows. It allows us glimpses of our true nature: of the infinite joy and absolute peace of our underlying, ever-healed, ever-uninjured nature.
But I don’t know that I would call myself a Buddhist. Rather, I would say that Buddhistic practices are the basis of my self-inquiry. One needn’t be a Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Jain, Sufi, or Hindu in order to recognize one’s true nature. One needs only to look deeper, with a merciful awareness and a willingness to go beyond pain — certainly beyond suffering — to that which is our birthright, which existed before we were born and will exist long after this body has rotted away. Meditation allows a direct experience of the Deathless.
THE SUN: Could you say something about your career with the Dying Project?
LEVINE: I really never thought of it as a career — I just thought of it as what there was to do. Teaching with Ram Dass, I met Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who invited me to teach with her and help patients work with pain, and to help those who were assisting the dying to be more present. Out of that experience Ram Dass then asked me to direct the Hanuman Foundation Dying Project. I wouldn’t say it’s so much a career as it is just going to school, taking my education where it seems most available: in the eyes and hearts of those who are in pain and can use the teachings and methods that seem to have helped many people alleviate pain and finish business.
Ondrea and I were co-directing the project for about seven years. Overall, we’ve been doing this work for fifteen years — not only with the dying, but, for about the last five years, very intense work with women who have been sexually abused. That actually has been more difficult for us than working with the dying, because dying is natural, but sexual abuse involves voluntary cruelty that is just beyond belief, and it leaves an imprint that nobody can imagine. It’s curable in the sense that some resolution within the heart can be found, but it’s a very difficult process.
In the last three or four years we had a free, twenty-four-hour telephone counseling service for the terminally ill and for those working with their grief or their physical pain. Two phones were in our home, and often for ten hours a day Ondrea and I would both be on the phone, usually for forty-five minutes at a time, sometimes not even having the opportunity to get up and go to the bathroom between calls. There was that much response to this open line of spiritual, emotional, and physical interaction.
When the work with the phone was done, we saw that it would be a good idea for us to practice what we were preaching: to take time and space for ourselves. For many years, meditation served to deepen our service, and at a certain point we saw it might be very useful for us to deepen our practice further so as to be more available in service. As our third child went out into the world, we went inward. It’s not appropriate to do that if you have kids at home. I mean, they knew that we meditated every day and that we went off to teach. They were all very comfortable with that, but not with extended periods of silence or walking in the woods, or longer periods of sitting. So we took advantage of their leaving. We had this land that we thought we wouldn’t get onto for years, but within three months we were dragging a twenty-six-year-old trailer up there, just to get onto the land. It’s really healing to live the way we live.
Not having a phone is wonderful, after three years of the consultation line. Many mornings, we would wake at 4 a.m. to hear somebody’s voice so distorted in pain that it took five minutes before we knew whom we were talking to. There are cycles in life, and there was a point at which many of the people we were working with had either gone past their illness or died. We took that opportunity to disconnect the phone, and to have some silence for ourselves. We’ve noticed that it has allowed a little more depth in what we have to share.
THE SUN: Do you go out on tour as often?
LEVINE: For two years we hardly toured at all, right after we moved onto the land. Last year we went out only four times, and this year probably a dozen times. We usually stay out anywhere from five to ten days. We used to go out for three weeks at a time. Our children had a wonderful old friend who was their baby sitter — the same woman who types our books. They knew her from the beginning, so the transition was easy for them. In fact they used to look forward to her coming, because they could get away with more stuff than they could if we were around. They’d say, “When are you leaving?”
I think we trade off our life for pretty shallow experiences of thought, and our feeling is blocked, and we show no mercy. We live our life in the mind, which is a place of separation, instead of the heart, the place of unity and communion. When we walk in the woods do we see the flower, or do we think of ourselves as somebody walking in the woods and looking at a flower?
THE SUN: How do you pass your time at home?
LEVINE: We walk in the woods and we garden. We’re working on a book tentatively called Relationship As A Path Of Awakening. We meditate. We just like each other’s company a whole lot. Ram Dass once said, “You guys have twenty-four-hour therapists, each of you.” He also said, “You’ve been together twenty-four hours a day for ten years, so you can say you’ve been married for fifty years.” We’ve been together since the moment we met. Our time now is really loose. Sometimes we just do absolutely nothing, and just hang out and lie in the hammock, read, and listen to Mozart. Other days we come into town and talk to patients on the phone.
THE SUN: You don’t plan to move back to Miami?
LEVINE: No, I don’t see that, but who knows what the Lord has in store? I might get a statement from Karma Savings and Loan that says, “You’re overdrawn.”
THE SUN: It sounds as though you aren’t consciously planning too far down the road.
LEVINE: Far too often, we think ourselves instead of being. I see so many people on their deathbed, looking over their shoulder and saying, “What the hell was that all about? My life has passed and I thought life was something that was about to happen, and never did.” I think we trade off our life for pretty shallow experiences of thought, and our feeling is blocked, and we show no mercy. We live our life in the mind, which is a place of separation, instead of the heart, the place of unity and communion. When we walk in the woods do we see a flower, or do we think of ourselves as somebody walking in the woods and looking at a flower? They’re very different. We’re caught by the power of our self-consciousness, thinking about ourselves instead of letting go and stepping off into the unknown.
All growth occurs at our edge. That means it’s usually accompanied by some discomfort, and so often we’re trained to pull back from what’s unpleasant or fearful, so that we don’t really get to know ourselves. We think. We never get to be ourselves. There are different levels of that. Some people learn on their deathbed that just being is enough, not “being” as opposed to “non-being,” but being as the “suchness,” the “thusness” of the vibratory mass we call “us.” Physical dying is nothing next to the death of the ego, the death of the interlocutor that keeps us removed.
Over all our senses is a veil. We never know who we are, and even when we know who we are we have to be willing to know more, because there’s nothing anyone knows that they can’t know at a deeper level. There are deeper and deeper levels of meeting ourselves in our heart, until there’s really nothing separate from God: no watcher, no watched, just watching, unfolding in the space of being.
THE SUN: Is there anything you’d like to add?
LEVINE: Just that anyone who’s doing this work should know that you don’t have to be perfect, that all of us are in the same boat, and instead of thinking in terms of enlightenment, better to think in terms of “lightenment.”
THE SUN: What’s the distinction?
LEVINE: This work allows our light to be shared. Any work we do on ourselves really is for everybody else. The more we work on our own fear and make room in our heart for others, the less our own self-consciousness will block us, and the more mercy will be our predominant medium of communication.
Stephen Levine was also interviewed recently on “Thinking Allowed,” a national public television program. We’re thankful for permission to print a portion of the transcript. (A videotape of the complete interview, “Conscious Living, Conscious Dying,” is available from Thinking Allowed Productions, 2560 Ninth Street, Suite 123, Berkeley, CA 94710, as is a catalogue of other “Thinking Allowed” programs, with scholars and teachers “on the leading edge of knowledge and discovery.”
Jeffrey Mishlove, the host of the series, is a psychotherapist and the author of The Roots Of Consciousness. He began by asking Levine about the nature of healing.
LEVINE: When I’m asked, “What is healing?” I still don’t know. A lot of people, as they come to a certain point in the dying process — which usually includes opening to the reality that death might well be in the near future — begin to finish business. There is this totaling of accounts that’s always going on with people. It’s easy to think that finishing business is, “You forgive me, I forgive you; but I’m not going to forgive you until you forgive me” — this constant waiting for someone else to give you something. Many people start to see that really finishing business means no longer treating relationships as business. When I take you into my heart, our business is done. If you don’t take me into your heart, that’s your pain. I feel that, but it doesn’t change what I’ve done.
People often heal their relationships toward the end of their lives. They begin to meet other people with mercy and care for their well-being.
Here’s an extreme example: we worked with a woman whose mother was very ill. The woman had never really gotten along with her mother, who had been very judgmental, unkind, abusive. When her mother became ill, she was the only one of the sisters who would even go and sit with her. They all had put their mother out of their hearts. But this woman was a Zen student. She decided that her work on herself was to be there for her mom. She sat next to her mother, who would go into a light sleep and come out, in and out, as people do when they’re real ill. She just sat there and wished her well — not thinking, “Why haven’t you given me this? Why didn’t you do that for me?”; not trying to total the accounts; but trying to let her mother, as is, into her heart. That’s the basis of relationship — as is. Because if I want you to be the least different, then you become an object in my mind instead of a subject in my heart. Where’s the healing there? It’s just separation. Her mother had been very nasty in her lifetime, and that didn’t change just because she was dying. This woman, day after day, sent lovingkindness to her mother. On the day the mother died, she looked up at her daughter and said, “I hope you roast in hell. I hope that you have the worst possible life.” The mother died cursing the daughter, who was sitting next to her, looking at her with soft eyes, and saying, with an open heart, “Ma, I hope everything’s OK for you.” Now for her mom it was terrible, but for her it was wonderful. She had really finished her business. She was just with another human being who was having a hard time. The woman who was dying died; the woman who was sitting next to her began to heal.
MISHLOVE: You speak of taking others into our hearts. That’s an interesting concept. It seems to have a lot to do with your sense of the healing process.
LEVINE: Yes. Here’s another story: a woman was dying in the hospital. She’d lived her life in a great deal of separation. Now she had a cancer that had infiltrated her bones. She’d been a person who had always been able to control. In fact her controlling quality had been so extreme that she hadn’t seen her children in years, and had never even met her grandchildren. She was dying alone in the hospital. Six weeks into her stay she had been so unpleasant to the doctors and the nurses that they didn’t even want to come in her room. When they walked in she would blame them for her pain, her illness; she blamed them for not being able to cure her. She could take very little of her own experience into herself. She was always pushing it away, pushing it away.
One night the pain was so great that she came to a point like a drowning person reaches: “I’m going down. This is it; I’m just too exhausted to fight anymore.” Maybe for the first time in her life, she surrendered. It might have been the first time in her life she’d ever let go of her separation, her idea of herself as opposed to the whole world. And in that moment something happened. Up until then, the pain of her bone cancer was mainly in her back and her hip and her legs. She was lying on her side, in kind of a fetal position, and all of a sudden she was no longer herself lying in the hospital. She was an Eskimo woman lying on her side, dying in childbirth, with enormous pain in her back and her legs and her hips. An instant later she was a woman lying on her side beside a river in some tropical environment, whose back had been crushed by a rockfall; she was dying alone, with enormous pain in her back and her hips and her legs. A moment later, she thought she was somewhere in Biafra. Her skin was black. She had a slackened, empty breast, at which was suckling a starving child. They were both starving — perhaps dying of cholera, she later thought — and she had enormous pain in her back and her hips and her legs. She experienced, in the next hour or two — she couldn’t really gauge time — ten thousand women in pain at that moment, dying, at that moment. As that happened, she said, “It went from being my pain to being the pain. l had no room in myself. My pain is in the mind; but the pain is the pain we all share, and it can be touched; it can be experienced in the heart, the heart we all share, the heart of common experience, the heart of common concern for the well-being of all sentient beings.”
In the next six weeks, up until she died, her room became the center of love in the hospital. The nurses would hang out there sometimes on their breaks. A few weeks after this experience, there were her grandchildren sitting on the bed, playing with their grandma, and there were her children standing next to her. A day or two before she died, one of the nurses brought in a picture of Jesus in the form of the Good Shepherd with the children and the animals, and this woman, whose heart had been like a stone, whose mind had been blocked to all but self-concern, looked at this picture and the children and said, “Oh Jesus, forgive them, they’re only children.” Hers is one of the most amazing healings I’ve ever seen.
That’s why I really can’t say I know what healing is, because I’ve seen people’s bodies get well whose hearts were not as healed. There’s a healing we took birth for. This world, where there’s so much greed, so much cold indifference, so much suffering, is the place where we come to heal; but everybody doesn’t take responsibility for the healing they took birth for. And it may be that some people don’t even consider it until they find that they may be dying soon.
That very conceptual framework, in which you are a good person if you heal, makes you a bad person if you die. Who needs to die with a sense of failure? . . . You’re not responsible for your illness; you’re responsible to your illness. If you’re responsible for your cancer, then how are you ever going to heal?
MISHLOVE: You seem to be saying that healing of the body is unimportant.
LEVINE: Healing is not limited to the body. In fact, I’ve seen people fight their illness: it’s them against the illness, and contention fills the room. When they’re in pain, they don’t think they’re OK. Just when they most need mercy, it’s least available to them.
MISHLOVE: From themselves.
LEVINE: From themselves. And they push everybody away, and whether they live or die, what they do is create schism in the family, and judgment, and guilt, feelings of unworthiness in those who loved them most, because nobody can help. And I’ve seen other people say, in the same situation — same pain in their body, same pain in their mind — “I don’t have a moment to lose. I can’t stand to live a moment longer with my heart closed. There’s too much pain. The world doesn’t need another closed heart.” Their priority becomes to communicate the care they have for others, and the healing in that room is apparent.
Maybe the sign of real healing is this: what are the people at bedside left with when someone dies? Are they left with their hearts full and a sense of connectedness to that person? Or are they left frightened of death and of that person, with much anguish about how things didn’t work out, how they should have helped more? Did the dying person leave behind a legacy of mental suffering?
MISHLOVE: Some doctors say that the kind of people who do experience a physical recovery from a serious disease are ornery kinds of people, who are, in a way, fighting for their lives.
LEVINE: Aggression can play a very strong part. But sometimes if people can fight their illness, it becomes “me against my illness.” It becomes separation and anxiety. Our experience is that when you touch that which is in pain with mercy and awareness, there’s healing. Where there’s awareness, there’s healing.
I know a doctor who helps people heal through modern methods, and he says that those who heal are the “superstars.” Another doctor calls patients who heal the “exceptional” patients. Well, what does that make everybody else — a second-stringer, a loser? That very conceptual framework, in which you are a good person if you heal, makes you a bad person if you die. Who needs to die with a sense of failure? Those ideas are very dangerous. They’re very well-intended; I know those doctors, and they want to help, and they have helped many. But many others have been injured by the idea that, for instance, you’re responsible for your illness. You’re not responsible for your illness; you’re responsible to your illness. If you’re responsible for your cancer, then how are you ever going to heal? If my conditioning caused it, do I have to get rid of all of my conditioning to be well? I know people who have meditated for fifty years and are not done with their conditioning; and when someone is dying, time is short and energy is low. When we see that we are responsible to our illness, then when pain arises we can send mercy, we can send kindness.
MISHLOVE: You’ve developed a number of guided meditations for dealing with healing, and part of that process is to really try to feel the pain.
LEVINE: Explore the pain.
MISHLOVE: Explore the pain, and then to know just how we protect ourselves from getting at it — that there’s sort of a wall of deadening around the pain, to keep us away from our own pain. It’s as if by denying ourselves our own pain, we deny ourselves life.
LEVINE: You’re bringing up a really interesting point. The way we respond to pain is the way we respond to life. When things aren’t the way we want them to be, what do we do? Do we close down, or do we open up to get more of a sense of what’s needed in the moment? Our conditioning is to close down — aversion, rejection, denial. Nothing heals. That is the very basis by which unfinished business accumulates — by putting it away. We know many people who are working on sending forgiveness into their tumors, into their AIDS, into their degenerative heart disease. It sounds so bizarre, because our conditioning is to send anger and fear into it. How can there be healing in that?
MISHLOVE: That’s true. O. Carl Simonton and Stephanie Matthews-Simonton have developed visualization exercises in which you imagine the white blood cells as cowboys chasing the red Indians, and it’s as if there were little battlefields in the body, and the white blood cells are out to win and to heal, so that the immune system overcomes. You’re suggesting that that’s not appropriate.
LEVINE: Well, that system does work for some people, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest to anyone who’s finding it to be a feasible means of working with illness that they not do it. But I think we need to watch what it means to add aggression to this mind that already is so aggressive in moments of fear and aversion. How can we work for healing without cultivating aggression? Imagine if those people cultivate all that aggression, and the cancer doesn’t go away; what happens? Well, my experience is that the aggression turns inward, and they often die with feelings of self-hatred and failure: “I really am a rotten person. I’m dying and abandoning those I love.” The mind takes so quickly to self-negation. Anything that reinforces that has to be watched really closely, because all self-negation seems to slow and limit healing. I think that it’s very important, in such visualization methods, to find the imagery that’s appropriate for each person. One fellow who was going to use that kind of technique was a pacifist minister. He said, “I have spent most of my life trying to make peace instead of war. I can’t have white sharks eating black gerbils, or however it is.” So he was told, “Why don’t you take some time, and find the imagery that’s right for you?” And within a week he decided to imagine the Seven Dwarfs, going in with buckets, singing “Whistle while you work,” digging up the cancer and carrying it away. And he healed.
MISHLOVE: You seem to suggest in your meditative work that if one can soften the belly and the heart and the breathing, then that creates a state of surrender to some kind of essential healing that’s available to all of us.
LEVINE: The word surrender is so funny, because most people, particularly in the case of illness, equate surrender with defeat. But surrender is letting go of resistance. Most of what we call pain is the resistance that clenches down on the unpleasant. When the people we work with need to take medicine, we have them look at it. They don’t just swallow it automatically. They’re not trying to take healing from outside. They’re not giving up control to healing. They’re participating in it, they’re taking responsibility for it — responsibility in terms of having the ability to respond, instead of being forced to react. They look at the pills, and as they take them in, they guide them with lovingkindness into the area that needs healing. And they find, for instance with painkillers, that once they’ve gone through the resistance, they can decrease the medication. I think a lot of medications get used up by the resistance before they ever get to the place where they’re needed.
MISHLOVE: Our medical system doesn’t really encourage people to take responsibility at that level. It’s as if we’re passive, not only at the hands of doctors, but even at the hands of spiritual and psychic healers.
LEVINE: It can be. We’re not saying, “Throw away your other practice.” We’re saying, “Whatever you’re doing to heal yourself, why don’t you try to see what it might mean if you put mercy into that area?” We suggest that people treat their illness as though it were their only child, with that same mercy and lovingkindness — caress it, hold it, do all you can to make it well. We treat ourselves with so little kindness, so little softness. When you soften rather than harden around an illness, there are noticeable physical manifestations — in terms of blood flow, availability of the immune system, and so on. If you’ve got a hard belly and your jaw is tight, it’s very difficult for anything to get through.
MISHLOVE: You seem to be suggesting healing not just for the sick, but as a way of life in general. It’s as if moment by moment we make the choice whether to harden or to soften.
LEVINE: Well, the hardening has become involuntary. The softening requires us to remember priorities — that this is the only moment there is, and this is the moment to open. I mean, if we’re not doing it now, how will we do it at any other time? That’s why we suggest, don’t wait until you get a terminal diagnosis to start to give yourself permission to be alive, to get on with your life. Now is a good time.