The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Stephen Levine circa 1995.
Photo Courtesy of Jon Seskevitch
Teacher and author Stephen Levine, best known for his pioneering work with death, dying, and grief, passed away last January in his New Mexico home. He was seventy-eight years old.
Levine’s book Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying — which he co-wrote with his wife, Ondrea — meant a great deal to me when I first encountered it in 2003, when I was in my mid-twenties. Raised in a Christian, churchgoing family, with a grandmother who was a Methodist minister, I’d had a robust spiritual life. But the more I’d read about other religions, the more I’d questioned some of the tenets of my own faith. I’d begun meditating regularly and had even attended a Buddhist retreat at a monastery in Thailand, but I grappled with Buddhism’s nontheistic aspect. In Who Dies? I discovered provocative teachings that resonated with me. Levine eloquently combined Buddhist principles with other wisdom traditions, and he made allusions to God — whom he variously called “The One,” “The Beloved,” and, comically, “Ugh!” He once said, “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.” When I started working at The Sun more than a decade ago, I learned that the magazine had reprinted a chapter from Who Dies? in 1982 and had later published an interview with Levine. His and Ondrea’s writing has also appeared in Sunbeams and on the Dog-Eared Page. I keep a copy of Who Dies? on my bookshelf, and occasionally I’ll take it down and find its message as fresh and meaningful as the first time I came across it.
Levine cofounded the countercultural newspaper the San Francisco Oracle at the age of twenty-nine. In the 1970s he helped popularize Buddhist meditation in the West, working with the spiritual teacher Ram Dass. He also joined psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in assisting dying patients and their caregivers. Once, when he was leading a workshop with a well-known healer, a reporter asked him, “Are you the healer or the one who helps people die?” Levine responded, “I don’t know.” After all, he taught that the dying process itself can be a form of healing.
Levine and his wife codirected the Hanuman Foundation Dying Project, the first spiritual residential hospice for the terminally ill in the West. They eventually expanded its scope to include concentration-camp survivors and their children, Vietnam War veterans, and victims of sexual abuse. They maintained a free twenty-four-hour telephone counseling service for the dying and those dealing with trauma, loss, and grief, and the response was so great that Stephen and Ondrea would often both be on the phone for ten hours a day.
Believing that preparing for death rejuvenates one’s appreciation for life, the Levines experimented in 1994 with living as if they would die at the end of the year. Stephen recounts their experiences in A Year to Live. His other books include Healing into Life and Death and Meetings at the Edge. But he didn’t write only about death. Levine was also a poet and the author of books on spiritual practice and relationships. For years he and Ondrea traveled the country leading workshops, but more recently the couple lived a quiet, contemplative life in rural New Mexico and produced a series of “Couch Talks” — home videos of informal lectures (levinetalks.com).
My interest in Levine’s work was renewed by his death, and I borrowed some of his books from Sun editor Sy Safransky. A couple of copies had handwritten notes from the author inside. A friend of mine also loaned me some letters he’d received from Levine. I noticed that Levine had signed all of the personal messages the same way, with the kind of uplifting encouragement for which he was known: “Let it shine — Stephen.”
I can’t help but hope that Levine’s lifelong efforts to aid others with their healing and to assist them through the dying process served him well when his time came.
The following selections are excerpted from Who Dies?, A Year to Live, and Ralph Earle’s interview with Levine, “At the Heart of Healing,” which appeared in the October 1989 issue of The Sun.
— Luc Saunders, Assistant Editor
We live in a society conditioned to deny death. It may be for this reason that many, at the time of their dying, feel so confused and guilty. Like sex, death has been whispered about behind closed doors. We feel guilty for dying, not knowing how to live. . . .
Observing the body’s decay, the change in metabolism as we age, the middle-age paunch, the lowering of energy, the graying at the temples, the lessening of muscle tone, the loss of hair, how can we deny the inevitability of the falling away of the body? Experiencing the loss of loved ones, seeing that all we have ever known is in constant change, that we are the stuff of history, how can we disregard death?
How often, for instance, is one encouraged to contemplate the aches and pains of the flu as a preparation for death, as a means of melting the resistance to life? Struggling for satisfaction from moment to moment, we think of ourselves as either fortunate or unfortunate, little realizing the teachings of impermanence.
We seldom use illness as an opportunity to investigate our relationship to life or to explore our fear of death. Illness is considered bad fortune. We hold to models of good health and Pepsi-Cola vitality. We only think we are OK if we are healthy. But how, in this fixed idea of the acceptable, do we learn to open to the impossible? How do we allow ourselves to come into the unknown with an openheartedness and courage that allow life its fullness?
In the funeral home we put rouge on death. Even in the casket we deny our transiency.
At home in our favorite easy chair, we read in the newspaper of five dying in a hotel fire in Cleveland. Of ten killed in a bus accident on the freeway. Of three thousand crushed in an earthquake in Italy. Of the death of Nobel laureates in their laboratories, and of murderers in the electric chair. We partake of the “survivor’s news,” reinforcing the idea that “everyone dies but me.” Sitting there, reading of the death of others, reassures us of our survivorship, of our immortality. The misfortune of others makes up a large percentage of the front page, creating the illusion of our good fortune. Seldom do we use the news of another’s death as a recognition of the impermanence of all things, that all changes as it will.
And yet the acknowledgment of impermanence holds within it the key to life itself. The confrontation with death tunes us deeply to the life we imagine we will lose with the extinction of the body. But what is the truth of this sense of presence we experience, of timeless being, which seems to have no beginning, in which we sense no end? We imagine we will die only because we believe we were born. We don’t trust that sense of endlessness, of edgelessness within.
Our suffering is caused by holding on to how things might have been, should have been, could have been. Grief is part of our daily existence. But we seldom recognize that pain in our heart that one fellow called “a deep weeping, a mourning for everything we have left behind.”
A friend, reflecting on the time her cancer had been diagnosed as terminal, said, “Being terminal just meant that at last I acknowledged that death was real. It did not mean that I would die in six months or even die before the doctor who had just given me the prognosis. It simply meant that I acknowledged that I would die at all.” In a society based on material gain, which imagines itself to be the body, which holds health so precious and fears death so much, it is often hard to understand that death is natural, even necessary for the continuance of life, both inner and outer. . . .
Seventy-five percent of the population take their last breath in a convalescent home or hospital. Most die in institutions where death is considered the enemy. I have seen many approach death in physical and spiritual isolation, seldom encouraged to open past their imaginings and fears, cut off in heart and mind from the loved ones who might share this precious moment. Unable to trust their inner nature, removed from life itself, they enter with painful insecurity and confusion into another realm of being.
I have watched many cling desperately to a rapidly degenerating body, hoping for some incredible miracle, anguished by a deep longing for fulfillment never found in life. I have also met those whose death was an inspiration to all about them. Who died with so much love and compassion that all were left filled with an unnamed joy for weeks afterward.
Few participate in their life so fully that death is not a threat, is not the grim reaper stalking just beyond the dark windowpane. Most fight death as they fought life, struggling for a foothold, for some control over the incessant flow of change that exemplifies this plane of existence. Few die in wholeness. Most live a life of partiality and confusion. Most think they own the body. Few recognize it as just a temporarily rented domicile from which they must eventually be evicted. Those who see themselves as passengers in the body are more able to let go lightly. . . .
There seems to be much less suffering for those who live life in the wholeness that includes death. Not a morbid preoccupation with death but rather a staying in the loving present, a life that focuses on each precious moment. I see few whose participation in life has prepared them for death. Few who have explored their heart and mind as perfect preparation for whatever might come next, be it death or sickness, grief or joy.
Who is prepared to die? Who has lived so fully that they are not threatened by their imaginings of nonexistence? For it is only the idea of death that frightens us. It is the unknown we pull back from.
How often are we like the battered child on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, being carried gently from the room by the compassionate matron, who reaches out over the matron’s shoulder shouting, “Mama, Mama,” to the woman in custody between the policemen on the other side of the room, arrested for burning the flesh and breaking the bones of this child? How many reach back for the hellishness of the known rather than opening into the unknown, with the patience and warmth that make room in our heart for ourselves and all others?
In some societies, death brings the whole tribe or family together in celebration and acknowledgment of the continual changing nature of life. During these celebrations, often a deeply spiritual context for this passing allows many to have profound experiences of their own true nature. For these societies, death is a continual opportunity to let go of the illusions of life, to see it as it is, and open in love to all about.
I have heard many people speak of who they believe they were in previous incarnations, but they seem to have very little idea of who they are in this one. . . . Let’s take one life at a time. Perhaps the best way to do that is to live as though there were no afterlife or reincarnation. To live as though this moment was all that was allotted.
A Year to Live
Imagine if for the next twenty-four hours you had to wear a cap that amplified your thoughts so that everyone within a hundred yards of you could hear every thought that passed through your head. . . . How embarrassed or fearful would you be to go outside? . . . Imagine how freeing it would be at last to have nothing to hide. And how miraculous it would be to see that all others’ minds too were filled with the same confusion and fantasies, the same insecurity and doubt.
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 in 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.
Interview in The Sun
There is nothing noble about suffering except the love and forgiveness with which we meet it. Many believe that if they are suffering they are closer to God, but I have met very few who could keep their heart open to their suffering enough for that to be true.
We use the word love but we have no more understanding of love than we do of anger or fear or jealousy or even joy, because we have seldom investigated what that state of mind is. What are the feelings we so quickly label as love? For many what is called love is not lovely at all but is a tangle of needs and desires, of momentary ecstasies and bewilderment — moments of unity, of intense feelings of closeness, occur in a mind so fragile that the least squint or sideways glance shatters its oneness into a dozen ghostly paranoias. When we say we love we usually mean some emotion, some deep feeling for an object or a person, that momentarily allows us to open to another. But in such emotional love, self-protection is never far away. Still there is “business” to the relationship; clouds of jealousy, possessiveness, guilt, intentional and unintentional manipulation, separateness, and the shadow of all previous “loves” darken the light of oneness. But what I mean by love is not an emotion; it is a state of being. True love has no object. Many speak of their unconditional love for another. But in truth one does not have unconditional love for another. Unconditional love is the experience of being; there is no “I” and “other,” and anyone or anything it touches is experienced in love. . . . [Love] is not a dualistic emotion. It is a sense of oneness with all that is. The experience of love arises when we surrender our separateness into the universal. It is a feeling of unity. You don’t love another; you are another. There is no fear because there is no separation. It is not so much that “two are as one” as it is “the One manifested as two.” In such love there can be no unfinished business.
I have seen even those who have long since abjured God die in grace. . . . Atheists don’t use their dying to bargain for a better seat at the table; indeed they may not even believe supper is being served. They are not storing up “merit”; they just smile because their heart is ripe. They are kind for no particular reason; they just love.
An interesting way to practice dying is by opening to illness. . . . Use it as an opportunity to soften around the unpleasant and investigate how resistance turns pain into suffering, the unpleasant into the unbearable. Notice how discomfort attracts grief. Watch the shadows gather in the aching body. Hear them mutter in complaint and self-pity.
Healing, in a very real sense, is a relating to . . . 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.
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.
Once someone asked a well-known Thai meditation master, “In this world where everything changes, where nothing remains the same, where loss and grief are inherent in our very coming into existence, how can there be any happiness? How can we find security when we see that we can’t count on anything being the way we want it to be?” The teacher, looking compassionately at this fellow, held up a drinking glass that had been given to him earlier in the morning and said, “You see this goblet? For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it. I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it over, or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious. Every moment is just as it is, and nothing need be otherwise.”
When we recognize that, just like the glass, our body is already broken, that indeed we are already dead, then life becomes precious, and we open to it just as it is, in the moment it is occurring. When we understand that all our loved ones are already dead — our children, our mates, our friends — how precious they become. How little fear can interpose; how little doubt can estrange us. When you live your life as though you’re already dead, life takes on new meaning. Each moment becomes a whole lifetime, a universe unto itself.
When we realize we are already dead, our priorities change, our heart opens, and our mind begins to clear of the fog of old holdings and pretendings. We watch all life in transit, and what matters becomes instantly apparent: the transmission of love; the letting go of obstacles to understanding; the relinquishment of our grasping, of our hiding from ourselves. Seeing the mercilessness of our self-strangulation, we begin to come gently into the light we share with all beings. If we take each teaching, each loss, each gain, each fear, each joy as it arises and experience it fully, life becomes workable. We are no longer a “victim of life.” And then every experience, even the loss of our dearest one, becomes another opportunity for awakening.
If our only spiritual practice were to live as though we were already dead, relating to all we meet, to all we do, as though it were our final moments in the world, what time would there be for old games or falsehoods or posturing? If we lived our life as though we were already dead, as though our children were already dead, how much time would there be for self-protection and the re-creation of ancient mirages? Only love would be appropriate, only the truth.
Excerpted from Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying by Stephen and Ondrea Levine, copyright © 1982 by Stephen Levine. Used by permission of Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Thank you for disseminating Stephen Levine’s good work [“Let It Shine,” May 2016]. Just imagine if everyone who opened the top drawer of the hotel bureau found Stephen and Ondrea Levine’s book about dying, Who Dies?, instead of the Gideon Bible.
I first read Who Dies? around 1980 and years later heard Stephen speak at Duke University. He showed me that you could be a neurotic white male and still be compassionate and wise. That gives me hope. I expect that as I approach my own death, I will turn to Levine’s words again.
In the 1980s I attended every one of Stephen and Ondrea Levine’s presentations that I could get to: meditations, workshops, lectures, retreats. I wanted to understand myself and my relationships better. One could not be in their presence without experiencing the immense ocean of compassion of which they spoke.
I remember one retreat when it seemed that I alone — among two hundred people — had no reason for being there. What right did I have to sit among the grieving, traumatized, wounded, and confused? I later realized that my reason for being there was to witness the others’ pain. Those years were my preparation for leaving a marriage that was doomed and for surviving the heartbreak that would follow.