Our intention is not to keep people alive or to help them die either. Our work seems to be an encouragement to focus on the moment. To heal into the present and allow the future to arise naturally out of that opening . . . . We witnessed deep healings into the spirit of some who lived as well as miraculous healings in some who died . . . . Clearly healing was not limited to the body. The question “Where might we find our healing?” expanded. It was [about] the healing of a lifetime. The healing we took birth for . . . . The deepest healing cannot be done solely in the separate. It needs to be for the whole, for the pain we all share . . . . Seeing it is not simply my pain, but the pain, the circle of healing expands to allow the universe to enter.
—Stephen Levine, Healing into Life and Death
My father died of lung cancer in 1975. As the pain increased and his death felt imminent he seemed to close inside himself; it was as though he couldn’t bear contact with those he loved. It became harder and harder for him to see the younger children in our family and he refused visits from old friends. A proud atheist, he scared away the hospital chaplain early on. I didn’t know how, nor would I have dared, to talk to my father about what I was learning in my beginning Buddhist practice. Nothing enraged him so much as “spiritual” talk. This is not to say that his dying lacked connections of the spirit. We were profoundly grateful that he waited for us to be by his side, to hold his hands while he died. But too often my father, and each of us in the family, was caught in a separate experience of pain—rendered helpless in feelings of helplessness, lost in feelings of loss.
It wasn’t until several years after my father died that friends of mine began talking about Stephen Levine. Here was a Buddhist meditation teacher who studied and taught vipassana practice and also worked with the terminally ill and those deeply affected by loss. Through teaching people how to come into balance in the present and how to move beyond their feelings of separateness, he was helping them “keep the heart open in hell.” Our family could have learned so much from such an approach as my father was dying.
Even though I hadn’t met Stephen, I developed an image of the work he was doing which I carried with me secretly for years—unacknowledged even to myself. I felt a kind of safety in that image—a sense that I could learn to meet both illness and loss in more skillful ways, and that I myself didn’t have to die the way my father did.
I wonder how many other people find solace or inspiration in simply knowing about Stephen Levine’s approach. With his wife Ondrea, Stephen has now become internationally recognized for his service to the dying and grieving as well as his work in healing. Their books on these subjects have become classics (Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying, Meetings at the Edge, Healing into Life and Death). Over the years they have sat by countless bedsides of the terminally ill, kept a written correspondence with many others who sought their support, led workshops, and once maintained a free consultation telephone line for those facing death or working with the dying. In recent years the Levines’ work has expanded to include people experiencing all manner of grief, including the addicted and the sexually abused. And they are now returning more to their original work of being with the grieving and the terminally ill and teaching meditation.
The following interview was conducted by Barbara Gates, Shoshana Tembeck Alexander and Wes Nisker on November 27, 1989.
Stephen Levine: When the last of our children left home three years ago Ondrea and I sold our house in Taos, New Mexico, and moved to some land we had way back in the mountains. We bought a twenty-six-year-old trailer and put it on a hill, and moved in without water or electricity, just to be with the stillness. We put in a well, and solar electricity, added a greenhouse, and really made ourselves a comfortable spot. We’re at 7,200 feet and at night there are no other lights. There are no neighbors for three miles up the dirt road, and the sky is really incredible. What really drew us was the silence and the sky.
Inquiring Mind: How have these three years of stillness affected you?
SL: We’re still learning that ourselves. (Laugh) We thought that when we got out to the woods we would just sink into more practice. But as we began to quiet down in our practice we noticed an emotional residue from working for fifteen years with people in crisis states. We’d seen so many people die of cancer and AIDS who were trying so hard not to. And we’d seen so many sexually abused women suffering from about as profound a grief as anyone we’d ever met. We’d seen how hard people work and how slow the healing can sometimes be. The miracle stories of people that heal right away don’t prove a thing—for most, healing is the deep grind of little victories and releases of the slow rebirth into life.
As we quieted down, it was the grunt of healing that really presented itself in our minds. We noticed a lot of old voices—of people dying in pain, parents mourning murdered children. It was quite wonderful and terrifying. Terrifying to see how subtle and deep the holding; wonderful because the truth is beautiful and joyous even though that truth may be difficult to look at. For about a year we noticed a subtle quality of grief from all those past moments of anger and fear, helplessness and doubt—moments we had seen so many others experience, and now we were finding some subtle resonance within ourselves. So that first year wasn’t as still as we thought it would be, but it was quieter. There was a lot of room to hear the subtleness, and the subtleness kept presenting itself.
The second year was much quieter, much stiller. We felt much less urgency even to sit. We spent more time sinking into our lives: walking in the woods, feeding the animals or fixing a broken generator, whatever was called for.
We are in our third year now and what started as a retreat has become a lifestyle. I’m not sure it is going to change much except we may go out teaching less.
IM: What do you think is the most important thing that has changed in your perspective?
SL: I really don’t know. We talk a little more about play and about joy than we did before, and we’re learning about letting even the heaviest states float. We’re experiencing so much gratitude simply for mindfulness, really appreciating the practice. But now we’re thinking more in terms of “lightenment” rather than enlightenment.
I was drawn to the dharma when I was nineteen. I remember picking up A.E. Burt’s book The Compassionate Buddha in a bus station and thinking to myself, “It’s already too late for me to start practicing. I’ve already accumulated too much denseness.” I was so glad to have the dharma, even then. That appreciation has been with me my whole life. But now I’m seeing a little more joy and a little less urgency to the process.
IM: You and Ondrea talk a lot about surrender in your talks and books. What do you mean by surrender?
SL: What we mean by surrender is softening and letting go of resistance, trusting the process. Many people misunderstand surrender as defeat. Surrender is actually the optimum strategy for living, including dying. It is the optimum strategy for taking birth, and really that is what we are talking about. We are not talking about healing, we are not talking about dying. We are talking about at last taking birth, taking responsibility for incarnation, taking the healing we took birth for.
Surrender really is about letting go of the last moment and opening to the next. Of course everyone’s process isn’t the same. Some people work wonderfully with mindfulness mixed with lovingkindness. Other people have so much regret about the way they’ve led their lives that we encourage them to work with forgiveness, forgiveness of themselves, forgiveness of those they reacted towards. Whether we are working with a therapist who is trying to make more intuitive contact with their client’s process, with a person who is sick, or a person who is dying, we encourage them to do grief work—to meet anger, fear, self doubt, or guilt with more awareness and more mercy so that it can start to float. We are not suggesting that they try to stop a feeling, but to see what it is composed of and its essential emptiness.
Let’s say we are working with someone ill who has a certain regimen of treatment. We help them surrender their resistance so that they can set up a strong, mindful, opened synapse to sensation in the body. Then they can use their connection to sensation to participate in their healing.
We have seen people in severe physical discomfort who when they started to surrender their resistance—to enter into contact with sensation—experienced the multiple changing quality of the pain that they thought was so solid. Then they could begin to direct their analgesics into the areas where they were needed. Many of the people we work with have said that they thought half of their analgesic or half of their chemotherapy was being used up by “the calcified outer ring of thought” that formed around their illness and absorbed most of the healing that was directed into it.
IM: Do you ever find that there is a value in those methods that consciously resist disease? I ask because recently a friend was quite sick and I read her a passage on surrender from one of your books. She responded, “I don’t quite understand this because my father has kept himself well his entire life by saying, ‘I never let illness get me down. Whenever I’m sick I recover in two days, and I’ve only been in the hospital once!'” He’s proud of this and it seems to work.
SL: There’s a difference between healing and a cure. Some people may get cured, but they are less healed than they ever were in their lives.
IM: Then what do you mean by healing?
SL: Healing is to enter with mercy and awareness that which has been withdrawn from in judgment and hatred.
You are walking across the floor. You stub your toe. What do you send into your toe? Do you embrace it and say, “Ah, the arms of the Divine Mother are around you?” No, you say, “God damn, son of a bitch!” Now that’s our conditioning—to send anger, fear and hatred to the hard places in the body. It’s how we’ve learned to act, not who we essentially are. It isn’t surprising that so little healing comes in the wake of this conditioning. Healing comes in deconditioning, in bringing awareness to the places which have hardened and numbed and are hurting, in taking the separate self out of the pain and getting the sense of not only the universality of pain but the immensity of the space it is all floating in.
It is true that for some people resistance or denial seems to work as a cure, but only up to a point. Often their lives are so stiff. As someone put it, it’s hard to kiss a person who’s keeping a stiff upper lip. Perhaps they may have hardened themselves to disease, but they may also have developed more aggression, more confusion. When they die their business is often left more unfinished than it was before they were ill. Your friend’s father may not get sick for any number of reasons. But the point is—did he get the healing he took birth for?
We’ve found that sickness or loss may act as a kind of grace. Grace isn’t always pleasant, but it always brings us closer to our real nature. When someone we love dies, and we experience enormous feelings of guilt, fear, anger and sadness, this may bring our attention to the unacknowledged grief we have been carrying daily for our whole life. At last we have some sense of causation. In the same way, sometimes we get sick and it really makes us realize how sick we have been, how little our heart has been open, how often we have been driven rather than driving, how often we have been forgetful of the sensibilities of other beings. Sometimes a pain in the shoulder reminds us that we are one of ten thousand human beings with that pain in the shoulder in that moment. A pain in the shoulder could take us from seeing “my pain” to seeing “the pain.”
IM: But how does that transformation occur? How can people become awakened through pain or grief?
SL: It isn’t pain that awakens us. Pain is pain and it’s a drag! But pain gets our attention. And attention awakens us. A person would have to reach a relatively advanced stage of practice before they would pay attention to joy with the same moment-to-moment quality of investigation with which they might attend to sadness or some other form of grief.
IM: Do you think people can also become awakened without going through pain and suffering?
SL: Once we’re born, pain is a given. Even in birth there is pain. This body with its net of nerves experiences pain. It’s just part of being in the body. So I don’t think that one who has become awakened in a body has gone without pain. But suffering is another matter all together. Pain and suffering are not synonymous. Pain is a given of life, but suffering is our reaction, rather than our response, to that pain. Pain is the passing show. Suffering is our grasping, our aversion, to that momentum. The difference between pain and suffering is the difference between freedom and bondage. What the awakened awaken to is life as is which includes pain and joy equally. Thus neither pain nor joy creates suffering for those beings.
IM: But how does attention do the awakening? This must be where Buddhism comes in!
SL: (Laughter) I would say so. Let’s approach this at a relatively deep level. Pain, grief, or loss of safety—whether it is in the body or in the mind—causes hidden latent tendencies (sankaras) to arise. These are the tendencies that often create unskillful action and bring suffering for ourselves and others. We now have access to them as we never have before.
Now it’s important to understand that we can’t let go of anything we don’t accept. If we don’t accept something, we meet it with negative attachment, aversion. But when these tendencies are entered into by awareness, we can go beyond much of what has been involuntary up to this point, a lot of mechanical behavior.
In healing work this step has been made when a person takes what we call “responsibility”—learns to respond instead of react. Reaction means re-acting, doing something all over again, acting in the same old way, acting out of compulsion, mechanical behavior that didn’t get us where we wanted to get in the first place. So sometimes illness comes and breaks our automatic-ness, and we have to respond anew to what we have been reacting to our whole life. Here’s an example: Nothing will make us see the value of softness so much as softening around physical pain. So, instead of reacting to pain with anger or hatred the way we always did in the past, we respond to pain with softness.
IM: Clearly your Buddhist practice informs the understanding you bring to your work in fundamental ways . . .
SL: Let’s not even say Buddhist practice—I can’t imagine this work without mindfulness. Mindfulness allows a merciful, wakeful presence in the mind that no longer blocks the heart. And when the mind does thicken, it can all be let go of sooner. The same old stuff arises, but it doesn’t stay around, it just doesn’t stick. What might have been a two-week depression thirty years ago might be a five-minute mind-wave now.
I’ve been involved in Buddhist practice for more than thirty years, and I spent a lot of time in the early years working with Hindu practices too. I found a lot of techniques that were very useful in opening the heart, but I didn’t find anything that transforms “my” pain into “the” pain the way mindfulness practice does.
IM: Over the years you must have worked with people who have been exposed to many different styles of Buddhist practice. Do you find that different styles of practice have different effects on the way people go through the dying process?
SL: Yes, we’ve worked with people of many different sects and practices. Those who seem to have the most difficult time on their death beds are the rigid fundamentalists of any belief system. They are so frightened and self-judging. They are terrified of the hell-realms awaiting. Even in Buddhism we see this fundamentalist confusion. Some are afraid to die without attaining some stage of enlightenment in case they might be reborn in a lower realm of existence. In the wake of this, feelings of not being “enough,” old tendencies towards self-negation, even self-hatred, have arisen. So some aspects of their Buddhist practice seem to have made their dying more, rather than less, difficult.
I am concerned by any practice that is motivated by fear. When I was nineteen years old and first read A.E. Burt’s book, I came across a story that really scared me. A monk is coming down the road when highwaymen grab him and cut off one leg. The fellow sends lovingkindness to them. They cut off another leg, and he goes to the next Brahma level of lovingkindness. When they cut off an arm, his heart opens further and he comes close to enlightenment. Then they cut off his other arm! I remember reading that story and thinking, “I’ll never be able to do this—I’ll never be a Buddhist.” It really made me crazy and stimulated self-condemnation.
Recently at the Harmonia Mundi conference I asked the Dalai Lama about that story which had caused myself and so many others confusion. I talked about the way some traditionalists might use this and other similar stories to motivate practice. He said, “Keep away from such teachers!” He further said that those who use fear to motivate or insist upon superhuman acts as the signature of the dharma may have slipped into a crack in their practice.
IM: How much difference does it make for someone who is dying to have done a lot of spiritual practice?
SL: First of all, when a person has a sense of something greater than themselves, whatever it might be, it is very helpful when they are dying. Also, someone who has done spiritual practice probably has a little more concentration to bring to the meditations for pain, for heavy states or for forgiveness. And a background of practice may allow people to process some of the loose ends in their lives more quickly.
Our work has put us bedside with some people for whom we have great admiration. We’ve seen that neither Buddhists nor Christians nor Jews nor Sikhs die any easier or any harder. We don’t find that people who practice any particular religion are any more enlightened than those who practice another. It’s really the heart that does the practice. People who have cultivated a willingness to go beyond safe territory—which means even beyond their practice—have an easier time with death.
Now, no matter how empty people are they may still find it hard to take leave of those they love—they experience grief as they are dying, but it’s a sacred grief. It’s not a grief that frightens the people around them. It’s just that place when you look in your children’s eyes, your love’s eyes, your teacher’s eyes, and you say, “Thank you so much. This has been so wonderful. I’d like to stay, but off I go.”
Some people we see in our work don’t want to hear about dharma. We simply give our attention to their physical pain and their sadness at leaving their loved ones. Now if they were working with a traditionalist, that traditionalist might interject some “dharma” that was not being asked for. If somebody isn’t asking you for God, for dharma, and you push it on them, it’s just the ego mania of “dharma sickness.” It’s our lack of trust in the process that makes us think we have to save somebody. (Maybe that is part of the answer to the question, too, about how the stillness of the last three years has affected us. Maybe we have a little less need to rescue people, a little more trust in their hearts.)
IM: In doing this work, do you feel you’ve learned much about death itself?
SL: I know that death is only an experience in life, like birth is only an experience in life. Actually I know, not believe, that we don’t die when we die. I know it through multiple experiences both in being bedside with people who have died and through people who have come to me in my meditation and given me intimate details of their process of dying. What I mean is, for instance, sometimes a person I had been working with has appeared to me in meditation and said, “You helped me so much and there is nothing I can give you, but if you want I’ll tell you what it is like to die . . . . ” Then they would share their physical experience of dying. One time I remember thinking, “Well this is an interesting hallucination.” Then I called the person’s home to see how he was doing and I found out that he had just died, and precisely in the way described in my meditation! Interesting stuff. Who knows? Dharma cartoons, but interesting dharma cartoons.
What else? I know that the moment we call dying is easy. I know that it’s amongst the most pleasant experiences of a lifetime. I know through meditation that you get to a spaciousness that is clearly not created and can’t be uncreated. It’s just suchness and I have no language for it.
I don’t know what happens afterwards. I have a very powerful sense that we keep coming back, but I don’t know how the process works.
But actually, what difference does it make? My sense is that even if death were a dial tone, if God just hung up on you, it wouldn’t make any difference. (Laughter) If it makes a difference, you’re in trouble. You’re reacting. You’re acting from the mechanical, from old mind. You’re not acting from the brilliance of the moment right now unfolding.
IM: There’s so much unknown about death. As parents, we’re wondering how to talk with our own children about it. What have you learned about that in raising your three?
SL: I had different ways of responding to them, depending upon the temperament of the child. I remember when my son Noah was six years old, someone who I had been working with for months died. Noah was used to being in the homes of people who were dying, and he had met Chris several times. I felt like I needed to say something to Noah about him. I said, “You know Chris is fine. Chris has just left his body behind.” Noah looked at me and said, “I know that. Why are you telling me that again?” I was showing my own distrust in his natural wisdom, and he knew it. Perhaps because I didn’t trust something in myself I had to keep reaffirming this to him!
With another child we occasionally stopped to look at a road kill when we were out driving. We would look at a dead deer and explore: What was the thing we loved that was absent? Where was the life spark? We would do a little cemetery meditation. Sometimes we would see the same animal on different days and we would watch the quality of decay and see that the thing we loved, the life spark or whatever you call it, was unaffected completely by what was happening. And when we ate meat, we pointed out, with gratitude, the cow. For other children other approaches might feel right.
IM: But when a child would ask you what was happening when something died, what would you say?
SL: I would say, “It has gone on.” They would say, “Where?” I would say, “I don’t know, but it has gone on.” Sometimes I’d say, “It has gone into the light.” But I don’t believe we should tell children, for instance, “Grandpa has gone to Jesus” when everybody in the house is crying. It means that going to Jesus is not a safe place to go.
IM: So the best thing is to keep it simple.
SL: Keep it to what we know, and what we know is that we don’t know.
IM: And that’s okay with children?
SL: You have to be truthful. Do you mean, will it alleviate their fear of dying? If you can give them trust in the unknown because of your own real confidence, not pretended confidence, but an actual grounded sense of okayness in not knowing, I think it does a lot to make a child a risk-taker, in the best sense of the term. Giving children some metaphysical cosmology may temporarily alleviate their fears but doesn’t prepare them for the experiences they are going to have in life.
IM: This brings up a personal question. Two of us have little babies and while we were preparing for doing this interview, we both found ourselves having fears that were rather superstitious. Both of us kept worrying: If I get engrossed in thinking about dying, does it mean that I or my baby might die? You know, that feeling that if you focus on something, it will happen . . .
SL: (Laugh) I’ve heard that question so often. Here’s the answer: How many times have you thought about enlightenment? Ten million? Are you enlightened? As if thinking about it would do it! The first stanza of the Dhamapada—Action follows thought as the wheel follows the ox—needs to be understood correctly. It is talking about intentional thought. But you are not intending toward death!
IM: There’s a “New Age” idea that some people in the Buddhist community also express that we create our reality by our thoughts.
SL: If only their practice were deeper, they would not say that. Buddhists who say that are really going against all the teachings. We would have to comprehend the nature of karma in its incredible complexity to get a deeper understanding of such a statement. To say, “I create my reality” is second-guessing God. I remember one woman who said, “I created my cancer and I can’t create my cure, therefore I deserve to die.” Who is this I, anyway, that creates reality? The smaller I who says it and feels guilt ain’t the greater I/not-I which heals.
We don’t create our reality, we affect it. I am responsible to my cancer not for my cancer. I am responsible to my AIDS not for my AIDS. I am responsible to my sexual abuse not for my sexual abuse. The idea that I am responsible for my reality is toxic, and even though it’s sometimes used by healers, it actually has anti-healing qualities. It stimulates guilt and adds to that calcified outer ring of self—of thought—that filters our healing.
Also, if each is responsible for their reality, then that gives me the perfect excuse not to help—a spiritual arrogance—that they got themselves into this fix, so let them get themselves out. It alleviates me of the responsibility to forty thousand children starving to death at this moment. “Oh, they chose their own reality.” It’s a cold-hearted way the mind has found to escape responsibility. We don’t have to be enlightened, but it is our essential responsibility to help!
IM: Actually in the vipassana communities in the West we don’t hear about very many projects where practitioners do the kind of service work that you do. Why do you think that is?
SL: Most of the vipassana practice in this country is in the Theravadan tradition and this tradition does not have a great breadth of teachings about service. It has a lot to do with “save your own ass.” We have known various vipassana communities that have had intentions towards service—to set up a center to serve the dying or a home for the sick. As far as we know, none of these projects have crystallized. In the Mahayana communities many such plans for projects have been realized. I think that some teachings in the Theravadan tradition perhaps lean toward that idea that you are responsible for your reality, therefore, you create it for yourself and “the devil take the hindmost!” If you don’t want to meditate your way out of it, you deserve what you get. Such righteousness might cause any of us a few extra incarnations!
I am wary of those tendencies towards self liberation which don’t include a sense of connection with the unbelievable enormity of the suffering going on in the world. In fact, I don’t talk about myself as being a Buddhist any more. I use Buddhist practices, but I don’t say I’m a Buddhist, because I think that we need less “ists,” less separation into “this is me and that is you,” less groups and more just clean service!
All cruelty is based on the sense of I and other. Nothing builds a sense of I and other like a group. After their initial help and support of practice, I don’t think groups are such a good idea. Let’s just do the practice. Don’t be a meditator, be a buddha. Don’t be a Buddhist, be Buddha. Don’t be a Christian, be Mary, be Jesus.
When fear is motivating your practice, you touch your pain with fear instead of compassion. When you touch your pain with fear, that is self-pity. We don’t see that anyone doing practice with that attitude is snaring enlightenment any swifter than those practicing for themselves as well as for the benefit of, and service to, all sentient beings. There can be too much self even in liberation.
IM: You said earlier that you’ve been thinking in terms of “lightenment” as opposed to “enlightenment”—seeing more joy to the process. Isn’t it difficult to keep the heart open to pain in the world—to open to suffering in the ways that you do in your work—without developing an outlook that is one of suffering, a sense of pain and denseness rather than joy and light?
SL: Nothing will give us so much joy as watching a heavy state disintegrating, breaking into its fragments, the concept dissolving into process and the process floating in space. Nothing makes us as happy as seeing the emptiness of things.
Now that may be how our time of quiet has affected us. The sense of emptiness is more continuous now than it may have been in the past. With a sense of emptiness even fear can arise and you won’t be frightened! Nothing makes you lighter and more heartful than seeing that the dense stuff isn’t what it appears to be.
IM: Would you say, as the Tibetans do, that the essence of being is really a clear, empty joy?
SL: I don’t think that’s even a point of view. That’s who we are: the uninjured, the uninjurable, the deathless, the boundaryless. Nobody can define it. I use the term God a lot in the same way Suzuki Roshi used it. I’m very comfortable using the term God because I don’t have the foggiest idea what it means, but I see no place it is absent.
IM: How do you use it with practicing Buddhists?
SL: Very carefully! I tell them to keep practicing. If something causes confusion, that confusion is to be watched as lightly and deeply as the heart-mind can muster at that moment. When I use the term God, it is used in a very loving, essential way, referring to the essence of being, as if it’s another three-letter word, like joy. It has to do with a sense of continuity.
A few weeks ago when we were with the Dalai Lama, someone asked him the meaning of emptiness. “Emptiness is service,” he said. He went on to say that when you see emptiness you see that nothing exists of itself, by itself, for itself. It is all part of process. Any event is a convergence of various energies constantly changing, and has no self. In emptiness you see the interrelatedness of all things, therefore you see that you are responsible to all that is. It connects you to the common process of being that we are all floating with, in, through . . .