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Stephen and Ondrea Levine, counselors and meditation teachers, sit down with psychotherapist Barbara Platek to speak about easing the transition from life to death.
Drawing on their roots in Vipassana meditation techniques, Stephen and Ondrea Levine have helped thousands approach death with equanimity and an open heart over the last 30 years. Now, they are learning to bring the same openness to their own lives—Ondrea is living with leukemia and lupus, while Stephen lives with a neurological degenerative condition. Recently, the Levines retired to the mountains of New Mexico to deepen their practice in the silence of the woods. Returning to an initial passion, Stephen devotes much of his energy to poetry, and his most recent publication, Breaking the Drought, channels his healing and insight into verse. Last year, the Levines spoke with psychotherapist and author Barbara Platek about death, dying, and conscious living.
This article is part of our newest e-book, Tricycle Teachings: Dying & Death. If you are a supporting or sustaining member of Tricycle, you can download the e-book for free here.
Why is it important for us to think about dying?
Stephen Levine: Because we are all going to die. If we could bring that reality into our heart, that would be a practice unto itself. The last time Ondrea and I spoke with the Dalai Lama, he asked us what were working on. I told him we were writing a book called A Year To Live, which explores the practice of living as if the present year were our last. He wondered whether people who started this practice would run amok. In other words, if they imagined the end was coming, wouldn’t they just grab a lady or a guy and a bottle of tequila and head for the beach? And that’s what we thought as well. But the truth is, when people know they are going to die, that last year is often the most loving, most conscious, and most caring— even under conditions of poor concentration, the side effects of medication, and so on. So don’t wait to die until you die. Start practicing now.
You actually spent an entire year doing this formal practice—living as though it were your last. How did the experience affect you?
SL: One of the things one notices in getting older or doing the year-to-live practice is how vain we are. We are so attached to how we appear in the world, in relationships. Simple embarrassment so often guides the way we interact with others. But when we do this practice of turning mindfully to the idea that we are going to die, we stop delaying our lives. We start catching up with ourselves.
Part of this process involves attending to the fear of death. When it is simply my fear, or my pain, we feel terribly isolated. But when it becomes the fear, the pain, there can be an expansion, an opening. If, when we are on our deathbed, we can think of ourselves as one of the ten thousand people who are dying, we can have a more universal experience, and this frees us from the terrible isolation of our suffering.
Ondrea Levine: I think the greatest benefit of the year-to-live practice is the opportunity it provides to reassess our priorities. When we worked with people on their deathbed, we would often hear the following three complaints: I wish I had gotten divorced earlier; I wish I had taken a job for love of the work, not money; I wish I had played and enjoyed myself more. So the beauty of the practice is that we can evaluate our lives even before we are on our deathbed. If we are not living the life we wish to live, how can we change that now, while there is still time?
I can say this, because I have cancer. And I know that once you get that diagnosis, no matter how much you already know, something happens, everything becomes much more real. Ironically, it brings greater permission to be fully alive. I find it very exciting.
We have so few guides or myths to help us through the dying process. And yet the fact that we die is intimately related to our experience on this earth. Rather than honor or acknowledge what is essentially a great mystery, we are almost, as you put it, embarrassed by it somehow. How can we overcome this feeling?
SL: I think we are embarrassed by how much pain we have been in throughout our entire lives. Because we are embarrassed, we don’t share this truth with one another. Of course there is fear there, too. We have fear around dying. That is natural. But the embarrassment is just that— embarrassment. We need to have mercy on ourselves. We all feel embarrassed. Actually, when we do speak about these things, when we do share our embarrassment, we experience relief. The holding back is what is hard.
We have seen people die without ever telling their families what was the matter with them, without ever sharing a single doctor’s appointment, without ever even giving their loved ones a sense that they were near death. We need to be able to trust relationships. If two people can share their embarrassments, what a bond that creates.