Filed in Death & Dying

Living the Life You Wish to Live

Stephen and Ondrea Levine, counselors and meditation teachers, sit down with psychotherapist Barbara Platek to speak about easing the transition from life to death.

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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.



You suggest that much of our fear of dying is actually a fear of pain or of losing control. Death, you say, is perfectly safe.
SL: Yes, people are mostly afraid of the negative things they have heard or learned about death. First of all, we have much better pain medication than we ever had before. It really can be adjusted to provide relief and comfort. So that aspect—dying in pain— has been mitigated to a certain degree. There is less of that extreme discomfort to face. But we are afraid of the images and ideas we have created about death.

OL: People are also afraid of the embarrassment of having someone bathe them or wipe their ass. They are concerned about this level of exposure, this lack of control. Most of us never have this experience in the course of our lives. So this can feel humiliating, and the thought of it can cause great concern. That’s why it is helpful to have a best friend or a nurse we can trust. We have heard people say that as soon as they can’t wipe their own ass they are going to kill themselves. They usually don’t—but that just shows how deep the concern can be.

How useful are the Buddha’s teachings as you now deal with Ondrea’s cancer and your own illness?
SL: They are everything. That’s what we are saying. If we do a practice, then when we come to a hard place we have something to build on. Love is the bridge.

How do you face the prospect of losing each other?
OL: It is sad. We cry. We are everything to each other. That’s what keeps me eating well, taking supplements. As much love as we have, we know we will have to face the other side of it— which is horrible pain. But if we are not willing to go for the love because of our fear of the pain—well, we’re never going to get the love we seek. When one of us dies, it is going to break our hearts.

But you know, we have had the experience of people coming to us after they were dead—people come in dreams and in meditations. In fact, if someone you love has died, talk to him or her. Hear their voice in your head and tell them all the things you wanted to say. Don’t be too rational, try it. Some part of us believes we will still be able to be in touch. Who knows? All we know is that we will love as well as we can.

What advice would you give to someone who is currently facing death— either her own or a loved one’s?
SL:
Be mindful. Be loving. Practice forgiveness.

OL: Don’t put off anything. Any dream you have, anything that you always wanted to do—do it. I can’t tell you how many doctors have said to me, “Stop thinking about it.” Of course I can’t stop. The mind is going to think, “I am going to die.” But when those thoughts come up, we can go to the body, go to sensation— breathe in and out of the heart.

We are going to go through a lot. If you think you are going to die with angels around, God bless. But if you have one good friend who can be with you, that is a true blessing. We have heard of so many people dying alone.

What is the greatest lesson about living you have learned from the dying?
OL: Follow your heart and be as present as you can. Don’t think that life is going to happen when you retire. Live your life now. Enjoy it now. You know that wonderful line from John Lennon: Life is what’s happening while we’re busy making other plans. Don’t wait to live your life.

SL:
Buddha said that we could look the whole world over and never find anyone more deserving of love than ourselves. That is what we should be working with. There is no one more deserving of love than you. ▼


 


Image: Stephen and Ondrea Levine in New Mexico. Stephen tells us that when we turn "mindfully to the idea that we are going to die, we stop delaying our lives." Photo courtesy of Stephen and Ondrea Levine.


 

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marie_blazek's picture

The paradox of living and dying! How can we live each moment fully while letting those our Ego and conflicted Self die in a loving manner? By regarding out losses and defeats as teachers as well as our triumphs and joys, we KNOW our truth and can experience and accept it with love. Then to share what we know and are becoming is Boddhichitta. May we learn to live and die with joy. Thanks to each of you for sharing our thoughts on this subject. Marie

dlee494's picture

Thank you, Cate, Stehpen and Ondrea for sharing your wisdom and your pain. Thank you for being brave enough to face your pain, out of which your wisdom came, and blessing us with your willingness to share it all.

SusanMcL's picture

Thank you, Stephen and Ondrea. I could not have read this at a better time in my life.

Wishing you peace and love,
Susan

bevnelder's picture

I only want to say thank you to the Levines, and to Cate for sharing her insights. It is good to feel part of a group of readers who are moved and helped by these sharings. It is good to be still while we are all "Still Here" (as Ram Dass titled the book he wrote after his stroke), and really consider how to live our lives NOW.

Danzen's picture

Levine and Stephen Ondrea, thank you for sharing a part of your lifes journey. A part of life is death and is something alot of people are afraid to talk about. I lost both of my parents a few years ago to cancer. I learned alot from that part of their life. The main thing was to tell family and friends that you love them and are glad that they are apart of your everyday life. Also not to treat and look at them like this is it . I did things for and with that I wish I had done more of earlier in there lives. I got them to do things they always wanted to but they didn`t earlier in life because there children came first. Also you spoke of having other people doing things for you that are private like washing you. This was something that was needed done don`t worry about it. I just started looking for enlightenment in myself through meditation and the study of Buddhism to live and become Buddha. Reading " Living the life you wish to" is another step in the Buddha way. I have a neighbor who is fighting the battle with cancer and if anyone else has a friend going through this the best thing I found is to listen,help, and love. Good lusk on your journey and thank you.

cate mckee's picture

I just received my first e-issue of Tricycle Magazine today, and was delighted to find that my special software for blind people works just fine through the magazine. It’s a great link to the whole Buddhist community and I appreciate it. I am totally blind and though there are many positive ways I interact with the sighted people around me, I still do often feel quite isolated by blindness. My life is rich and full in many ways, and you might be surprised at the levels in which I enjoy life that I didn’t find when I was sighted. But, I do feel left out of a lot of things in which I was involved, when I could see with my 20/20 vision six years ago. So wonderful not to be left out of Tricycle’s gatherings of transcending hearts and minds.

When a new friend from our local Buddhist Sakya Gampa on my little San Juan Island here in the Puget Sound sent me a Daily Dharma saying, I was tickled and linked right into the magazine then and there.

At that time I had no idea that I would by the end of the day be writing this lofty magazine with my own story. As I read the article in the Spring 09 issue by Andrea and Stephen Levine, Living Your Life The Way You Want To, I was moved to recall so much of my journey of sight and blindness. Their important teaching to turn to look into the eyes of death has touched me deeply.

I have at times, especially in the beginning, thought of the abrupt loss of my eyesight and the change to a world of blindness as a sort of death in itself. But for me, it is more. About two years ago my kidneys began to fail and my doctor estimated at that time that I might live about another year. Turns out the, thankfully, that the rate of kidney failure has significantly slowed and I may look forward, even though I don’t choose to extend the time with dialysis, of years more of life.

Living this past year believing it to be my last has been a journey in itself, even beyond the experience of the sudden blindness. So you can understand that I read the Levine’s article with attentive interest

I’ve read much of their work. I read it when I could see and was working for about twenty-five years in nursing homes, with Hospice, and with people who suffered with severe head injuries. I’d read Stephen Levine’s work about death and dying with the thunder of appreciation and a full agreement in my own heart. Many years before I’d read with the gratitude of one new in the field the guidance of Elizabeth Kubler Ross And as the years went on I followed the work of Naomi File, from whom I learned more about being present with the whole of a person, all she is past and future included, and continued growing in this field of respect at a deep level with the teachings of Ram Dass and Parmahansa Yogananda.

So When Stephen and Andrea Levine emerged as powerful new leaders in this important work of acknowledging the whole being, even the often difficult parts including dying, I was truly enthralled

Now it has become my own story. It’s now no longer more about others, not others with whom I have worked for years to be with in respect and fullness . . .it’s me now.

I feel there is more to say about this work in Death and Dying. Understanding the stages of grief and dying, respecting and relating to the whole of a person, looking right at death and thereby becoming more sensitive to inner values and priorities --- all of it, such profoundly important growth in Human Awareness.I think there’s a little step more. Maybe it’s just a slight adjustment of perspective, really. It’s very simply this . . . looking clearly at our mortality can lead us to see life again in a sacred light. I see that I am not dying, I am living! I’ve learned in watching as others suffered and died that they are more than just the story of their lives and deaths. I’ve learned in this work that life itself is what I honor and respect. All of life, every part of it even the seemingly sad and suffering aspects, are a part of, some definitions of, the
holiness of being alive. We need not wait to be dying, we need not wait until we’ve

untangled unlooked at lifelong priorities. It’s now I rejoice! I am right now a form of aliveness!
This has been a look at my story of how my journey has been, it is a glimpse of how the rest of my time might be, and it is a seeing of my present life. A journey of ever-new changes with the inner ever- consistent sacred aliveness.

March 2009
“I was blind, but now I see”

Helen Wolff's picture

HI CATE,

I JUST WANTED TO THANK YOU FOR YOU COMMENTS TODAY...I FOUND THEM AS MUCH A CONTRIBUTION AS THE ARTICLE THAT PROCEEDED THEM.

BEST WISHES,

HELEN