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.


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.


Stephen and Ondrea Levine

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.


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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