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.
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.