Stephen Levine is an author and meditation teacher. He emphasizes the healing of the heart and works with people who have terminal illnesses. Stephen spoke to Matthew Greenblatt editor of The Inner Directions Journal from his home in New Mexico. Stephen’s books include: Who Dies?, A Gradual Awakening, Healing into Life and Death, Embracing the Beloved, and A Year to Live.
IDJ: There are many points of view in the Journal, but the underlying perspective is essentially nondualistic.
Stephen Levine: When Anandamayi Ma was asked to speak from that place (nondual awareness), she said, “No one can speak from that place.” It’s very hard for people to see it embodied, because it has no body. People ask for a nondual point of view but there’s no such thing! (laughter). I remember reading a Buddhist meditation book in which the author kept saying NO POINTS OF VIEW!
IDJ: Yours and Ondrea’s names are generally associated with the work you do with dying people. You must have had a strong desire for inner freedom, which ultimately led you to this activity. Why do you suppose you were drawn to it?
SL: Because it was the perfect mirror for the work I needed to do on myself.
IDJ: You saw embodied in the people you were working with reflections of the issues that you felt within your own self?
SL: No, I saw them as a mirror (laughing).
IDJ: Just a mirror.
SL: Embodied in me (laughing). Everything that came between me, my expertise, my spirituality, my knowing, even my emptiness—to whatever degree that separated me from them, to whatever degree that caused them to only be a thought in my mind, an object in my mind, instead of the subject of my heart—well, that is the work to be done.
I mean true emptiness. Emptiness is not “nothing,” it’s not just “no-thing.” “No-thing” is still maintained by dualities, by opposites, by comparison, by contradiction. When the mind sinks into the heart there is no contradiction. Then there is true emptiness, and an ability to act from that in an unobstructed manner. You are not really doing anything; you’re just “unobstructing” that which has always been there.
When you are with someone dying . . . you see all your desires, even the desire for them not to be in their current state. This is a reflection of our own experience of not wanting to be in certain states, or wanting different ones. So working with the dying provided a perfect mirror for working on myself.
IDJ: Did you recognize this in yourself and knew that you would be doing this work?
SL: No. It happened the first time Elizabeth (Kübler-Ross) sat me down next to a patient. I saw everything that kept our hearts separate—and none of it was worth it, obviously (laughing). I couldn’t just say, “Well I’m not going to hold on to this,” because my very saying it is something else that fills the space separating us.
IDJ: Something to avoid.
SL: Any act of will. It is attended by an increase in the sense of self, even if it’s the will toward God, the will toward emptiness. I could see my true willingness had to be just Being.
There is nothing else that would do; working or sitting, or being—just “being” with the dying.
IDJ: So, “Being” was the only position to take, the only real position.
SL: (Laughing) Yes, “Being” was the strongest possible position.
IDJ: Which is a nonposition.
SL: Exactly. Any position was incomplete.
IDJ: You’ve written that the single definition of healing you felt to be most appropriate is to “enter with mercy and awareness those areas we have withdrawn from and escape from in judgment and anger.”
IDJ: Did you find that in working with dying people, these were reflections of what was within you? Did this particular work allow the arising of these feelings more than in some other activity?
SL: Well, I had been “sitting” for some time. I really did not start working with the dying until I had been pushed out of the nest—and taught to teach, by my teachers. So a lot of that work had been done previously. All of our work with the dying and with meditation is meant to turn toward that which obscures the mind, that which closes the heart.
In this particular work, the need for healing became so clear, so plain, so evident. As people turn toward their unfinished business, they turn toward those things they thought could be put off till tomorrow. As we start to turn toward what closes our heart, that very turning opens our heart.
I think there is a particularly rich environment around the dying, because the value and immediacy of all this stuff is never more evident.
IDJ: How did you recognize the need for healing in yourself? Was it a progression or an experience?
SL: I think it happens the first time you see yourself (even as a child) doing something that you later think was hurtful to another. At some point, other people’s pain will get your attention. Now it may be you are ninety years old by the time that happens and your family has long since pulled away from you—because you didn’t honor their pain, much less soothe or support their healing.
There is a certain point at which one goes from common courtesy to wisdom. Initially, you don’t hit anyone because you don’t want to be hit back. First it is your responsibility not to hit, then something happens in the heart; you see the ability to respond to people who have been struck by others. The whole game opens up, then the whole world.
IDJ: Did your practice take a turn at a certain point from conventional meditation to one of opening the heart?
SL: No. I did it the other way around.
IDJ: You did?
SL: I was doing heart practices before I started anything else. At nineteen years, I started to do practice. I read A.E. Burton and existing Buddhist manuals. This was forty years ago so there wasn’t yet much around. D.T. Suzuki is like a Zen garden; very nice if you’ve seen gardens before but there’s nothing to compare it to. What I needed was not a Zen garden—I needed a jungle, something luxuriant in which I could see all the fauna and flora of my own being.
I had no physical place to go to, so the only thing I could do was just be silent. I started sitting in a cabin and thinking, unfortunately, about who I wasn’t—and really hammered myself for not being the Buddha.
IDJ: And this was at nineteen?
SL: Yes, I sat quite literally alone in the cabin trying to be the Buddha. I also realized that concentration had something to do with it, so I found an object on which to fix my attention. In this case (at nineteen) it was a plaster dime-store Buddha, the kind they used to sell with the little tin holder in its lap for burning incense on. That was my Buddha; the Dime Store Buddha. I sat with Dime-Store Buddha for about a year and a half, then slowly started to look around and eventually found a teacher. I had previously met the person, but then I had gone away and sat in that cabin for a while looking for practice. Then I realized I’d better get back to him (both laughing).
IDJ: Who was this person?
SL: Rudi. Did you know him?
IDJ: Not personally, just his antique shop in New York City.
SL: I was his first student.
IDJ: I remember walking by the store, looking in the window, and wondering “What goes on in there?” The storefront was a bit intimidating.
SL: The front of that store was basically all there was! While living up in Albany as a kid, I would go down to Greenwich Village. During one of these trips I met him and kept coming back to the store.
IDJ: You’ve written and talked a lot about opening the heart as a chief practice, or the essential task that you feel is necessary. By the heart, what exactly do you mean?
SL: All ideas of one’s self or the universe are simply ideas. What they float in is the Truth. Even the purest and truest sentence one might utter would not be as true as the space in which that sentence was floating: Pure Awareness. When you say I’m talking about opening the heart, I’m talking about our original state, our true nature, our original easiness.
IDJ: I remember reading in Healing Into Life and Death, the story of Robin. This was a young girl who was approaching death and keenly desired to know what the true nature of healing was. And in that process of inquiring, she experienced the healing of the heart, not of the body. Is that the kind of healing that you try to facilitate when you’re working with dying people?
SL: Right. That is what conscious dying is. Conscious dying is a form of healing, not obviously a cure. Healing happens, while cures only happen to the body—on the surface, you know. The physical superstructure cures, but the physical superstructure is very small. The true superstructure is where we are hung—on the great cathedral of evolution—where we are one square in the sacred stained glass windows through which the light passes. Everything is only “one-thing.”
IDJ: I imagine that when working with a dying person, the process is extraordinarily real and immediate. Not faced with imminent death, a healthy person always postpones this inquiry; our whole culture is geared to not facing death.
SL: The denial is so enormous in the human psyche, that even severely ill people resist this; even until they can no longer walk, until they’re no longer ambulatory, until their kidneys cease functioning, etc. And then, they are thinking about it—they’re writing to their friends—and it is then just in their head that something’s going on. But when they can’t get up, when their legs don’t move, that’s when the change happens. So it isn’t even a sick body, it’s when you can’t even move; it is obviously related to control. When a certain level of noncontrol arises, it breaks—our heart breaks.
IDJ: In other words until they cannot fend for themselves, there is no surrender.
IDJ: In your new book, A Year to Live, you wrote a line that says, “Some will come to this book because they sense the remarkable opportunity of dying consciously.” I believe that to die consciously with wisdom, one would have to live consciously.
SL: For at least a moment (laughing).
IDJ: For at least a moment. But what does that moment really buy one, as opposed to a lifetime, or many years. I know there is no time when considering such matters, but what does “a moment of living consciously” truly bring one at the time of death?
SL: Once one has seen even a moment (beyond the mind), it takes on a different context. It’s a little bit like that image of the person who lives in the valley their whole life. The one time they go up the mountain, they get a very different perspective of the valley. They have got to descend again and spend the rest of their life in the valley, but they will have a changed perspective.
IDJ: In your experience in working with people who are dying, is the fear of death really the fear of annihilation of the individual?
SL: Part of it.
IDJ: Facing the void?
SL: Well, fear of dying is for most people fear of pain, not the fear of nonexistence. Fear of dying and the fear of death are a bit different. In dying, there exists the fear of “no control” and the fear of not being able to satisfy desires. Death is something else. I think the fear of death is the fear of judgment day, for a lot of people.
I think most people are afraid that death is impending punishment and that what follows is a long continuation of that punishment. People have put themselves so far out of their heart; they just cannot imagine a God so merciful that She could accept them as they are.
IDJ: When working with people this way, is there a particular method that you employ to help open one’s heart to this healing presence?
SL: No. The Dalai Lama asked me that question the first time I met him. He asked if we work with everybody the same way. No one is the same. He laughed, because in his field everyone says that the work they do is the same. But they (the Tibetans) do not work with them the same way either. Even if you were reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead to someone you were connected with, you would find yourself repeating certain stanzas differently, emphasizing certain places that you felt being appropriate.
I was also telling His Holiness that we have worked with people using the Christian prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me . . .” but with the “miserable sinner” part removed. People of Christian temperament have found being able to repeat this prayer very helpful in taking them past their fear of God. The whole thing is their trust in the process, or nonresistance. Sounds familiar (laughing)—sounds like yesterday.
IDJ: According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, our mind with its fears and judgments will be the same mind that is present after death. Quite a sobering thought.
SL: Right. Working in the body is very good because it emphasizes that which blocks the heart and clouds the mind, but it also lessens concentration, etc.
IDJ: The ability to turn away from these issues while embodied exists—but when one dies, there’s no running away; the fear is there.
SL: Right. But I have seen people who lived terrible lives have wonderful deaths. And I have seen people who had led wonderfully spiritual lives have very difficult deaths. So I think that there’s a lot more to this than we understand. Even having experienced and gone through some of this with people, there are still things I don’t understand. I do see that if a person’s heart opens at the right moment, it’s maybe the luckiest thing they have ever done in their lives.
I’ve seen great teachers like Ajahn Chah, grumpy for the first six months after their stroke. Lama Yeshi said, “My mind was a howling dog and my body was a charnel ground. I had to struggle hard to regain mindfulness and then everything was okay.” I think for everyone there is a struggle.
It is natural not to be devoid of difficulty. You have built something in your head that says it will be otherwise; then, when difficulties arise, you think: “I’m a failure; I’m not strong enough, I am not the chosen of the…, I am not the beloved of the beloved.” People should expect problems now and again—it is not a sign of weakness or having failed in any respect.
IDJ: One of the most significant aspects of Buddhist philosophy is the flat-out proclamation of the transitoriness of life. And that attachment to life is what creates our suffering. Do you feel that people attracted to this teaching deal with the issue here and now, while other traditions may tend to postpone this inquiry?
SL: What are you going to wait for? Who’s going to do it if you don’t? Buddhism and Advaita are not built on a belief system, but on direct experience . . . I forgot what my point was; I got too involved with the image (laughter). Not enough emptiness . . . more emptiness please . . . a double dose!
IDJ: If the mind plays a central role in causing the heart to remain closed, how does the removal of ignorance of who we are fit into the role of opening the heart?
SL: Each element, each aspect of ignorance (as you refer to it) is removed. It is like removing a piece of very thin, almost translucent, rice paper that’s been placed one after another, after another, after another—over the heart. In the beginning, you can almost see through the paper; it’s only slightly opaque. But after hundreds or millions of misidentifications—of the heart losing itself and the mind becoming predominant —it becomes more clouded.
Every time you don’t buy into doubt, you don’t buy into anger—not suppressing it—you become more and more awake to not only your process but the process that all sentient beings share. The more present you are, the more this keeps falling away. In a sense we are meditating, watching the mind to see what we are not—and the more we see that we are not that anger, not that fear, doubt or lust, the more the Natural Being shines through. One need not do anything.
IDJ: So the heart is more or less open in inverse proportion to our identification with a separate self?
SL: Well, I use the term “closing the heart,” but I think it’s actually a misnomer because the heart is never really closed; it’s only clouded.
IDJ: People are often under the impression that the practice of meditation alone will provide transcendence to pain and suffering.
SL: Good luck.
IDJ: Good luck, exactly. I’d like you to speak about that.
SL: People have exalted experiences but cannot act on them, because it doesn’t come down into the ground on which they walk.
IDJ: There seems to be a “ripening” taking place over time, so that when the experience comes it sits well, it expresses itself well.
SL: That is why we do psychological as well as spiritual work; you can’t just sit. If you just sit that is fine and that will help you, but there is more to be considered. True spiritual practice really works, it is very powerful and you can hide in it exquisitely. You can be powerful, you can be clear, you can be compassionate, and still not have worked on that place where you’re not trustworthy around another person’s wife, child, or parent. There is something in you that is not healed, by virtue of the fact that you have got the power. Powers have nothing at all to do with illumination. They may coincide, but I would not leave anything that I thought was valuable or beautiful.
Even bad intentions will not stop the power of the dharma, because its power is so incredible. It is the natural power of being in evolution. Some people can heal or see into the future. But could you also let that all go? I think most of this is a trap.
IDJ: There is a beautiful story told by Ramakrishna of a man who sat on the bank of a river practicing austerities for fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five years—all for the purpose of being able to walk on water. After many years an old friend of his came by. This man, excited by his accomplishments, showed his friend his newfound ability—and proceeded to walk across the river—and back. His friend looked at him and said, “You fool, all I do is pay a penny to the boatman to take me across; what a waste of precious time.”
SL: Spiritual language at a certain point becomes so calcified that instead of an advantage, it becomes a blockage. Transcendence is available every moment. I let go, I transcend. Every moment that I hold on, I sink. So, this is the nature of the mind. It is like climbing a ladder, stepping off the ladder at the top, and seeing that there never was a ladder—just a lot of mental construct.
IDJ: In working with people, do you lead them in that direction? Do you ask them to look at the one who may be having pain, etc?
SL: We don’t work in terms of self and nonself. We really work on opening into the original spaciousness, touching the deathless; and through meditation experience, some people have a breakthrough where they come to the place of what we call the “point of remembrance.” Our work is just to direct people to deeper, more peaceful and more spacious places, so there’s a lot of letting go. Instead of talking about self and non-self, we talk about relating to something, instead of from it. Relating from it, you’re identified with it. We just talk about it as pain; we talk about suffering and the absence of softness and freedom, then we say you can relate to it.
You are not changing the quality in the mind, and there is no effort to transcend anything, no judgment, no agreement or disagreement. There is just being relating to it, and once you start to relate to the pain, “my pain” becomes “the pain.”
IDJ: Do you think that people who face the immediacy of death get results by virtue of that very immediacy of the situation?
SL: I think so. But sometimes they are not quite ready to let go of things; they are trying to find something else to hold on to. What they find is what there is to find, and what they want to find! What they find on their deathbed is no different than what any yogi has ever found at any time, in any place. Strangely enough, I’ve seen people—”dyed-in-the-wool atheists” on their deathbed—have beatific visions, and really see. It is exquisite when you see that.