By Randy Peyser
Stephen Levine along with his wife, Ondrea, has provided emotional and spiritual support to the dying and their caregivers for the last three decades. Using meditation and other ways of developing awareness, the Levines have assisted many to die, and live, consciously.
Stephen Levine is a poet and teacher of guided meditation healing techniques. He and his wife and spiritual partner, Ondrea, have counselled the dying and their loved ones for more than 30 years. Stephen Levine’s best-selling books Healing into Life and Death, A Gradual awakening, and A year to Live are considered classics in the field of conscious living and dying. He is co-author with Ondrea of the acclaimed To Love and Be Loved and Who Dies?
The Levines’ work stretches from the most painful experiences of the human spectrum to the deepest reaches of the human consciousness, from hell to heaven as it were, from pain to ease, from a sense of loss to the legacy of our unending interconnectedness. Their experiential “Conscious Living/conscious Dying’ workshops are a meditative investigation of what it mean s to be fully alive, cultivating the qualities that heal the mind and heart, exploring the nature of what it is that dies.
The Levines’ work, both through writing and direct interaction, has often proven to be life-altering for those who have come in touch with them. For instance, a woman who lost her son, says of her experience of reading Who dies?. “I was in such pain I didn’t think I could live through it until my sister recommended Who Dies? Each time I read it, I am left feeling peaceful and accepting. I remember to accept what is, to be present in the moment, and to recognise my pain, when it comes, as an opportunity to grow and come closer to truth.”
Presently, Stephen and Ondrea live in the mountains of southwest USA, attempting to practice in the silence of the deep woods, seeking the healing they can then offer others. They no longer have a telephone of do individual counseling, as their energies, for now, are mostly directed inward. They do go out to reach a few times every year, but are not available directly.
Excerpts from a rare interview with Stephen Levine:
Can you describer the focus of your work at present?
Much of the work that Ondrea and I do is the work of encouraging the mind to sink into the heart. We explore grief-not just the grief of the loss of a loved one, but the loss of safety, confidence, and trust which accompanies grief. We also explore how the energy of grief limits the expression of the heart, and we use meditation to go past that. This work is based on the essential Buddhist meditations. It has to do with mindfulness, to paying attention to the patterns in the body which are associated with each state of mind.
Are there similarities between conscious living and conscious dying?
The basis of conscious living and conscious dying are precisely the same thing. They have to do with paying attention to the moment as it unfolds, and trying to meet it with as much mercy and compassion as possible. If we’re being conscious in this moment then we’ll be conscious in that moment. The less we’re being conscious now, the less we’re being heartful now, and the more difficult our deathbed might be.
We’re not talking about waiting until you’re dying to wake up, we’re talking about completing your birth now, and coming more fully into your life now. We’re talking about impermanence. We’re talking about living in a world where there is no real control. The more control we exert, the harder out bellies become, the tighter our hearts get, and the less happy we are.
Ondrea and I are coming from the place that happiness is a superstition, but joy is your birthright. Even death doesn’t stop that when the heart is allowed its natural expression.’
What is your distinction between happiness and joy?
Happiness is based on getting what you want and joy is based on being who you are. Everybody’s known joy at certain times when they were doing absolutely nothing. Happiness always comes from doing, getting, having, whereas joy might come from laying in a hammock, or sitting by a stream.
Joy is very often experienced in a passive modality-you’re watching your daughter get married our your son graduate. Observing the momentary happiness in another brings joy to you.
Joy is always present in a sense. Happiness is momentary and only comes from getting what we want. Happiness is so fragile. There’s a king of hysteria in certain qualities of happiness, whereas joy is deep and grounded. From joy you can help others. From happiness you often can feel separate from others because you got something and they didn’t. but everybody’s got joy. It’s our birthright.
The ironic thing is we have almost no contact with joy because of our obsession with happiness. On occasion, Ondrea and I will be with someone on their deathbeds, who says: “You know, I got everything I wanted. There were lots of moments of happiness. But if I had to be truthful, there was very little joy.” Fragile, momentary, coming and going, impermanent. Happiness one moment, shouting the next. The absence of what they call ‘genuine joy’ in their lives is disconcerting to them on their deathbeds.
We’ve been told to go after what we want, but we have not been told about the consequences of desire. How it hurts us, blinds us, or affects our loves ones.
When I’m saying desire, people quickly jump to lust. Lust is nothing next to the subtle desire for constantly being applauded, or being told that you’re better than the hateful mind tells yourself you are. It’s that desire that is always there, the desire that is the voice of our everyday common grief. It is the desire to feel better; the desire to not be in so much pain, or to not be so confused; the desire, even when we are in pain, to appear as though we are not. So merciless are we.
You mean toward ourselves? You’ve often talked about the importance of having mercy. In fact, you’re one of the few people in know who uses that word.
The word fell out of use because mercy meant guilt and looking for an intercessionary divine power. Really, mercy is when you see someone in pain, you feel their pain.
Someone once asked the Dalai Lama: We’re supposed to have no attachment, right? And the Dalai Lama replies: “Well, you have to have some attachment or there would be no compassion.”
Connectedness is wisdom in action. Wisdom says: “Everything’s empty.” Compassion and mercy say: “Everything’s full.” When someone’s in pain, you don’t see how it’s empty, you wonder how you can help. That’s the difference.
Randy Peyser is the author of Crappy to Happy: Small Steps to Big Happiness NOW. Her website is www.randypeyser.com
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