By Mary Nurrie Stearns: Stephen Levine is a poet, author, and teacher of guided meditation and healing techniques. His books include “Who Dies?” “Healing into Life and Death,” “A Gradual Awakening,” and, with his wife Ondrea, “Embracing the Beloved.” His work encompasses the most painful experiences of the human spectrum to the farthest point on the human horizon, from hell to heaven.
Personal Transformation: Your book A Year to Live,” is a loving guide for profound healing. Through your own preparations for death, you have given us a year long program to help us learn to fully live before we die. We are indebted to you and your wife, Ondrea’s willingness to live deeply into your beingness and to be guides for those of us on similar paths.
What prompted you to live as if you had one year to live, imagining that you would die at the end of the year?
Stephen Levine: I was fifty-eight-years-old when I began the year long experiment. When the Dalai Lama was fifty-eight-years-old, a reporter asked him what he was going to do next with his life. He answered that he was going to prepare for death. The interviewer inquired about his health, and the Dalai Lama replied that he wasn’t sick, but that his body was impermanent. When I heard about that conversation, I thought that preparing for death was the natural thing to do.
How did the one-year-to-live experiment impact your life?
The year-to-live offered extraordinary insights into the places where I had been numb, and into the still small voice within, which became more pronounced. But the most profound influence was an increase in courage. When you have one year left, fear makes you too small. You better live that life that you’re going to be so unhappy to think you are leaving. In twenty years of being with people dying, my wife Andrea and I have seen miraculous things happen. Relationships untouched for twenty-five years blossom into something you wonder how that person could have lived without. What happens when we find out we only have one year to live? When we know we can’t be hurt anymore, that we might die, we feel safe. Why should knowing that we are going to die make us feel safe? It makes us feel unsafe too, but there is this place inside of us that feels safe, that allows us to see what holds back from life, yet says it hates to lose life. How much life we trade off. We trade off more life after we are born than we do after we die.
You said that during that year you wanted to complete your birth. What do you mean?
Most people live with one foot in the womb, hopping around the world, never quite coming out. Completing our birth is a process of becoming grounded, putting both feet on the ground. It is taking responsibility for being born, but not responsibility as blame. People say they are responsible for their illness. We are not responsible for our illness, we are responsible to our illness. We are not responsible for our incarnation, we are responsible to our incarnation.
Human beings, when not stressed, are utterly beautiful. It is only when we are confused that our hearts shrivel and our minds figure crafty ways out of situations. The rational mind is a completely amoral, problem-solving device. When we relate to life from our minds, we take our feet off the ground. It’s like not wanting to touch the floor, fearing that we will be burned. To take birth, we need to put both feet flat on the floor, while recognizing that we’re in a world filled with suffering. One-half of all people go to sleep hungry at night. Forty-thousand children will starve to death today and tomorrow and the day after. If you have only one foot on the ground, you are unstable, and suffering can push you over. With both feet on the ground, you see that you are not responsible for those children dying, but you can respond to their dying. It may be tithing some charitable group that feeds, doing hospice volunteer work, or strengthening your own practice so that nothing comes out of you that creates more suffering in this terribly suffering world. Birthing is a cleaning up. A lot of people don’t want to take off the afterbirth. They want to think they can slip out at any time, that they don’t have to take responsibility.
There is absolute joy in completing your birth. Conducting a life review helps the birthing process. Practicing forgiveness and gratitude are aspects of a life review. I went back to images in my head of untoward things I have done in my life. Slowly and gently I approached images that I never wanted to go near again, because I felt shame, guilt, and anger. It completes your birth to bring your own life into your heart with mercy. This may not be easy, but it is incredibly fruitful. Most people have a group of thoughts in their head that they are afraid to think around other people, for fear that shame will leak out their ears and be known. We can’t live like that. That kind of fear makes us violent and hard to be around. It causes us not to want to put that second foot on the ground.
You stated that when you were exploring the fear of death, it became clear that the fear of life needed to be investigated first.
Life has difficulties in it, but the power we have to deal with life, which might never be called on if life weren’t difficult at times, is miraculous. Facing life responsibly gives you confidence. The enormous power of the heart, and the power we have to receive the healing we took birth for, is within us all. If life’s difficulties weren’t jiggling us, we wouldn’t spread our legs enough to get our balance.
Yet we are conditioned to retreat from the unpleasant.
That’s what keeps this world small. That’s why forty-thousand children will starve to death today.
Why do we avoid the unpleasant?
Because it’s painful. Aversion to pain is the greatest decreaser of life experience. When you always turn away from difficulties, you’re not going to go far. Anyone who has done genuine, long-range spiritual practice knows there are periods that are very difficult. Letting go of our suffering is the hardest work we do.
You’ve written that in order to heal, we respond to rather than react to discomfort. We begin to experience discomfort as the pain, not our pain. What’s the importance of this?
It’s another way to discuss being responsible for and being responsible to. When it’s my cancer, I’m alone with my cancer. I have nobody, just me and my cancer, and it looks like there is no way out. When I realize it isn’t my cancer, but the cancer, there is space to work on it. My depression, my cancer, crams me in, like being in a phone booth full of my life. You open the phone booth and see that everybody is standing outside of their phone booth. It’s isn’t my depression, it’s the depression. When it’s the cancer, I am in this flow of human-kind, with all the energy of four or five million other people going through the same thing at this same moment. You connect to something universal, which brings peace.
Is the same true for the dying, rather than my dying?
Yes. My dying is terrible, but on the day I die, on the day that everyone dies, roughly two-hundred and fifty-thousand other people will die. The death rate on the planet is about a quarter of a million a day. The death, if I believe in reincarnation, means I’ve been through this dozens of times before. One friend of mine says, “Can’t you take a bad day well?” One of the teachings of being responsible to your life may be learning to take the bad days well.
How do we become responsible to our death?
We start relating to it. There is no better way to be responsible to your death than practicing a year to live. Most people who are going to die this year have no idea they will die in less than a year. Even those who have been told they have a serious illness don’t know when it will culminate, or if it will go into remission. In the last year of life, people’s energies are compromised. Concentration is diminished by medications, pain, fatigue, and sleeplessness. Malnutrition may develop. Various conditions arise, that if one is more stable, with both feet on the ground, are easier to go through, for themselves and for the people around them. This year-to-live healing is not just done for you, it helps your world. It’s a way of cleaning up the world, in a very nice way. One of the most lovely aspects of the year-to-live was the life review. I went to each person who had been kind to me and thanked them. It took a long time and it was delicious. It broke open my heart. It also balanced the other part of a life review where I dealt with resentments and forgiveness.
You described the life review as essential to the year-to-live practice. What does it involve?
The life review consists of practicing gratitude and forgiveness. Start gently, almost casually in the beginning. Let memories come up, and rather than reliving them tasting that steak, feeling that slap, or crying those tears watch and relate to the memories, instead of solely from them. Don’t push anything away, allow memories, bring them in so they can pass through. A lot of memories are stuck in the mind. It’s the same process as dealing with hardness in the belly. We soften, and there is still something hard there, and then that hard thing starts to flow, and we relate to it instead of from it. We start meeting our memories more softly, just like the hard belly softening the muscles and not pushing, not letting aversion to the past keep you from living in the present.
When I ask men how many have had homosexual experiences, about twenty percent raise their hand, yet about eighty percent have had some homosexual experience. If you can’t go to memories of being sexual with someone in day camp, how can you touch the memory about the guy you killed in Vietnam? Or the wife you cheated on? I know people dying with AIDS, who had unprotected sex with people after they had AIDS. They are dying in such self-hatred. They did a terrible thing, a stupid, angry thing. However, this is a human being dying. Just as you don’t want them to live in the context of their self-hatred and shame, you don’t want them to be seen that way in yourself. Forgiveness is very powerful. Had those AIDS patients been practicing a-year-to-live, they may have not been so compulsive in acting out their desires. These are good people. They are lonely and AIDS has them scared and they do something stupid. Everybody has done something they regret. Imagine doing something you regret that you can’t take back. Forgiveness acknowledges our human vulnerability. Forgiveness does not condone unskilled actions.
There is no place where forgiveness is inappropriate, although it may take time. People who had terrible things done to them have to have both feet on the ground to be able to forgive. They have to examine their anger, possibly even homicidal rage at the person who hurt them, to get that other foot down on the ground. If you are afraid of anger, you push it out of consciousness, then it pops up and you act on it spontaneously. The more you know that which causes you pain, the less potential it has for causing you pain.
During a-year-to-live, fear of death is faced. How do we face it?
Fears arise everyday that are like five or ten pound fears. We’ve become accustomed to these little ones and are able to submerge them with no problem. We think submerging is a sign of our strength, a sign of how far we’ve gone. It is not. Those fears are opportunities for liberation. They are five and ten-pound hindrances that we can learn to handle by thorough investigation. You can’t investigate pain during bone cancer if you’ve never done pain meditation before. You can’t even investigate pain during a stubbed toe usually. Most people stub their toe and send hatred into it. They are merciless and wish it would be gone. What pain in us most needs is to be embraced. We have learned to be absent. We feel abandoned by the part of us that could make us feel whole. We scared it off. When you prepare to work with the fear of death, start working with little fears. You step off the curb, a moment of fear. You meet a stranger, a moment of fear. Start with the five and ten-pound fears because they’re workable. We’re familiar with them and they don’t close our heart. They might tighten our belly a little bit, but we’re working with soft belly. Eventually we increase our capacity to work with larger fear. If we went to the gymnasium to pick up the five-hundred-pound weight, the fear of death, we couldn’t do it. But we can work out with five and ten-pound weights. We open to the little angers, fears, and doubts, not circumventing them just because we are able to, which decreases aversion to pain and displeasure, and increases our ability to do the work that we were born to do.
Talk more about the soft belly practice. How do we soften into fear?
You start soft belly by physically letting each inward breath that you breath push the belly out. No more holding the belly. You physically open, letting the muscles soften, letting the tissue soften. In the beginning, you may even push your belly out a little, just to let it know it can go out, that it doesn’t have to take half a breath. You start to breath in to your belly, which is quite a wonderful experience. One foot on the ground may be that we take our breath only into the top third of our body. Eventually, you’ll be able to breath out the bottom of your feet, so to speak, without even trying.
This opens us to what is in our belly?
Yes. You practice softening and begin to notice that, although your intention is to soften, there is something hard there. Your heart decides it is time to face that which has caused you to turn away from life. You start allowing thoughts, and they can come and go. You make space around thoughts, moment to moment, every exhale letting go. In the course of this, you find out what letting go means. One of the extraordinary things about soft belly practice is that it is a physical trigger for the mental state of letting go. People lose their breath when they’re watching death or during a moment of anger. That’s the time to practice soft belly. Start to look at little angers, doubts, and fears. In softening the belly, you let space be there and thoughts and feelings pass through like bubbles. You don’t stop anything. Let it all flow. The difference between my pain and the pain is the space it floats in.
This allows us to experience the passing show of consciousness from a place of spaciousness.
Precisely. Many people have learned soft belly and found it particularly useful in the last year of their life. You can test and verify the benefit of this in your own laboratory, your body. Notice, whenever your belly is hard, which it is almost all the time, what you are holding. You just have to pay attention. I’ve been doing this practice for forty years, and I still soften my belly one-hundred times a day.
Noting seems essential to this practice.
Noting is knowing what is happening while it’s happening. It is an aid to keep you on the mark. When you open to those five and ten-pound pains, call them what they are. Note them. If it’s an anger feeling in the belly of hardness, notice the mental state. Note what is in the stillness of the deeper mind. Recognize and label, just in passing, not holding. At first it’s anger. Then it’s frustration, and soon you see desire, frustration, pride, fear, aggression, guilt, and shame. You see all those different qualities that make up that single state of mind we call anger. Things become more precise. You go from generalized fear, anger, doubt, or hardness in the belly to more subtle reflections, insights, and sudden wordless understandings into what is going on. Noting keeps us steady. Particularly when it’s a fifty-pound fear. You’re afraid your child is on drugs, that your wife is going to leave you, or that your parent’s x-ray is going to reveal cancer. This is the heavier pain of fear. Keep noting to yourself, fear, fear, and going into the sensation, softening. The more familiar you become with any state, the sooner you’ll recognize it and the less your natural resistance, your desire to hide, will keep you safe. The closer to its inception you notice, the lighter the weight, and you can exercise more of what seems like free will.
So we relate to these states rather than being consumed by them?
Relating to our pain instead of from our pain is the whole game. Relating to our pain is joyous. Running from our pain is misery. If we could contain our pain it would be different. At this state of evolution, human beings cannot contain pain without causing others to suffer. We just can’t do it, we are incapable of it. People think that they keep it together by not showing how much pain they’re in. They live with the absence of joy, which shows how much pain they actually are in. Joy is a natural state, pain is acquired.
This is the process of letting go of the suffering around pain. How do you distinguish between pain and suffering?
Pain is a given. If you have a body and a mind, there is pain. It is an aspect of the law of conservation of matter. Only one thing can occupy any space at one time. When your body walks along and hits a table, the table holds that space and you get hurt. A sensation comes up your arm and your nerve net catches it. If it’s small, it goes through the net and we notice it as a distinct sensation. If it’s big enough, it gets caught in that net and we experience pain. It is the same with thoughts. We have some idea of who we are, so when another idea comes in, both can’t occupy the same space at the same time. Conflicting conditioning results in mental pain.
The pain of being born is a given. Suffering is not a given. Suffering is how we work with our pain. I have seen people who can deal with pain, but are still suffering. Physical pain can intercede in your practice. Pain can make it difficult to be concentrated and stable, to not be frightened or angry. Mental and physical pain attracts grief. Our latent grief comes up. In relating to physical pain, don’t wait until it’s a three-hundred pounder. Bumping your elbow is an opportunity for liberation. Work with it. It takes you to the edge, but it’s just the edge, and when you get there, you’ll see that wasn’t the edge at all. We can take a lot more than that, unfortunately. Sit with those pains and send mercy into them. See the anger that collects around pain, trying to blame. Grief is separation and separation comes up to meet injuries, physical or mental. If we want to be free, that’s where we have to work. Little pain gives us the opportunity to clear out enormous pain. Suffering is resistance to pain. A lot of it is volitional, but some of it isn’t, so have mercy on yourself. When working with pain, don’t be a tough guy. A tough guy is a weak guy. Toughness is an escape, not an opening.
Do you differentiate between death and dying?
Dying is a process of shaking loose of the body. Death is a process of being no longer obstructed by a body. Because we have an idea that we are a body, we limit our understanding and insight. During the year-to-live, you see that you live in this body. You see that your body and your experience float in something bigger, which is why you can feel an inch beyond your skin. Death is the waking dream that we experience sometimes at night, or during insight, or while making love. Death is always present but is obscured by the trappings of having taken form. Death is consciousness, the ongoing flow of object awareness. Objects of awareness are no less real in a dream than they are in the world. Your dream of a tiger is as frightening as a waking experience with a tiger. In fact, your dream of a tiger may be more frightening because real fear comes up. We’re not so clever in dreams. Usually our cleverness is sufficient to keep us safe. In dreams we let go and open. My idea is that death is like a waking dream. Those who do lucid dream practice have an advantage. Death is not so different than life. I think that people are going to be surprised. You are not going to have a chocolate soda, as far as it seems. But since most of our experience is mental, an inner experience of what is going on outside, death is not going to be much different.
Is there a moment of death?
There is a moment of death when the person standing next to the bed can no longer make contact with the person in the bed. The doctor’s instruments no longer measure life in the body. For the individual inside, it’s like asking if there is a moment when you fall asleep. There is, but if you’re awake in that dream you say, “I’m asleep,” and that’s the last thought you have. In death it isn’t the last thought you have. You recognize that you are in another process. Your philosophy before hand may define what that process is. I think many people believe they are not dead. They don’t think they can be, since they are still conscious. That may be purgatory. There is little more helpful you can do for a friend after they’ve died, than to touch them lovingly, saying, “Whatever you are going through now, you just died, that’s all.” That may sound stupid, but imagine if it would help. What have you done to help them as much? I think the individual dying notices that something is happening. They notice they are literally getting high. When you look at a person who has just died, you notice they are immobile. The predominance of the solidity element has fallen away. They start to feel like an ocean, like a flow, instead of a boulder. The process is one of letting go. First they let go of the solid elements. Outside, the person can’t move, but inside, they are free of solidity. Next you notice that the loved one’s circulation system has stopped, their fluids have closed down in their body. You are now certain they are dead because the body is starting to stiffen. Inside, the person feels like fluid and as the fluidity stops, they start to feel like air. As the body hardens, even the air goes away and they become pure energy. It’s like an ice cube melting. The edges disappear and there’s a pool of water. The pool takes on room temperature which causes it to evaporate. Eventually it goes from a solid cube with defined edges, to being invisible, because it has become gas and is filling the room equally in all its parts. You may think that is an awful thing to see happen to a body. But remember, when the ice cube evaporates, it remains H2O. It hasn’t changed a bit and neither does human consciousness. It is just contained in a different way, experienced in a different form.
Who or what dies?
The body dies. I don’t think anybody dies. It’s reverse recycling. With human beings, the container is discarded, and the contents are recycled. The person who is in the body, as a mental structure, goes on, but in a very different way. There have been times when, having the same mind you have now, you have been absolutely joyous, clear, and free. The mind you have does not obstruct freedom, how you relate to the mind obstructs freedom. The beneficence of the process of dying is that we’re given perspective on our suffering, which shifts from my suffering to the suffering.
Are people afraid of death after having a near death experience?
I am still afraid of death, and I have been there. Through various means, I occasionally have been beyond the threshold. I know experientially what a few steps into death is. I know that death is perfectly safe. It’s like taking off a shoe that is too tight. Even with this knowing, even with seeing some people die as beautifully as saints, the conditioned mind still holds the fear of death. It is fascinating to watch. If even half the mind were evolved enough so that when it received a new piece of truth, it could discard the other half truth, we would be in better shape. The mind is able to hold conflicting conditioning. The earlier our conditioning, the more deeply rooted it is, and the more difficult it is to balance, to let float. It is so rooted, it holds on to the earth for dear life.
What insights do near-death experiences provide?
Near-death experiences, where we see that we are not the body, and that death draws us to a center of love, are great wisdom teachings. They also show that the ignorance we pick up during life doesn’t go away easily. When people come back, they say, “I met Buddha or Jesus,” or some other image of omnipotence. Few people come back and say, “I saw my true nature, my original face. It was remarkable and reinforcing. I know the healing I was born for, I know what I am made of.” People see that luminosity as something different than themselves. This is the ignorance we carry in our life. I had a teacher whose whole practice was letting go of every thought except that he was God. He became enlightened.
What is the importance of funeral preparations?
Most people are not prepared for their loved one’s death, even if they have been beside their bed for a year. When loved ones die, their absence is momentous. Transitional rituals help acknowledge death. The mind will have things to say for a while around the death. Grief is not just sadness; grief is remorse, guilt, anger, distrust, and feelings of abandonment. It is important to be grounded. There is no time that we want to take one foot off the ground more than when we are in grief, and there is no time that it is more dangerous to do so.
Relationships do not end when a person dies. Some other aspect of it deepens and begins. Your relationship isn’t over, it is just no longer externalized. The pain involved is the consequence of love. That’s what love costs. Some people say the price of love is too high. They will take many incarnations to get by that fear, which is fine. However, there is a point in which fear does not lead our life anymore. We are willing to love even if it is painful at times. I become ecstatic when I talk about what is on the other side of the pain, but it is not right for me to say your pain will go away after a one-year practice, because it may not. It will start to recede in the background and float in something bigger than your pain.
What else would you like to add?
I learned from the-year-to-live that love is the only rational act of a lifetime. Everything else pales in comparison. Things that are motivated by love can still turn out badly in the physical world, but the intention for love does not turn out badly, it can only bring a deeper capacity for love.