|| Stephen Levine is a poet and teacher of guided meditation and healing techniques that have found widespread application. For several years, Levine has worked creatively to help thousands of people approach their own deaths with equanimity, truth, and an open heart. Stephen Levine came to the Bodhi tree in 1997 to present his book A Year to Live. <!– For more information about Stephen Levine please see www.stephenlevine.com. –>
My wife Ondrea and I have spent most of our careers working with terminally ill patients. And we’ve come to realize that the most growth occurs in a person’s last year, during the most difficult time of their whole lives. When you are ill, you are probably in pain, and battling side effects from medication, poor sleep or malnutrition. Yet, miraculously, the dying find peace under these conditions, when concentration is the most difficult. Imagine if we had the same kind of commitment when our bodies were strong, when our mind still had full capacity for concentration and direction, when our hearts were really able to illuminate all the shadows that obscure our hearts.This book is about setting up the next year as if it were your last. You may say, “But wouldn’t I be tricking my mind into thinking it’s supposed to die?” No. The process does not feed into some subtle, sublimated suicidal tendency. In fact, we have seen that kind of tendency completely evaporate, because all this talk about death is essentially an excuse for us to face life. When you’ve got a year to live, life becomes very precious. It strengthens your intention to live in a different way. What a different life you would have if every year was as important as your last. What a different death you would have. Not only for you, but for all the people attending your death-bed.
I have seen deaths where everyone was healed, including the deceased. I don’t mean cured, I mean healed. It takes courage. We’re lazy and we trick ourselves into thinking that God will protect us, but that doesn’t work. As Buddha said: “Our salvation is up to ourselves.” The work that we have to do to free ourselves has to be done now.
Let’s say you are told you have only one year left. And you write down all the reasons why you want to live. Call this Column A. On another sheet of paper, you write down your more surprising reactions to the fateful news. Some satisfaction with dying arises. That’s Column B. It represents our world-weariness, our disappointments, our distrust, our frustration. One reason you may want to live is because you’d like to see the 40,000 starving children fed. That’s Column A. In Column B, those 40,000 children dying each day is not enough to keep you alive. Column B’s goal is that you die, so that you no longer have to experience aspects of the world that you find abhorrent. But Column B must be addressed. And this is why a year to live practice can be so significant. It impels you to address your fears and disaffection with life, while you still have the energy to do it. You can write those letters, finish that business or contribute to those 40,000 children before its too late.
In the book, we suggest you go back in a focused manner to every person and event you’ve experienced, and consider forgiving and offering gratitude to them. Even your beloved could still take a little forgiveness and lots of gratitude. Some people afflicted horrors on you, yet you survived them. Unfinished business is finished by forgiveness. If you accept others, including their not accepting you, if you can touch their heart with your heart, something is healed.
Gratitude is an extraordinary practice. If you knew you had only a year to live, your priorities would straighten out. Participating in gratitude amplifies your life, you find a livingness that literally goes beyond death.
Audience:I can’t relate to this. I’m into physical immortality.
Levine: Well, death is an illusion. In this process, we use the spirit’s shaking loose of the body as a way of focusing on the spirit and healing the body. You’re wondering whether the mind will buy into this, that you’ll make yourself die. If you’ve got cancer, you may worry that this “year to live” process will make your cancer metastasize. Well, this is not what we see amongst people. When people are already seriously ill, the more they are in touch with their living immortality, the easier and more heartfelt their time of death.
The denial of death is fascinating. Psychologicailly, it is a hindrance to being present, to communication, even to finishing business, because the mind says, “I’ll do it later.” In this way, denial of death is, in fact, denial of life. However, your denial of death is also a kind of wisdom. Though psychological emptiness translates as depression, spiritual emptiness is really an incredible up.
We hear people express three regrets on their death beds: First, they fret about unfinished business, or unresolved relationships. Secondly, they regret not having found the work they wanted to do, they regret having compromised, even if it was for success. Thirdly, it’s lifestyle: “I could have worked less, enjoyed my life more.” I suggest there’s no need to die in a dishonorable manner. People too often die feeling like failures for not paying their bills. Therefore, when people actually do this “year to live” practice, they don’t leave their job and go to Acapulco with a bottle of tequila. In actuality, people change jobs, but to recommit to their lives. They are also more attentive to their kids, to their parents, and to their mates. The prospect of death becomes this fiercely polished mirror for our lives. Maybe you don’t get that new job, but you may discover what you really want to do, and you’ve got decades ahead of you. What a wonderful time to find it out now, instead of on your death bed.
When Ondrea and I started this, we called it a “New Year’s Resolution Without Parallel.” The last day of the year would be the last day of our lives. Around June, I realized, “Gee, I’m more than six months into this process which means more life has elapsed than remains!” My mind turned to me like a dishonest car salesman and said, “Oh no! You didn’t start writing til right after Valentine’s Day. You have six extra weeks.” Even with the game, it bargained for more time.
Audience I’ll get my degree in a year. If I do this practice, wouldn’t my studies become redundant?
Levine: No. Why change a commitment you feel is important? That’s a vow, that’s good heart stuff. If you knew the end of year exam was to be death, you might pay more attention. It isn’t always necessary to change externally. You can do the same thing, but you’ll find you do it in a brand new way.
Audience What about committing suicide at the end of a year? Like the Heaven’s Gate People?
Levine: The great Zen Master, Dojin, said karma does not come from killing yourself, but by the way you kill yourself. Why should the intention behind suicide and what it brings be any different than the intention behind any other act? The trouble is, when most people kill themselves, they do it in such a sloppy manner that they cause pain to others. Indeed, a lot of suicide attempts are intended to cause pain to someone else. You may think that people kill themselves because they have no will to live. No. The stronger your will to live, the stronger the potential for killing yourself. The stronger your will to live, the more reactive your disappointment in your experience. As for the Heaven’s Gate suicides, I feel they were a waste of concentration. They had this wonderful commitment and really wanted higher states of consciousness. So, imagine if they had taken that energy and used it for the benefit of all sentient beings. Imagine how wonderful that might have been.
If people were allowed to kill themselves, they’d live longer and they might even heal, because Column B is in straight-on conspiracy with illness. Column B has no interest in your getting well. The option of getting out, volitionally, actually allows you to stay in longer. Many people die at three or four in the morning, because it’s the most lonely time. Imagine if they thought, “If I still feel this way at 6:00, I’ll take a pill.” We’ve seen so many sick people get their pills ready, then they didn’t go through with it. And for the time that remained, the quality of their life improved. Everybody can hang in just this much. That’s spiritual practice. Being present for this moment.
Death is not the worse thing; the worst thing is unmitigated suffering or the closed heart. It is not death, but lack of control that we fear. I don’t think anyone would have taken birth if they hadn’t been absolutely assured before hand that if the going got too tough they could get out. When a person’s at the end of their physical rope, it is not our job to judge them. This Judeo-Christian idea that we’re punished for killing ourselves . . . if you feel that God tortures the tortured, that’s not a God who loves. Taking away a person’s ability to kill themselves is the highest form of fascism. What right do we have to force another person to stay in unmitigated suffering?
Ram Dass had a cerebral hemorrhage earlier this year. The right side of his body was paralyzed. He and I have this old long-standing thing: If either of us are caught with our hearts closed or we’re angry, frightened or in physical discomfort, one will say to the other, “Is there anything in this moment that keeps you from being enlightened?” Whenever we say that to each other, we soften our bellies, and we let go of our holding. I asked him this after his hemorrhage, and he replied, “Yes. My preoccupation with it.” That Zen clarity. We don’t depend upon the body for our existence, but the body depends on us. After all, when we leave, it’s only trash.
Audience I know that life and death is a cycle – it’s part of the process. But how do we impart this deeper understandings to our growing children?
Beyond the physical safety level, it’s very tricky to bring up children thinking you know what’s best for them. Krishnamurti said, “Don’t teach your children to be saints.” Rather, teach them to be kind and pay attention. If they see compassion from you, it’s very encouraging to them.
The term “opening the heart” is in fact a misnomer, because the heart is always open. It’s just obscured, like the sun is obscured by a cloud or a curtain. No one’s heart is open all the time, I’ve seen the Dalai Lama snicker! But meditation unobscures it. And that’s what we must do.
The place of control, and therefore, our powerlessness is in the belly. We need our life energy to heal, but we too often use it to suppress the way we look or the way we feel or the way we want to live, and this hardens the belly. Let go of the muscles holding, let yourself soften. To let go of hard belly is to let go of suppression – I can come back to this a hundred times a day, and I’ve practiced this technique for forty years. A single thought will tighten it. Desire tightens it. Fear tightens it. Judgment tightens it. The harder it is, the smaller we are.
I know a dancer who had bad heart problems. He said the way he wanted to die was to run across the room and jump up into the air and his body would fall, but he’d just keep on going. Well, this fellow is still alive and he’s had several attacks. What’s kept him from dying is that he keeps taking the sacred heart into his chest. He breathes it in and breathes it out. Some months ago, this man had another stroke and when he came back to consciousness, he said, “It was amazing. When I was way out there, Sai Baba came to me and said, Love is Everything.”
Love is everything. One of the things that we saw during this year to live practice, is that to come back and practice a religion or even a spiritual practice is really absurd. When you see the absolute emptiness of things, you really come back. Love is the only rational act of a lifetime. Everything else has got something else in mind.
And for those of you who think that we create our own illness, let me tell you that some cancers develop in the womb. Do you think that a child had bad thoughts in the womb? No. I used to pray that at least the pain would be taken away from these poor children I counseled, until I had the experience one day of a hand coming out and stopping me. Something said: “You just don’t know enough to make that prayer. You’re second guessing God.” The only prayer that’s appropriate, is “May you get the most out of this possible.” When that’s the attitude, it changes the game.
As for the idea in this book of preparing for death, you know, every religion and every belief system tells you to prepare for death. Remember, preparing for death is a spiritual odyssey. Even Socrates, who was probably an atheist in our sense of the term – amongst his last words were, “Prepare for Death.”