Over the last couple of years, I’ve interviewed many doctors and spiritual teachers about death and dying. I typically ask the doctors questions about medicine and the healthcare system, while saving questions about meaning and purpose for the spiritual teachers. I had to throw that framework out the window with Dr. Mitchell Levy, who is both.
Levy has been practicing medicine for 25 years and meditating for more than 40 years. He is currently chief of the pulmonary and critical care divison at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School and a senior teacher in the Shambhala lineage.
Do you think that death can be a spiritual experience?
Yes. Many Eastern religious traditions include the contemplation of death as a practice; the idea is that dying is a natural disillusion of ego. In many ways, it is what many meditation practices are geared toward helping people experience. Even if death isn’t a spiritual experience, at the very least, it doesn’t need to be a horrible experience.
Let’s start there. How can we avoid death as a horrible experience?
We can face death and be very realistic about serious illness without becoming depressed about it. We can cultivate a sense of health in the midst of the dying process. We see patients do this all the time. Some people transform when they are told they have a terminal disease. Their senses transform. They might start talking about the fact that they’re seeing things in a different way. They are less distracted. They have less of a filter of distracted thoughts between what they’re looking at and what they see. They see colors more vividly. They appreciate their families more. We hear reports like that from patients all the time.
This is not true for all patients, of course, but when some patients are faced with a death sentence, it is actually liberating. You can discover a greater sense of health during the dying process.
Can you teach people how to do that when they have a chronic and serious illness?
I think that it has to start with caregivers. Caregivers have to appreciate that it’s not just a matter of taking symptoms away. It’s a matter of restoring some functional healthiness, teaching people about mindfulness or some other activity that allows them to discover a sense of self-worth and functional wholesomeness, and using that as a contrast to the depression of chronic and serious illness.
We usually think of death as the ultimate absence of health. You’re saying that people can die in a healthy way?
Yes, it’s not an oxymoron to talk about healthy dying. People who work with the dying, even the acutely dying—I work in an intensive care unit—can discover some quality of healing during the dying process. Not that people are ever happy that their loved one is dying, but you can see a greater connection between family members, a sense of real support and lovingkindness resolving some conflicts.
This doesn’t always happen, but if we don’t acknowledge that it’s possible, we’ll never be able to do it.
We’ve been talking about how the dying might experience colors more vividly or heal their relationships. These seem like immediate benefits for people who are actively dying. Do you think there are potential benefits for younger people reflecting on mortality?
Yes. All of us get so distracted by the many lists of things that we have to do and are so pressured by all the different forces of relationships and expectations in our life that we lose track of what really makes us happy, brings us joy, and is important. Reflecting on death can sometimes help us see more clearly what’s important and what’s not. It’s a practice that can help us be able to experience more directly—and remind ourselves—what our real priorities are.
For more reading on death contemplation, see these Tricycle articles:
- The Supreme Contemplation: Practicing with the Four Reminders
- Tricycle Talks: Mindfulness and Awareness in End of Life Care
- Death Awareness, a guide for those who practice Vipassana
- Part four of Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s retreat on the four protective meditations, Mindfulness of Death
Dr. Levy will be speaking at the Garrison Institute and New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s Buddhist Contemplative Care Symposium in November 2016. More information on the conference is available here.