The following essay remembers Stephen Levine, 78, a meditation teacher whose work focused on death and dying. He died at his New Mexico home on Jan. 17.
Seattle. Gray. It’s February, after all. My husband, Julian, has been dead for one month. It’s early. Seven in the morning. I’m sitting at the kitchen table huddled under the light from the ceiling dome. The house is dark and shadowed around me.
I’m doing what every lonely person does. Sitting at the keyboard, I want to type: is anyone out there? I’m afraid of the response. Instead, I look for portals of connection. I’m not looking for something to replace Julian. I’m trying to find a way not to feel so alone with what has happened.
I search. First with my brain, then with Google. I remember that back in the late seventies there was a small group around what Elizabeth Kübler-Ross called the “Living/Dying Project,” and that Ram Dass and Stephen Levine were a part of that group.
Ah, Stephen and Ondrea Levine. I search for workshops thinking maybe I could go somewhere, away from all this gray. Nothing. There’s a website, though, and a notification that they are not offering live workshops. I make a donation so I can listen to their online teachings.
They both appear sick in the videos clips and I find out that they are sick. She has some kind of leukemia and lupus, and he has a neurological degenerative condition.
Every morning for weeks, the weather outside is only a slight variation of itself. The two of them talk about fear and dying in their 30-minute videos. I watch video after video. I like hanging out with the dying. With people who talk about dying. It seems like these people are right on the edge, too, where I am, just barely hanging on.
One of the videos tells their genesis story. When Stephen met Ondrea he was teaching a spiritual retreat and she was a participant. He put a note on her meditation cushion during a break. They’d never spoken before that. She liked the note. They haven’t been apart since.
Stephen says that every day when they wake up they pray that the other will die first. I’m struck and confused by this. I feel like I spent every morning of the last years of my marriage silently praying that Julian wouldn’t die. If I am being honest with myself, I might say that being on the other side of his death, alone, I am feeling a little jealous of him. I’m feeling a bit ungenerous about the deal I got. I’m feeling bitter that he got to go first.
Stephen says that he prays for Ondrea’s death before his own because he doesn’t want her to be left behind. That’s what working with the dying and grieving gets you—knowing the right prayer.
Related: Living the Life You Wish to Live
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Watching these videos, I remember an earlier experience. In 1988 I was taking care of my 51-year-old mother, who had a Parkinson’s-like neurological disorder called Multiple System Atrophy. It is a slow, progressive, unpredictable disease that affects the autonomic nervous system. That’s the system that governs involuntary functions, the ones we take for granted: swallowing, breathing, digesting, eliminating.
Julian and I couldn’t take anything for granted while taking care of my mother. Not the continuity of her life, nor the character of it. One day she’d be able to drive and the next she couldn’t walk up the stairs. There were losses every day, little cuts. She lived with us and our daughter. We went from a house of three adults and a toddler to some kind of hybrid. There was a point where my 3 year old could speak more clearly than my mother, was more mobile, and could eat more complicated foods. We found ourselves pureeing long past my daughter’s infancy and buying diapers long after Annie was potty-trained. We were inventive, selling a house, buying a house with an apartment. I was young, 29, and no one I knew had ever taken cared for the sick. No one I knew had ever died.
That fall I saw a flyer for an all-day workshop with Stephen Levine. He was coming to Seattle to talk about caring for the dying. Nobody in my house talked about dying. We talked about diapers (adult and big-girl pull-up versions), about Raffi, about the importance of hand rails. We talked about chewing all of our food carefully and not talking while eating. We cautioned about laughing at dinner.
I was worried, though. I knew my mother could live a long time—a decade? Maybe longer? I also knew that she could die in exactly in the way she did die—suddenly choking, aspirating, and drowning from pneumonia.
I named my worry as worry for my daughter. I was encouraging her to love her grandmother, who might suddenly leave in such a way that is inexplicable to a 3 year old. I worried about Annie’s eventual, inevitable loss. I couldn’t think about my loss.
The flyer was on a bulletin board at the local spiritual bookstore, East-West Books, on Roosevelt Way. The offering mentioned the title of Stephen’s new book, Healing into Life and Death. It suggested that there might be something in it for me—even though I wasn’t worried about me. Maybe it would help me help Annie? Maybe it would help me help my mother? Standing and looking at the flyer, I mentally undid myself from a Saturday at home taking care of the needs of others. Later that evening, Julian agreed to step in so I could go, and I sent my check to a local address, securing my spot.
Stephen was a small man. He didn’t look well, even then when he was in the middle of his life. He had bad teeth and smoked. We all smoked back then. He wasn’t charismatic. During breaks we went outside and stood, shuffling one foot to another, trying to make small talk while we smoked: the caregivers, the patients, the meditators.
We sat on the linoleum floor of an auditorium on the campus of Seattle University. I tried to make myself comfortable on a blanket and pillow I’d brought from home. I tend to think morbid thoughts when I’m in unfamiliar territory, and I couldn’t help having images of being forced to sit, body-to-body, during a bank robbery or an air raid. Others seemed more comfortable than me. A woman near me in the sold-out crowd was using a contraption she brought to support her back—a padded canvass harness that cradled her lower back and wrapped around the outside of her knees as she sat in a cross-legged position. I’d never sat on the floor in a room with 250 people, not for anything. I was too young to have been at sit-ins. I’d never meditated. I heard the woman say to her neighbor that she was a nurse. She was excited. There seemed to be many others like her. I felt like the only one like me.
I didn’t know why I was there. I wasn’t sure that any of this was relevant for me. I didn’t know if I needed to heal. I did know that I wanted to feel as though I had some leg up on what might happen to my family. I wanted to feel like I’d been thorough, that going to a workshop about death was like talking about the risks of choking when eating and laughing. I wanted to feel something.
At the end of the day Stephen asked us to clear the floor of all our belongings. The group moved like a large animal and pushed blankets and backpacks, cushions and pillows against the cinder block walls. We kept our shoes off. He had us stand throughout the auditorium. We waited while he fiddled with the sound system. Then, before starting the music, he told us what to do. This was a kind of Sufi dance.
We each faced a partner. Starting with our right hands, we touched palm to palm while placing our left hands on our hearts.
The man who I found myself next to was just slightly taller than me. I tried not to notice his brown socks and collapsing arches. We held our hands in the prayer position and I noticed a little bit of moisture starting to slip between our palms as we waited. Finally, Stephen got the music started—Pachelbel’s Canon. The man and I brought our gaze to each other’s eyes and began to move, slowly, in a clockwise circle. Three points of contact: left hand on heart, right palm to right palm, unwavering gaze.
After one revolution he and I released our palms and turned away from each other to the next person. Now I reached my left palm out, higher—she was much taller. I noticed long blonde hair. Green eyes. Left palm to left palm, right hand on heart, we turned our bodies slightly and moved counter-clockwise, one step for one beat of rhythm. Meeting her gaze, I did what I had been told to do. I didn’t look away.
And so on.
We danced for 20 minutes. Every next person was unknown to me. The room seemed to be full of movement, slow and measured. I was a stranger. Every person I met was a stranger. The eyes I rested my gaze on became anyone’s eyes, became everyone’s eyes. All the thoughts I’d had earlier in the day about not belonging wouldn’t stick in the same way now that I couldn’t hold on to an image of any particular partner. I lost a sense of the difference between me and them, boundary and caution. I wept. Others wept. Over and over, for one rotation, I gave myself to the movement, to the gazing, to the music. I fell in love.
And even though I felt myself falling in love as I would with a lover or a baby or an expanse of sky painted pink, there was no possibility of holding on to anything. The music and the movement was slow and measured, yet each meeting was so brief. There was no chance, no need, even, to express gratitude or sadness or longing. At the end of one circling we parted, completely.
Related: Death as a Spiritual Experience
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Twenty-three years later on those gray mornings after Julian’s death I listen to Stephen and Ondrea speak to me through recorded video clips. Each of them is sick and each of them is a patient and a caregiver. I hope for something. I hope for some kind of gazing, or weeping, or revolving. Some kind of falling in love. What I find is my loss, my parting. It’s a confirmation of sorts.
I find that the dying are not to be pitied or envied. Stephen and Ondrea teach me this. They teach me their petition, their morning prayer: please, whoever is listening, protect my beloved from being alone.
It is a petition for the gift of dying. Not for oneself but for the one I hold closest.
They teach me in those mornings after Julian is gone that while everything feels so horribly wrong, everything has turned out perfectly. That the only prayer worth praying has already been answered for me.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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