For over thirty-two years, Stephen and Ondrea Levine provided emotional and spiritual support for those who are life-threatened, and for caregivers. Through their healing and forgiveness workshops, many writings, and endless compassion, Stephen and Ondrea have touched the lives of thousands of people all over the world.
They are the authors of numerous books, including Who Dies, Embracing the Beloved, and A Year to Live, among others. Presently living in relative isolation in northern New Mexico, the levinetalks.com website is a way for Stephen and Ondrea to continue their teachings and connect with an outside audience.
The Stephen & Ondrea Levine Interview
TIS: The Healing I Took Birth For is easily one of the most intimate and moving book’s I’ve ever read. As I was reading it, knowing that you were dictating your life to Stephen, your husband, I couldn’t help but try to imagine how difficult that must have been for the both of you, but possibly healing in some respects too. Would you mind talking about that process; the emotional, mental, spiritual experience that you both went through while undertaking this endeavor?
SL: As we’ve stated in other books, never has our “mystical union” been so evident as when we were doing this. Ondrea had written out notes, sort of in a diary format, and that gave us the pinpoints for her life but I also remembered things about the stories she had told me over those 33 that she had forgotten, which was very interesting. What happened really is this material came into me and it was amazing. I was able to write her story in the first person from her notes and paragraphs. It really came through and wasn’t difficult. It was only difficult in the sense that it took quite a bit of time, it took about three years, but the process wasn’t difficult. Generally, in our experience, writing a book takes two and a half to three years.
OL: What was wonderful about it is that Stephen knows me so well so he can translate my dyslexic speech into words that…
SL: I speak Dyslexia (laughing).
OL: … into words people can understand (laughing.) I’m very dyslexic, even though I may not always sound it, but I am. Stephen knows my experience, we’ve had many of the same experiences and when I got the notes written down, he was able to put it into his wonderful, poetic writing style. I really love the way the book came out and it was only because of Stephen.
SL: And I say it’s only because of Ondrea.
TIS: Aw. Well the book is absolutely moving and compelling to say the least and among the many fascinating stories shared, one particularly peaked my curiosity, which was Ondrea revisiting her experience of being diagnosed with Cervix Cancer at 28, and then talk about having an immediate hysterectomy performed as the cancer had advanced significantly. During this procedure, she spoke about having her first out-of-body experience as the energy you call “Ondrea” watched the procedure from above. What I found most interesting is how this experience gave you the realization that you’re more than a body and gave you confidence in the dying process. Can you elaborate on that for me?
OL: In that experience, I was what I called “Ondrea” that was looking at the body Ondrea. So I knew in that moment, and I’d had other experiences from meditation and such, but this one was very intense and long because I was knocked out on a drug, the body was knocked out. So in seeing the body, instead of identifying with Ondrea, I knew there had to be something more than just that body.
SL: You know it’s interesting because as she describes it, it sounds like the ultimate duality experience but actually it was the ultimate unitive experience. Instead of there being two, there was just one and that one was neither of them, it was the One we all share. That’s why she could trust her experience with others ultimate experience and help guide people who are dying towards the understanding that they are not the body and were something much broader, and like something all beings share.
OL: There was a quality of just “Beingness” that everybody essentially is before they call themselves “Chris” or “Ondrea” or “Stephen.”
TIS: Right, so when you were in that place and seeing your physical body, I’m trying to wrap my head a bit more around the experience, but maybe it’s beyond my, or our own mental constructs to do so without actually experiencing it. Is there a way to put into words what you were experiencing as you’re floating above looking down at the physical manifestation of Ondrea?
OL: When I first saw the body, it was a feeling of wonderment. There’s the body “Ondrea”, and there’s the doctors and then it quickly turned to figure out what was going on while still being entirely fascinated. There was also the feeling of at-oneness, or completion, that I was more “this” than I’d ever been while identifying with the body. It was a total feeling of safety, completeness and that it was who I truly was. Now, of course, I was still alive so there were tendrils to the body but it was one of the feelings that are easier to describe in the negative, meaning it wasn’t this or it wasn’t that. Long time meditator’s have similar experiences and I’ve had other experiences of being out of the body, just not as intense or as long. It was timeless.
SL: You know Ramana (Maharshi) lays down on the floor of his Uncle’s den and has an experience that when he comes out of it, his process leads into the query, “Who am I?” and that’s exactly what Ondrea experienced. When one looks down, they will see that they are not just that body and that there’s more to them than just that body. So who are you, how much more is there to you, is there to everyone? Are you experiencing the deathless when you’re up there? Yes, you are experiencing the deathless. The thing you’re looking at is temporal and fragile and in fact, it’s on an operating table so it shows its vulnerability. The thing about floating above the body though is that people stop short and think, “Oh boy, that’s THE mystical experience” but no, that’s A mystical experience.
TIS: So in Ramana’s case, I recall him describing that experience as how he felt like he was dying and surrendering to it. Was there any sense of that for you Ondrea, having to surrender?
OL: No, there was no sense of that. It’s one of those wordless times that I’m trying to put words too and that’s why what Stephen said was probably the closest I can come to it. There was no need to surrender though.
SL: The drugs surrendered for her. Ramana didn’t surrender once he got into it, he surrendered to get into it.
TIS: Yes, right, right. Well thanks for walking me through and doing your best to put words into a wordless experience. So in your book, you list some questions that you and Stephen are often asked, one of which particularly stuck me which was, “How may one die with dignity and some control over the profoundly intimate process?” Can you talk about that for me here for the benefit of those not familiar with your teachings?
SL: Preparation. People often think that when they get to that point they’ll know what to do. They think that because they read a book or have done spiritual practice for 25 years, they’ll know what to do. What people forget is that when you get to that point, you have a lot of different directions pulling on you. You have the protection of your loved ones, you have the effects of medication that make you woozy and certainly decrease the depth of your concentration etc. So one of the things we tried to do to answer that question was write a book called A Year to Live. Some people do this practice in the last year of life, but a lot of people do it now and what it does is it opens them to unfinished business and to the power of forgiveness. You try to do these things now instead of at the very end. You try to live your life in a manner where you realize that death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you, it’s the closed heart, the unforgiveness, the mercilessness that we live with from day to day. So you start to work with those things now, and for many people, they find surprisingly that the way becomes easier. Also, we need to separate a little bit of the difference between the fear of death and the fear of dying. The fear of dying is pretty common and it’s the fear of pain, fear of the lack of control and those sorts of things. The fear of death is different. For some people, religion has made their fear of death increased because of the fear of judgment day but for most, they have a sense of a better place. Particularly if you’ve had an out of body experience, which is the least experience. If you had a real in the body experience, you’d know you’re not only that and then you may have a sense that there’s more to you than what dies. Also in the last stages of dying, and even in the period leading up to that, you may find the pain in your body and your mind starts to become centered in the heart. So if you learn to breathe in and out of your heart, you will learn to ease that pain and that maybe you can leave on the out breath instead of holding and grasping for it, you can let it go.
OL: What we’ve found with the year to live practice is that people have been doing this all over the world for many years, I don’t recall exactly how many but the book has been out for quite a while, and nobody has ever died from it. What typically happens is people tend to redefine their priorities. Some people maybe work with their greatest priority in life and decide that maybe their work was still a priority but that they’d play a little more, take more time to enjoy nature or try hobbies, different things they kept thinking they’d do when they retire, but we all know that retirement is a fantasy. We really need to do the things that feed our heart now and not wait until, as Stephen said, we get sick and our energies are spread out. You can do it on your deathbed but we’re saying it’s much more skillful to do these kind of practices now, to redefine your priorities now, to not wait and think change is in the future. This is it. Yesterday is a dream, tomorrow is a dream but right this moment, this is all for real, so what can we do to feed our hearts, have more forgiveness and kindness in our lives so when our death does come, we’ll be able to go out as if a breeze is going by. The heart work and forgiveness work we do will give us the strength, clarity and ground to die well. Dying obviously is a natural process. It’s just that our resistance has been built over many years so working with our resistances now will make it much easier when that time comes for all of us to let go.
SL: You know, The Dalai Lama manifesting his ancient tradition speaks of practicing dying and at the time we’d just done the Year to Live book and we had some time with him. So he asked us what we were up to and we told him about our work on the recent book. He asked us what it was about and I told him how it was about people preparing for dying, finishing business, opening their hearts and becoming more mindful and heartful. So the Dalia Lama, being a manifestation of Quan Yin, whose compassion is his religion as he’s often said, he asked what happens with people when they are not dying but confront the possibility of dying, or what happens when they are dying and they really confront it because of the teachings we were offering? So I said, we thought that the possibility was out of the hundreds of people we’d been with at one level or another when they were dying, that they would grab a bottle of whiskey and a girlfriend, or boyfriend, or whatever friend was available, and go off to the mountains and try to not pay attention. Actually however, that happened very little. People were in touch and tended to go inward, rather than outward, when that happened and The Dalai Lama was very pleased to hear that. I think even in the monasteries with people who’ve done the dying practice through things such as Tibetan Book of the Dead for instance, not everybody stays full hearted in the face of such a very difficult experience. So that goes back to answering your original question which is, preparation before you die. Preparation to be open to finishing your business, to say you’re sorry, to let other people say they are sorry and to do the most difficult thing of all which is to turn to yourself and say, “I forgive you for whatever you may have done.” Whether it’s your speech, actions, thoughts or whatever it may be. You call yourself by your own first name. You say to yourself, “Stephen, I forgive you” and that opens a door that is filled with magic. I don’t know why it’s so powerful but it certainly is and when people cultivate that kind of forgiveness for themselves, once you can forgive yourself, you can forgive anyone.
OL: Forgiveness is really a key practice. Some people think of it as a kind of light weight, self indulgent thing but anyone who has done the practice and really stays with it for at least six months can look back and see a wealth of more heart and less judgment, a fuller life that has more clarity and is more joyous.
TIS: I love that you’re talking about forgiveness because one of my questions was regarding how the importance of Forgiveness is emphasized in your book, and not just of others but self as well, in a couple of chapters as a matter of fact.
OL: I think it’s a key to leaving this plane with more heart and more clarity of mind. We’ve had comments where people say it’s self indulgent or that it’s silly and I’d say to anyone just try it. Stephen and I have both been doing it for years and I see that there isn’t anything I know now that I couldn’t know at a deeper level.
SL: When you turn to yourself and say that, “I forgive you”, the mind says, “Oh, this is self indulgent.” There’s a lot of things in us that delay or hinder the possibility of our freedom. We don’t talk in terms of enlightenment, we talk in terms of liberation and there’s a lot in us that fights our liberation. It’s fearful in the same sense that some people may think that going out of the body and seeing yourself would be terrifying because we have no control but actually, you find out that you’re way beyond control, you’re way beyond force, you are It. When you’re It, what is there to control? “It is.” I mean that’s the Tao, “It is”, and even that for the Tao is giving way too much definition (laughing).
TIS: This is true (laughing.) So speaking about the year to live practice, I was rereading your son Noah’s first book Dharma Punx recently and he shared very candidly about taking that practice on himself for a year, traveling etc. He also spoke very candidly about his own personal struggles with addiction etc, and the meditation instructions you gave him in jail Stephen and his growing love for you over the years Ondrea. I was curious however about your personal experiences and perspective of those years in which Noah had the most difficulty?
SL: We went through what any parents would go through. We were protective and hopeful. He had a lot of times when he wasn’t with us so we didn’t always have an opportunity to give him feedback. He would go and spend anywhere from a few months to a year or so with his mother which was a wilder environment but also more rich for him with more friends, more of the culture he was interested in with music, so we didn’t always get a chance to give him certain levels of feedback. The thing is, when a person is a teenager, feedback is not the thing they want the most. What they want is love. We’d go out to eat and Noah would reach across the table during our meals, this was common, and he would hold my hand while we were eating. I looked around quite often and have never seen a child do that in a restaurant, ever. So whatever level we were communicating on was the most important one, which was the fact that he knew he was love.
OL: We certainly went through the same things many parents go through a lot of the time when kids are into drugs or drinking or whatever they’re into, so you have frustration but you learn to work with frustration. You have fear that you child is going to harm themselves in some way and you work with those fears. The practice works with every state of mind. Any parent who works with a teenager is going to be working with fear, anger, letting go and loving kindness so we just kept doing the same practice. Noticing how at times we would wish it was different. We wanted him to be happier, not in trouble and feel more content but he had to do his process as we all did. You’ve been through that too right Chris?
TIS: Oh yes, and that was partially why I asked. I’m in recovery as well and have been to very dark and desperate places in my life. Noah’s story is very similar to mine with the exception that I’m on the East Coast. He’s a little older than me but I also grew up in the punk/hardcore scene. Got heavily into drugs and drinking while playing in bands and touring etc. Also similar to Noah, I’m blessed to have very supportive parents who never gave up on me, my brother as well, and I know that a lot of people in situations similar to mine don’t or didn’t have that.
OL: We had someone say to us once that since we practice so much we must be the best parents in the world, but no, we learned to be parents just like most people learned to parents. We made our mistakes like everyone does. I think that’s just part of expanding and growing up on this plane. You make mistakes and if you have a practice, you don’t tend to make them a 2nd, 3rd or 4th time. Everything we do is part of our expansion and growth. I don’t think in any way he was different than any other kid who was going through drugs. I think it’s very difficult for our young minds, but also for any mind to deal with excess and drugs.
SL: At the same time this was happening in our home, we’re out working with people in their homes who are working with the same situation. Sometimes the situation has gone further and down a much darker road and maybe their child died in an automobile accident, committed suicide, or became so completely addicted that now they’re 30 or 35 and they’ve been addicted for 20 or 25 years. So we hear that and one of the teachings that we receive and we pass on is, in a sense, we’re already dead. When we start to realize the people you love are already dead, you pay much closer attention. When you get that phone call at 3am however, no matter how much you’ve prepared, so to speak you are, you’re just as shocked, as weak kneed, as terrified as anyone who gets that call. There’s preparation and there’s preparation. Maybe the great yogi gets that phone call and he goes, “Ah, now.” But that wasn’t us or anyone we know. Even the Dalai Lama, when we spoke to him he told us when his Mother died that he grieved. It wasn’t like he just said, “Ah, gone. She’s in the Pure land. She’s fine.” I think there’s an attachment you have to the people you love and the more you love them the deeper the tendency to grieve. One of our teachings was to look at the little grief’s. Every day there are minor losses. Maybe little insults. You get on a bus and the bus driver has a grimace on his face because you don’t have the exact change quick enough and you feel a little bit of abandonment or being pushed away. What’s even more common, and we’ve spoken to a lot of women about this, is a woman will go to a sales counter and be waiting for the sales person to come up to them. A man will come up next to her a little bit later and the sales person, instead of going to the woman, will turn to the man and ask how they can help them. So that’s an insult, a grief. We have all these little grief’s and they build up to the point where life for most people, at many times, is a disappointment. But if you start working with the disappointment as a 5 or 10 pound weight, you don’t wait until it’s a 100 pound or 1,000 pound weight that will pin you to the ground. Work with those little grief’s every day. Don’t work with them like, “Oh, damn it” but rather work with them in things like a forgiveness journal, a self-respect or kindness journal, it’s not just “I’m grieving”. You work with it right on the spot. You soften your belly. You take a breath and say “ah.”
OL: Another key regarding forgiveness, especially between parents and children is to work with resentment. When kids are going through a drugs or booze period and their parents are of course resisting and not wanting them to do that, and the chaos that most likely will ensue, resentment will occur. This is what’s really important to work with, work with those resentments. Don’t wait until you’re on your deathbed to let go of your resentments, especially towards your children. One of the things I see is that children resent parents, of course, and parents resent children for things that happened and pained them and that is really important because that resentment can stay with you for 20 or 30 years. You may still be pissed off at a decision your parent or child made 20 or 30 years before so this is very skillful to work with. When there’s resentment in the mind, how does it feel in the body. Do you know where you hold it? In the throat, chest, belly? Do you just let the resentment out by lashing out at people? Are you highly judgmental? So get to really know the qualities that arise in your body when resentment occurs and say you’re sorry, get it out. You’re never going to figure out why you made some decision when your child was 12 or why the child made a certain decision when they were 20. You’re never going to be able to work out all those things but if you can work with the qualities of resentments themselves, you won’t carry them to your deathbed.
SL: How many incarnations may we have taken because of resentment to others and even more so, our self?
TIS: It seems so heavy yet simple at the same time. So I couldn’t help but laugh when reading your tale of Ram Dass, his Plymouth Valiant, The Bee Gees & his secret egg roll connection (you’ll just have to buy the book for the entire story). It then led me to thinking about how it was a different world back then, but in a way, not. Would you talk a bit about any shifts in humanity, for better or worse, you’ve seen since beginning your teachings back in the 60’s?
SL: I think people who are working on themselves have been the same throughout time. People who aren’t working on themselves go through all the changes that are available. Everybody runs away from home in some way. It’s what they run into after going through those changes when they find out who they are or aren’t. Do they run into the arms of the Dharma, of Quan Yin, of the Buddha, of Jesus, of Sarada Devi, of Mary? Do they run into the arms of the whole hearted that makes them feel better about themselves and more helpful to others? If you’re not serving then the Dharma in a sense becomes less active, it stops with you and that’s not the nature of the Dharma. The nature of the Dharma is to receive it and to pass it on. Then there’s people who are doing more service. If you’re asking, “Are people getting lost in different places now than they did then?” No, they’re still getting lost in greed, forgetfulness, doubt, anger, lack of self exploration, so in a sense it’s all the same. Is the music louder? Are the lyrics different? Sure.
OL: Ditto (laughing.)
SL: What do you think about that? You’re looking from a different perspective. You’re looking back at what history looks like. I see some people who look back at the 60’s and say, “What a waste of time” or, “Nothing was happening.” Then you have other people will say, “Listen, if it wasn’t for the 60’s you wouldn’t be able to say that now and have the freedom of speech that was manifest through a lot of people getting beat over the head with billy clubs.”
TIS: Right. Well I was born in ’78 so obviously wasn’t there but I think the latter of those statements is the one the resonates the most with me. I recognize and honor the importance of those times and movements for sure. The literature like Be Here Now, music from Dylan, films like Easy Rider, those are all still things I enjoy very much today. They’re all catalysts in my life. Speaking on the level of drugs, like psilocybin and the expanding of consciousness, I’m reminded of how Maharaj-ji once said something to Ram Dass to the effect that the west, being a materialistic culture needed those drugs to open our consciousness, to see the face of Christ, to meet the Divine. Psychedelic experiences I’ve partaken in myself, regardless of being in recovery now, I’m still grateful for as I know unequivocally that they helped facilitate the expanding my consciousness, all of which is attributed to the 60’s in a way. So looking back, as far as I’m concerned, I’m grateful for those who came before me to light the way, whether it was 50 some odd years ago in the 60’s or 2,500 years ago with the ancient Yogis in India. Now though, there’s all this talk of shifting energies etc in the year 2012 and beyond so on that level, well I just don’t know.
OL: Well it’s really what we make it. If we work on our hearts and work on being kinder and more forgiving, and we have priorities that are helpful to us and the world, then the future will take care of itself. The people we’ve seen in our lives that haven’t done those things, their lives seems to get smaller with age and other than just the body, I feel like our life expands more as we age.
SL: Oh, the body can expand to at that age still (laughing.)
OL: I also think, like Stephen was saying about the 60’s being a waste, people need to understand the 50’s. Everything was uptight and women had girdles and everything was very oppressed. So the 60’s were the reaction to the 50’s and in the 70’s things cooled out a bit more. The 60’s for us were very important. I was never a hippie myself. I had a baby young so I worked, as many people did. I don’t think there were as many hippies as people associate with the 60’s. I hear people say, “Oh all those hippies in the 60’s and I think…”
SL: She wishes she was a hippie (laughing.)
OL: Yeah, I would have liked to be a hippie for a while (laughing.)
SL: She’s more of a hippie now (laughing.)
OL: Stephen was a part of the scene because he was the editor of The Oracle and a part of all the things that were happening, but I wasn’t. I was an un-happening kind of person.
SL: Now she’s “the happening.”
TIS: Haha, you’re both totally happening. So in the “Advanced Teachings” chapter of your book, you say Ondrea, that each imbalance in your body throughout your life, starting with scarlet fever at the age of ten as well as a rheumatic heart, cancer and leukemia, has given more strength to your heart. Could you discuss that a bit for me?
OL: I see illness as being my teacher. Every time I’ve gotten a diagnosis, of course I’ve been very disappointed and thought, “Oh no, not another one.” At first it was, “Oh no, why me?” pity, pity, but after you get a few illnesses down the road you start to wonder what you can learn from them? I think I started to appreciate life and the people in it more, even though I was constantly looking for people in my tribe. I had more gratitude due to my illness. I saw life as more temporary. I didn’t have the fantasies that I was going to live to 80 or 90 like most people do. I knew I wasn’t going to live that long so I had appreciation and tended to be willing to try more things.
SL: In a sense, illness has freed her spirit. When I say she’s more of a hippie now, I mean she’s more of a free spirit. When you practice dying, what you really do is practice being fully alive and she is the manifestation of that practice. She’s dancing right now as I’m speaking. She’s swinging her arms.
OL: I am, I confess.
TIS: Aw, how awesome. So you already touched a little on this topic, but would you please talk a little more about the practice, and application, of “Loving Kindness” in our daily lives and its importance and benefits to all sentient beings?
SL: Well loving kindness is one of the major teachings that’s come out of mindfulness where, when you learn to let go of everything, that the object of your adoration, which in the case of mindfulness, is your breath. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Buddhist, Christian, a devotional practitioner etc, the more you let go of what keeps you small, the bigger your mind becomes. Your big mind is really your heart mind and we get stuck in our brain mind. Neurocardiologist’s now are finding that just as we have electroencephalograph’s to measure the energy that is omitted from the brain, brain waves, they now have heart measuring machinery, and have done many, many studies. Very scientific studies, and this is not just spiritual “woo-woo” but scientific “woo-woo.” There’s many scientific methods and papers about the heart-brains emanation. There’s an electroencephalograph’s and electrocardiograph that has on the level of seeing the emanation. We know that the body-mind sends off an electromagnetic field and they’ve found that the field the heart sends off is stronger, of greater emanation that our electromagnetic field, it’s something that happens from the heart-mind. So this work of loving kindness is really the work of strengthening your capacity to be alive and your capacity to communicate with others on the level of the heart. We talk about peace in the world, but there can be no peace in the world until there’s mercy. Mercy is an aspect of loving kindness. It’s compassion in action. When we have a pain and we treat it as an enemy, whether that pain is in yourself or in someone else in the way they’re treating you, if we treat it with resistance, it’s hellish. We know people who are sending loving kindness into their tumors. So you ask, “What’s loving kindness?” It’s a quality. First of all, you may physically feel it in your heart, in the center of your chest. If you’re an acupuncturist, it is under conception 17, that point. You may feel under that, in your heart, your spiritual heart, you may feel an opening, a warmth. There’s a physical correlation to the state of mind of loving kindness and it’s a feeling of warmth. Your body softens, your belly softens, the resistance you have to your pain and to others diminishes. The space that you encompass, the space that you enfold is greater and it’s filled with care for another person’s well being. Maybe that’s the simplest definition of an aspect of loving kindness- care for another person’s well being and that’s such a healthy thing to introduce into our body, our mind and into our culture. Imagine if in third grade, we had a compassion class.
OL: That’s something we used to speak about a lot, that we needed a third grade compassion class, something for children to simply talk about random acts of kindness, and what that means and feels like to them. In going back to the 60’s, when someone would walk into a room they’d say something like, “I get a vibe from that person” which basically meant they’re getting a feeling from that person and you do feel when a person is loving and safe to talk to. There’s certain people when you meet them, you feel like you’ve known them your entire life and that’s because they have somewhat of an open heart. People who work on themselves, work on their hearts and try to be more loving and kind, people feel that. The heart-mind Stephen is talking about- within 5 feet, they can measure between one heart and another.
SL: It’s 60 times more powerful than the emanations of an electroencephalograph. It’s really remarkable. The studies are done at the Heartmath Institute. When we first were talking about the heart, one of the things we said that had resistance from people was that the heart is not the seat of emotion. It’s really romantic but it’s 500 or 5,000 year old thinking. The heart is actually a deeper level of mind because mind is not just the brain. The mind is an emanation of everything we do. When people speak of karma, they start tripping over their feet. They start thinking it means punishment or interfering quality, like it’s something that wants to interfere with our liberation and is safe with our suffering. If you took most people’s suffering away, they’d barely know who they are. Our suffering is such a part of our self-identity and when that isn’t the priority anymore, protecting that suffering, but instead uncovering it and having mercy, that’s the answer. Move into loving kindness that resisted precisely that kind of energy.
OL: It all sounds kind of easy but it’s very difficult. When you try to practice every single day no matter what, that’s when practice gets real but it also gets difficult. You practice on the days you don’t want to practice. You practice on a day you feel pissed off and life wasn’t what you’d hoped it was. That’s when practice is really fruitful and that’s why we tell people, try these things and see if it works for you. We only talk about what we do. Sometimes we may mention something someone else does, like Heartmath but only because it’s an extension of the work we do. This heart work is very powerful and if people can let go of their judgments about heart work and forgiveness work and do it for themselves, even if just for six months. Try it for six months as a minimum and see how you feel and for most people, they feel better about themselves. They’ll notice the judging mind isn’t as tough and doesn’t last as long. Life will seem a little sweeter. Not all the time but it will become more and more so. You can judge these practices forever, but unless you’ve done it, you won’t know if it works for you, and then you can move onto something else.
SL: Letting go of our suffering is the hardest work we will ever do.
TIS: You’re preaching to the choir. So how’s your website Levinetalks.com going?
OL: Wonderfully. The apology page has been just terrific on the site. Anyone in the public can write into the apology page and I can tell just by the language, it’s not only people who frequent our site who are using it. I read it almost every day. It’s goes from light apologies to very in-depth ones as well. There’s grief that some people are really trying to let go of.
SL: We’ve worked for many years with adult women who’ve been sexually abused as children and that was actually introduced to us because of the grief work we do and that is a major form of grief with a lot of people, way more than people realize. So we have these experiences where people apologize with people not knowing what to do and not being kind enough to themselves after being abused. Abusing themselves thinking somehow they had to be in some manner guilty of something for having been abused. That’s the mercy that we try to offer. Once in a while, we’ll hear from someone who says something like, “Oh my God, when I was drinking, what I did was so horrible to my daughters. There’s no way in hell I can ever make up for it, but apologize.” Well if drinking is causing your life to be shit, stop drinking. Stop whatever inclinations you have toward destructive behavior. So that’s one of the ways the apology page serves others. There’s some apologies where people talk about not being good enough to their dogs and so we say, be nicer to your dog. Everybody be nicer to your dogs (laughing.) It’s been said how we treat the people who are the beings we’re in contact with, who have the least to say about their own life, is how we treat the world. How we treat the old, the animals etc, is how we treat the whole world and to that degree, we’re sensitive to the aging and to animals, we have more of a chance to be at peace on our death bed.
TIS: That segues nicely into the end of the interview. To be honest, I personally struggled putting this interview together. I’ve only known you, particularly Ondrea, through email for a couple of years now and that correspondence alone has touched my heart very deeply. I was aware of a sense of sadness as I put this interview together as I know both of your health is slowly deteriorating. So I guess if you could share 1) on dealing with the grief of loss, which is something I know you and Stephen have spent years teaching and 2) what you’ve come to understand the human experience to be about from your life experiences?
SL: I’d say everything we’ve already discussed is the answer to that question. The practice, the Dharma has made our life worth living and opened us to dying when that comes. Of course, we lose everything we love in the practice of becoming love itself. Stephen Mitchell asked me once how I got to be so loving and I heard myself, which surprised me, “By watching how unloving I am.” So the more we open to our unlovingness, instead of just trying to be loving, forcing loving, the more we can be kind to our unlovingness, the less judgment there will be in the world and that’s what I think makes a life worth living. Certainly, I grieve. The most important person in my life is Ondrea so of course when she’s sick, I weep sometimes. When I’m having a hard time she’s there literally sometimes holding me while I’m going through a difficult time with my body. To be able to be there with someone when their suffering, not to get closed up and be there mechanically, but to actually be there and still love them, not let their pain close your heart, because it reminds you of your unfinished business, your unfinished work with your own pain. The work we do with ourselves is literally for the benefit of all sentient beings. Lately, my work is only in a local neighborhood but real Yogis, their work is for the benefit of all sentient beings. So yes, there is grief but that isn’t all there is in loss. When I lose Ondrea, I’ve lost my life but then I have everything else. I still have the Dharma, I still have my trust in my own process and that she’s just going on ahead of me, or I’ve just gone on ahead of her. It’s not like we’ve moved to another universe. She and I are going in the same direction, wherever that may be. So she may not be here but she’s also not gone.
OL: I think when you’ve had other than the body experiences that you get a sense that you’re connected to everyone, and everyone is connected to you, and that universal connection takes care of itself. There’s no thinking about it. You just feel connected. We are actually, energetically connected by molecules and atoms. When we look, if you’re sitting across the table from me, you would think that we’re not connected, but we are molecularly connected. You can see it, touch it and feel it. There’s practices you can do that will show you those things, it’s just that we say,”Why bother?” Let’s just do the practices that strengthen our everyday life, but there are practices that can show you that there isn’t anything on this planet that isn’t connected to everything else energetically. There isn’t any difference, the only difference is in our mind.
SL: I think what we’re also talking about is how much quality of work we’ve done with fear before fear arises. We say when fear arises we’ll soften our belly but chances are, you may not even remember. Softening your belly is letting your breath go past that heart point we were talking about. You start to release your belly and release the armory of the heart. Talk about wholeness or whole being, that is it, when you soften your belly your whole being comes to the ground of being and not just the little “b” being but you have a taste of “Beingness” itself. So the more you’ve worked with things like fear now, the less fear will block your love later on. Fear is one of the great blockages. One of the most fascinating phenomenon’s we see is with people who love each other and get married, and when they don’t love each other, they hate that other person more than they’ve ever hated anyone. How does love becomes hate? What causes that? It’s unfilled desire, it’s conflicting desire system and the more you start to see that desire isn’t good or bad, but something that really requires investigation, as Ondrea said, what does the body feel? Where do you notice anger most? Do you notice it behind your left knee? Do you notice it by your jaw clenching? Do you notice before anger the feeling that you didn’t quite get what you wanted and then it flips over into anger so that you start to notice sooner the sense of not getting what I’m wanting and you start working directly with that before anger becomes something that separates you. It separates you from everything, from yourself. When you’re angry that’s all you are, you’re angry. What a loss. How small can we get?
OL: When we’re angry we can’t really taste our food, enjoy the company of our friends, or enjoy the music we love when we’re not angry.
SL: No matter how loud it is (laughing.)
SL: Each generation needs louder and louder music (laughing.)
OL: Is your generation punk rock?
TIS: Well I’m a little younger than Noah but I grew up in the punk/hardcore scene for sure.
OL: You’re 33?
TIS: Just turned 34 actually.
OL: Okay, and Noah is 41.
TIS: Yeah, I grew up listening to all the bands Noah talks about in Dharma Punx.
SL: Do you play an instrument?
TIS: Yes, guitar, drums and bass. The DIY punk ethics are ingrained in me for sure.
SL: Very cool.
OL: The Gizmo guys who run our website have a band and just released vinyl. We haven’t heard it yet, I’m going to try to guilt them into it. But they’re a local band and they came to us and asked us to do our website and we said you don’t really want to, no one is interested in us old folks anymore but they were right, there is interest still and we’re greatly appreciative.
TIS: Oh absolutely! Your teachings are timely and timeless. I mean A Gradual Awakening & Grist for the Mill w/Ram Dass are two of the most influential books I’ve read on my path, tattoos and all (laughing.) The workshop CD’s you’ve released together, your other books, Ondrea, your most recent book and even just the email communication I have with you. They’re all great blessings in my life.
OL: Aw, well I can’t think of anyone who should be doing this job but you Chris. Your website and book are very important for these times. I think if you can stay with your recovery, great expansion is ahead for you. I know it’s really tough because Stephen and I have had our tough times too.
SL: What substance are you recovering from?
TIS: I abused it all but alcohol was my main choice.
SL: I was a heroin addict but that was 50 years ago. I think it’s part of our initiation. I don’t think it’s a loss. It’s not stepping off the trail, it’s defining the trail. You didn’t make a mistake, you’re just in the process of evolution. Our biggest addiction is that we think we’re the mind and that causes us more misery and slower growth, slower evolution. In actual evolution, there’s a point where the lizard evolved into the bird, the feathered lizard, people have found fossils of that. So we know the lizard evolved into the bird and an interesting thing happened. When lizards evolved into birds, not only could they fly but they began to dream. While they were lizards, they didn’t dream. Once they became birds, they began to dream and I think that coming through an addiction is when we start to really learn to dream, to use dreams. Dreams have been very important, great teachers. We’ve come out of dreams as though we were sitting with ascending masters and that happens when your practice starts to get strong and there’s nothing more important than loving kindness, growth.
TIS: Amen to that. Thank you both so much for sharing your time experience and insights and for an amazing new book The Healing I took Birth For.
OL: Our pleasure and thanks to you as well Chris.
SL: Yes, thank you too.