If prayer would do it,
If reading esteemed thinkers would do it
I’d be halfway through the Patriarchs.
If discourse would do it
I’d be sitting with His Holiness
every moment he was free.
If contemplation would do it
I’d have translated the Periodic Table
to hermit poems, converting
matter to spirit.
If even fighting would do it
I’d already be a black belt.
If anything other than love could do it
I’ve done it already
and left the hardest for last.
~ Stephen Levine ~
I’ve had Stephen Levine’s book, Who Dies? on my bookshelf for over 20 years.
I peruse his wisdom from time to time, wondering about the Great Mystery, and how for centuries, all the world’s religions have developed their theories on death and eternal life thereafter. What they share in common is this: something lives on; the body resurrects in a physical form that goes to either Heaven or Hell (Christianity); or in Levine’s Buddhist viewpoint, the physical brain and body dies, never to resurrect, but the mind merges with a universal energy that lives forever. More importantly, though is how one lives day to day, and if we think about our own death from time to time, we learn to be more mindful, present, and grateful for each moment we are alive.
Levine, a poet, teacher and hospice worker for over 25 years (along with his wife, Ondrea) took Socrates advice, who, on his deathbed advised his followers to “practice dying as the highest form of wisdom.” From this experience, he wrote the book, A Year to Live: How To Live This Year As If It Were Your Last. For one year, he lived as though he were dying and found a radical shift taking place that enamored him to a glorious presence most of us forget in our day to day lives. Learning to live with dying forces you to examine priorities and motivations, and appreciate loved ones on a more heightened level. Your life comes alive like it never has before. I’ve read accounts of people who were dying express something similar: that life had never been so vibrant or immediate, and on some level, peaceful than it was in their last days. Not surprising the vibrancy. You don’t miss your water til’ your well runs dry…you don’t think about or appreciate your life as much until you are about to lose it.
But I have my doubts. I’m not so sure one could attain this level of vibrancy in regards to death, no matter how much meditation and study was practiced. After all, you can’t pretend to die; without the authenticity of an actual illness or injury, could this horrendous and often life-changing experience be duplicated or bring about the same results in a genuine manner?
The human mind and body would have an immediate reaction to the news of impending death and go through the familiar stages of avoidance, grief and perhaps acceptance over time; this is monumental change unprecedented in an individual’s frame of reference. Though he didn’t write day to day entries in the book, over the months it became clear that valuable to a life well lived is learning to be mindful, aware and fully alive in each moment.
Levine’s teachings are some of the most precious spiritual ideas I’ve ever read. His Healing Into Life and Death explores techniques for working with pain and grief and developing a “merciful awareness” as a way of acceptance and healing. What other poets have to say:
The Gods who conceal from those who have to live what a happy thing it is to die. (Lucan)
Oh Death, the loveliness that is in thee. Could the world know, the world would cease to be. (Mary E. Bradley)
And my favorite: This, too….is wonder. (Charlotte Joko Beck’s last words)