Two weeks ago, Linda and I attended a memorial service at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County for Stephen Levine, who died in January. Those of you who have been following our work for a while know that Stephen and his wife Ondrea have been two of our most important teachers and have greatly influenced our work and us personally since we first met them in the early 1980’s. We were blessed to have them write beautiful testimonials for our first two books.
For those of you who are not familiar with Stephen or his work, describing him isn’t easy. To say he doesn’t fit the stereotype of a typical spiritual teacher is a profound understatement. The image of his face on the cover of the memorial program reveals Stephen’s true nature, which can probably best be described as a “holy rascal”. He is an embodiment of compassion as well as a prankster and a trickster. He can be both playful and fierce, often simultaneously. He has never denied or attempted to conceal his “humanness” and has always refused to allow his followers to put him on a pedestal. In fact his aversion to having followers has always shown up in his talks and teachings which frequently contain admonitions like, “Don’t take my word for it.”
During the memorial service which was attended by several hundred people, we were all invited to share our “Stephen stories” in small groups. Here is ours, told by Linda.
Linda: When we met in the dyad exercise at the memorial service, I was already crying. I reported that my most impactful contact with Stephen and Ondrea occurred in 1985 when Charlie and I went to Brietenbush, Oregon to attend a couples’ retreat. I had been to a number of retreats with Stephen and Ondrea, but this was the first time that Charlie and I were attending together. This was during a time when I feared that our marriage was really on the ropes. Charlie was working so much, away from the family three weeks out of every month. Our children were very young, and Charlie’s schedule left me operating as a single parent most of the time. I missed him terribly and I was furious about his not keeping our agreement to parent the children together while mutually supporting each other’s career development.
The material that was being presented in the Levine’s workshop was valuable, but I was desperate to have the specific issue that was plaguing me addressed. In my hopes of getting some individualized attention, we approached them on the lunch break requesting some of their time. Stephen and Ondrea sat right down and sacrificed some of their break time to speak to us.
I thought I was bringing Charlie to get fixed. I knew that he respected Stephen from reading his books. So I thought that if Stephen said that he should put family first in front of career, that Charlie might make a different choice. I certainly had not been able to reach him with my pleas to reconsider his obsessive work schedule. During our meeting with them, I described how horrible I felt about our separations. I saw Stephen wince when I said, “I want to dump him.”
My expectation that Charlie would get nailed to the wall for his irresponsibility to the family was foiled. To my surprise, it was me that got nailed. Stephen responded by saying, “It sounds like you are attached to your picture of what you think marriage is supposed to look like. I think some practice of non-attachment will help you.” Then Ondrea spoke about the power of forgiveness meditation, to forgive Charlie for not being the perfect husband, and to forgive myself for not being the perfect mother and wife. The last thing I expected was to be called on the carpet, when in my mind Charlie was the guilty party. I didn’t like hearing that.
Charlie seemed to be delighted by what they were saying. I waited for them to confront him, but they never did. Although I was disappointed, there was also a part of me that was relieved to find out what my work was. At least now I had some sense of what I could do to help repair our marriage.
The drive up to Oregon took us fourteen hours. Coming home, the same distance, took us twelve. It felt like I dropped a heavy load of resentment and righteous indignation, which I had been carrying for a very long time.
Going to the workshop was a pivotal moment in my life. I made a commitment to participate in a year-long series of classes to practice mindfulness. I disciplined myself to get my attention off of what Charlie was doing or not doing, and on to myself doing my practice of non-attachment, letting go of my picture of how the marriage should be, and practicing forgiveness.
The input that I got from Stephen and Ondrea gave me a focus for work to do on my own. I shudder to think what might have happened to our marriage without their intervention. After the Oregon workshop, Charlie continued to work for the company for another year. But that last year that he worked his demanding schedule was not as painful for me because I was diligently doing my work to forgive him and myself and to practice being more spacious, so that at least in the little time that we had together, we could enjoy each other.
I will always be thankful to Stephen and Ondrea for their generosity to sit with us when we were in a painful gridlock, and for their practical wisdom. Charlie and I lived to tell the tale, and so much that we have learned from the Levines has enhanced our work, our relationship, and our family life. I will always live in deepest gratitude to them for the indescribable gifts that they have given to us both.
Charlie: Stephen had an uncanny way of knowing exactly what a person was ready for and a way of meeting him or her with just the right balance of confrontation and compassion. He seemed to sense that I wasn’t ready to make the changes that Linda wanted me to make, but he also trusted that my commitment to our marriage and family was strong and trustworthy, despite the struggles that we were having. I told Linda that I would leave the company when my time was up and that I would know it when that happened. I know that Stephen heard the truth in my words and his acceptance of my experience helped Linda to begin to trust me as well. My time did come, and I did leave the company and things did begin to change. I had my share of work to do too. Much more than I imagined I would have and more difficult as well. As Stephen would later remind me during a future conversation, “There’s no free lunch. No one gets off the hook.”
One of the things that I have always loved about Stephen is his unpredictability. He never seems to say what you expect him to, or what you want him to say, but he always says exactly what you need to hear and say it in a way that you can take it in.
Stephen is insightful, surprising, and able to make connections where others didn’t even see the dots. But above all he is compassionate and almost painfully caring. I have always found it impossible to hold onto feelings of bitterness, resentment, or hostility when in his presence. His compassion as well as his remarkable sense of humor inevitably illuminates the insanity of holding onto resentment when the main victim of this attachment is the person holding the anger. It was from Stephen that I first heard the idea that wallowing in resentment towards someone is like swallowing poison and expecting it to kill someone else. He referred to holding a grudge as akin to picking up a hot coal to throw at someone and squeezing it first. You get burned in the process. As Stephen would say ironically, “Big surprise”.
Stephen and Ondrea spent most of their lives helping people who are experiencing suffering. Believing that the source of most suffering has to do with resistance and denial, and particularly the denial of the inevitability of death. Stephen founded The Dying Project in the late 1970’s and was soon joined by his friend and colleague, Ram Dass and later many other healers and teachers from a variety of spiritual traditions. During the years that Stephen and Ondrea were involved with the Dying project, which continues to offer healing services to this day, they dedicated their lives to counseling and supporting thousands of people, not only those who themselves who were sick or dying, but friends and families of loved ones who were experiencing illness, grief, fear, loneliness and despair. They chose to live their lives in the belly of the beast, and again, another Stephen quote, to “keep our hearts open in hell.”
Although Buddhism doesn’t hold a concept of heaven and hell, it’s not surprising that a great many people see Stephen and Ondrea as angels who have come to earth to help us to live more consciously and more lovingly in the brief time that we have in this precious space between birth and death.
In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition Stephen embodied the characteristics of the Bodhisattva, a being who has taken a vow to work towards the liberation of all sentient beings from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth and has chosen to forgo complete personal liberation until all beings are free. Bodhisattvas are motivated by profound compassion and live in accordance with a commitment to serve which overrides personal desires for pleasure-seeking and pain avoidance.
Stephen’s teaching live on through the lives of those who have been impacted by his and Ondrea’s loving touch. He was truly one of a kind and the world is a far better place than it would have been without him. May we all live in such a way that the same can be said about us at the end of our lives.
To view the complete memorial service please click on this link or cut and paste it to your browser.