THE NATURE OF HEALING
with STEPHEN LEVINE
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. Today we're going to explore the nature of the healing process. With me is Stephen Levine, a poet, an author, a spiritual teacher. Stephen has written numerous books, including Who Dies?, Meetings on the Edge, Healing into Life and Death, and Grist for the Mill. Welcome, Stephen.
STEPHEN LEVINE: Thanks, Jeffrey.
MISHLOVE: You've done an enormous amount of work over the years with people who are sick, people who are dying. You've witnessed the healing process in operation, undoubtedly thousands and thousands of times. We're going to look at some of the many stages of the process. When I refer to healing, I think in this context really I'm not talking about medicines so much as spiritual healing. I guess a good place to start is to look at the obvious kinds of healing, that is, healing in which some kind of a physical recovery occurs -- where a person experiences, for example, a spontaneous remission of a terminal disease. Let's talk a little bit about that process to begin with.
LEVINE: Sure. You know, when you ask me, "What is healing?" I still don't know. My wife and I, when we were directing the Hanuman Foundation Dying Project, worked for a long time predominantly with people who had come to us to ask us to help them die. A lot of the people we worked with, as they came to a certain point in their process, usually including opening to the reality that death might well be in the near future, began to finish business. Our relationships are usually run like business: "I'll give you two; you give me two. If you only give me one, I'm going to take my bat and ball and go home; I won't play anymore." So this is kind of totaling of accounts that's always going on with people. It's real easy to think that finishing business is, "You forgive me, I forgive you; but I'm not going to forgive you until you forgive me" -- this always waiting for someone else to give you something. We started to see that many people started to see that the end of business was no longer relationships as business. When I take you into my heart, our business is done. If you don't take me into your heart, that's your pain and I feel that, but it really doesn't affect my business. We started to see people heal their relationships towards the end of their lives, where they were really meeting other people with such mercy and such care for their well being, that even those who were angry -- an example, a really extreme example: A woman we had worked with, her mother had been very ill. She'd never really gotten along with her mother. Her mother had been very judgmental, quite unkind, abusive. And her mother then became very ill, very ill, and she was the only one of the sisters who would even go and sit bedside. They all had such contention, felt so judged, they really put their mother out of their heart. She was a Zen student. She decided that her work on herself was to be there for her mom. She sat next to her mom, and her mom would go into a light sleep and come out, in and out, as people do when they're real ill. She would just sit next to her mother and wish her well -- not, "Why haven't you given me this? Why didn't you do that for me?" -- not trying to total the accounts, but trying to let her mother, as is, into her heart. That's the basis of relationship -- as is. Because if I want you to be the least different, then you become an object in my mind instead a subject of my heart. Where's the healing there? It's just separation. Her mother had been very nasty in her lifetime, and it wasn't ending just because she was dying. This woman, day after day, sending loving-kindness to her mother. On the day that her mother died, her mother looked up at her and said, "I hope you roast in hell. I hope that you have the worst possible life." Her mother died cursing her, and she died with her daughter sitting next to her, looking at her with soft eyes, and with an open heart saying, "Ma, I hope everything's OK for you." Now for her mom it was terrible, but for her it was wonderful. She had really finished her business. She was just with another human being who was having a hard time. I mean, that's really an extreme story, and hopefully we can all get some glimpse of what that one would be. But that's enormous healing. The woman who was dying died; the woman who was sitting next to her was healing.
MISHLOVE: Who was she healing?
MISHLOVE: Herself, yes.
LEVINE: That's all we can heal. If we're not working on our own healing, we certainly can't be contributing to anyone else's healing.
MISHLOVE: You use the phrase, "take somebody into our heart." That's an interesting phrase. I think it seems to have a lot to do with your sense of the healing process.
LEVINE: Yes. A woman's dying in the hospital. She's lived her life in a great deal of separation. She has a cancer that has infiltrated her bones. Interestingly, it's a lot like this other woman who was dying. Six weeks into the hospital she has been so unpleasant to the doctors and the nurses that they don't even want to come in her room. One night she's in a real quandary, her pain is so great. She's been a person who has always been able to control. In fact her controlling quality has been so extreme that she hasn't seen her children in years, and has never met her grandchildren. She's dying alone in the hospital. The nurses and doctors, that's not where they want to be; they walk in the room and she's blaming them for her pain, them for her illness, them for not being able to cure her. Very little is she able to take within herself her own experience. She's pushing it away, pushing it away. One night the pain is just so great there's nothing she can do about it. And she comes to a point -- it's almost like a drowning person when they just say, "I'm going down. This is it; I'm just too exhausted to fight anymore." And maybe for the first time in her life she surrendered. It might have been the first time in her life she'd ever let go of her separation, of her idea of herself as opposed to the whole world. And in that moment something happened, where all of a sudden -- her bone cancer was mainly in her back and in her hip and in her legs. She was lying on her side, in kind of an embryonic state, and all of a sudden she was no longer herself lying in the hospital. She was an Eskimo woman lying on her side, dying in childbirth, with enormous pain in her back and her legs and her hips. An instant later she was a woman lying on her side beside a river in some tropical environment, whose back had been crushed by a rockfall, dying alone, with enormous pain in her back and her hips and her legs. A moment later after that she said she thought she was somewhere in Biafra. Her skin was black. She had a slackened, empty breast, at which was suckling a starving child. They were both starving, perhaps dying of cholera she later thought, with enormous pain in her back and her hips and her legs. She experienced, the next hour or two -- she said she couldn't really gauge time -- she experienced ten thousand women in pain at that moment, dying, at that moment. She said as that happened it went from being my pain to being the pain. She said, "I had no room in myself. My pain is in the mind; but the pain is the pain we all share, and it can be touched, it can be experienced in the heart, the heart we all share, the heart of common experience, the heart of common concern for the well being of all sentient beings." In the next six weeks, up until the time when she died, her room became the center of love in the hospital. The nurses would hang out there sometimes on their break. A few weeks after this experience, there were her grandchildren sitting on the bed, who she'd never met before, playing with grandma, and there were her children, her son standing next to her. Right before she died, the day or two before she died, one of the nurses brought in a picture of Jesus in the form of the Good Shepherd with the children and the animals, and this woman, whose heart had been like a stone, whose mind had been blocked to all but self concern, looked at this picture and the children and she said, "Oh Jesus, forgive them, they're only children." Hers is one of the most amazing healings I've ever seen. And that's why I really can't say I know what healing is, because I've seen people's bodies get well whose hearts were not as healed. There's a healing we took birth for. When we look around this plane, around this world, and we say, "How can there be so much greed, so much cold indifference, so much suffering?" it's because this is the place we come to heal, and everybody doesn't take the responsibility for the healing they took birth for. And it may be that some people don't even consider it until they find that they may be dying soon.
MISHLOVE: You seem to be saying that healing of the body is really unimportant.
LEVINE: Healing is not limited to the body. In fact, I've seen parallel situations, with two people with similar diagnoses, where one fought the illness. It was them against the illness, and contention filled the room. When they were in pain, they didn't think they were OK. Just when they most needed mercy, it was least available to them.
MISHLOVE: From themselves.
LEVINE: From themselves. And they pushed everybody away, and whether they lived or died, what they did is create schism in the family, judgment in the family, guilt in the family, feelings of unworthiness in those who loved them most, because nobody could help. And I've seen other people in the same situation -- same pain in their body, same pain in their mind -- say, "I don't have a moment to lose. I can't stand to live a moment longer with my heart closed. Too much pain for me, too much pain. The world doesn't need another closed heart." I see them where their priority is to communicate the care they have for others, and the healing in that room -- maybe the sign of real healing is, what are the people bedside left with when someone dies? Are they left with their hearts full and a sense of connectedness to that person, or are they left frightened of death, scared of that person, with much rumination in the mind about how things didn't work out, how could I have helped more? Did they leave a legacy of mental suffering behind? So I see people heal into death. Now, I've seen people where the person died with their heart open leaving more healing behind than someone who lived and just continued that judgment and that aggression in the family, and the family was unhealed, though the body was healed.
MISHLOVE: Is there a sense -- I've heard this reported by some doctors -- that the kind of people who do experience a physical recovery from a serious disease are ornery kinds of people, who are kind of fighting for their lives?
LEVINE: Aggression can be a very strong part. People can fight their illness, and then it becomes me against my illness. It becomes separation and anxiety. Our sense is that when you touch that which is in pain with mercy and awareness, there's healing. Where there's awareness there's healing. I think the word healing is used in an odd way. To heal is to become whole, right? To come back to some balance. And yet where's the balance in that process where -- one doctor, for instance, who helps people heal through modern methods, says that those who heal are their superstars. And then another doctor I know says that patients who heal are the exceptional patients. Well, what does that make everybody else -- a second-stringer, a loser? I mean, the very idea, that very conceptual framework where you are a good person if you heal, makes you a bad person if you die. Who needs to die with a sense of failure? It's very dangerous, those ideas. They're very well intended, because I know those fellows, and they're good fellows, and they want to help, they sincerely want to help, and they've helped many. But many have been injured by the idea that, for instance, you're responsible for your illness. You're not responsible for your illness; you're not responsible for your cancer; you're responsible to your cancer. Because if you're responsible for your cancer, then how are you ever going to heal? If my conditioning caused it, do I have to get rid of all of my conditioning to be well? I know people who have meditated for fifty years and are not done with their conditioning, and when their time is short, energy is low, it just strains them, and maybe causes schisms within. When we see that we are responsible to our illness, then when pain arises we can send mercy, we can send kindness. You and I, we're conditioned. We walk across a room, we stub our toe. What do we do with the pain in our toe? We're conditioned to send hatred into it. We're conditioned to try to exorcise it.
MISHLOVE: Like, "How stupid I was to do that."
LEVINE: Yes, and we cut the pain off. In fact, even many meditative techniques for working with pain are to take your awareness, your attention, and put it elsewhere. Just when that throbbing toe is most calling out for mercy, for kindness, for embrace, for softness, it's least available. In some ways it's amazing that anybody heals, considering our conditioning to send hatred into our pain, which is the antithesis of healing.
MISHLOVE: You've developed a number of guided meditations for dealing with healing, and part of that process is to really try and feel the pain.
LEVINE: Explore the pain.
MISHLOVE: Explore the pain, and then to know just how we protect ourselves from getting at it -- that there's sort of a wall of deadening around the pain, to keep us away from our own pain. It's as if by denying ourselves our own pain, we deny ourselves life.
LEVINE: It's interesting. You're bringing up a really interesting point. The way we respond to pain is the way we respond to life. When things aren't the way we want them to be, what do we do? Do we close down, or do we open up to get more of a sense of what's needed in the moment? Our conditioning is to close down -- aversion, rejection, put it away, denial. Nothing heals. That is the very basis on which unfinished business accumulates, putting it away -- I'm right, they're wrong; no quality of forgiveness. We know many people who are working on sending forgiveness into their tumors, into their AIDS, into their degenerative heart disease. It sounds so bizarre, because our conditioning is to send anger into it, fear into it. Where can there be healing in that?
MISHLOVE: That's true. The Simontons, a well-known medical couple, have developed visualization exercises where you imagine the white blood cells being like cowboys chasing the red Indians, and it's sort of these little battlefields in the body, and the white blood cells are out win and to heal, so that the immune system overcomes. You're suggesting that that's not appropriate.
LEVINE: Well, that system does work for people, and I certainly wouldn't want anyone who's finding that to be a feasible means of working with illness to not do it. But I think we need to watch what it means to add aggression to this mind that already is so aggressive in moments of fear, in moments of aversion. How can we work to have that happen, without cultivating aggression? Imagine those people who have cultivated all that aggression, and the cancer doesn't go away; what happens? Well, my experience is that that aggression turns inward, and they often die in self hatred and a feeling of aversion for themselves, of failure: "I really am a rotten person. I really am dying and abandoning my wife and children. I really am a terrible person. I really am abandoning my lover and my friends." The mind takes so quickly to self negation. Anything that reinforces that has to be watched really closely, because all self negation seems to slow and limit healing. I think that it's very important in such methods as Carl and Stephanie's method, that one finds the imagery that's just right for them. A story: A fellow was going to do the technique, Simonton's technique, and he was a pacifist minister. He said, "I have really spent most of my life trying to make peace instead of war. I can't have white sharks eating black gerbils, or however it is." He said, "This is not appropriate for me; it's not going to work for me." So he was told, "Why don't you take some time, and find the imagery that's right for you?" And what did he come up with in a week? The Seven Dwarfs, going in, singing "Whistle while you work," digging it up in buckets and carrying the cancer away. And he healed. The wrong imagery, the imagery that's not appropriate to you. Also, how are you using it? For the people we're working with -- I wouldn't say with anybody else's method -- if it works for you, wonderful, but is it making your belly hard? Is there more armoring in you? That's really the diagnostic device. Are you tightening your belly? Is there more holding? Is there more separation? Because if your belly's tight, you heart's probably going to be closed, and your mind's going to be painting you into a corner.
MISHLOVE: You seem to suggest in your meditative work that if one can soften the belly and soften the heart and soften the breathing, that that creates a state of surrendering to some kind of essential healing that's there available for all of us.
LEVINE: The word surrender is so funny, because most people, particularly in the case of illness, equate surrender with defeat. But surrender is letting go of resistance. Most of what we call pain is the resistance that clenches down on the unpleasant. In fact, a really dynamic, practical sense of that is that a lot of the people we work with, if they're going to take medicine, they'll look at it. They won't just swallow it automatically. They're not trying to take healing from outside. They're not giving up control to healing. They're participating in it, they're taking responsibility for it -- responsibility being the ability to respond, instead of the necessity to react. They look at the pills, and as they take them in, they guide them with loving-kindness into the area, because they've put so much attention into the area they know the inside, the multiple molecular variation of sensation within, the moment-to-momentness of that area. They direct it into that area, and they find, for instance with pain medication, that once the resistance has been gone through, that they can decrease the medication. Because I think a lot of medications get used up by the resistance before they ever get to the place that they're being taken to.
MISHLOVE: Our medical system doesn't really encourage people to take responsibility at that level. It's as if we're passive, not only at the hands of doctors, but even at the hands of spiritual and psychic healers.
LEVINE: It can be. We're not saying, "Throw away your other practice." We're saying, "Whatever you're doing to heal yourself, why don't you try to see for your own self what it might mean if you put mercy into that area?" It's so outside of our conditioning. We suggest that people treat their illness as though it were their only child, with that same mercy and loving-kindness. If that was in your child's body, you'd caress it, you'd hold it, you'd do all you could to make it well. But somehow when it's in our body we wall it off, we send hatred into it and anger into it. We treat ourselves with so little kindness, so little softness. And there are physical correlations to the difference between softening around an illness -- blood flow, availability of the immune system, etcetera -- and hardness. You know, if you've got a hard belly and your jaw is tight, and that hardness is around your eyes, it's very difficult for anything to get through.
MISHLOVE: You seem to really be suggesting not just healing for the sick, but as a way of life in general. It's as if moment by moment we make the choice whether to harden or to soften.
LEVINE: Well, the hardening has become involuntary, and the softening, it takes remembering priorities, that this is the only moment there is, and this is the moment to open. I mean, if we're not doing it now, how will we do it at any other time? That's why we suggest, don't wait until you get a terminal diagnosis to start to give yourself permission to be alive, to get on with your life. Now is a good time.
MISHLOVE: Do you have an opinion about people who are healing practitioners who attempt to do healing not for themselves necessarily, but for other people -- say, spiritual healers?
LEVINE: If we are all doing it as work on ourselves, that's wonderful. But if we're healing someone else, and we're not trying to heal ourselves at the same time, that person is in trouble that you're trying to heal, because then you've set up the separation of I and other, and I and other is the basis of all fear, all doubt, and all the cruelty and confusion in the world. If you come to me and say, "I'm depressed," and I touch your pain, your depression, with fear, that's pity, and it's a very self-oriented state, pity. I want you out of that state, because I don't want to be in that state. But if I can touch your pain with love, that's compassion. And then even if you're in pain and I've done everything I can to get you out of your pain, if I'm not so hung up on some model of myself as a healer, but just here we are, then you can be in pain and I don't close my heart to you. A lot of healers, if they can't "heal" you, they have no business with you anymore. But when our work is on ourself, then even the teaching of helplessness is honored. Sometimes you can't help everybody, but that doesn't mean anything has to come out of you that limits their access to who you are, to your heart, to your connection with them. If it's work on yourself, they're in the presence of good healing. But all the healers I know who are really phenomenal, who are some of the phenomenal healers, they all say God does it. I'll tell you a story. A woman had a very advanced cancer. Her doctor told me this story. The cancer really fulminated; it was really metastasized in many parts of her body.
MISHLOVE: Stephen, we're going to have to end quickly. We've got only a minute to go.
LEVINE: OK. Her doctor said, "Well, it doesn't look like you have long to go." She went to the West Coast. She thought she'd have a couple of days on the beach, a couple of weeks, before she died. She met a healer. The healer lay his hands on her. She was well. A week later she committed suicide. She said, "Well, if it was that easy to heal me, I don't deserve to live." Because that healer forgot to say to her, "I didn't heal you. You healed you; God healed you. You've done so much work, look how easy it was for you to heal." When the healer takes possession of healing, he actually injures that person instead of helps them.
MISHLOVE: You seem to be suggesting that ultimately the basis of healing is self acceptance and acceptance of others, and that they're linked ultimately.
LEVINE: When the mind sinks into the heart, and vice versa, there's healing. When we become one with ourselves, there's healing.
MISHLOVE: Stephen Levine, thank you very much for being with me.
LEVINE: Thanks, Jeffrey.