Throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, Ondrea and her husband Stephen Levine were pioneers in grief counseling. Combining the compassion of Buddhist teaching with modern psychology, they developed original methods of helping people deal with death and dying. Along with personal counseling via their free 24-hour telephone service, the Levines held seminars on relationships, forgiveness, and loving-kindness. Throughout their journey they collaborated with other teachers, including Ram Dass and the Dalai Llama.
In 2000, after decades of service and facing mounting health difficulties, the Levines decided to retire from public life. They have continued writing, and through their website, www.LevineTalks.com, they have created an interactive community and online teaching platform.
I sat down with Ondrea at the Live Taos headquarters to chat about life, liberty, and the pursuit of pizza!
Live Taos: Why did you first come to Taos? I think you once told me that a friend got you a plane ticket for a vacation as a present…
Ondrea Levine: Yeah, some friends bought me a round-trip train ticket. So I came out. I’d never traveled anywhere, (apart from the east coast) and thought this would be fun to try. I love tribal culture and had always read about it and I didn’t know anything about the Hispanic culture, so I thought I’d check it out. At the time there was a children’s home in San Cristobal, which has been gone now for many years, but they invited me to come stay in their cabin and I got to play with the kids. They didn’t have anyone else to drive, so I would drive the children into town and take them to movies… I loved that Taos was so eclectic and it felt like everyone was accepted for who they were. I experienced a lot of prejudice back in the Boston area and I didn’t like living that way, so it felt really good to be in Taos. There was just this wonderful mixture of tribal and Hispanic cultures, hippies, and all sorts of different people, I just fell in love with it. So I went home and I worked really hard for six months. I saved my money and sold everything that I had–which wasn’t really that much. I drove back out and I’ve been here ever since 1975.
LT: Wow, 1975.
O: Yeah, you weren’t even born yet, my goodness! Haha!
LT: So had you seen pictures of New Mexico before you came out, or read anything about Taos?
O: Nope, I knew nothing. I just knew that some friends I had lived with when I was younger said that they loved it. So I thought, “well I’ve got this round-trip train ticket, so I don’t have anything to lose.” I trusted them, they were good people, and I just loved it. I loved the slow pace, the neighborly-ness of it, I found that people were very kind and open. I loved all the art and music that was going on and I just fit. When I came back out after saving my money back east, I had no job, so I just started cleaning houses, which was easy for me; then I became a nanny, and that’s basically all I did until I met Stephen.
LT: Will you tell me the story of how you and Stephen met?
O: A friend of mine said he was going up to Lama, and his friend, Stephen Levine, was doing a death and dying retreat. I had worked with people who were dying back east, but I’d never been part of a formal group. When I came out here there was a formal death and dying group going on with Bob Holly — he was the heart doctor here many years ago.
So I joined, and one of the docs in this group said, “you should go to Lama and meet my friend.” So I thought again, “something I’ve never done.” I saved my pennies for many months — I think back then I was making $2.00 an hour, it was really bad. I lived in a little cabin with an outhouse, it was pretty basic but I enjoyed it. So I saved my money and went up to Lama to this retreat. At the time I was a little full of myself and thought “I know all about this stuff.” But I actually learned things that I didn’t know.
At the end of this five-day retreat they did a Sufi dance, which was just like a connecting dance where people kind of move around and try to look into each other’s eyes and try to see each other’s humanity. Stephen came to me and we started dancing, and we just kept dancing off into a corner, then he gave me his phone number. We met afterwards, and we’ve been together ever since. We’ve been so lucky, so unbelievably blessed.
LT: So where was Stephen at that point? Had he just been traveling the country and teaching?
O: Yes, traveling and teaching. He had worked with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and Ram Dass for maybe about three years, then he started on his own. I think he had been doing it maybe a year when he meet me. And death and dying was my whole thing so we fit perfectly. We both had very similar attitudes and visions for life and what we wanted to do, and he just brought me right in and we started teaching together. I mean, I was pretty slow getting used to it. I wasn’t used to being in front of an audience…
LT: I think you’re too modest, because you’re still saying all that.
O: (Laughs) I know, but what you see outside isn’t necessarily what I feel inside, so what I’m saying is that those are my insecurities, that’s why I feel more grounded with Stephen. I know that if my mind blanks out — which it does, I have an extremely dyslexic mind and sometimes it’s like I can’t find the simplest answer to something I know really well. And with him, he’ll always come up with something, and he’s very funny. When I met Stephen I was very serious, extremely serious. It took me some years to learn to lighten up. I took death and dying very seriously — everything was serious to me at that time. So he taught me to kind of lighten up, and he was right! Life is just better if you take a lighter attitude and a lighter view and not be so serious. I came from a serious family where there was no laughing or touching, no nothing. It was a pretty serious, unfriendly family, although they did the best they could for who they were, you know. I learned a lot, I learned to not be like them. Which is huge… (Laughs)
LT: Sometimes that’s the best lesson!
O: Yeah, exactly!
LT: Is there anything that you don’t enjoy about the Northern New Mexico area?
O: One of the things that I don’t like, that I see in this area, is the way some people treat animals. I find that really tough. Back east, people just seemed to treat animals like part of the family. And I find that I’ll see animals out — dogs and cats outside when it’s 20 below in a snow storm and don’t see many shelters for them or anything. Sometimes I’ll see horses out that haven’t been fed, or don’t have any shelter.
But I also know that it’s the wild west, and everybody does what they think is right. For the most part people really care, I mean people have showed up at our house and just offered their help. I find it very neighborly and very kind and very family-oriented, which I love. East coast families seemed to keep more to themselves, at least when I was growing up.
LT: Do you have a favorite teaching experience from any point in your career?
O: I used to love our multi-day retreats. We did them on both coasts. In Santa Rosa, California, on the east coast at Kripalu, at Breitenbush in Oregon, and so on. I loved all of those because there would be average one hundred people and you were together day and night for five or ten days, so I loved that because you really got to know somebody. It wasn’t just lecturing, you got to know that they are another human heart that hurts like yours does, and we mostly focused on grief and death and dying, so to know that commonality about grief.
I loved doing the longer retreats. Lectures are nice, but you don’t get to touch. So I liked that, I liked the hug — just the connection with people. You start to see that we are much more alike than we are different. Outwardly, we seem different, but inwardly, it’s all the same. Everybody’s got the top ten little burdens. So I loved that.
And working with the dying too. We sat bedside for years with the dying, and that was really nice. Because usually you get to be with somebody for maybe six months before they leave their body, and they’re often pretty vibrant and you don’t really see them as “Dying.” You get to see them through the whole process, and then you’re there for the last breath, and that was an awesome experience. You see that what leaves the body is precisely what you connect with when we’re breathing, there’s that humanity, that human heart, and when that leaves, all that’s left is a shell.
That’s extremely powerful. That makes me not want to waste my time. That makes me want to enjoy life, and play, and connect with the people that I love, because there is no tomorrow. I mean hopefully we will have a tomorrow but for some of us… Most of the people I worked with were in their thirties, forties and fifties, not really elderly people. There would be times, for instance, like after a retreat, you’d find out that somebody didn’t make it home. And you see just how precious that connection is — to be really as straightforward as you can with someone, you know, not to bullshit around. So what I’ve found is that you just need to connect, to dance, enjoy life.
LT: How has mainstream spirituality changed since you first started teaching? Have there been any major shifts that you’ve noticed?
O: I think people are more open-minded. I started doing this at 16, and I just turned 67 — I mean the change has been huge. When I was 16 going in to nursing homes, nobody was with the dying. It was like, that was the room that everyone stayed away from. It was very open to me, my work started at 7am, and I’d go in at 6am and I could just be with people. I had no great words of wisdom, I was just holding their hands and listening to their pain, whatever they had to get out, just so they had someone to listen.
There have always been alternative religions, ways, practices… But now it seems much more open and eclectic. People that are devout Catholics meditate as well as devout Jews, or any religion. Where back then, it was just unheard of that someone would meditate. Meditation was like a cult, it was something bad, and now all the mainstream hospitals recommended it as a way to be centered and find some peace and to help de-stress. I see that it’s just broadened and opened.
When Stephen and I started working together some of the groups were 20-25 people; by the time we stopped working twelve years ago, we had groups sometimes of 1,200 to 1,500 people for a lecture, and in the retreats, we’d have 600 people. That’s a lot of people to be committed for five days or ten days. So we saw a huge difference. If you talk to our son Noah, who does Dharma Punx, you find that people now are even more radical because they’re not even into religion at all — they do Buddhist practice, but that’s more of a science of the mind, they don’t take it as a religion.
LT: What would you say to people who look back and feel like they got caught up in the routine of everyday life, and maybe have regrets about not having taken more chances, or things they missed out on in life; what would you say to those people, and what would you say to younger people so that doesn’t happen to them?
O : I think that when you work with the dying you see that the three major regrets are that they wish they took a job more for the fun of it, something that they really enjoyed that didn’t have to do with how much money they made. They wished they played and enjoyed life more because they always thought life was something that was going to happen when they retired.
A lot of the ones that complained wished that they got a divorce. Not because they hated their partner, often they cared for their partner very deeply, but it became maybe more of a brother-sister relationship. But they just didn’t want to break out of that. Starting all over again can be very hard. You have a relationship with whatever you’ve built up, as soon as you break off that relationship, it’s like starting over from scratch. And dating, most people say dating sucks, and you’ve gotta do all that.
So what I’d say to young people is, don’t wait and don’t think you’re gonna live your life when you get older. Even though you might only be in your twenties, try to enjoy what you’re doing, explore, try new things, step out of whatever your safety place is, maybe travel a little, try to see more of life. You don’t need a lot of money to travel, a decent car and some gas and food money, you can do it, stay at hostels. You know parents will always tell their children the places where they got stuck, and I’d say listen to your parents, but don’t necessarily do what they say. (Laughs)
Do what feels right in your own heart. I stayed very small and stuck for a lot of my life, until really my late twenties because I just lived kind of the way I was taught to live, and once I stepped out — that was coming to New Mexico — then everything really opened up.
I think most of us really live like death isn’t going to happen. It’s kind of like if you keep death over your shoulder–not to be thinking of it and be morbid or anything like that, but just know that we’re impermanent. If you look at nature, you see in the spring the flowers come and the trees have leaves and the birds are there and then that all dies away and there’s none of that. That’s the same thing as being with a body, and just to remind yourself, once in a while, that this is impermanent. Don’t think that you’re going to wait until your 65 to enjoy life — it doesn’t happen that way usually. For some people, sure, but for most people I’d say try to enjoy life as much as you can now.
If you can do a little service, where you just do anything for someone else or maybe an animal, it doesn’t have to be great wisdom or great dedication. Even if once a month you went to Stray Hearts or someplace like that and you walked a dog for a few hours or pet a cat or if there is someone in the hospital you bring them a meal or you take somebody to run an errand. It doesn’t have to be any great commitment, but just a once in a while thinking of, you know, someone other than ourselves…
LT: Or maybe run a website that tells people where to go at night…
O: (Laughs) The thing is that service is an attitude. People think oh, “I don’t know enough, I can’t do enough,” but it’s an attitude, it’s just an attitude of giving a little bit of yourself without expecting anything in return.
LT: Ok, now for the big one… Even vegans need to eat pizza from time to time…
O: Oh, absolutely!
LT: Where is your favorite pizza place?
O: I really loved Pizza Emergency, but they’re not here anymore — that was my favorite because they were like New York style. I’ve been kind of disappointed… Pizanos was nice, that other one was nice, it was a little bit expensive — the Outback… Actually, what I did was go down to Whole Foods last week — which is a very expensive place — but their pizza is really pretty good. I got a couple pizzas and put them in the freezer and I just pull out a slice whenever I want. But we don’t really want to promote Whole Foods, huh? You’d probably know better than I would. What was that other place you told me about???
LT: Oh, Oreganos, but that closed down…
LT: Yeah that was a great place…
O: I just had pizza the other night, and when I start eating pizza… Too much! I mean I’ve tried all the vegan cheeses and they just suck. (Laughs) I wish they’d come out with something great, but I like raw goat cheese because it doesn’t have any caseins or crap like that.
LT: And lastly, who do you like better Tom Cruise, or Richard Gere?
O: Ughhh… (Laughs) Well, I met Tom Cruise once, just briefly. Stephen and I were counseling his manager actually. It was just like a “Hello,” he didn’t even look at us, he just walked by.
But energetically, Richard Gere does some really wonderful things in the world, I mean he helps a lot of people, he has the Prison Project (or he did), that Soren [Gordhamer, a friend] was running back in New York. I think Richard Gere does more for humanity, but I don’t know Tom Cruise and maybe he does a lot for humanity too… But you know, I can’t judge. I’d rather you asked me what kind of music I like… I like Led Zeppelin…
LT: Best concert you’ve ever been to?
O: I’d say the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. That was really a great concert — it was back many moons ago, but it was terrific. I still can’t wait for the Solar Fest. I go to the Solar Fest, and Sipapu has music, just to go and dance. I advise everybody to go and listen to live music whenever they can because it just gets in your cells and makes you want to move, and we’re moving beings. That’s another thing, move! Don’t just sit on your butt all the time! What I do is put on headphones and I dance around the house.
O: Absolutely, I was a dancer. Not a professional dancer, I danced in a cage.
LT: Another little-known fact!
O: (Laughs) So yeah, dance, enjoy, listen to good music.
Check out www.LevineTalks.com for more from Ondrea and Stephen Levine.
*Pictures by Chris Gallo