Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Year to Live by Stephen Levine

A Year to Live: How to Live This Year As If It Were Your Last by Stephen Levine is a meditation practice focusing on the theme of death and dying.  Levine and his wife have worked with many people who have died.  Through the experience of observing those who have approached death with grace, Levine has created a year long experiment of witnessing one’s own life and death is if this year were truly your last.

In traditional Buddhism, there is a practice of sitting with a corpse, watching the gradual decomposition, a meditation that is meant to reinforce the “gross” nature of being in the body.  In a way, this book is an invitation to do this vicariously (although Levine and his wife apparently conduct “field trips” to morgues and autopsy laboratories so this can be taken more literally if one is so inclined and has access to such things).  Sharing both personal stories and spiritual lessons, the book is accessible and even inviting.

But the truth is, I don’t know how practical it really is.  At the end of the book there is a monthly break down of how a group might work through the year of living as if it were the last but the ideas suggested for a group are not easily transferred to the individual.  There are some meditations offered in the text (and there is an audio book version that includes these meditations for those who wish to do them as a guided meditation practice).  I haven’t put any of the meditations into my own practice.

I do, however, think it is an interesting idea and something I would love to explore but would think benefits from a mutually shared experience.  I can see why Levine would not encourage someone to do this alone.  It is too easy to become despairing and without an objective person at one’s side, a person could slip into a very dark place.  With a group or even a partner, the observer can tell the person to either move more slowly into the practice or back off altogether.

Levine also encourages the use of a journal to document the year long spiritual journey.  I think this sounds like a lovely idea and may be a way of staving off getting too depressed within the practice.  I’d like to think that working through this book would be an awakening into greater appreciation for all that life has to offer and perhaps even an invitation to accept things as they are, an awareness that part of being present means letting go.

I would love to someday experience this book with another person or within a group but without actually putting the book into practice, it’s hard to say just how meritorious the practice would be.  Nevertheless, I think this book is lovely and it is one I would recommend to anyone who is open to the idea.  If you, reading this, have done this practice, I would love to hear about your experience with it.

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