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Who Dies?: An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying

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The first book that explains how to open to the immensity of living with death—and how participating fully in life is the perfect preparation for whatever may come next.

In Who Dies?, the Levines provide calm compassion rather than the frightening melodrama of death.

337 pages, Kindle Edition

First published January 1, 1982

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About the author

Stephen Levine

77 books128 followers
American poet, author and teacher best known for his work on death and dying.

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5 stars
340 (53%)
4 stars
204 (31%)
3 stars
66 (10%)
2 stars
24 (3%)
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4 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 60 reviews
Profile Image for Julie.
131 reviews
January 1, 2010
I've actually been reading this book off and on for about 4 years. It is an amazing book, and I highly recommend it for everyone. It is one of those books that you read a little, then put it down for a few weeks to process what you have read before you go back to it. I have re-read many chapters over the years, but I don't think I have actually made it to the end yet. I like that it draws from many traditions, for example Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and Native American, as death is universal. Just a fabulous book!
Profile Image for Gavin Whyte.
Author 8 books26 followers
October 1, 2016
If I could've given it a million and one stars, I would've done. Amazing. It's rare to find a book that one connects with so deeply. It's the book I've always wanted to write. It resonated with me in such a profound way that I almost felt like I had some involvement in its creation. A true gift to humanity. If it was written and published now it would be on the best-sellers list, I'm certain. Thank you, Stephen Levine for writing this amazing book.
Profile Image for J. Oshi.
18 reviews
August 27, 2012
This book is more about LIFE, than dying. "Live as if today is your last." This book was for a Death & Dying class while I was at UCSC (1986), but it in retrospect, it was really for me. The book helped me cope with my brother's illness and eventual death. It led to many discussions with him and others about terminal illness. In his book, Levine notes that at the time our life ends, our spirit begins to leave our body. He adds that we can feel the spirit like a gentle breeze if we place our hand over the person's head (mollera). It's true, we can feel it.
Profile Image for Jackie St Hilaire.
126 reviews11 followers
May 31, 2016

Dare to live, leave no unfinished business behind you. Now is the time.

Why do we resist death? Could it be that we are resisting the very life that we have been given.

Stephen Levine calls us to the examined life and to be accountable for who and where we are in our inner development. We come to the realization that we have not been fully born. We have been neglecting parts of ourselves, protecting ourselves, shielding ourselves for fear of not being accepted. It is a vicious cycle that most of us are caught up in and we keep denying that it is there, we refuse to look into the pit of who we are because we might not like who we are. We pretend not to care but deep inside we are in pain, the pain of being human. We imprison ourselves and hope that no one sees within our soul.

We however, mustn't feel overwhelmed or guilty if we have neglected this part of ourselves, our real selves. We have been busy doing many things and our Western culture has not contributed much to our inner growth. It's all about getting, doing, career, success, power, money. But we have infiltrated in our consciousness many Eastern practices. Zen meditation, Yoga, Reiki, Transcendental Meditations, just to name a few. We have come to the realization that we all have something to teach one another.

We are good at hiding our true feelings and we don't take chances sharing them with one another. This is the denial of our very existence and the denial of death. We won't give it up, it's too costly, we might feel worse after sharing our true self, so we continue on and pretend that it doesn't exist and it seeps through our unconscious and festers.

Levine, brings us to the heart of the matter and shares with us that it is in the little everyday dying, when things are just not going our own way that we start facing the larger picture. That we are not in total control of our lives, that we have to let other people come into the equation. It's not just about us, it's about all of us.

In Levine's sequel book Meetings at the Edge: Dialogues with the Grieving and the Dying, the Healing and the Healed Levine gives us small vignettes of people who are going through the passage of their journey on earth into transformation. No one has to wait until physical death is imminent to experience transformation.

Stephen Levine (1937-2016) worked intensively with Ram Dass and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and counseled the terminally ill.
Profile Image for Angela.
68 reviews
March 25, 2015
I love this book. Death is a difficult subject, but this book is more about living than anything else. After surviving ovarian cancer, I needed to make my peace with death, and this book helped me do that. I will probably reread this book for the rest of my life.
Profile Image for Linty.
28 reviews14 followers
September 27, 2010
Despite the title and the topics covered, you could say this book is about life. If I were to have a bible(or believe in needing one) this book would be it.
Profile Image for Noreen.
487 reviews27 followers
August 29, 2018
Stephen Levine was a contemporary of Ram Dass. Good integration of spiritual practices of Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and native american practices and philosophies surrounding dying. Because humans have different names for emotions, feelings, and spiritual practices there is much miscommunication between people.

Not a feel good book.
Profile Image for Adam Kinsey.
8 reviews7 followers
February 18, 2015
This is one of those books where you go in one person and come out another. Looking into the reality of one's own mortality is weirdly simple (yeah, we're going to die), and transformative if you've bought into the modern world's avoidance. Levine has spent so much thoughtful, caring time in the company of death, and he brings us, the readers, a calm, thoughtful, yet uncompromising voice.

It is dense, and it is intense. This book is 317 pp and it took me 5 months to read. Busy months, but still, so patience, patience. What's the hurry? Also, the man is a Buddhist, which seems like a world view made for the work he does. But I felt in the last chapter there were assumptions built into the text and the exercises that were based on that world view without explicitly stating, "These are Buddhist," mostly about the nature of an afterlife. Not so bad, but I would notice it if the author were a Catholic who started doing Sacred Heart of Jesus meditations without stating, "these are of my beliefs," so I felt like this was worth noting.

This is a classic in the field, and deserves to be. Read.
Profile Image for Renee Layberry.
40 reviews19 followers
February 4, 2013
Stephen Levine offers a gentle perspective that is inclusive, comforting, and lucid. I respected the lack of dogma and the introduction to the Buddhist perspective without feeling "preached to." The writing and editing felt somewhat muddled at times, but the book delivered what I'd hoped. All told, it is a valuable read for those seeking to explore and expand a perspective on the dying process which we must all embrace in one capacity or another.
Profile Image for Craig Bergland.
341 reviews8 followers
December 27, 2014
This book needed an editor. Sentences are hit or miss, more often sentence fragments than actual sentences along with poor or missing punctuation made it almost unreadable at times. Still there are some jewels here - along with some pretty blatant instances of conclusions not based on the evidence and confusing correlation and causation. Read Joan Halifax instead
Profile Image for Bikem.
16 reviews7 followers
February 7, 2023
Chapter 2: Getting Born

It is difficult to think of dying consciously when we notice how incomplete we feel, how frightened we are of life. It is almost as though we were never completely born, so much of ourselves is suppressed and compacted just beneath the surface. So much of ourselves postponed. So little have we investigated what has caused us to retract in pain from our lives. So often our inquiries into who we are have been "called on account of rain" because it was too painful to go deeper.
There is so much of ourselves we wish to not experience. So much fear, guilt, anger, confusion, and self-pity. So much self-doubt, so many weak excuses. Is it any wonder, considering the bizarre insistence of our conditioning -the conflict of one value system with another in the mind- that we feel so incomplete. One moment the mind is saying, "Take a big piece," and then the next it says, "I wouldn't have done that if I were you." No wonder we are all crazy, so fractured, trying to protect ourselves from who we fear we are. We dare not share our minds with anyone, even ourselves. We are so frightened of who we might be, of not being loved or lovable for the convolutions of our thoughts.
But I think it is very useful, and indeed more accurate, to call it "the mind" instead of "my mind."
Then one day there comes a moment when you're angry and all of a sudden you recognize anger. And you open to it in investigation: "What is it to be angry? How does it feel in my body? What does my mind do?" And settling back into a chair, closing our eyes, we begin to move toward that which blocks the heart, instead of pulling away from it and allowing it to mechanically close us to a fuller experience of the present. Examining anger or fear or guilt or doubt, we begin to see the impersonality of what seemed so much "I". We see that the mind has a mind of its own. That anger and fear and all these states of mind have their own personality, their own momentum. And we notice that it is not "I" that wishes to do harm to another but that the state of mind we call anger is by its nature aggressive and often wishes to insult or humiliate its object. We watch the fantasized conversations and arguments of the mind, the shadow-boxing that has so often left us breathless and alone and at last we begin to relinquish our suffering.

Chapter 3: Be Also Ready

You notice "I" is only an idea. Where is this "I" when it is not being thought about?
Indeed, what's interesting when you watch thoughts is to see that all thoughts are old. Perception is based on memory. Take away memory, your collection box of concepts and symbolism coded to represent reality, and when you walk down a path, there is just walking. And when you look, there is just seeing. You feel what you feel. You don't experience everything secondhand. You experience the thing itself, without some afterthought casting a shadow of "someone" walking, seeing, experiencing.

Chapter 4: The Thirsty Mind

We see that this thirst creates what could be called the "if only" mind.
What we call satisfaction is the momentary experience of the vastness which lies beneath. All of a sudden the clouds part and the sun shines through. The painfulness of desire does not exist. The mind for a moment experiences its wholeness. In that moment of nonwanting, the mind becomes like a clear pool no longer ruffled by the prevailing winds and we can see through the still water to what lies beneath. We experience a moment's participation in the joyousness that arises as we approach our true nature.
In a split second the satisfaction disappears as other desires arise to protect what it has just acquired.
There is a story about a fellow who dies and, leaving his body, finds himself in a glistening realm. Standing in the midst of shining flowers and an iridescent sky, he looks about and thinks to himself, "Wow, I was better than I thought. I've gone to heaven."
One after another his desires materialize the moment he wishes for them. But after about six months he notices that, though he's getting all he wants, he doesn't really feel more fulfilled in any deeper sense. He notices that the mind still holds fear. He recognizes that if all this were to disappear he would be devastated. Noticing how attached he has become to all this luxury he thinks, "I've always imagined that if only I could get what I want, I'd be happy. But how can I be happy if I depend so much on what is given to create my happiness? How can I depend so much on external conditions for my peace of mind?
All this gratification isn't really making me any lighter, any wiser, any quieter in the mind. There is less stress from not getting what I want, but there is really not any more peace."
After a while he goes to the head man and says, "I don't mean to sound ungrateful, and this may sound preposterous, but I think I'd rather transfer to hell." The head man turns slowly to him and says, "And where do you think you are!"

Chapter 5: Models

I don't really know who I am but it doesn't matter, because nothing I think of myself as being seems to hold it for long anyway. Somehow I am always something else, and I don't know what that is.

Chapter 8: Grief

But as we begin to focus on the spaciousness out of which each changing form originates, we begin to see beyond thought. That just behind the ever-changing momentum of the illusory mind, there is a stillness which witnesses all that passes with a sense of equilibrium and compassionate nonattachment.

Chapter 10: Working With Pain

It is that willingness to work with what is given -the deep surrender which is not defeat but victory- that allows us to let go of "the experiencer" as a victim, that begins to make room for pain without some separate "sufferer" who is scrambling to be elsewhere.

Chapter 14: Who Dies?

Examining "Who am I?" is like beginning to go to the movies just to see how the movie is made. As we first sit down in the dark theater we find that we are relating to the objects of the melodrama, the motion on the screen. We pay attention to the storyline, which we notice is like the contents of the mind, allowing it to unfold as it will without judgment or the least interference. As we focus our attention on the process, we begin to see that the frames that constitute the film are like separate thoughts; then we begin to recognize the process by which the images are produced, and it breaks our enthrallment with the storyline. We notice that all the activity is just a projection on a blank screen. That all these figures dancing before us are an illusion produced by light passing through various densities on the film. We see that the film is like our conditioning, a repetitious imprint of images gone by. We see that the whole melodrama is a passing show of motion and change.
In the second stage of this process, we begin to focus on the screen, on consciousness itself. The objects of consciousness, the forms on the screen, no longer draw us into identification with them as being real. Instead, the reality becomes the space in which consciousness presents itself. Focusing on the screen, we recognize the flashing images to be just momentary illusions of no real substance, containing only the meaning we give to them.
In the last stage, we come to recognize that this shadow play arises only because of the presence of a constant source of light. And we begin to focus awareness on itself. We experience the spacious sense of "I am" as the screen of consciousness. However, awareness does not experience itself as some "thing", as a separateness, so there is no sense of I, only undifferentiated being.
No longer someone wondering "Who am I?" we become the investigation. At each moment, focusing on the light, we ask ourselves, "Who is it that thinks this thought? Who is seeing? Who is sitting in this chair reading this book?" And there comes a time when the body and mind no longer seem so real and distinct. After surveying all of the evidence, we simply don't know who or what we are. You have to let go of who you think you are to become who you really are. Having let go of even memory as real, you find yourself suspended in space without the reference points that mind is so addicted to. As mind withdraws from its habituation, it goes through a kind of cold turkey of doubt and fear. "Where am I?" it screams. The mind grasps at being someone, at being anything. There arises a feeling of emptiness at not having some assurance of who we are. There arises a kind of darkness at not having someone to be, at no longer being certain of the world, or even of our own separate existence. We tremble in the silence of having let go of the past, but the future has not arrived yet. This stage reminds me of children swinging across the monkey bars in a playground. Moving across the overhead trellis from one bar to the other with ease, one can see how easily children let go of the last and trust the next. Children seem almost to glide from one end of the bars to the other. But often, I'll notice a chaperoning parent come to play with their child on the monkey bars, attempting that same crossing. They don't move with such ease. They hang stiffly from one bar to the next. They will not let go of the last bar until they've grasped the next, dangling like a herniated chimp before falling to the ground. They don't trust the momentum that allows the next moment to appear as it will, without clinging to the last. We must let go of the last stage before we can go on to the next. We must allow ourselves to be infinitely insecure in order to know the truth. But if we grasp at security, at some mirage of solidity, that is as far as we will go. We recognize the groundlessness of the constantly changing mind, its continual change in point of view. We see there is nothing or no one in there to which we can anchor some sense of "I." It is all just process unfolding by itself.
Letting go of who we thought we were, the mind often angles for a new self-image, projects imagining of what it will be in the future. "Soon I'll be enlightened. No more monkey bars. I'll have great peace. I'll have infinite patience. I just can't wait."
The idea of enlightenment becomes just another fantasy in the mind. The ego wishes to be present at its own funeral.

Chapter 14: Letting Go Of Control

No separation anywhere. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. No one to be.
Profile Image for Amy Backas.
5 reviews2 followers
February 22, 2011
changed my life,this book,and radically changed my perspective on death and dying.
Profile Image for Ned.
82 reviews1 follower
June 21, 2012
My only concern about this book is that I now may have read the single most definitive work on the topic...
Profile Image for Samantha.
11 reviews
August 5, 2018
So glad a new friend lent me her well-loved copy; it helped me at a time of sitting with the first person I've sat with as they died, and continues to inform my practice as a hospice-volunteer and end-of-life guide.

In particular I got the most from two chapters near the back - from memory they were one on suicide, the other being with the dying.

Book includes some meditations that may be read to self or a dying person.

Very poetic, beautiful read and knowledge gained from many years of being with the dying by Mr Levine.
I copied out many sentences to carry forward in my memory and help me through my journey to help the dying such as:

'There was no emergency, clearly nothing was the matter. She was just dying' pg 263

'Be with that person in love and go to the door with him, remembering he must pass through that door alone.' pg 297

'Letting go of old thought, perceptions, models, concepts, the whole world dissolves as a new world begins to form moment to moment on the screen of consciousness. It is not the old, worn movie we are used to, that poor cartoon replica of the truth. And though at first we lament its loss, the loss of the familiar, we let go of the false security and pain which have defined our imagined territory of the body and the mind. The new emerges as we uncover deeper and deeper levels of "don't know". Not becoming something or someone, just opening to it all, not becoming, just being.' pg 251

Profile Image for Ralph.
32 reviews5 followers
September 4, 2017
I read this book for the first time about 30 years ago. I re-read it for a number of reasons. I am getting older, getting closer to dying, I am getting involved in hospice care and I am trying to get past the death-phobic mind set that pervades our society. Levine has lots to say about all of this. His views are distinctly Buddhist but not presented in a dogmatic way. For those who are interested, there are chapters that are devoted to Buddhist philosophy but the book is worth reading even if those chapters are not of interest.

Whether we believe in an afterlife or not, we are all going to face death at some point - the death of friends or family as well as our own. To ignore it until it is staring us in the face does not make sense. Learning about living with pain and accepting that we die can make the difference between dying in peace and dying in distress. Steven Levine's book makes a great contribution to both understanding and preparing.
Profile Image for Chet Taranowski.
226 reviews
March 26, 2019
This is a book about facing death and helping others through the dying process. The book is not an easy read emotionally as it does the job of breaking through one's denial of death so effectively. I found myself avoiding picking it up, but at the same time knowing that the message was important enough so as to read on. Although the author has a Buddhist orientation he leaves room for all forms of religious faith. He relies on the concept of an afterlife, however, he leaves this undefined; so it can mean a peaceful oblivion after death, reincarnation, or even heaven. If you are present in the process of someone else's passing this book offers practical advice of what to say to comfort them and even what should be in the death-room.
Profile Image for Suzanne Singman.
170 reviews3 followers
February 1, 2023
This is a great book if you are thinking about the dying process or have people in your life who are dying. There were so many good insights and descriptions and focus on being present with the dying person and not projecting your own desires and expectations on what they need or what dying might be like.

My only problem is that the edition I was reading was published in 1982 and the way how to and educational books are written have changed a lot since then, my attention span has gotten shorter as well. So the long chapters with no section breaks and extra titles to help me remember where I am made the reading and understanding more difficult. I did get into it after the first couple chapters, but it was an uphill climb in the beginning.
Profile Image for Nimue.
32 reviews
May 14, 2023
2.5 stars

I think the main reason this didn't land with me is because of how much has changed in consciousness medicine since the 1970s. I don't enjoy it when authors lump the entire human race together in cynical, negative assessments which the author does throughout the entire book. I also think a lot gets lost when you're getting a Buddhist perspective from an American white dude vs from authors who grew up in cultures where many of the practices Levine references originate.

There are nuggets of wisdom here and the book was written with compassion in mind, but the prose didn't land with me.
September 11, 2022
This book blew my mind. I only wish I'd had it two months ago, before my father died. :( Several times I had to stop and put it down because the subject matter was so intense I couldn't absorb any more. What a compassionate, non-agenda-having book. And, after I finished it, I turned right back to the beginning and read it again. It's a desert island book for sure. I secretly wish the author had included dying of pets (specifically euthanasia) but that's just my selfish pain speaking. Thank you, Mr. Levine.
Profile Image for David Boyd.
8 reviews1 follower
April 25, 2019
A necessary read for everyone

A great book giving a very broad and loving perspective of death. It helped me realize that I need to concentrate of my own preparations plus it gives excellent advice on accompanying others through the process.
Profile Image for Marco.
374 reviews47 followers
April 22, 2019
loved it. sometimes a little woo wooey but great nonetheless
Profile Image for Dawn.
27 reviews8 followers
July 24, 2019
A very helpful treatise on death and dying. If you're mortal and have any leaning towards spirituality or are even just curious about death, you'll benefit from reading this tremendously.
1 review
May 21, 2020

This was a slow and Heavy read for me but necessary. I intend to go back and do the meditations on the 2nd read. Powerful and necessary
Profile Image for Lena.
89 reviews8 followers
June 30, 2021
I completed this book as part of my End of Life Doula training. Man, oh Man, my feelings. I’m thankful for this book and how often it asks the reader to open and soften.
37 reviews
September 11, 2021
Highly recommend to spiritual seekers, there is no bypassing death, it's the ultimate teacher.
1 review1 follower
November 13, 2022
A very eye-opening book, I loved the view on desire and the importance of being present and not allowing your own fears to close up space.
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