Consciousness in Action: The Power of Beauty, Love and Courage in a Violent Time by Andrew Beath




Death as an Advisor
by Julia Levine

This article is an excerpt from Andrew Beath’s book Consciousness In Action: the Power of Beauty, Love and Courage in a Violent Time (Lantern Press, 2005)

Julie Levine has been a social justice advocate since she was a girl. Her life and the character of her activism had a dramatic transformation as a result of a fatal auto accident that changed her relationship to spirit and greatly expanded her wisdom.

I asked Julie to tell me about the influences of this event in the context of her personal life. I was curious about her initial reasons for becoming an activist, about the spiritual aspects of her near-death experience and, also, about her methods of staying connected to the “light” that was revealed to her. In recounting her story, she told me:

"When I was a girl my dad managed subsidiaries of U.S. pulp and paper companies. We lived in third-world countries in Latin America where the rich and poor predominated; the middle class was marginal. The rich were mostly tied into the U.S. economically. We lived a fairly wealthy life, although we were middle-class in the States. We had a maid and other accoutrements of wealth, but I felt there was something wrong about it. My mom volunteered in the slums of Rio. She got the Red Cross and the United Nations to assist with immunization and after-school programs. That moved me. I spent a lot of time in the slums. I felt that the way things were was totally wrong.

Normal Awareness: The Bare Branch

I felt that U.S. policies contributed to the problems. When we moved to Brooklyn from Latin America, the parents of my best friend, who was thirteen, were communists. They introduced me to Marxist/Leninist philosophy, which gave me a context to understand what I felt. I identified myself as an agnostic socialist. I felt that if there were a God, there would not be injustice in the world and He would show Himself to me.

My concern was based on a large-scale sense of injustice, a feeling that I shared responsibility for the inequalities. It was extremely personal in that this concern emerged from my early experiences. I was angry at my country, the unfair policies and my father, because he played a role in cutting trees and firing workers to raise company profits. I wanted to be part of the solution, but I believed in violent revolution. I believed that we would need to fight, that this was the only way. I was furious.

It happened that the more political I became, the further I moved away from the slums and direct contact with the people there. I started at Reed College in Portland, Oregon in 1976. I found the school limiting, so I left to join an exchange program in Bogotá, Colombia, where I met my Marxist/Leninist friend. There, we became active in left causes, like helping to organize a general strike against the repressive government, which was controlled by the cocaine industry.

When I returned to the states, I completed my undergraduate degree in history and English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. There I joined the organized left and became a member of the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) and a smaller student-led group. I got a master’s degree in social work at Columbia University because I saw it as a way to survive as a radical organizer. Most of our efforts were geared toward getting workers to support PLP-led union factions.

We wanted workers to join our party and fight for a socialist revolution. But our work was not about what it meant to connect with human beings and to try to make a difference in each other’s lives. For us, it was about getting the blue-collar workers, particularly those of color, to lead a rank-and-file movement to take up arms and bring Capitalism to its knees. We felt it was inevitable that the rulers and the most prosperous would die. And we saw this as just retribution for their evil, intentional repression of the masses. We foresaw a new society at the end of this fight that would be led by the revolutionary workers. We viewed the world as a chessboard that we could manipulate from afar.

Years later, working as director of health and human services for the Bronx Borough president, my intention was to shake up the bureaucracy and to make sure that under-served people got the benefits they were entitled to. I initiated efforts to expose corruption in the government health and human service organizations. I worked to insure that homeless families had access to the shelters and that people in need remained on the welfare rolls. I helped to shut down Medicaid mills that pose as medical offices, where people get prescription drugs and then exchange them on the street for heroin and crack. But I felt that my work, though valuable, was only a Band-Aid that helped to keep capitalism afloat. I needed to be a part of a revolutionary struggle.

Awakening Experience: A Trigger Mechanism

I was in my early thirties and had already acquired influence within the system, but then my auto accident intervened. I was on my way to a meeting. My friend Robin was driving. We were developing a deep friendship. It was a wonderful ride. It had been raining and was overcast. We were on the New York Thruway and suddenly this huge, eighteen-wheel truck backed up on the shoulder of the road into our lane. We were almost on top of it by the time we saw it because of the fog. We both knew at the same second. I could see from Robin’s actions that she knew there was no way we could avoid hitting the truck. We were going at highway speed, seventy miles an hour.

I didn’t have a life review, but I was certain I was going die. We were in a little Dodge compact car. I may have screamed, I don’t know. Robin swerved the car to the left to get away from the truck. The car went out of control and spun all the way around, hitting the truck on Robin’s side. I was told afterwards that she was killed instantly. The last thing that I remember was a loud noise, panic and then nothing.

Next, I found myself in a cave-like tunnel. I knew it was a cave because it had rocks and green moss on the bottom. And I knew it was a tunnel because there was light coming in from a great distance at both ends. We were in the coolness of what seemed like a long, underground cavern. And we were pretty much in the middle of the cavern. Robin and I were both there, and there was a presence there with us. It had no form but we were both aware of it. It felt safe, loving and wise.

We were shadowy. It felt like I was in and out of my body at the same time. I wasn’t talking to Robin. The presence communicated with us simultaneously, but without words. It described the experience we were about to have, told us that we were going to rise higher up than we could possibly imagine. We were going to go to a place that was beautiful and peaceful beyond what we had ever experienced on Earth. And we were going to be very happy there and without pain.

The presence also indicated that one of us was going to have to come down, and it was going to be very, very painful. Only one of us was going to have the strength to make that trip. I realized that it meant returning to the body. I wanted it to be me, but I felt guilty about that thought. Robin was a fabulous human being and I felt bad that I would return and she would not.

Then suddenly we were suctioned up like magic out of the cave until we were floating weightless in space. The water, air, and sun were flowing through us, between us, and all around us. We had no bodies, no pain, no past, no future.

It was a sensation beyond the senses. At the point that we were outside of the cave and into the light, we didn’t have bodies anymore. There was no shadow, nothing. Suddenly we were pure energy and pure light. It was white, healing, loving energy, and it was all embracing. It was also a perfectly comfortable temperature of water and air with everything flowing through and around us. Everything was part of everything. It was bliss.

There was nothing distinguishable, except the energy that had been Robin and the energy that had been me were connected in the light. I felt her peace. I had no memory of the tunnel, I had no memory of life, and I had no sense of time. So I couldn’t tell you how long I was there. While it was happening, it was just complete and utter oneness, stillness, peace, and nirvana, like being in the womb. It really is beyond description. It’s like nowhere on Earth.

So I no longer feel guilty for leaving Robin in that light. She was peaceful. I know that with absolute certainty, and I’ve been able to convey that to her mother. Whatever Robin had to do in her life, she had completed it. But I obviously wasn’t finished. I still had more work to do and more to learn. But it was not revealed to me. I think part of my work was to make that discovery for myself.

The Healing

My recovery has been an arduous process full of pain and confusion. But the payoff has been huge. It ultimately led to a transformation of my perspective on reality, my values and priorities, my sense of who I am, my connection to Creation, and the place within myself from which I take action in the world. So, though I never would have or could have chosen it for myself, the journey has been worth the price.

When the time comes to die, I’ll welcome death. I think that you’re here as long as you’re meant to be here. And you really need to go with that, figure out why you’re here, and try to work it through to completion.

It was horrifying and completely disorienting to suddenly go from nirvana to the pain in my body. There was no transition or memory of what the presence had shared in the tunnel. The next awareness that I had after being in the light was the sensation of not being able to move. I was in traction. I had a broken hip, and my jaw was wired because it had multiple fractures.

When I first opened my eyes, I was looking up at somebody who had three eyes. He looked like an alien. It turned out he was a doctor and I had vertical and horizontal double vision. I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing there. I didn’t know how to reconcile where I had just been with where I was. I was panicked.

I didn’t share my experience with anyone because I didn’t think they would understand. I certainly wouldn’t have, given my belief system prior to the accident. And I was in such horrible pain that all I wanted to do was to go back into the light. I didn’t want to be there or to have to relate to anyone. But while I was in the hospital, my mother’s cousin called me. She had been in a car accident about seven years earlier. So she got on the phone and asked me to tell her what had happened. I went through the routine – crash, noise, hospital. “No, sweetie,” she said, “tell me what happened between the noise and the hospital.” I burst into tears and told her everything. And she said, “I understand, I’ve been there.”

She also told me that the doctors were going to try and make the pain go away, but that it was never going to. She was right. Twelve years later, I’m still in physical pain. My emotional state is complicated. Many do not understand this. They tried to be sympathetic when the accident happened. But now they think I should forget it and move on. We live in a society that thinks bad memories should be buried and forgotten.

My cousin told me that I was changed forever and that when I felt better I should come visit her. Meanwhile, she wanted me to know that there was a group of people who had been where I’d been. It’s called IANDS – International Association of Near Death Studies. I felt understood for the first time. I’ve since learned that a lot of people who have had near-death experiences have trouble reintegrating their lives, as I did for some time after. My relative has had a difficult time but she served as my guide while I recovered.

Identity Crisis

About three months after the accident, I went back to work part-time. I was worried about my identity. My whole life before the accident had been built around being an angry activist. I returned to the same job that I had before the accident. I think it was denial. I tried to make it the same, trying to prove that I could still do it and that I was the same person, because I didn’t know who I was outside of that work identity.

The beliefs by which I had defined myself had suddenly been turned on their head through my experience in the light. Now I didn’t know who I was, why I was still alive, and what I was here to do. So I went back to try to make the old identity fit. It’s been a really long process. I stayed at my job for another two years. I would take naps and they would drive me to physical therapy. I think they felt responsible for me because the accident had happened on their dime and Robin had died. But I had no heart for the work, even though it made a difference in a lot of people’s lives.

I was working on macro-level change, governmental policy for New York City, which felt too abstract and removed from life. I felt like I needed to touch human beings. I needed to feel close to people in a different way. I needed intimacy. I needed the healing. And though I felt that there had to be some reason that I had come back, I really didn’t want to be here. I was in a lot of pain and I wanted to be back in the light.

I was clear that I had a glimpse of God. I’m using the word God for lack of a better word, but I don’t mean the Judeo-Christian God. My experience is closer to an Eastern or Native American view of the circularity, balance and connectedness of the energy in Creation. I am clear to this day that I was in the presence of God. I had never had that experience before. Nor was I one of those people who felt the need for it. But suddenly there I was with this certainty deep within my being. I wondered what I was supposed to do with it.

But I found I could no longer stand to work at a distance from the people whose lives I was trying improve. And I couldn’t deal with the bureaucratic politics anymore. So eventually I left that job and struggled to come to terms with my new situation.

Integrating Awareness

I realized that what I had been doing wasn’t going to create true change. I felt I was meant to have the experience in the light. And now my challenge was to allow my entire life to reorganize around the new understandings that it brought. I wanted to learn a more heartfelt and effective way of serving in the world. But I didn’t know what that was supposed to be, yet. I felt disturbed, confused and frustrated. So eventually I moved out of the City to get out of its energy and to be near the trees. I had become very energy sensitive. I was in crisis trying to find my way.

I didn’t know any spiritual people. I didn’t know what a near-death experience was until my relative explained that this was what I’d been through. I had thought spirituality was a hobby for a bunch of New Age, crystal-loving, self-centered white people. But suddenly my perspective had changed. I understood there was a God and that there was a natural spirituality within me and everything else. That’s when I contacted the people in IANDS. There was no active group in New York City, but I got a mailing list from their newsletter and used it to organize a local group to save myself.

That was about three years after the accident. I also started going to Buddhist meetings and meditation groups. I liked meditating but was closer to it when I was with the trees. I spent a lot of time in the woods and holding my cat. Those things felt good. I was struggling to find what was real, so I set up this group because I wanted to meet with people who were dealing with issues like mine, struggling to re-adapt to the world and to make sense out of why they came back. The group was the greatest thing for me and is still my family. I found out other people had been dealing with the same issues. They needed just what I needed, to talk to others who had become spiritual through near death experiences. You have no preparation.

Their experiences were similar and so were the changes. We had about forty-five active members over the years. Plus, I went to the national conferences, so I met with hundreds of people over a six-year period. I am still a member of IANDS and connected with the group I formed back East.

Fearful Near-Death Experiences

There were very few among the hundreds of people I met whose near-death experience felt frightening or negative to them. I would say three or four people out of hundreds. What they felt was that something was incomplete for them. It was dark and fearful and they felt stuck. But they also felt that beyond the fear was something wonderful, if only they could get there. And even these people came away with very similar understandings about the nature of reality.

The near-death experience for two out of the four had been from attempted suicide. What they learned was that as difficult as life is, they were meant to be here, and they had to work it through before they would be able to go into the light. One of the others had the experience when she was drowning. She was in a boat that capsized. It was dark and she was suffocating and panicked. Then suddenly there was this moment where she saw the darkness lifting and felt a peace come over her. But then she was rescued so the experience was interrupted. She felt it was an unfinished story.

Gracious Awareness: The Seeds of Cultural Change

Everyone I know who has had a near-death experience is now completely unafraid of death. Universally what I’ve found is that these people all embrace spirituality. Most do not move toward organized religions. It’s about love and compassion, heart-work. People are changed. People who felt they were selfish before become loving, sharing and value connection. Also, a heightened sensitivity to ethereal energy is something that we have in common.

To me it’s a combination of intuition and empathy. It’s about the connection and balance. I sometimes have visions and premonitions. The ones that I’ve had—and they don’t happen often—come true. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have them. For example I moved out of New York City in February 2001. I had repeated dreams and visions that showed buildings falling. I particularly remember seeing one collapse and there was dust in the air and people were running to get out of the way. The visions happen when I’m in natural places. The first premonition that I had about the WTC occurred when I was on a kayaking trip in Florida.

I have become more sensitive to the energies around me. I can feel people, literally. This was another reason that I had to leave New York City. The frenetic energy, pain, and hostility between the people were too much for me. I can’t help but take it all in.

First, I took a year off, went to spiritual retreat places and did a lot of meditation. I used the time to try and get in touch with whatever “me” was beneath all this artificial identity. I slowed down a lot. I moved out of the city and into the woods. The IANDS group began to take off, also. We became a support and spiritual growth group. We started doing sweat lodges and that really affected me in a way that some of the other practices hadn’t. We started connecting with other spiritual people. We had reached a level where we could connect with people who had other transformations than those of near-death experiences.

Now I’m only comfortable with those who come from a loving place - from good-heartedness, whether they understand it in a spiritual way or not. People who are carrying a lot of hostility or anger are difficult for me now, which is why I couldn’t work politically the way I used to. That was based on trying to take people’s anger and mobilize it to help them fight the system. It was militancy. I no longer see the issue as a fight in the old sense. Rather, it’s an evolution. Change will come from a peaceful place, one of growth.

In my current work I try to bring spirituality together with activism. I’m clear that we’re not going to create positive social change if we’re only about opposition. Many revolutionaries haven’t transformed their lives and are working from hate rather than love. This won’t create anything that’s better than what we have now. That’s what is different for me. I still try to make things better for low-income people. I currently work for the Los Angeles County Proposition Ten Commission. We support programs to help young children and their families. But I make sure to get to the sweat lodge. I make sure to be in relationship with understanding, authentic people both inside and outside of spiritual circles. I make sure to be in the woods. I need to constantly regenerate in order to be able to do my social change work.

For me, regeneration is being in nature, being in meditation and finding that stillness inside myself again. I try to get away from the speediness of life and be fully present in the moment. Even at work, it’s different for me now. I’m there to be a healer, not a disrupter, and I’m trying to build healthy communities in a positive, loving way. I hope to create a workplace where people can be happier and more present with what they are doing and why they are doing it.

My awareness has expanded into areas I didn’t know existed. But it’s not that I don’t have an ego anymore. I’m still on Earth. I’m definitely grounded here. But I’m able to tap into the light more often and it helps me to touch others. I’m definitely a different person.

Before this happened I paid no attention to spirituality. Now I know there is spirit in the trees and in everything. It’s all about connection."


©2005 Consciousness in Action | All Rights Reserved