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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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."