Monday, July 5, 2010

Thinking About Suicide

I have been thinking about suicide lately -- about despair, oblivion, self-blame, and about all the alternatives for those feelings.

Without violating anyone's privacy but my own, I am one of the loved ones left behind after a suicide. In fact, that has been one of the two or three most pivotal events of my life, and one of the most important forces in shaping my destiny. And somehow, I seem to have known or known of several other suicides -- more, it seems to me, than the average person. I have known personally three other suicides, and known of at least three others. Is it common to know over half a dozen suicides before one is forty? I don't think so, but there it is.

My husband has described the idea of heaven as "we're so important we couldn't possibly just disappear when we die!" My response to that was that the idea of my consciousness going on forever, eternally self-aware, has begun to sound to me somewhat horrifying. I can't imagine the sheer exhaustion of always having to exist in some form. That exhaustion is why people want out of the world, he said, particularly the illusory world.

Buddhism, I should say, argues that this world is essentially an illusion. It is real, but also empty of ultimate reality. Ultimate reality, they teach, is beyond meaning, beyond words, beyond concepts. It is the limitless resting in the now, all awarenesses merged in contemplation of the limitless eternal moment. As I explained in my book, Buddhists call this world samsara, and I've already sort of addressed it in earlier posts. But the key element of samsara is that it is indeed an illusion. Fundamentally, it is the illusion that we are all separate beings, that what hurts you does not hurt me, and vice versa. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, "We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness."

Tragically, this illusion of separateness is exactly what the suicide cannot overcome. They do not know that their pain is as wide as humanity, or that others, even strangers, would reach out compassionately to them in a heartbeat if only they knew of the suffering in the suicide's heart.

At the same time, I suspect that exhaustion and wanting out of the illusory world are exactly what many suffering people see as a reason for suicide. In the West, certainly, if you go to a doctor and say that you want out of the illusory world, you will leave his office with a prescription for some strong anti-depressants. Would you be surprised that in the East, such a comment would be handled rather differently?

In the East, Buddhist practitioners see this frustration, exhaustion, impatience, etc., as the very beginning of spiritual practice. As long as you are comfortable in the world, they say, you will have no strong impetus to practice. It is when you have struggled with the world's pain and its illusions and you have found no answer and simply want to rip down the curtain that keeps you from understanding, that is the moment you have begun the spiritual journey. That is when you should reach out to any spiritual tradition that speaks to your heart (absolutely any, no limitations) and begin to work your hardest with those texts and those messages. Because that is the moment that you are ready to see the truth in the great wisdom traditions.

I wonder, sadly, if any of the suicides I know were aware that they might have been not in despair, but at the door of a great breakthrough. They would have had to marshal all their inner resources to hang on through the study, but they were there. The exhaustion with life, they were there. The desire to violently cut through all the illusions and bullshit, they were there. I write this because if anyone ever, in the evanescence of the web, stumbles across these words at the moment they need them, I want that person to know they have but to reach out to any compassionate person and to open the door to the breakthrough they have earned right down to their bones. They are not low, they are at the threshold of becoming a higher being, one who has struggled and earned the wisdom of survived pain.

I especially suffer at the thought of suicides who were sexually abused. Again, not to violate anyone's privacy but my own, I have personal experience here too. Even when it doesn't rise to the level of self-murder, those who were sexually abused can practice a living suicide of the personality, drinking to addiction, being promiscuous but unfulfilled, cutting, and otherwise destroying themselves. I suffer with their pain because they continue abusing themselves after the abuser leaves off. They can go on for years abusing themselves, because it is the only familiar feeling they know. Somewhere inside them I want to believe is the same bit of righteous anger that was inside me, the same voice that says to their abuser -- and NOT to themselves, "This is wrong. YOU are wrong. Not me, you."

To those women -- my sisters -- I want to say, the baggage that you carry is not yours. It is crushing you, but it is not yours. You are being made to carry it because the person who deserves it refuses to. Don't do his suffering for him. And don't adopt his cruelty toward yourself. If you can't find the righteous anger to defend yourself from your own behaviors (really just residue of his), find the righteous anger you would feel if you saw an animal being hurt, or some other wrong you can't abide. Never, ever take on someone else's pain for them. If they try to put their evil onto your body, know that once you're grown you can give it back. It never took root in you, it only rested on your skin. You have an inviolate, unviolated core. When one of these women dies, I suffer. She never had to take over the abuse. Her abuser's hands should never have hurt her, but above all, her own hands should no longer do so either.

I know that for some people the despair is simply so great that all they seek is oblivion. I don't know if they can be helped, but if someone is still looking on the web, or still reading an extremely obscure blog, they are not yet ready for oblivion.

So when I say that I too find the idea of existing forever exhausting, I take this not as depression or despair but as the doorway to practice. I take it as a sign that I am ready to stop the surface way of living and begin to look deeper (I'm ready to leave the Matrix). I'm tired of the shallows and ready for the depths, which are paradoxically also the heights of understanding.

I often sign off with "namaste." I think this time I should write out the full meaning of that word. It means:

The part of me that is divine sees the part of you that is divine, and I bow in honor and recognition of your divinity.


  1. Wow Arlynda, very moving.

    I don't know many people who have committed suicide, but have had friends die from drug addiction.

    To me, drug addiction of a form of suicide in and of itself. The people getting hooked know full well that the shot of dope they are about to take is dangerous, and will probably create a level of addiction, but they do so anyway.

    I don't understand any of it, it seems to selfish to me.

  2. Suicide is such a difficult thing to deal with for those it leaves behind. Some people just surrender to the situations of life, and choose annihilation other than continue to suffer, and I think some of us have been there.

    Thanks for the moving post.

  3. What a beautiful post - I admit I had to work myself up to reading it, knowing it would be hitting on a lot of issues that resonate with me. I'm glad I did, because I appreciate how you presented what, for most people, is the "end of the road" as the beginning of it. Beautifully done. <3

  4. Very sadly, the one person I knew in recent years who committed suicide was also a person of extraordinary spiritual sensitivity, who had studied Buddhism deeply, particularly Buddhist teachings for realizing non-self.

    I believe it was because of the psychiatric drugs. Does anybody hear that? We today drug people up, even given the risk of suicide, because we can't afford institutionalization and don't believe that people can help each other... only drugging people up works. With just the right mix of drugs they can stay alone in apartments of their own at their parents' expense. Thinking about this makes me seriously reconsider if 21st century life is all that great as it's supposed to be...

    Can you see the doctors hearing what I'm saying? Surely it's nothing but psychiatric drugs they'll be offering me in response to my complaints...

    I'm afraid we might be trapped in a mutually destructive pattern here.