[Editor’s note: In this two part guest article, psychotherapist, Buddhist teacher, and Yoga teacher, Michael Stone, addresses the sensitive subject of suicide. We hope that this discussion brings greater understanding to an issue that’s likely tugged at our heartstrings in one way or another. Read part 2 of this series here.]
Many of us who have suffered trauma, pain, or existential loneliness have struggled to find stories to make sense of our lives. We might think that we learn how the world works, because we take the time to observe and understand it. But every meditator with a busy mind knows that’s just not so. We just believe things, and then make our world fit our perceptions.
After many years of Yoga study, practice, and teaching, many of the assumptions I’ve held in my work as a psychotherapist have been brought to the surface—often in unsettling ways—through my struggle to integrate Yoga and Western psychology. While Yoga philosophy and Western psychology have much to learn from each other, what interests me is where they don’t quite fit together smoothly. It’s in these gaps between systems that we find fertile ground for exploration. Yogic teachings on the fear of death (abiniveśa) have been very instructive in understanding the way we hold on to narratives about ourselves that reinforce and entrench feelings of alienation and suffering. While this is often readily apparent in others, it is also apparent in my view of others. Psychological diagnoses and pathology, while serving to help me recognize who and what I am working with, also serve to create separation in a space where intimacy is of paramount importance. Trying to be a good therapist or a helpful teacher can actually get in the way of healing. One of my first psychotherapy patients was referred by a friend. He was a young man who was suffering from tremendous physical pain when symptoms from an old car accident reappeared after many years. Around the same time, one of his former boyfriends took his own life. “The two of these situations together,” my colleague wrote to me, “have completely overwhelmed him. He wants to die.” My colleague made an appointment for him to see me because her own psychotherapy practice was full. “I’m not sure exactly what he needs,” my friend told me. “Maybe a combination of listening and some practical tools like meditation so he can learn to accept what he is going through. Or maybe some medication or hospitalization.”
The following Monday, at the time of our scheduled appointment, I waited for him and he never showed up. I left him a message and did not hear back. One month later, I received a call from my friend who had referred him. She told me the man had taken his life. When I got the call I was stunned. I was in my first year of practice, and though I had never met this young man, I had imagined his walk, his face, his hair, his life. A feeling of relief came over me. I tried to distract myself from this strange response, but it surprised me. In the midst of this news, I was imagining that this man had found some relief.
When I was ten years old, our neighbor took her life. All I could do in response to her suicide was to visit “her” bridge every day for a year. After school, I’d ride my bicycle to where I imagined she had jumped, trying to envision what she thought about before she had leaped into the ravine below. I wondered if she noticed the bulrushes and the vast sky, the amazing view of the city or the beauty of the old trestle bridge.
When I was thirteen, I’d sit under the bridge for hours, smoking cigarettes, studying the deteriorating cement columns and rust leaking from the rebar through the cement railing. Three years after her death I continued visiting her last place on earth, her final view, her place of death. I couldn’t let her go. It wasn’t the loss of our distant friendship, my young crush on her, or my desire to see her pink bedroom again. I wanted to know what pushed her into such a singular view. How did she cross from an inner world of pain to the railing of the bridge? What in me held back that desire? What kept me from climbing that same railing?
The American photographer Diane Arbus ingested barbiturates and then cut her wrists with her razor; French painter Jeanne Hébuterne leaped from a third-story window two days after her partner, Modigliani, died of tuberculosis. She was pregnant with their second child. Mark Rothko took his life among his paintings; Spalding Gray, in the circling waters of the Hudson; John Berryman, jumping off a bridge in Minnesota; Anne Sexton, after visiting a hospital; and Virginia Woolf, weighing her pockets with stones and walking into the river near her home. I found this touching passage from Virginia Woolf in a letter to Leonard Woolf:
I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.”
No metaphor here, no sentimentality, no beating around the bush. She is desperately unhappy but, at the same time, straightforward in her desire to communicate. It’s ironic that the momentum present in our rush to die can also contain the urgency to communicate. It’s not that Woolf’s suicide can be reduced to a lack of interpersonal communication. Seen from the perspective of a whole body-mind matrix, we can instead suggest that the parts that make up the sum of the body-mind/self were not communicating, not intimate, not grounded, felt, and made into words. For someone pressed with visions and hearing voices, the key is using the frame of the body as an anchor to the present moment. Settling the mind not through using more narratives and thoughts but by turning to the body and breath is the key to the real feelings below the strategies of suicide. When we come right down to it, the core of what we feel is below the surface strategies of mind. In fact, the mind obsessed with death is not really that different from the compulsive mind most of us are working with every day. A mind spinning in its own solipsistic networks, cut off from the rhythm and feeling of body and breath, is self-identified with its pain and scars and perhaps even unwilling to part with them. We are easily attached to our misery by virtue of its being familiar. It’s an easy way to define ourselves.
There is a parallel text to every story. Though someone is plagued with pain, the desire to end one’s life is actually a counterpull against the identification with suffering. Suicide is the imagining of an end to suffering—an end that is certainly needed. Seeing more metaphorically, the desire for death as an end to suffering is a desire to make life more possible. What are we really hearing when we listen to fantasies of death? This is the energy—indeed, the paradox—I’d like to explore.
• • • • •
Yoga and Buddhist Practices work in terms of complementary opposites. If you want to settle your inhalation, for example, you spend time getting your exhalation very smooth; if you want to find extension in the hamstring muscles, you refine the contraction of the front of the thigh; if you want to find happiness, you serve others. Inside a forward bend is the seed of a backbend; in the midst of anxiety, we look for the calmness of the breath—it’s always there.
Likewise, when we pay attention to the movement toward taking one’s life, we also find the desire to live. This desire to live is expressed in the desire to communicate. The trick is dropping our preconceptions sufficiently to recognize this instinct, this movement toward intimacy. Even as the old tree withers and dies, we can find small emblems of growth. Illness, both mental and physical, often separates the afflicted from the world. Yoga reawakens one’s connection with the whole body and mind and in so doing restores pathways of communication at an inner level that then begin to spread out into the interpersonal world as well. When we are safe in our own bodies, we have a ground from which to step out into the world.
Talking is a way of reaching something not clearly seen, verbally navigating through the fog of uncertainty. The problem with our Western perspective on suicide is that it’s hard to listen when our very deliberate focus is on trying to stop someone from taking his own life, stop the urge toward death, protect ourselves from the legal repercussions of not calling the police. Since we all walk this same winding road toward death, someone else’s desire to die brings up our own core ideas about death, dying, and what it means to live life fully. Suicide in the Judeo-Christian perspective is rejected as sinful. In the early teachings of the Buddha, there are many stories of people like Channa, Vakkali, and Godhika, who took their own lives and were not condemned for it. If there is a cultural view that sees life as continuous in one way or another, especially if there is no god that determines whether someone is born again or not, we have permission to reframe our conceptualization of suicide as sinful. Who are we to judge?
Suicide is an internal drama that needs expression for it to be resolved. Suicide and self-harm must be understood as having meaning within interpersonal and intrapsychic relationships that the person is involved in. Wanting to die means something. What wants to die? The problem with the “I”-making mechanism of the mind (ahaṅkāra) is that it creates stories (asmitā) that objectify itself. The “I” maker is constantly representing itself to itself, splitting the personality into a subject and object. This splits the ahaṅkāra into a storyteller that is telling itself a story by representing itself to itself. The core teachings of Yoga revolve around this case of mistaken identity. Any self-image is an objectification of the ahaṅkāra that serves to split the personality. If we understand the ahaṅkāra in this way, we can see that when one tells a story about oneself to oneself, one creates several selves. The ego can objectify itself. The task for the yogi is to pay attention to life in ways that continually undercut our craving to have a fixed point of view. All sorts of things happen in our lives, tragedies and miracles together. We lose what we love and are continually separated from what we want. This is the way life goes. But this careful attention to the way our lives truly happen does not always go along with the therapeutic intention to “help life go on,” “contract for safety,” or “provide ego support.”
A focus on the absurd, the messy, the tragic, and the shameful parts of us is what’s truly needed to open to our lives. With the help of a therapist, we can open to what we feel without fear. The key is being able to open to what we really feel, not just what we are allowed to feel either by our own internal judge or the unexamined assumptions in the medical stance of the clinician. Focusing on the body without searching for a way out can sometimes open up astonishing meaning within very old habits. We may even learn that the voice from the part of us that wants to die is exactly the same as the part of us that wants to come out into the world. The one who wants to die may really want to live after all. The “cry for help” is really a gesture to go through life with deep meaning and resolve. Wanting to die stands neither for life nor for death but for a deep experience of both of these opposites. To live is to allow for fixed views to die. To die is to be generous in our living.
(In Part 2, I will look at practical ways for working with the energies in us and in others that want to die.)
This is an excerpt from “Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga & Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life” by Michael Stone (Shambhala Publications, June 2011)
Michael Stone is a respected Buddhist teacher who draws on his background as a psychotherapist, yoga teacher, author and activist to bring the practice of mindfulness into conversation with contemporary culture. He developed the acclaimed Leading Edge Mindfulness for Clinicians Course in Toronto and has educated over one thousand medical professionals about the intersection of mindfulness and clinical practice. Michael has the distinction of being the youngest Buddhist teacher in Canada and maintains a busy travel schedule, teaching workshops and retreats throughout North America and Europe. He is the founder of Centre of Gravity: a thriving community of yoga and Buddhist practitioners exploring the convergence of traditional contemplative practices and modern urban life. He makes his home in downtown Toronto.
“Michael’s teachings awaken the mind, revealing, in elegant and lyrical prose, our unbreakable connection to every part of this ailing world.”
– Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine
“The careening horror of our environmental dissent has all of us off balance. Michael Stone provides some excellent advice about how to find a place on which to stand.”
—Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy
“Michael Stone upends the typical narcissism of spiritual teachings; what we are offered instead is a literate and deeply devotional integration of individual practice and social awareness. This is not a rehash of prior teachings, but a highly original uncloaking of the deepest meanings that await us.”
– Paul Hawken, author of Blessed Unrest