Every year, worldwide, an estimated three-quarters of a million people take their own life, making suicide and attempted suicide subjects we need to explore with much more creativity and interest.
~Michael Stone in his new book, Awake in the World, Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life.
Life and death aren’t really opposites. They are actually both qualities of the experience of being alive. A fatal flaw in the thinking of a suicidal person is that their death will somehow give them the relief that they seek: but you have to be alive to feel relief or to feel anything (as far as I know).
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?
The Road to making Life more Possible for Someone who is Suffering.
In my last article on Suicidal Education, I wrote about a mind tendency I have worked with in myself that said, “I wish I was dead,” and what that might mean if I don’t take the thought literally. I caught the ruse because I’ve also noticed how desperately I want to live, feel life, love and be loved.
So I live my life including this part of me that shows up sometimes and says, “I wish I was dead.” And now I know that this fearful, overwhelmed part of me tells lies. But there was a time when I wasn’t so sure. I was confused, thinking that my mind surely wouldn’t lie to me. This part of me wants the easy out. Just remove the complexities of life. There. Done. Dead.
Not so easy, self…
I found myself strongly relating with these passages (just below) from Awake in the World because I believe that if survival is possible for someone contemplating or fantasizing their own death that it happens through deep listening and understanding what is going on beneath the words the mind is saying, or listening to the other life-loving messages that are also present. This can happen in meditation, talking with others, or as Michael Stone describes in the book, working with a therapist.
“In the chains of words and ideas that come forth when we can hold the space of listening without judgment, the person in pain often has a surprising discovery, a spontaneous new arrival of insight that can only happen in the creative space of held silence.”
“Internal hatred must be transfigured into love through communication.”
“Someone who is in pain needs to be heard. Someone who wants to take her own life and is telling you about it desperately wants to connect, desperately desires intimacy. And you are there, in that moment, as best you can, to offer it. To offer yourself. Sometimes we think we know what a cry means, and sometimes we can’t know. But we can put our bodies right there in the center of suffering and know it fully and mutually.”
As a yoga teacher, I am sometimes in the honored position to hear the suffering of a student (and joys, too!). It can be someone I’ve known for a while, or it can be someone that I’ve just met. I know that I’m a good non-judgmental listener. I know how to be quiet and how to listen. I can also reflect back to someone what I just heard. They can correct me if I was off. And that’s all I can really do for someone. I don’t know the answer for another person. But in sharing space with them, even for a brief interchange, the world is bigger for both of us.
I know from my own experience with negative thought spaces, that they are cramped! The bandwidth of feeling bad doesn’t have much room for varied information flow, but when someone else comes in our shared space is much larger and can provide the breath of fresh air that can make a real difference.
When someone is suffering, sometimes we might feel that it is too much responsibility to hear that. But, I’m here to say that we need to be in that courageous place of hearing when we can or have the opportunity. It will make the world a better place, a more livable place for someone who is suffering—even if that person who needs to be heard is actually the cries of one’s own self.
I also know that self-care is essential, and so there are times when we might not be available to open ourselves to someone else in the way that I’ve described. But for some people, I know it’s sort of a habitual stance to not want to hear what is going on with others (or our self). Or maybe they think that it’s more professional or just safer to stay aloof (as a yoga teacher, for example).
But, I can’t do that. I have been helped too many times by people in my life outside of family or close friends even though they are, of course, essential. The world has offered me help in many mysterious ways through people I’ve just met, or not known well. So perhaps I see that I, too, can be a part of this mysterious network of people who help others when the opportunity shows up.
And I have learned how to be there for myself.
* The quotes in this article all came from Michael Stone‘s new book: Awake in the World, Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life. *