A Buddhist perspective on suicide

As I walked around the park today in a breezy high-skied sunset, so glad to be alive, even more alive than usual, the thoughts going around in my mind were, “Denis, you are missing all this.”Sunset in Cheesman Park

In the past year, two people close to me have committed suicide – one a friend and one a family member. It is not unlikely that two people you know of have as well. Suicide has increased 28% in the past twenty years. As William Falk, editor of The Week, says in this thoughtful article:

Every year, about 45,000 people commit suicide in the U.S. — twice as many as are killed in homicides. Each of these deaths has its own circumstances, but as Kirsten Powers says this week in USA Today, the steadily rising toll of despair tells us “something is wrong with our culture.” Family and community bonds are disintegrating; loneliness is rampant.  

Denis’s suicide brought up a lot of things for a lot of people, including me, so I wanted to share some of the thoughts, just as I wrote them down at the time.

Along with this last widely read article by a Buddhist nun, perhaps these might answer some questions about what Buddhists think about suicide. And hopefully it might help some people who are ever considering it (please don’t, please reach out instead), as well as those who are left behind (everyone else). I will share my thoughts about Denis in dark blue, and intersperse these with other remarks.

Today was a bitter-sweet day. The phone call telling me about the suicide of a friend coincided with witnessing the tenderness of a small girl saying hello for the first time to Delphi, my blind foster cat who is now going to be hers.Ellora and Delphi

Denis, you are now missing all this love. You love animals — your own dog Jake, and those at the shelter where you sometimes volunteered. You love humans — you were a social worker for so long, and gave wise counsel to many Veterans because you understood them.

You are now missing this entire precious human life. You loved Dharma — you have been meditating and studying and volunteering happily for years, despite the recent trouble you reported in controlling your thoughts. What possessed you to throw all this away?

Is suicide a good idea?

The press are being advised not to release details of the recent celebrity suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain for fear it will encourage copy-cat suicides. But is this the easy way out?

I don’t believe it is.

Many people believe that when the body disintegrates at death, the continuum of the mind ceases and the mind becomes non-existent, like a candle flame that goes out when all the wax has burned. ~ How to Transform Your Life

suicide is no optionIt is true, many people do profess not to believe in life after death (though, funnily enough, some of these same people ask me to pray when their loved ones die.)

There are even some people who contemplate committing suicide in the hope that if they die their problems and sufferings will end. However, these ideas are completely wrong.

Our body and mind are separate entities, so, although the body disintegrates at death, the continuum of the mind remains unbroken. We can discover for ourselves that mind is a non-physical continuum through learning to meditate on our own mind. There are some articles about that here. We are travelers bound for future lives, so suicide is not a viable option for ending our suffering.

Instead of ceasing, the mind simply leaves the present body and goes to the next life. For ordinary beings, therefore, instead of releasing us from suffering, death only brings new sufferings.

travellersThis is the cycle of suffering called samsara, from which we can and must break free — but not by killing ourselves. 

Not understanding this, many people destroy their precious human life by committing suicide. 

The moment the gun goes off, our consciousness of this life may quickly depart our body; but our consciousness in general does not stop. Our biggest problems are not over — arguably they have just begun. We are quickly thrown into the bardo, or intermediate state, where we will experience many frightening hallucinations. And then we will take uncontrolled rebirth somewhere else — who knows where or with whom or in what body.

There is no escape

And here is a comment left by someone on the last article that indicates the unacceptable risk of a failed suicide attempt as well:

I work in a large trauma hospital and increasingly I’m dealing with suicide on a weekly basis, sometimes twice weekly. Much of my work revolves around supporting families, especially in the initial stages as their loved one comes into the hospital. I’m finding the ‘profile’ no longer fits: my patients are as young as 8 and as old as 86. Children who have hanged themselves, and elderly people, using the gun they bought in their 20s for ‘protection’ as their means of ‘escape.’

hallucinations

But there is no escape; furthermore, when someone attempts to take their life in this way they significantly underestimate the ‘in-between’ of modern medicine. I’m not speaking of the bardo, though it’s likely that sort of experience: but rather the murky grey zone that physicians have to be mindful of, lest their compassion accidentally places themselves in a position that could be argued as ‘assisted suicide.’

Attempting suicide is very risky. Please don’t do it. It’s a far worse idea than you know. Plus, we need you.

A precious human life

To me it seems that you are now in danger of missing everything, everything good. Which seems unbearably sad given how much good was in you and how much good was around you.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

precious human life and suicideAt this time we have found a boat-like human body that can transport us to the island of full enlightenment, or Buddhahood. If, instead of taking advantage of this body, we were to waste it on the meaningless activities of this life, that would be most tragic. It will not be easy to find another opportunity like this in the future. ~ Clear Light of Bliss

 

No magical overnight miracle

Someone who became a Buddhist nun a few years ago wrote to me in response to the last article on suicide

I experienced suicidal ideations from a very young age. My first suicide attempt was at 14, and, although I never tried another serious attempt, the wish to die remained with me through my life, until very recently really. I thought nothing I did mattered, that life was pointless and needless suffering; and at times I didn’t even have a reason, things could be going well and I still wanted to just wake up when it was “all better” (whatever that was).

The meditations on the preciousness of human life and karma kept me alive, I knew I had something rare and, being Buddhist, I believed that even if I did end this life, another one with just as much, if not more, suffering was just around the corner. There was no magical overnight miracle.

One day I just realised that the deep wish to die had passed, that I’d abandoned that habit of mind over time. I simply kept on meditating on Lamrim, tried to practice the instruction, and kept a mind of faith. Now I value this amazing life and in my heart I truly believe everything matters!

Everything changes. We need to hold on until it does.

It can happen so fast. Research reported in The Sacramento Bee on people who survive suicide attempts “indicates that in 70% of cases, less than an hour passes between the idea of killing oneself and the attempt. In 25%, it’s less than five minutes. Most survivors said they deeply regret their attempts, and 90% were alive more than 25 years later. More of these impulsive acts would be survived if guns—the most effective means of self-execution — weren’t so freely available.”

Only six days ago you were out of the woods, we thought, smiling and making plans to meet people. You were beginning to see past your difficulties with hope and faith. Even on Friday, you seemed happy in the morning according to your brother. Maybe you were a bit happy, relieved you had made this decision, or maybe you were acting, who knows.

A few short weeks earlier you had decided — you had even promised me — that you would not kill yourself; this is after all why you had previously committed yourself to the hospital when you had the urge. Why? Because you said you knew it would not help you, that it could land you in a horrible rebirth, that it would destroy the 21-year-old daughter you worship.

suicide caused by delusionsBut then on Friday you went ahead and did it anyway. Your brother agreed to drive you back to your own place as you were feeling so much better — but that was the day you went out to buy a gun. Even though you spent half an hour once telling me how much you hated guns.

Why?

It is beyond heartbreaking when someone kills themselves, awful that they were in so much pain that they felt they had run out of options. But I think it’s important to remember that the suicide was not their fault but the fault of their delusions, and they are not their delusions. It’s important not to judge; if we have delusions too, we are all in this together.

Why did you do it? A new depression? Must have been. Feeling trapped, like those people in the World Trade Center who chose to jump to their deaths rather than face the certain fire. Difference being, there was no certain fire approaching you, and in your wiser moments you knew that “This too would pass”; but on Friday the future must have felt impossible just long enough for you to go through with trying to end it.

Feeling lonely? Yes, you often suffered from that. The loud newly-developed tinnitus and headaches that you hated? Probably, though you had been working on accepting those sufferings, mind over matter, and reported progress. Bad meds or insufficient meds? self-cherishing and suicideQuite possibly, I’m afraid to say, as you told me they’d taken you off some meds cold turkey and you were having trouble getting in to see a psychiatrist at the VA.

But bottom line is that the distorted self-cherishing thoughts demonizing your mind managed to convince you for just long enough that you’d be better off shooting your head off than staying in this beautiful, far safer place, with your Sangha, your family, and your Spiritual Guide — even though you loved us all.

When people kill themselves, it is usually because their wishes were not fulfilled, but this was unbearable to them only because their self-cherishing made them feel that their wishes were the most important thing in the world. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Self-cherishing is a demon. It is insanity. No one in their right minds would kill themselves. As someone just told me in response to hearing this news, “This makes no sense.” Self-cherishing has never made any sense and it is not about to start.

It is not just Buddhists who understand this. When people who have attempted suicide are brought into hospital, they are deemed “not of sound mind”. And for those of us left behind, it is best not to let that moment of insanity define them. As the Buddhist nun puts it so poignantly in this article about her brother: 

Their delusions at that moment were just stronger than the person they really were, and so the delusions won. There is nothing to be afraid of other than our delusions.

This temporary madness is not a reason to dismiss all the good times we shared with them.

faults of self-cherishing and suicideTo me your situation seems like being captured by a murderer who wants to blow your head off. If you are in your right mind, you’re going to try everything to get away from them. But what about when the murderer is your own self-cherishing?!!

Suicide shows how important it is NEVER to identify with our self-cherishing  (or identify other people with theirs), let alone consider it our friend or advisor. It is our worst enemy; it has no function other than to harm us.

You did leave a note asking for Powa — so some forward-thinking wisdom was operating — and some faith in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; but seemingly not enough. Your considerable wisdom, love, and faith would have been screaming at you, “Please, don’t do this!;” but where were you at the time?

Wake up call for the rest of us

We need to get rid of self-grasping and self-cherishing, not complacently let them live in our hearts. Someone was saying it’s like having the first stages of cancer and thinking, “Ah, it’s not really doing anything at the moment, so I’ll just let it stick around.” Just because our self-cherishing is not telling us to kill ourselves at the moment, or harm others for that matter, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have it in it to do this sooner or later, if we let it stay in our minds.

alternative to suicide

Sometimes even having Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in our lives, or some other faith for that matter, is not enough, as Denis’s story demonstrates. To be protected we need to be relying deeply upon them whenever things get rough. We need to be actively letting go of our self-cherishing when it arises, whether that is in the form of loneliness, self-hatred, anxiety, disillusionment, fear, and so on.

Even if we do already like Dharma, we have to get it from our head into our heart to ensure deep refuge and some peace when the storm comes. ‘Cos storms do inevitably come, for all of us. Reliable refuge takes some practice and consistency.

We would never think that because we ate yesterday we do not need to eat today. To maintain a healthy body we need to eat every day, and, similarly, to maintain our knowledge of Dharma and gain realizations we need to read, contemplate, and meditate on Dharma over and over again. ~ Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully

I love and admire Denis, and the tributes coming in for him are testament to what a special, beautiful person he was. But my love for Denis means that I loathe Denis’s self-cherishing for what it has done to him.

Self-cherishing is so sneaky that it can even persuade us we are being noble and doing this for others, so that we are not a burden, for example. There can be a mixed motivation sometimes, there can be some genuine wish to spare others – but I don’t believe that this alone would cause most people to go through with such a painful, frightening, violent act. Especially as it doesn’t take much imagination to see, really, that the people we leave behind are going to be horribly burdened by this act.

suicide prevention lifelineWhen people feel anger at those who have selfishly left them, it is the selfishness itself that is the proper object of the wrath, not the poor person who is its victim. Self-cherishing is self-destructive — let’s be in no doubt about that.

Part Two will appear here in a few days, including thoughts on how we can help suicide victims with transference of consciousness (Powa) and how to cope when someone close to us kills themselves. Till then, I appreciate your comments, stories, and any other feedback that you think might be helpful to other readers. Thank you.

Related articles:

Coming to terms with a brother’s suicide

What is self-cherishing?

Rewriting the story of our lives

Understanding our continuum of consciousness

“Welcome, Adversity”

Mimi young.jpg I recently said good bye to Mimi Waring. On this occasion she was lying half in and half out of her bed, after a brush with extreme nausea lovingly cleared up by her husband Richard, and she was out of it. But I knew she could hear me ok, so I held her hand and brushed her cheek and said, “Bye bye Mimi. I know we’ll see each other again, one way or another. Send us blessings from the other side.” To which she half-opened her eyes, smiled, and nodded her head. And I added, “You know what to do.” To which she responded by nodding her head even harder.

I had spent longer with her a few days ago. I visited her at her house for, in a stroke of good timing, I happened to be in Seattle. She had saved her energy up for this visit, not seeing anyone all week, heroically making it out of the bed she had been bound in for days and, leaning on her special rolling chair, walking out to the deck where we had lunch in the sunshine. Delicious lunch, actually, vegetarian BLT sandwiches made by the aforementioned Richard. Did I mention too that that man is a saint? (He even made me more BLT sandwiches today for my flight because he knew I loved them, as if he had nothing better to do while his wife is dying.)

mimi-and-richardWe three had a very meaningful conversation, I thought; this was not a dead flowers’ visit as Sue Hulley would have said. I asked Mimi where she thought she was going, where she wanted to go; and, in response to some of her concerns, suggested that she spend these next few weeks or so not feeling the need to say goodbye to everyone, for she has done that already and everyone knows she is off, but instead getting ready for her trip. Mimi is a very faithful disciple of Geshe Kelsang and has deep refuge in her Sangha and Dharma too. She has also been very generous to her Kadampa Meditation Center in Seattle, and helped them buy their beautiful buildings. So, she has already started packing well for this next trip, where a new assignment awaits her.

Time for your next adventure

I think of Mimi’s departure as a bit like when Geshe Kelsang calls one of his disciples and asks them to go teach or administrate in some far-flung part of the world where they have never been before and where they don’t even speak the language. “Oh, and can you go next week?!”

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All leaves must leave.

If you get that phone call, you don’t spend the whole last week saying goodbye to everyone. Pretty immediately you start trying to figure out what you are going to need, you start to get ready and pack, you start to imagine where you will be and what you will be doing and who you will be relying upon. I think death is a bit like that. And if you are a Dharma practitioner, as Mimi said herself, you want to end up in a place where you can meet the same Spiritual Guide and the same teachings and help lots of people; that is what she wants most. It’s a good thing there are so many of her fellow Sangha building centers and temples all over this world — we are ready for her. Watch out for a baby coming somewhere soon in the Kadampa mandala, a baby with a glint in her eyes.

We’ve done death countless times before, of course. Amazing, as Richard said to me today as I was leaving, how we forget that, how it is so normal and yet still so challenging. As I shuffle through the Fall leaves, I am reminded that none of us stays in one place for long — wherever we are and whoever is next to us, it is only a matter of months or days before we are blown by the winds of karma to somewhere completely different.

Before I left our lunch date, Mimi wanted to show me the sign that is prominent on the shrine in her room, currently next to the commode: “Welcome, adversity!” Adversity, she told me, has been invaluable to her.

It’s the heart that counts
mimi-goodbye-picture
Some of Mimi’s friends at Manjushri KMC in early August.

I wrote the above in late August. Today it is October 31, and Mimi passed away this morning at 3am. I heard last night that she was dying, so she has been in my thoughts and prayers constantly ~ and I feel good about where she is now, that her Spiritual Guide really does have her safe. Tributes and prayers are flowing in.

Mimi had brain cancer and, despite her formidable intelligence, was not always able to use her gross mind very well toward the end, as might be expected — though she did incredibly well with that.

And someone asked me the other day about what happens when we lose our ability to “think,” is that disastrous for a mindful death? A lot of people ask this question, is it possible to die peacefully if you have “lost your mind”, as it were? So I thought I might address that question here, Mimi won’t mind. In fact, Mimi asked me umpteen curious questions 😍  — it was one of the things I loved about her. Feel free too, please, to jump in the comments if you have any input on this.

mimis-seattle
Sunset Hill, Seattle

The point is, I think, that you haven’t really lost your mind, just some conceptual thoughts. The mind which counts is the mind at our heart. One case in point is an elderly Buddhist monk called Trinlay who died a few years ago in Southampton. Trinlay lost his memory and was bedbound with lots of physical complications. But in the last year of his life, even when he had pus oozing from his painful legs, he managed to stay positive. He would say, “I get happier and happier every day. I am a monk living in a Buddhist Center.” He also would say “I am a millionaire; I have said millions of mantras.” The day before he died, he removed the mask over his mouth in response to the question “How are you feeling” and smiled, “I am tired but inspired.” He was a love bomb, complimenting anyone who came near him, even if he didn’t remember who they were, making everyone around him feel happy. He died very peacefully.

So, is it possible to have a good death and lead-up to death if you have lost your brain functions? I think so, yes. If you are in your heart. If you have given up malice. If you have faith and/or love. If you have peace. All these things are in the heart, not the head. The important thing for all of us is to practice now, to learn how to enter the refuge zone. And Mimi, who died peacefully surrounded by her husband and close Sangha friends, is a beautiful demonstration of that.

Suffering has good qualitiesmimi

Mimi has been a force of nature these last 7 years, defying all doctors’ expectations, showing that suffering can indeed have good qualities, insisting on flying to festivals and celebrations and retreats even in the midst of treatments for brain cancer, never regretting any of her foolhardy but totally virtuous exertions. Always wanting to learn, and devoid of self-pity.

I will let her tell you about this journey herself, posthumously, in her wonderful blog This Mountain, That Mountain. If you want to know how to cope well with your own adversity, illness, and death, her blog will give you many inspiring ideas.

Please pray that Mimi comes back safely and soon to our world, in a brand new healthy comfortable human body, so that she can keep on inspiring us all with her faith, quirkiness, and sheer joyful (yep, bloody-minded) perseverance.

Comments are most welcome.

Top Five Regrets of the Dying – and a Buddhist’s perspective

A hospice worker called Bronnie Ware wrote a very interesting article called “Top Five Regrets of the Dying”. I (and others) posted it on Facebook and it garnered a lot of attention, probably as all of us are dying sooner or later, and who wants to die with regrets?! Other hospice workers chimed in to agree that they found these to be the top five regrets amongst their patients too.

I think Buddha’s meditations can help us prevent all of these (as well as  a few other regrets I can think of) and make the most of the time we have left. I hope she doesn’t mind, but I’m going to borrow Bronnie Ware’s points and share just a few more ideas below; and please add your own ideas in the comments.

Meditating on death awareness now — remembering the fact that we are definitely going to die and lose everything external, and that this could happen any time, even today – is probably the most effective preparation for preventing these regrets. If we live each week, or day, as if it is our last, this tends to get our priorities straight! And it doesn’t have to be scary either, it can be very liberating. (You can try this experiment to see if this is true.)

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me

We are often wrapped up in the so-called “worldly concerns” of wishing to experience praise and a good reputation and not criticism and a bad reputation, and this can make us overly fearful. We need integrity – knowing based on our own wisdom (not blind allegiance) what is good and kind, and sticking to it regardless of what everyone around us thinks or does. We need a self-worth based not on distracting, fleeting concerns like our reputation and whether or not people like us, but based on the good qualities we are developing in own mind – our own love, kindness, compassion, wisdom, and so on. These are what make us feel good about ourselves both now and at the time of our death.

If we imagine what it is going to be like to lose everything – our body, our possessions, our career, our friends, even our most dearly beloved who seems to have been validating our existence – what do we want to have left? Does it matter at that time what others expected of us? Or does it matter more that we have tried to live up to our highest ideals?

If any of you have lost your job recently, or a loved one, or your health, did you find this to be the case?

When we meditate on death awareness, we think of what it’ll be like to lose EVERYTHING, the entire infrastructure of our life, including our friends, our possessions and even our own body. This can have a dramatic effect on our mind because it puts us in touch with the naked truth. But sometimes I think it can also be very powerful to meditate on losing one thing at a time. You can start by imagining that you are fired from your long-term job/career (you can also imagine what often goes along with it, such as being pitied and/or criticized behind your back, and no longer having anything in common with the people you made your working life with.) You can imagine that your most dearly beloved partner, parent or child dies. You can imagine losing your health. What matters at these times, what protects you from pain, what do you have left, what do you want to have left?

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard

So true, isn’t it, that old adage that no one’s last words are “I wish I’d spent more time at the office”?!

Of course, it depends what we’re working hard doing, and especially why. If we are motivated by a desire just for making this life comfortable, and especially if we become addicted to earning more and more money, status etc, when we see that these pursuits are pointless in the light of death we are bound to feel some regret for the wasted time and energy. But if we work hard to help others, motivated by a wish to bring happiness and freedom into others’ lives, I doubt we’ll regret that. It doesn’t matter so much what job we have to do to earn our keep and look after our loved ones. It matters far more why we are going to work each day.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings

Bronnie explains that “Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

I think this is related to #1 above. It’s a good idea not to suppress our emotions/pretend we’re someone different. Bodhisattvas have a vow to avoid both “pretension” and “deceit”. But nor do we have to suddenly tell everyone exactly what we think of them, especially if it may hurt them (see this article about criticism) – we’ll probably regret that too! Better to work on overcoming the resentment by learning to love unconditionally, based on a genuine self-confidence. From our side, do we really need to worry quite so much about what people think or say about us, or even say to us? It means very little in the grand scheme of things.

There is a Kadampa motto:

“Help others as much as you can. Harm your delusions as much as you can.”

Following this advice gives us the courage we need.

4. I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends

See, Facebook is helpful!! Children of my nieces’ generation will never have to lose a friend again; they’ll be followed from crib to grave by hundreds upon hundreds of friends…!!

Actually, of course, we don’t want attachment to our friends, as this will cause us pain at the time of death when we understand we have to lose them in this current form. But if we have the three types of love – warm affection, cherishing them as precious, and wishing them to be happy – we’ll never truly be separated from our friends. (You can find out more about the difference between the positive mind of love and the delusion of attachment in Joyful Path.)

It is good to live as if every encounter we have with another may be our last – it’ll naturally prevent our being cross with them, and mean that we appreciate every moment we have together.

5. I wish I’d let myself be happier

Bronnie says:

“Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice.”

So, the sooner we realize this, the better! Enough said.

Please add your own observations on these or any other likely deathbed regrets you can think of. And share this article if you feel like it.