Transference of consciousness for those who have committed suicide

10 mins read

This week (Sept 9-15) is suicide prevention awareness week. I would submit a week is not enough. We need more awareness every week, as suicide is on the rise and it is destroying lives – not just those who kill themselves but those who are left behind.

BuddhaAvalokiteshvaraIn this final article on suicide, I want to say something about a powerful practice we can do for those who have died in general, and suicide victims in particular.

Back to my thoughts on Denis at the time

Denis believed in transference of consciousness (Powa in Tibetan, pronounced Poe Wa). In a letter written a few months ago to a mutual friend, he said:

“My dear friend my dog Jake died last weekend. I think I told you he had heart problems. His heart stopped early Sunday morning while he slept so he was in peace. He had sat with me through many meditations and listened to many prayers. I completed Powa for him the day after he died so I know he exists in a pure land now, but I experienced many feelings of loss and sadness.” 

In his suicide note, Denis also asked for me to guide Powa as his funeral. So of course I did. I mention some of the things I said below.

If someone you love has committed suicide, please feel that you can pray for them, whenever it happened – it is never too late. And you can also ask for this Powa practice to be done for them at Kadampa Buddhist Centers. Here too is a beautiful Facebook prayer request group.

What is Powa?

In Great Treasury of Merit, Geshe Kelsang explains:

Transference of consciousness was taught by Buddha in both the Sutras and the Tantras. According to the Sutras, transference is accomplished primarily through the power of aspiration, while according to the Tantras it is accomplished primarily through the power of controlling the winds. Tantric practitioners who can dissolve their winds into the central channel through meditation can eject their consciousness and take rebirth in a Pure Land through their own power. 

A Pure Land is a place or an experience beyond suffering. We have the potential or seeds for both heaven and hell, as it were. Which comes to fruition depends on which seeds we cultivate and water.

According to Buddhism, the “Pure Land” is the experience of a purified mind, whereas “samsara” is the experience of an impure mind that is still contaminated by the inner poison of delusions. Here is a short description taken from Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully:

In a Buddha’s Pure Land everything is pure; there are no sufferings, no contaminated environments, and no impure enjoyments. Beings born there are free from sickness, ageing, poverty, war, harm from fire, water, earth, and wind, and so forth. They have the ability to control their death and rebirth, and they experience physical and mental suppleness throughout their life. Just being there naturally gives rise to a deep experience of bliss.

LMDJThe Pure Land could be considered similar to the Christian idea of heaven (or other religions’ idea of paradise), but in Buddhism a Pure Land is the experience of a pure mind — there is no external creator who rewards us with it (or who, alternatively, can send us to hell.)

The mind is the creator of all. To attain a Pure Land primarily involves purifying and mastering our own thoughts. Faith (mixing with the pure minds of holy beings) and positive karmic potentials also play a part in helping us reach the Pure Land.

As does doing Powa for people who have died, which is a very powerful spiritual practice. I share some of my first-hand experience with it in this article. You can read all the details of how to do it in Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully. Many Kadampa Centers around the world also offer it once a month.

Denis’s Powa

The room was packed with 120 people — Sangha friends, his daughter, his brothers, his ex-wife, other family, clients, and a lot of Veterans. Most people in the room had never set foot in a Buddhist Center, some had no clue that Denis was a Buddhist. His family and friends packed the sitting room before Powa started, watching videos of him and crying. After the Powa, the atmosphere was very different. Many family members thanked us and said they felt real peace, a peace they were not expecting. His daughter said she felt huge relief and could start to move forward. People said they deeply appreciated being part of the ceremony, doing something so active to send him off.

chink of light

These are some of the things I said at Denis’s Powa:

“We are all here because we love Denis. We also know his good qualities. We want to help give him what he so yearned for, which is freedom, finally, from his pain.

Buddhism and other religions explain how the person is not their body. There is a lot more to Denis than his body. His formless mind, or awareness, continues now, past death; and so now through our connection we will help him, act as a bridge between him and the holy enlightened beings, however you envisage them, and especially the Buddha of Compassion.

Denis asked for this Powa and he had faith in it. He did it for many people himself, including his dog.

Denis had a lot of faith in the Three Jewels and a lot of love for his family and friends. From a Buddhist perspective we would say that he was not in his right mind last Friday and his uncontrolled, unpeaceful thoughts, or delusions, got the upper hand over his pure and kind nature. But the actual Denis is not these inner demons who tormented him — he was their victim. We are all very sad about this, but we can channel this sadness into compassion, sending him to a Pure Land where his body no longer hurts and these inner demons can harm him no longer.

Denis led a very caring life, creating huge good karma and many connections with us and with enlightened beings, so there is no doubt we can help him. Venerable Geshe Kelsang, Denis’s spiritual teacher, wrote to say he had done Powa for Denis and was praying. We all have love and compassion for him, and so now all we need is some openness or faith, and some concentration on the words and meditations. I will guide it a bit.”

What else can we do?

 “What do we do with the information that those whose lives we admire cannot bear to live … What hope is there for the rest of us?” ~ Time magazine, reporting on the celebrity suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade 

Perhaps we can develop more compassion for each other, both the people we know personally and the ones we don’t.

be kindRather than feeling envious, competitive, or annoyed when we see the lives of people more rich, famous, or powerful, here is an insight from Time magazine:

There’s also a case to be made for having more compassion. If people’s lives aren’t as amazingly blissful as they appear, perhaps people are not as evil or stupid as they appear, either.

I need to pay more attention to the people close to me who may be silently suffering. Not assume they are okay. Not neglect people for years on end. It doesn’t take much to reach out in genuine interest.

Correspondence with a friend

I would like to conclude these articles on suicide with emails I had with a friend whose husband of nearly 40 years killed himself in 2010. At the time she told me this correspondence helped her a great deal, so I repeat some of it here in case it might help other people too.

After she first told me M had committed suicide, I replied:

“You are strong, but I can only imagine how hard this is. It surely is one of the largest challenges we can face in a life full of challenges — having to let go so completely and utterly of our person whom we love very deeply, knowing there is nothing we can do to control or change his own path and karma, however much we want(ed) to. All we can do is to love him unconditionally forever, wherever he is, staying connected. And it helps to love and connect more closely with those who are still here, your beloved children, your friends. We can always ask holy beings for help, and prayer works very well when we are so close to someone.

If there is anything I can do, I will do it, please let me know. Meanwhile, I am going to continue to make many prayers for M so that he is protected and pain-free and takes rebirth in a Pure Land. I am also praying for you and your children to find all the support and inner resources you need to get through this time.”

A few weeks later she sent this:

birds flying image.png

In Geshe-la’s books, where do you think I could find some words to help me with my attachment to M … wanting him back on earth …. Can you give me guidance to passages that could ease my pain?

I replied:

I think that mourning is the process of letting go of our attachment and loneliness and being left with the love and feeling of being alive again. Everyone has to move through this when they suffer a great loss, but you can help this process along and even get something valuable out of it.

Almost any teaching would help as it will give you a bigger perspective and so diminish the pain. Sometimes when I am in pain I just pick up any of Geshe Kelsang’s books to a random page and see what happens, and the medicine always seems to help.

However, the Lojong or mind-training teachings are often the most helpful of all in combating severe pain because that is what they are designed for, to enable us to transform any adverse conditions, however desperate – Eight Steps to Happiness and Universal Compassion. Suffering doesn’t have to end up being bad. Understanding that in itself can lead to a certain mental freedom. My favorite Geshe-la quote for dealing with suffering is in Universal Compassion:

Moreover, suffering has many good qualities.
Through experiencing it, we can dispel pride,
Develop compassion for those trapped in samsara,
Abandon non-virtue, and delight in virtue.

Tara prayerDon’t underestimate the power of prayer, “wish paths”. Through prayer you’ll get blessings and your mind will be lifted. There are many stories documenting how radical blessings can be in helping us. As you know, a Buddha is someone who has overcome all distorted perceptions (mistaken appearances) permanently and has the power to help each and every living being find mental peace every day by blessing their minds.

Please ask the holy beings for help, they want to help you, they are waiting to. Tara for example. From the depths of your heart ask Tara to help you by taking refuge and reciting her mantra OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SOHA. When we are feeling sad and vulnerable, we understand our existential situation and can go for deeper refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and our spiritual friends; and as a result we experience more blessings than usual.

Personally as well I like to do the equanimity meditation (eg, taught in Joyful Path of Good Fortune and The New Meditation Handbook) when I find myself finally parted from someone I love. I find it broadens my mind and scope of interest so that, in the words of that song, “if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one(s) you’re with.” Everyone is a suitable object of our love and you have been as close to everyone as you are to M. You can use your great love for him as an example to help you increase your love for others, and that love then becomes truly transformative. Imagine if you loved and wanted to protect everyone as much as you love and want to protect M. You have a lot of love in you already.

Over to you. I have been really appreciating your comments, stories, and other feedback on previous suicide articles, so please feel invited to contribute anything that might be helpful to yourself or other readers. Thank you.

Further reading

A Buddhist perspective on suicide

Reaching out

A first-hand experience of transference of consciousness

What is a Pure Land? 

A brother’s suicide

This too shall pass

 

 

 

This too shall pass

Our guest author is a single parent and a professional based in London, UK.

this too shall pass

When my husband and I first met we had a lot in common — mutual friends, common interests, same sense of humour, we laughed all the time at the silliest of things — but I clearly remember the moment when we really connected, like I had never connected with anyone before. It was when we both admitted that we had often in our lives seriously contemplated suicide.

If any of our mutual friends had been present at that conversation they would undoubtedly have been deeply shocked, as externally neither he nor I showed any signs of having such thoughts. It was at this point that our relationship moved on to a much more committed level, as though we had shared our darkest secret and still been accepted by the other. Not long afterwards we were married, and soon there was a baby on the way.

You see we were not without hope, we still thought we could ‘get it right’; but at times we just couldn’t work out what the purpose was in life and why we couldn’t make life turn out the way we wanted. I think we both had a sense that we were somehow ‘owed’ happiness but someone ‘up there’ didn’t seem to have got that memo; instead our lives had been complicated and painful, very painful.

When we married, the UK was in the middle of the economic crisis of the late 80s. As mortgage rates soared, my husband’s business disintegrated and finally collapsed, and we faced a mountain of debts as well as the understanding we would have to move out of our lovely home. One night, having gone to bed before my husband after what I thought had been a positive discussion of plans for our future, I was woken by a continuous ringing on our doorbell.

The two policemen informed me that my husband had been killed by a train — a train that he was kneeling in front of as it came around the corner. Our daughter was seventeen months old.

crunkled manThis story is shocking I know, but not unusual. All those statistics about suicide are about people like you and me. All those deaths devastate the lives of the people left behind, people like you and me.

I thought I had known pain before, but it was nothing like this — so powerful that my mind would turn to stone to protect me, or I would find myself gasping for breath, feeling that the pain would, in fact, kill me.

Everything changes

The recovery was very long, many years, with good times when everyone thought I was ‘over it’, followed by deep, dark troughs of grief and confusion. But significant things happened along the way. The first came two weeks after his death when I took my daughter to the park on a beautiful, sunny, spring morning. She laughed, the sun shone, the crocus bulbs bloomed, and I realised he would never see any of these things again: no changes in the seasons, no child growing into the beautiful young woman she is now, no opportunity for the sadness and confusion to heal and happiness to arise again.

In that moment I realised that ‘everything changes’ and that, no matter how terrible things may seem, they will change. ‘This too shall pass.’ In that moment I decided that no matter how bad things seemed I would stay for my daughter, that I no longer had the choice my husband had taken, that she needed me and I would live my life for her. crocuses in snow

People would say to me, ‘It must be so much harder for you with a child to look after,’ and I would think, ‘She is what keeps me putting one foot in front of the other.’ This is how compassion and love work. By thinking of her and wanting her to be happy, by wanting to protect her, I was no longer paralysed by my grief. My love for her took me away from my pain.

Wherever you go, there you are

I am sorry if the next few paragraphs are a bit ‘out there’ for some of you. I am in general a very practical Dharma practitioner, not ‘airy fairy’. I believe Buddha’s teachings are scientific; if you create the causes the effects will happen, and Buddha teaches us how to create the best possible effects. However, the following ‘out there’ things did happen, and I am telling you about them in the hope it will help others.

A couple of years after my husband died I was fortunate enough to be offered a teaching job in the Bahamas (I know!). Such idyllic conditions for myself and my daughter, good friends, great job, beautiful beaches with white sand and sapphire seas, and an incredible social life with millionaires and rock stars. And yet one day I found myself sitting on a beach feeling the familiar crushing sense of despair. I just couldn’t find what I was looking for. Apart from the joy of my daughter, I could not find a happiness that wasn’t superficial and short lived; everything led me back to pain.

BahamasI was sitting on the silky, white sand, looking at the jewel-like sea, knowing I couldn’t die but not knowing how I could find the energy, or wish, to go on. Then, as clearly as if the person was standing right over me, I heard:

‘I will always take care of you.’

I quickly turned but there was no one there. I even stood up to look all around — no one. I just knew in my heart that what they said was true, that I would be alright; and I went home and booked us on a flight back to England.

A reunion

Over the coming years I found myself moving quite a lot and not finding what I was looking for – difference being that I now had a sense that there was something to look for. I wanted to find the source of the voice. I ended up in Brighton, and in the local paper I saw a photo of the teacher at the newly opened Bodhisattva Centre. I knew nothing about Buddhism, but immediately had an overwhelming sense that I knew this teacher very well, that I loved him dearly. It was like finding a long-lost brother. I had to go to the class. The feeling of knowing him never left me but, out of shyness, I never spoke to him. It seems like he was one of the lamps to the path.

Bodhisattva Centre
Bodhisattva Centre, Brighton

I loved the statues in the Centre, the prayers, but I particularly loved the practical nature of the teachings. To be told that samsara was the nature of suffering but that a spiritual path could take us out of it was such a relief for me. After attending classes for a few years, I was persuaded to attend the Festival in Portugal for Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s last teachings. The best two weeks of my life, I spent most of it crying with joy. I was home.

A protector

While I was there I noticed a young mum with a little girl in the video link tent who seemed to be without help, so I offered to look after the child the next day so that she could go into the temple itself. The girl slept as I held her and, looking down at her, she seemed just the same as my daughter in the weeks after my husband’s death. The same warmth against my skin, the same weight in my arms, the same peaceful sleeping expression and soft curling hair — it was beautiful and painful at the same time.

Later I paused under an ancient tree in the park next to the temple, and the moment I sat and my hand touched the root of the tree, the last years of my life played across my mind like a film. The death, my daughter, the recovery, the beach, the voice, Bodhisattva Centre … all the way through to me sitting under the tree, next to the temple where Venerable Geshe-la was teaching. Then I knew, as clear as day, that Venerable Geshe-la was the source of that voice. He had been guiding me all the way along, gently and imperceptibly leading me to this moment, to this temple, back to him.

i will always be with youSomeone told me not long ago that when their girlfriend met Geshe-la for the first time, he took her hand and told her, ‘I have been taking care of you since you were a little girl.’

‘Yes,’ I thought when I heard that, ‘he was.’ He was looking after her, and me, and indeed all the people who end up meeting him through his centres, books, disciples, and so on. So that even when we thought we were alone and isolated in our suffering, he was blessing us and drawing us closer.

The way out

Now, through meeting him, I understand that in samsara no one is owed happiness and the only happiness we experience is temporary. That instead of seeking death what I was really seeking was renunciation, the desire to get out of samsara channelled in the right direction.

I pray often that people who are having suicidal thoughts and fantasies should come to know renunciation. They are correct that this contaminated life is the nature of suffering, that their own and other people’s suffering is sometimes too painful to bear. travel path to liberationIt’s just that the solution they think they have found is no solution. The escape from the suffering is not death – it is seeking permanent mental freedom for ourselves and others through liberation and enlightenment.

If you are suffering today, please remember that no matter how bad it appears to be now, everything changes. ‘This too shall pass.’ Remember that you are always being taken care of by spiritual guides such as Venerable Geshe-la — he is praying for us and our families. Remember that you will always find the solution if you go for refuge to the Three Jewels.

A request

I would be grateful if after reading this you would turn your thoughts and prayers to those affected by suicide.

I pray that my husband and all those who take their own life find the everlasting peace of enlightenment. May everyone be happy. May everyone be free from misery.

(Editor’s note: September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month).

Comments welcome.

Related articles

A Buddhist perspective on suicide

Reaching out — more Buddhist thoughts on suicide

Do you really want freedom? 

 

Reaching out ~ more Buddhist thoughts on suicide

8.5 mins read

When it comes to suicide, one of the best things we could probably do is reach out – those considering it and the rest of us too.

Carrying on from this article on suicide.

help i want to dieClearly fame, money, and the rest of it is not enough to keep the demons at bay. If we are not in control of our thoughts, they will control us. Judging by the number of articles about them, the recent celebrity suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade have been a bit of a wake-up call. Time magazine describes it as:

A one-two punch to our belief that there are some people who are living the perfect life.

The article describes their lives and achievements and then asks, “What more could a person want?”

Inner peace.

Without inner peace, we have no real happiness OR safety, whoever or wherever we are. Fame, fortune, relationships, and everything else outside the mind are causes of changing suffering, not causes of real happiness. As Time magazine puts it:

Many lives are not as they appear. Happiness is not the end result of a sum of accomplishments. The people whose wealth/wardrobe/job/talent we wish we had have their own struggles.

Thought experiment

inner peace outer peaceImagine having everything and everyone you’ve ever wanted and worked for and dreamed of. You made it!

Now, are you happy?!

……

Maybe, for a minute, until something upsets us, or we still feel we haven’t got it all, or we wonder why on earth this isn’t working. As Bourdain put it at the end of one show:

What do you do after your dreams come true?

According to this article in USA Today:

In an interview this year, the comedian and actor Jim Carrey talked about “getting to the place where you have everything everybody has ever desired and realizing you are still unhappy. And that you can still be unhappy is a shock when you have accomplished everything you ever dreamed of and more.”

As it says in How to Transform Your Life:

External conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful. We can understand this from our own experience. For instance, even if we are in the most beautiful surroundings and have everything we need, the moment we get angry any happiness we may have disappears. This is because anger has destroyed our inner peace.

Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain had everything many of us can only dream of:

Yet these two could not bear to live their lives any longer. ~ Time

Depression

chink of lightTalking of anger, going so far as to inflict such painful violence on ourselves must involve some anger. Anger directed outward — or perhaps more inward, as depression or self-loathing.

A couple of friends lately have told me that during times when they felt very depressed, the darkness that took over seemed impossible. Even getting out of bed felt like having to climb a mountain. There was no chink of light. Feeling trapped in their own minds, by their own minds, they only didn’t take their own lives because they understood that death is not the end of suffering, that it simply brings new sufferings. They knew that they would still be trapped in their minds where all the pain was really coming from.

However, they also found that by not going that route, a chink of light did have an opportunity to emerge. Hope reappeared and the clouds gradually parted. Now their lives feel very meaningful and blessed. They are both beyond grateful that they didn’t kill themselves.

Reach out

People need to find the refuge of inner peace and the refuge of love that overcomes loneliness, for nothing external can take away that ache, at least not for long. People need wisdom and compassion. People need some kind of Dharma.

If this master storyteller left us a lesson, it is this: You are not truly alone. People care about you more than you realize. Please don’t leave us. Reach out. ~ William Falk in The Week 

Anthony BourdainPeople were astonished to hear that Anthony Bourdain, that great lover of life we thought he was, had taken his own life. He was not alone, everyone loved him, he apparently knew that in his wiser and happier moments. But not when under the influence of the deceptive demon of self-cherishing telling him that he was alone, that no one truly cared.

Bourdain once noted that although he had “the best job in the world,” he often woke up in hotels far from the people he loved. “The truth is,” he said, “I’m alone for most of that time.”

USA Today suggests “community and family bonds have broken down, as people work endless hours in pursuit of material success and numb their loneliness with drugs, alcohol, TV, and the internet. The shallow interactions of social media do not fulfill our yearning for connection.”

Small talk

While I agree with this in general, I have had some deep conversations on Facebook and shallow conversations in person. We cannot blame the medium for our shallowness or lack of connection – I think it is more about where our interests lie and how deeply we are prepared to think.

small talkSometimes the people I talk with seem entirely uninterested in the real questions of life, even though they affect us all equally, including IMHO:

“Who am I? Where do I come from? Where are we all headed? What happens to me when I die, which will be in a few hundred months, at most? What are the real causes of this suffering we are all experiencing, including all that outrageous ageing and sickness, and how can we get rid of it permanently, especially as politics as usual is never going to be enough? Etc.”

I know the value of small talk, especially if we are genuinely interested in the other person. But if all we ever talk about is the weather, or the job, or where we’re going on vacation, or who has to be voted off Love Island, etc, I confess to finding it a little frustrating and tiring, to be honest, because people are ignoring the elephant in the room and yet that elephant is trampling all over their lives. Finding ways to communicate more meaningfully and with less inhibition seems invaluable if we are to genuinely help ourselves and others. What do you think?

Love is the great protector

We need love. Love cures loneliness. And I am not talking about self-involved attachment for just one person or a few people, but open-love is the great protectorhearted love for everyone we meet, a growing affection and concern for everyone we think about. This positive mind is based on reality and will keep us happy and free from danger.

This month I was walking down a pretty steep hill in Archway, London, when I saw an old woman, bent almost double, slowly walking the other way. She paused to pick up a piece of rubbish and carried it to the next bin. Then as we passed, she looked up and gave me what I can only describe as a radiant smile, accompanied by a cheery Good Morning! Then she carried on up the hill.

A day later I was walking down the same hill at a different time. Once again this old lady hobbled past me, looked up, and said good morning. She was smiling not just from her mouth but from her eyes, and I felt the affection coming off her.

She must be in pain to be bent over like that, her arthritis not only hurting her back and shoulders but crushing her internal organs. Yet she seems happy to be alive, happy to smile at strangers. I don’t know her full story, of course, but it seems she has at least some ability to transform suffering through love.

Buddha calls love “the great Protector.” As Falk puts it, beautifully I find:

At the heart of human experience is a paradox: We are each trapped inside the boundaries of our flesh, alone with our histories, our wounds, our brokenness. Yet our isolation is an illusion — a constriction of perception. All the great spiritual traditions teach the same truth: We are connected in a fundamental way to everyone and to everything. 

How can we help?

Someone who works with suicide victims wrote an interesting comment on the first article about suicide, and I quote a bit here:

While there are many people more qualified than me to discuss the determinants of suicide, a common thread I see seems to be a patient’s strong belief in their separateness; and so while I can’t necessarily help all beings yet, I can be kind. I can choose to extend myself a little further in my conversation with others to give them time and space to be heard. I can cultivate a genuine interest in their experience so that the possibility of connection can begin to outweigh that of separateness; so that the possibility of relationship can become more appealing than that of severance. I certainly pray for this.

Kate SpadeWe need to be alert, to look a bit more deeply, to remember that:

Outward impressions of people’s lives are often wildly off-base. ~ Time

Back to my thoughts on Denis at the time … 

Our friends in retrospect are saying “If only we could go back 24 hours and find him!” But we can’t. There are many things we want to say to him, but we can’t. We will do the Powa he requested, obviously, we would have done it even if he hadn’t requested — we will do our best to get him to the Pure Land, but his self-cherishing has not made it easy. It is lucky he has made friends in high places. Venerable Geshe-la said he was doing prayers and Powa for him. Denis did create a lot of good karma, so there is something there for the Buddhas to work with.

This may be what the Buddhas think about us — we will do our best to help you, but your self-cherishing does not make it easy. Still, they never give up and this has strengthened my determination to never give up as well. I really appreciate this precious human life right now, and what we can do with it, including the transcendence of all suffering. Right now, at least, I don’t want to waste another day.

One more article coming up about ways to cope with others’ suicides, including doing transference of consciousness (Powa).

Over to you. There were some great comments on the first article, and I value any more comments, stories, or other feedback that might be helpful to other readers. Thank you.

Related articles

A brother’s suicide  

Happiness from the inside out 

Feeling lonely? 

What can we really know about anyone? 

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

A brother’s suicide ~ guest article by a Buddhist nun

I want to explore over a couple of articles what Buddhists think about suicide. A friend of mine has kindly shared her story.

My brother was 19 when he killed himself.

When someone commits suicide, it feels like an angry act; and those left behind feel this anger. This can be very confusing because often the person who kills themselves was not that way in their life, and frequently they were quite the opposite. We also feel guilty because we get angry at them for leaving us, and it is easy to feel like they somehow did it to hurt us.suicide-of-brother

These feelings are so overwhelming for the survivors and yet, even today, people rarely deal with the anger parts of suicide. Many times there is no indication that someone is thinking of suicide except for a chronic subtle sadness or a lack of much happiness despite having good conditions. It ends up to be such a confusing time. Even nowadays people move away from the uncomfortable arena of suicide, meaning that those left behind can begin to feel that the event is somehow a reflection of them. No one wants to visit the bereaved for fear they will have to talk about “it” and they won’t know what to say. The survivors end up alone, confused, and, often, subconsciously blaming each other because they don’t know what else to blame.

My own parents ultimately divorced after years of this — they lost their faith in the church that they had both served their entire lives because suicide was seen as a horrible act, a sin. The neighborhood in which I was raised also experienced a lot of emotional trauma after this event, which happened in 1971 when suicide was very rare, especially in young people. Plus, as they say, my brother had “everything going for him”. Recently I heard, suicide is now the 3rd leading cause of death in young males aged 15 to 25. A recent New York Times editorial stated that 60% of gun related deaths (30,000/year) in this country are suicides.

healingNo one has an answer that really helps except Buddha, in my experience.

In hindsight, I was only able to cope with my own loss by caring for others as a nurse. Unknowingly, nursing became my own healing practice; and now I understand through Dharma that not focusing on my own loss and, instead, helping others was a powerful step in my own recovery from grief. I believe my Spiritual Guide, Geshe Kelsang, emanated all of it for me until I could meet him again.

After 15 years of therapy and searching for an answer, I met Kadam Dharma through a powerful Kadampa teacher and Buddhist nun. In my first meeting with her, which was very soon after I started attending a General Program class, naturally one of my first questions was: “What does Buddha say about suicide?” This was a major test, and her answer would determine whether I would stay or go.

She was honest and loving, and so comfortable talking about this topic, which was very different from any of my previous experiences. I wanted to know if my brother was being punished for his action, because I did not believe that someone who despairingly took their own life could be punished by a loving Deity … if there was one. He was my “everything” and I just buddhaavalokiteshvaracouldn’t believe that, if he was sad enough to take his own life, he would then be punished after death as well. I left my early religion because of this contradiction. I also wanted to know why I felt so much anger from his action because he was not like that … and why I felt afraid at times of the intense anger surrounding the event. Suicide is never a gentle death.

Basically, what I remember her saying was that Buddha doesn’t punish anybody! That was a winner. Secondly, she said people take their lives due to delusions (negative uncontrolled thoughts and feelings) in their heart, which make them believe that they will never be happy. This is so hard to bear that they naturally experience anger, and that anger turns inward and they kill themselves to stop the pain and sadness. They do this believing that death will end their suffering, just as when you go to sleep and all your problems disappear.

So then I asked her, is he in hell then? She replied that killing is a negative action in Buddhism as well, and it does have karmic consequences. However, my brother obviously had so much inner pain and struggle that he was unable to see any other solution, and Buddhas understand that pain and always have compassion for us when our delusions are stronger than we are.

And then she told me that even though he had passed away many years before, I could do a special practice for him, called “powa” or “transference of consciousness”, which would ensure that he would take a Pure Land rebirth either now or in the future.

It was an amazing day for me, and as my understanding of Dharma has grown, so too has my understanding of my brother’s death. The horrible nightmares left shortly after I met Dharma and talked with my kind teacher.

Now when I talk with others who have lost loved ones to suicide, what I always like to share is that 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. Now, whenever I remember my brother, instead of pain I just feel love.

Thank you, Geshe-la.

Preparing for something?!

Recently two of my old friends lost their beloved husbands to unexpected death. One was a suicide and the other a murder.

These were both very loving partnerships, lasting decades. Both these women have responded to violent loss by seeking refuge in their spiritual practice.

While on retreat, J called her husband at about 2pm each day. This day he didn’t pick up. After 20 minutes of redialing: “I had a hunch that something was dreadfully wrong.”  Driving to his store, she was crying all the way. She found him unconscious, and two days later his life support was turned off. Her husband was a wonderful person, always giving things away in his store, always a kind word for everyone. One of his customers recalled on TV:

“He was just one of the sweetest guys you ever want to meet.  He didn’t deserve this.”

J said to me:

“I collapse on the floor with the pain sometimes. However, if it wasn’t for Dharma, I would have to be hospitalized for grief.”

Interviews of her on local TV show her deeply sad but full of grace, unwilling to condemn the attacker despite the reporter’s leading questions. (The 33-year-old attacker battered J’s husband in a robbery of his antique store, enraged that he had sold his pawned silver coins. The cell phone that J’s husband never picked up was found discarded, along with his wallet, on the road). J said on TV that she was overwhelmed by the kindness that her community had shown her and her family, and felt immense gratitude to friends and strangers.  She told me that she surprised herself by feeling no anger toward the attacker due to her practice of compassion, and for this she was also very grateful. She is taking refuge in her spiritual community and in her meditations, and intends to spend the rest of her life seeking deeper spiritual meanings.

S understands impermanence and the opportunity she now has to increase her empathy and love for everyone, but missing her partner of 46 years hurts like hell:

“In Geshe-la’s books, where do you think I could find some words to help me with my attachment to M……… wanting him back on earth….. I just cannot believe I will not see him again.”

“I have been trying to get a grip on this experience of a broken heart as a gift towards greater compassion. But, you know L,………I just miss M… The younger generation is independent and know how to live their lives self sufficiently……I had been with M for 46 years……I have been part of a team! This is very challenging for me…….”

These women are having strident wake up calls. Not ones anyone would choose, naturally, but we rarely choose our wake up calls; that is why they have the power to wake us up. Hitting the snooze button doesn’t work when we’re in so much pain; we simply cannot distract ourselves with meaningless things as we typically do when we have problems. We have to face the big questions in life because they are staring us in the face. But by facing them and by finding answers, we can gain acceptance, understanding and a growing peace of mind. In this way, we live our fullest lives.

Every day is a challenge for S and J right now, but they are strong. S said this week:

“Spending at least part of the day reading & meditating about this life of ours. Forgiveness is what I am working on a lot………for M & for myself …………just knowing this was his path and had nothing to do with me……is a relief……. Realizing there is nothing permanent here ………… so many things I have learned over the years are now being tested for real……. and I am getting through it all pretty well………  I am working on being happy in this situation because this is what is right now……..”

Please pray for S, J, their husbands and their children.

So often a close encounter with death leads to transformation. At the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, there was a young woman called Kisigotami. She lived a regular life pursuing ordinary ambitions, not particularly interested in spiritual practice. She had a baby, but the baby fell ill and died before its first birthday.

Life of Buddha Play at KMC Manjushri 2009

Clutching the little body in her arms, she took to the streets, begging anyone she met to help bring her baby back to life. One passer-by eventually pointed her in the direction of Buddha.

Buddha told her that there was only one thing she could do to heal her pain, and that was to bring him back a mustard seed from a house in the village that had never known death.

She excitedly knocked on the first door. “I’m sorry. My brother died recently.” At the second door, “We have known many deaths in this family.” At the third, “We are no strangers to death in this house.”

And on it went. She was struck with the realization of death and impermanence, that no one lives forever, that death is part of life. She bid farewell to her child and returned to Buddha empty-handed.

“Did you bring me the mustard seed?” Buddha asked her. She shook her head, and explained how grief had blinded her to the fact that she was not alone in experiencing the reality of death, but that she was now ready to receive spiritual teachings. She wanted to know what death is, what happens at death, what happens after death. She went onto become a great spiritual adept.

No matter how much we deny death, like everyone else we will find ourselves staring it in the face soon enough. Others’ deaths, and our own. It is amazing how little we talk about death in any meaningful way in our modern society — it is taboo, it  is considered morbid, as if talking about it will somehow make it more likely. This leaves us searching for words and meaning when it happens to our friends and loved ones, and utterly unable to cope when we have to face it in ourselves.

Life and death are two ends of the same tunnel. They are parts of the same continuum. If we don’t accept this and learn to live our lives in accordance with this truth, we will experience fear, pain and confusion as the exit looms. If we do accept it, we find like Kisigotami, and so many spiritual practitioners since, that life takes on a deeper meaning. Therein lies a deeper humility, sense of purpose, love, transcendent wisdom and joy. This life is very precious. Others’ lives are precious. If we don’t feel that way, it is probably because we rarely think about how soon we all have to leave.

Death is not the end, it is the opening of a new chapter, one that we are writing today with our thoughts and actions. Every day we prepare for many things. We prepare to get out of bed, we prepare our breakfast, we prepare for school, we prepare for work, we prepare what we’ll do that evening, we prepare to pick up the kids, we prepare how we’ll proceed in our careers, we prepare to meet someone, we prepare ways to earn money, we prepare what to plant in our gardens, we prepare replies for those who’ve offended us, we prepare for our next vacation, we prepare for our retirement, we prepare for bed….

But how many minutes today have we spent preparing for the only future that is certain to occur?