Yoga and Buddhist Practices work in terms of complementary opposites. If you want to settle your inhalation, for example, you spend time getting your exhalation very smooth; if you want to find extension in the hamstring muscles, you refine the contraction of the front of the thigh; if you want to find happiness, you serve others. Inside a forward bend is the seed of a backbend; in the midst of anxiety, we look for the calmness of the breath—it’s always there.
Likewise, when we pay attention to the movement toward taking one’s life, we also find the desire to live. This desire to live is expressed in the desire to communicate. The trick is dropping our preconceptions sufficiently to recognize this instinct, this movement toward intimacy. Even as the old tree withers and dies, we can find small emblems of growth. Illness, both mental and physical, often separates the afflicted from the world. Yoga reawakens one’s connection with the whole body and mind and in so doing restores pathways of communication at an inner level that then begin to spread out into the interpersonal world as well. When we are safe in our own bodies, we have a ground from which to step out into the world.
Talking is a way of reaching something not clearly seen, verbally navigating through the fog of uncertainty. The problem with our Western perspective on suicide is that it’s hard to listen when our very deliberate focus is on trying to stop someone from taking his own life, stop the urge toward death, protect ourselves from the legal repercussions of not calling the police. Since we all walk this same winding road toward death, someone else’s desire to die brings up our own core ideas about death, dying, and what it means to live life fully. Suicide in the Judeo-Christian perspective is rejected as sinful. In the early teachings of the Buddha, there are many stories of people like Channa, Vakkali, and Godhika, who took their own lives and were not condemned for it. If there is a cultural view that sees life as continuous in one way or another, especially if there is no god that determines whether someone is born again or not, we have permission to reframe our conceptualization of suicide as sinful. Who are we to judge?
Suicide is an internal drama that needs expression for it to be resolved. Suicide and self-harm must be understood as having meaning within interpersonal and intrapsychic relationships that the person is involved in. Wanting to die means something. What wants to die? The problem with the “I”-making mechanism of the mind (ahaṅkāra) is that it creates stories (asmitā) that objectify itself. The “I” maker is constantly representing itself to itself, splitting the personality into a subject and object. This splits the ahaṅkāra into a storyteller that is telling itself a story by representing itself to itself. The core teachings of Yoga revolve around this case of mistaken identity. Any self-image is an objectification of the ahaṅkāra that serves to split the personality. If we understand the ahaṅkāra in this way, we can see that when one tells a story about oneself to oneself, one creates several selves. The ego can objectify itself. The task for the yogi is to pay attention to life in ways that continually undercut our craving to have a fixed point of view. All sorts of things happen in our lives, tragedies and miracles together. We lose what we love and are continually separated from what we want. This is the way life goes. But this careful attention to the way our lives truly happen does not always go along with the therapeutic intention to “help life go on,” “contract for safety,” or “provide ego support.”
A focus on the absurd, the messy, the tragic, and the shameful parts of us is what’s truly needed to open to our lives. With the help of a therapist, we can open to what we feel without fear. The key is being able to open to what we really feel, not just what we are allowed to feel either by our own internal judge or the unexamined assumptions in the medical stance of the clinician. Focusing on the body without searching for a way out can sometimes open up astonishing meaning within very old habits. We may even learn that the voice from the part of us that wants to die is exactly the same as the part of us that wants to come out into the world. The one who wants to die may really want to live after all. The “cry for help” is really a gesture to go through life with deep meaning and resolve. Wanting to die stands neither for life nor for death but for a deep experience of both of these opposites. To live is to allow for fixed views to die. To die is to be generous in our living.
(In Part 2, I will look at practical ways for working with the energies in us and in others that want to die.)
This is an excerpt from “Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga & Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life” by Michael Stone (Shambhala Publications, June 2011)
MICHAEL STONE is a respected Buddhist teacher who draws on his background as a psychotherapist, yoga teacher, author and activist to bring the practice of mindfulness into conversation with contemporary culture. He developed the acclaimed Leading Edge Mindfulness for Clinicians Course in Toronto and has educated over one thousand medical professionals about the intersection of mindfulness and clinical practice. Michael has the distinction of being the youngest Buddhist teacher in Canada and maintains a busy travel schedule, teaching workshops and retreats throughout North America and Europe. He is the founder of Centre of Gravity: a thriving community of yoga and Buddhist practitioners exploring the convergence of traditional contemplative practices and modern urban life. He makes his home in downtown Toronto.