“… I’d been craving on and off, since I was fifteen, for Death to come and take me the way the wind does a dry leaf out on its limb.”1
Suicide is a great tragedy and behind each one is unbearable pain. Tong-len2 practice is about breathing in this pain, and to do that effectively, we need to be fully open to the experience of that pain. On my daily walk to the beach, I tried to imagine how it would appear to a suicidal person. It was a sparkly, windy day. A wild riot of waves threw themselves at the beach. The piercing cold from overnight storms was tempered by a late winter sun. I was exhilarated, but I had not yet imagined being in those other shoes. When I did, the brightness hurt my eyes. The wind was malignant. The waves taunted me endlessly. My walk became a fearful journey. Where were my enemies? That elderly couple walking towards me? Or were they hiding in the runnels of sand, newly created by the storm? Or leaving messages in the tangles of seaweed and driftwood? Everything threatened. And with each threat, the beach became more and more menacing.
I was glad that I was only imagining this overwhelming oppression and fear. I let it go and returned to that initial exhilaration. Merlin danced around and barked at me to play.
Why would anyone want to die?
Mood disorders are terribly painful illnesses, and they are isolating illnesses. And they make people feel terrible about themselves when, in fact, they can be treated. … These are serious illnesses; they kill just as cancer does. They lead to alcohol and drug abuse in many people. They’re devastating, and they’re treatable.3
At one stage of my life I was one of those people. My reason, believe it or not, was altruistic. Since so many other people and creatures enjoyed life, why should I use the water and breathe the air and eat the food that they otherwise might not have available to them? This was long before I discovered Buddhism. I was not craving death. I just could not see any point in being alive. I never got as far as contemplating how I would die, but just that it seemed a worthy and generous gift to others. Fortunately for my children, I decided that it would be unfair for them to be without a mother during their early childhood. I put off the idea and it never really came back.
I knew my life to be a shambles, and I believed – incontestably – that my family, friends, and patients would be better off without me. There wasn’t much of me left anymore, anyway, and I thought my death would free up the wasted energies and well-meant efforts that were being wasted on my behalf.4
Since as Buddhists we believe that all suffering comes from the mind, then the mind is the answer to everything. In the end, this is so. But in the meantime, many people are caught up in the anguish of untreatable physical and mental illnesses that no amount of rational thought will cure. Rational thought only deals with the manifestations – the symptoms – of the disease. Severe depression, as distinct from feeling low, is firmly embedded in our bodies as a dependent-arising.
There was the phase in my life when, like Van Gogh, I would have happily chopped off my right ear and for the same reason, Ménière’s disease. I have had a constant, irritating tinnitus for over 30 years. Like the suicidal thoughts in depression, chopping off one’s ear is a desperate attempt to escape irritating and unremittent pain. By that time, though, I had come across Buddhism. I did not know a lot about it, but what I knew gave me hope. My theme became “work with your mind and your body will take care of itself.” Karma, however, has a big say in what anyone’s body can or cannot do. Karma has given me a few blips in my serotonin pathways. This is called “depression.” But knowing this does not always overcome the lethargy or despair or carping self-criticism. I can, indeed, work with my mind to accept my limitations and apply the principles of thought transformation. When I do, then I am left with the physical effects of mental illness – that same lethargy – but without the despair of self-criticism. Sometimes our medications are the ripening of positive karma, not a condemnation for not dealing with negative karma. Some people need their lithium pills, I need my anti-depressants, type 1 diabetics need their insulin.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche has often been asked for advice about depression. Sometimes he suggests specific prayers and practices for different people. But more generally, he mentions karma as a cause of depression. To one person, he suggested cutting down on sugar and sweets for three months. More importantly, he says:
When depression comes, use it against the ego, the self-cherishing thought, which has given you the depression. Then rejoice, “How wonderful it is to have depression in that it can destroy the ego!” Rather than the ego defeating you, you defeat the ego. Rejoice how it’s wonderful to have depression. It means you have succeeded in the prayers you made in the past to experience all the sufferings of other sentient beings, especially the important one, the depression of all sentient beings.5
This self-cherishing thought, and the underlying self-grasping, is precisely what we are trying to eliminate through our Dharma practice. So if, like me, you experience clinical depression, then coming to understand the depths of the wisdom of emptiness becomes a very poignant activity … and so it should.
Next time you hear about someone committing suicide, please be aware of how intense the pain must be to drive that person to such drastic, irredeemable action. Think about that devastating sense of hopelessness.
And yet, it is, at the end of the day, the individual moments of restlessness, of bleakness, of strong persuasions and maddened enthusiasms, that inform one’s life, change the nature and direction of one’s work, and give final meaning and color to one’s loves and friendships.6
Oh, if only a suicidal person could experience my joy when walking along the beach. Ah, but that is the nitty gritty of tong-len practice. What a wonderful practice. How joyful to share one’s exuberance.
Ven. Chönyi Taylor is a registered Foundational Buddhism FPMT teacher and an elder for the Discovering Buddhism at Home Course. She is the author of Enough! A Buddhist Approach to Working with Addictive Patterns (Snow Lion, 2010) and has been published in Mandala, Buddhadharma, Dharma Vision and Sangha Magazine. She is a founding member and member of the training committee of the Australian Association of Buddhist Counsellors and Psychotherapists and an Honorary Lecturer in the Discipline of Psychiatry at Sydney University.
3. Bello, Grace. “A Conversation With Kay Redfield Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry,” www.theatlantic.com, November 11, 2011.
4. Jamison, Kay Redfield. Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide