How meditating in a tiny Iowa town helped me recover from war

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Supriya Venkatesan, Washington Post: At 19, I enlisted in the U.S. Army and was deployed to Iraq. I spent 15 months there — eight at the U.S. Embassy, where I supported the communications for top generals. I understand that decisions at that level are complex and layered, but for me, as an observer, some of those actions left my conscience uneasy.

To counteract my guilt, I volunteered as a medic on my sole day off at Ibn Sina Hospital, the largest combat hospital in Iraq. There I helped wounded Iraqi civilians heal or transition into the afterlife. But I still felt lost and disconnected. I was nostalgic for a young adulthood I never had. While other 20-somethings had traditional college trajectories, followed by the hallmarks of first job interviews and early career wins, I had spent six emotionally numbing years doing ruck marches, camping out on mountaintops near the demilitarized zone in South Korea and fighting someone else’s battle in Iraq.

During my deployment, a few soldiers and I were awarded a short resort stay in Kuwait. There, I had a brief but powerful experience in a meditation healing session. I wanted more. So when I returned to the United States at the end of my service, I headed to Iowa.

Forty-eight hours after being discharged from the Army, I arrived on campus at Maharishi University…

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50 years ago this week…

June 11: 50 years ago today, a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc calmly sat down in the middle of a street in South Vietnam in front of the Cambodian Embassy, while a fellow monk poured gasoline over his head. A moment later, he set himself on fire.

He was protesting the systemic religious discrimination against Buddhists by the Roman Catholic regime of dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. Although Catholics were very much a minority in the country, they enjoyed majority status and privileges. Buddhists were not allowed to practice their religion in public, serve in the army, and were routinely discriminated against.

[Via Death and Taxes]
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Dalai Lama says Tibetans who commit suicide are not crazy There has been a great deal of sadness among Buddhists over the continued wave of self-immolations by Tibetans protesting repressive Chinese rule. China has blamed these self-immolations on the Dalai Lama whom Beijing claims is a trouble maker. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says this is not true, but that he is concerned about the real reasons behind the self-immolations. On April 12, 2013, the Tibet Sun reported, Tibetans who commit suicide ‘not crazy’: Dalai Lama.

During a visit to Italy this week the Dalai Lama said that Tibetans who have committed suicide in recent weeks were “not crazy” but were taking desperate…

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Tibetan self-immolations rise as China tightens grip

Andrew Jacobs, New York Times: Like many children of Tibetan nomads, Tsering Kyi started school relatively late, at age 10, but by all accounts she made up for lost time by studying with zeal.

“Even when she was out at pasture with her parents’ flock, there was always a book in her hand,” a cousin said.

That passion for learning apparently turned to despair this month when the Maqu County Tibetan Middle School, in Gansu Province near Tibet, switched to Chinese from Tibetan as the language of instruction. The policy shift has incited protests across the high-altitude steppe that is home to five million …

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Dying as a political act: Centuries-old Buddhist tradition of self-immolation continues in China

Peter Goodspeed: On Wednesday, Jamyang Palden, a 39-year-old monk, described as “calm, humble and virtuous,” set himself aflame in Drolma Square in the town of Rongwo in the Chinese province of Qinghai, along the border with Tibet.

He prostrated himself three times beside a Buddhist monastery that was founded in 1301, said a silent prayer, then set himself alight, according to the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet.

In a matter of minutes more than 500 crimson-robed monks and 700 students from nearby schools were swarming over the site of the attempted suicide, chanting prayers for the monk’s soul, shouting political slogans, waving outlawed photographs of the …

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Dalai Lama questions wisdom of self-immolations

BBC News: The Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, says he is very worried about the growing number of monks and nuns setting themselves on fire to protest against Chinese rule in Tibet.

He told the BBC he was not encouraging such actions – saying there was no doubt they required courage, but questioning how effective they were.

There have been 11 cases of self-immolation so far this year.

Most have resulted in death – the latest a 35-year-old nun two weeks ago.

The BBC has obtained graphic footage of the moment she set herself alight, prompting horrified cries from onlookers. Later, Chinese security forces flooded …

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On suicide and the Dharma (part two)

Awake in the World

The following essay is by psychotherapist, Buddhist teacher and Yoga teacher Michael Stone, and is the second of a two-part exploration of suicide, yoga, and Dharma. The essay is excerpted from “Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga & Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life” by Michael Stone (Shambhala Publications, June 2011)

In ideas of suicide, beliefs become dangerously polarized. In fantasies of suicide, the world becomes “outside” and separate from “me.” The world shrinks to the small action of “me” and “my death.” This is a selfish importance that can only be healed through returning back to a lived body, a network of relations, a life filled with meaning that comes through embodied experience, not through more storytelling.

Title: Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga & Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life
Author: Michael Stone
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-814-1
Available from: Shambhala, Kindle Store,, and Kindle Store.

The selfishness of suicide is, however, a small seed of selfhood. By processing the desire to die through staying close to what the patient feels in his or her body, we bring up insight into impermanence, showing us how what we feel is changing. What we desire in one moment becomes something entirely different in the next. The desire to jump gives way to a fantasy of wanting to find a husband, a better job, a more meaningful community. A seed must be closed tightly within itself in order to finally blossom. In this way the body of the therapist and the body of the patient enter despair together. The pain of the patient is fully felt by the therapist, and the patient is thus encouraged to face his or her overwhelming desire for the transcendent, the absolute, the eternal. Our deepest transformations occur when there is no hope, where nothing is left, not even the desire to live. Yet there is only this moment. A death in the future is not engagement with this actual experience now. It’s a projection into the future.

What’s disturbing about this is that the “I” maker” (ahaṅkāra) can be overwhelmed by the selves it has created. Those selves are real, as real as any story we tell. But can we truly listen to these selves in a way that they can express themselves and begin moving toward wholeness again? When we create space for free listening, we make room for free speech. We also make room for a wider spectrum of feelings. When we don’t play the same records over and over, we reroot our openness of body and heart, allowing feelings and thoughts to move through awareness with less clinging. In the chains of words and ideas that come forth when we can hold the space of listening without judgment, the person in pain often has a surprising discovery, a spontaneous new arrival of insight that can only happen in the creative space of held silence.

If we do not believe that the unconscious blocks that repress the expression of feeling can be supported by nonjudgmental listening, then we fall into the violent medical mentality that your symptoms are just functions of the brain. And if everything is a function of the brain, symptoms have no meaningful purpose. We need to rediscover our relation to the power of accompanied silence, of free listening, of self-expression. Again, the wish “to be dead” is a wish to attain peace and security at a time when one feels exactly the opposite. Every year, worldwide, an estimated three-quarters of a million people take their own life, making suicide and attempted suicide subjects we need to explore with much more creativity and interest.

Suicide is an attempt to resolve feelings of being overwhelmed by one’s own image of oneself, or part of oneself. Suicide is an attack on one’s own representation of one’s body as an object. It’s as if the death of the body can help one get rid of intolerable mental states and feelings. Suicide is a cry for help. Paying attention to this cry is practicing pain dharma, friendship dharma, and patience dharma. If we value the subjective experience of the person, can we let go of our fixed personal, cultural, and professional ideas about death and listen to the truth of the inner turmoil of that individual? Bearing witness requires that we put aside our fixed views. In this context bearing witness is experiencing the inner life of another, opening to our own feelings about what’s showing up, eventually leading to compassionate action. The action we take, our moment of authenticity, requires courage, and we may have to bear the results of our courage and action. From the Yoga perspective, as soon as we speak of action, we’re talking about ethics, because action always has a consequence both internally and externally. If the primary motivation for taking action is ahiṃsā—not having the intention to cause harm to body, speech, or mind—how is suicide reconciled as an action?

To acknowledge one’s intention is never simple. This is as true for the person feeling pain as it is for the one helping her. It requires willingness to take responsibility and recognize this ambivalence. I feel traditional therapy is misguided on so many fronts, not the least of which is knowing how to work with the mind. A therapist should not simply identify or recognize patterns but move from knowing about something to actually allowing it to simply be. Going back into the past often misses the functioning of the symptom in the present. The past is past. The past can only be experienced now. The past is what the mind is doing in present experience. A patient exploring suicide is exploring his or her pain in the present, and the past is encoded in the present. The hard work of the therapist is just to listen and explore what is present, not what is past. If it’s not present, it’s not here.As a caricature, psychoanalysis ceases to be a study of identity and becomes instead an exploration of traumatic memories—it becomes, absurdly, an exercise in “proving” causal links between particular traumatic experiences and particular symptoms. This, of course, gives rise to the famous problem of the analyst’s “suggesting” particular memories to the client.

Someone entertaining suicide is not only talking about future death. She is talking about present suffering. She is not describing historical trauma but rather current suffering. Suicide is not only a natural psychic reflex for surviving actual helplessness but is also an abstraction. We don’t know what death will be like, only that something must be able to lift us out of this present and persistent pain. We need theories and abstractions about death, partly because the feelings that come up around suicide are so painful. Our theories and abstractions make the pain more bearable to us. The effect of embracing death and feeling what lies below our fantasies of our own termination brings about, at a critical moment, a radical transformation. The experience of looking deeply into death is a requisite for an engaged life. This implies that the crisis of suicide is a necessary phase in the life of any of us. Suicide itself may be too quick a transformation. The job of Yoga technique is to meditate on what is going on in the felt body in order to slow a hasty charge toward death and anchor us back in life.

Suicide is yelling out: “Life must change; Something must shift; I can’t do this any longer. Having tried to change everything ‘out there,’ the only thing that can now change is inside me.” And so suicide is a quick termination of what is so painful inside. The body, however, can be called in at this crucial junction. Attentiveness to the body dissolves this false dichotomy between inner and outer, me and not me. When we tune in to the breath, we tune in to life here and now. Life here and now is changing, and so there is no fixed self anywhere to be seen. This opens us up to change, freedom, and flexibility. Suicide is an attempt to move from one place to another through force. But force is exactly what got us into this mess to begin with. To force the body, the world, or ourselves into one frame is a kind of violence. Opening to change, through the body, unfixes us and paradoxically grounds us in the flowing conditions of our lives. In the Yoga Vaśiśṭha, there is a wonderful moment during the dialogue between Vaśiśṭha and Rama concerning the way we cause suffering for ourselves where Vaśiśṭha declares: “The mind experiences
what it itself has projected out of itself. By that it is bound.”

A young man who was contemplating suicide came to see me. His sister, who was studying Yoga at our center, recommended that he visit. He was estranged from his family and had nobody to turn to. He showed up early for our first meeting, and his eyes never left mine. He sat forward in his chair and seemed eager to talk about what he was planning. I asked him how he was going to find the pills he needed. He was shocked that I was prepared to talk about death, as he described it,“all the way.”

“Yes,” I said, “I am with you all the way.”

“No,” he demanded, “you can’t be, because all the way is all the way and you won’t be there.”

“But I am here,” I said.

“But that’s not all the way.”

“It is, though, it is all the way,” I said, almost protesting.

“How is it all the way?”

“Well, I am here with you now. I can talk about this with you, plan it, listen to you. I understand. I have felt this pain.”

“You can’t feel what I feel.”

“No, I can’t. I can’t ever feel what you feel. But I know pain, and I know that pain changes. I know that pain is deadly. I know you know that, too.”

“Pain is not deadly, I am deadly.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Pain is pain. Deadly is me. I am dead.”

“If you are dead now, what have you got to lose?”

Suddenly, and out of nowhere, we both smiled. We had each other cornered. But we also had each other. In a way we were arguing about death. And the arguing made us both feel alive. In a sense I was asking him: who does this mad voice inside you belong to? But of course there is no way to answer that question. However, posing the question allowed us to investigate. This person did not take his own life. Six years later he is still in pain, still stressed, but working through his pain by making art and living with a wonderful woman. He wants to be a father. In this heated conversation, the person with whom I was speaking moved from wishing to control the outcome of his life to wishing to communicate with me. This is the real healing factor in any kind of helping work.

Psychiatrists and psychologists often “contract for safety” with suicidal patients; these patients avoid hospitalization based on their assurances that they will contact their clinicians if the inclination to commit suicide overwhelms them. Contracts for safety, or suicide prevention contracts, ask the patient to make a commitment, either verbally or in writing, to avoid self-destructive behavior and to keep the clinician informed of any such suicidal impulses. Such contracts don’t work. The real safety contract is in the quality of our ability to communicate and accept each other. Refusal to sign a no-suicide contract does not necessarily indicate that the patient is in imminent danger of suicide, just as agreement to a contract does not mean that the risk of suicide and self-destructive behavior is lessened. The mental state of a patient is not static. Patients may have inconsistent and complex motivations for agreeing to or refusing a contract.

Suicide moves from being one option to being the option when meaninglessness grows. Suicide is an attractive and logical solution when the pain and suffering that one is experiencing can’t be met in a way that offers relief. Internal hatred must be transfigured into love through communication. This is ahiṃsā in action. Likewise the Buddha said: “Hatred is never quelled by hatred in this world. It is quelled by love. This is an eternal truth.” Especially for the caregiver or friend, seated meditation with concentration on breathing is the primary way to remain centered in the midst of turbulence. Under some conditions we must accept suicide. Skillfully, like the Buddha, we take advantage of each context to wake up. After Channa takes his own life, the Buddha says: “Without reproach was the knife used by the brother Channa.”4 The Buddha is not condoning suicide. He is exonerating Channa. Can we do the same? Can we take each person’s story to heart, one by one by one? Can we hear the pain of our friend who is dying to die? What can we offer? What good is it to blame or introduce anything other than loving action?

The practice of ahiṃsā is not to kill another living creature. But we do this every time we eat or pick our vegetables. Through a longer chain of causality, we do it every time we buy petroleum. One of the ways we take life is by not listening, by shutting down, by imposing our expectation on others. Someone who is in pain needs to be heard. Someone who wants to take her own life and is telling you about it desperately wants to connect, desperately desires intimacy. And you are there, in that moment, as best you can, to offer it. To offer yourself. Sometimes we think we know what a cry means, and sometimes we can’t know. But we can put our bodies right there in the center of suffering and know it fully and mutually.

A therapist rooted in nonharming understands that when someone who wants to die is sitting face-to-face with you, that person is you. The first teachings around nonharm mean that we drop our expectations and favorite ways of doing things, we lay aside our viewpoint and professional obligation, and we serve someone exactly as he or she is. You can’t preset the rules for this. If someone is speaking to us as a therapist or friend or sibling, can we meet them exactly where they are? Can we continually check in with ourselves: what is going on now? If I am distracted, what is my most believed thought? Then we can return to our body and breath and then back to the person with whom we are working. We can’t forget that the fundamental lesson of this yogic path is that difficult and even painful feelings are our opportunity to wake up to a more genuine way of living. This is as true for the person in pain as it is for the clinician or friend. We can always love more and more deeply.

Yogic ethics rely heavily on awareness practice, because if we can’t return to this live moment, we are caught up in our theoretical understanding of the situation or in hope or fear. What is appropriate in one context may not be appropriate in another. Ethics are always a dialogue between our cultural background, our ability to open to present experience, and our individual ethical conscience. It’s amazing how our ethical conscience changes over time. Usually we can bring only a certain percentage of awareness to a situation, and then the unconscious ideals of the culture and our own past conditioning come in as a default position. One of the ways we can bring stable integrity and wisdom to our approach to someone in dire straits is to work with our fear of death. The more we fear death, the more we accrue our basic narcissism. If we are trying to keep someone alive who wants to die, we are closing down the possible expression of some major knot now coming to the surface in that person’s life (and by extension, in our own lives as well). A culture that hides, sanitizes, and represses death and dying is a culture afraid of its own mortality, thus setting up a world where heroic ambition, persona, and competitive self-interest are the most rewarded values. This is imbalanced. The greatest attachment we all have to work through, Patañjali reminds us again and again, is abiniveśa, the fear of letting go of our clinging to the life of I, me, and mine. Our attitude toward death is a central factor in the healing process because it influences the way we perceive life. With someone wanting to die, we don’t know how to talk about death because we don’t want to influence them one way or the other. But my experience is that time and time again, opening up the topic of death allows the person with whom we engaged to speak freely and openly, without expectation.

Chögyam Trungpa says that when we go as far as we can in imagining and talking about death, some real sanity develops.5 It is much healthier to explore the psyche’s ambivalent and twisted desires than it is to clean up the warehouse of the mind so it’s all sanitized and perfect. How we act is in every way influenced by the all-embracing awareness and tenderness we can bring to the unconscious habit energies and turbulence of mind and body. Suicide is not just death’s call. It’s a wake-up call. This is an entirely practical approach. What’s going on right now? What is this person saying? How am I listening? These questions are a matter of value: do we value our ideas that one should live and be healthy or do we most value what is occurring in this very moment?

When we give up our ideas about value, ironically, things become meaningful. In this way, there is no zone of comfort, but there is the marvelous flux of intimacy out of which healing is possible. When we begin to take these teachings seriously—when we look directly at the truth of impermanence, the movement of the gunas (qualities of nature), the stability of awareness, the emptiness of selfimage— we learn that the most practical tool of awakening is giving up the task of looking for certainty. When we place burdens and cultural expectations on others, especially those in need, we are setting a bar that nobody can or should ever live up to. Expectations are the roots of violence.

When we give up our desire to be helpful, to help others to live, even to want life to go on for a young person in need, we can drop right into the unfolding flow of life as it really is. Life as it really is contains both the transcendent and the imminent, both phases of joy and phases of discontent. The moral tragedy of the satifaction-dissatisfaction cycle is that it sometimes makes life feel impossible. When I recently learned that author David Foster Wallace hung himself in the suburban garage in which he wrote, I felt a kind of relief. A tension had been building in me while I explored his work. He struggled so much with a superior intellect and a creative and solipsistic mental life. For reasons we can never know, it became too much for him. He tried. He sought help. He changed his writing styles over and over again—he included lengthy footnotes to deal with his tangential thought process and endless elaborations. Who am I to judge his actions? I miss him here in the community of writers I admire. I also relate to his struggle.

The base or substance of life, like the substratum we call silence, is not a blank nothingness but an interwoven fullness, a brightness, a roaring murmur of activity. In the absence of so much chattering and knowing about this and that, there is no collapsing vacuum. Instead, we begin to see that solutions don’t come from isolating ourselves from the circumstances of our lives and our bodies. Life comes to feel precious not in an individualized way but as some inexplicable part of a larger whole. When we lose sight of how each moment of our lives is a resonant connection with all of life, regardless of whether it is pleasant or painful, we will continually yearn for something else, even finality.

The dharma, friendship, and trusting in the body and breath help free us from being overidentified with our symptoms. There is no security against death. We can imagine the moment of death as a rebirth into new form. Death is both a discontinuity and continuity. The one we love and know discontinues, yet the fluids and flesh return to earth again and begin a new life. At death we do not slip into nothingness—we slip into existence. The waves become the water once again.

For the person who wants to die, the horror is that his demons refuse to die. Madness would be an easier escape, but he is not wired to go mad, he is wired to bear his pain. The sheer weight of these inner demands needs attention, but sometimes the personality is not strong enough or not skilled in knowing how to listen. A third ear is needed: a companion, a mother. The world is the only reality of which we can be sure, but if the world is unbearable, if he can’t bear the pain alone, who are we to judge? Having made the decision to die, he lives his truth by refusing to live in the world. From the perspective of Yoga, his death is impossible. In describing his own suicidal fantasies, poet Jim Harrison writes with rare eloquence and poignancy:

“Beauty takes my courage away this cold autumn evening. My year-old daughter’s red robe hangs from the doorknob shouting Stop.”

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.

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 d maintains a busy travel schedule, teaching workshops and retreats throughout North America and Europe. He is the founder of 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.

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On suicide and the Dharma (part one)

Awake in the World

The following essay is by psychotherapist, Buddhist teacher and Yoga teacher Michael Stone, and is the first of a two-part exploration of suicide, yoga, and Dharma. The essay is excerpted from “Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga & Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life” by Michael Stone (Shambhala Publications, June 2011)

No one ever lacks a good reason for suicide.
—Cesare Pavese

Many of us who have suffered trauma, pain, or existential loneliness have struggled to find stories to make sense of our lives. We might think that we learn how the world works, because we take the time to observe and understand it. But every meditator with a busy mind knows that’s just not so. We just believe things, and then make our world fit our perceptions.

Title: Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga & Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life
Author: Michael Stone
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-814-1
Available from: Shambhala, Kindle Store,, and Kindle Store.

After many years of Yoga study, practice, and teaching, many of the assumptions I’ve held in my work as a psychotherapist have been brought to the surface—often in unsettling ways—through my struggle to integrate Yoga and Western psychology. While Yoga philosophy and Western psychology have much to learn from each other, what interests me is where they don’t quite fit together smoothly. It’s in these gaps between systems that we find fertile ground for exploration. Yogic teachings on the fear of death (abiniveśa) have been very instructive in understanding the way we hold on to narratives about ourselves that reinforce and entrench feelings of alienation and suffering. While this is often readily apparent in others, it is also apparent in my view of others. Psychological diagnoses and pathology, while serving to help me recognize who and what I am working with, also serve to create separation in a space where intimacy is of paramount importance. Trying to be a good therapist or a helpful teacher can actually get in the way of healing. One of my first psychotherapy patients was referred by a friend. He was a young man who was suffering from tremendous physical pain when symptoms from an old car accident reappeared after many years. Around the same time, one of his former boyfriends took his own life. “The two of these situations together,” my colleague wrote to me, “have completely overwhelmed him. He wants to die.” My colleague made an appointment for him to see me because her own psychotherapy practice was full. “I’m not sure exactly what he needs,” my friend told me. “Maybe a combination of listening and some practical tools like meditation so he can learn to accept what he is going through. Or maybe some medication or hospitalization.”

The following Monday, at the time of our scheduled appointment, I waited for him and he never showed up. I left him a message and did not hear back. One month later, I received a call from my friend who had referred him. She told me the man had taken his life. When I got the call I was stunned. I was in my first year of practice, and though I had never met this young man, I had imagined his walk, his face, his hair, his life. A feeling of relief came over me. I tried to distract myself from this strange response, but it surprised me. In the midst of this news, I was imagining that this man had found some relief.

When I was ten years old, our neighbor took her life. All I could do in response to her suicide was to visit “her” bridge every day for a year. After school, I’d ride my bicycle to where I imagined she had jumped, trying to envision what she thought about before she had leaped into the ravine below. I wondered if she noticed the bulrushes and the vast sky, the amazing view of the city or the beauty of the old trestle bridge.

When I was thirteen, I’d sit under the bridge for hours, smoking cigarettes, studying the deteriorating cement columns and rust leaking from the rebar through the cement railing. Three years after her death I continued visiting her last place on earth, her final view, her place of death. I couldn’t let her go. It wasn’t the loss of our distant friendship, my young crush on her, or my desire to see her pink bedroom again. I wanted to know what pushed her into such a singular view. How did she cross from an inner world of pain to the railing of the bridge? What in me held back that desire? What kept me from climbing that same railing?

The American photographer Diane Arbus ingested barbiturates and then cut her wrists with her razor; French painter Jeanne Hébuterne leaped from a third-story window two days after her partner, Modigliani, died of tuberculosis. She was pregnant with their second child. Mark Rothko took his life among his paintings; Spalding Gray, in the circling waters of the Hudson; John Berryman, jumping off a bridge in Minnesota; Anne Sexton, after visiting a hospital; and Virginia Woolf, weighing her pockets with stones and walking into the river near her home. I found this touching passage from Virginia Woolf in a letter to Leonard Woolf:

“I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.”

No metaphor here, no sentimentality, no beating around the bush. She is desperately unhappy but, at the same time, straightforward in her desire to communicate. It’s ironic that the momentum present in our rush to die can also contain the urgency to communicate. It’s not that Woolf’s suicide can be reduced to a lack of interpersonal communication. Seen from the perspective of a whole body-mind matrix, we can instead suggest that the parts that make up the sum of the body-mind/self were not communicating, not intimate, not grounded, felt, and made into words. For someone pressed with visions and hearing voices, the key is using the frame of the body as an anchor to the present moment. Settling the mind not through using more narratives and thoughts but by turning to the body and breath is the key to the real feelings below the strategies of suicide. When we come right down to it, the core of what we feel is below the surface strategies of mind. In fact, the mind obsessed with death is not really that different from the compulsive mind most of us are working with every day. A mind spinning in its own solipsistic networks, cut off from the rhythm and feeling of body and breath, is self-identified with its pain and scars and perhaps even unwilling to part with them. We are easily attached to our misery by virtue of its being familiar. It’s an easy way to define ourselves.

There is a parallel text to every story. Though someone is plagued with pain, the desire to end one’s life is actually a counter-pull against the identification with suffering. Suicide is the imagining of an end to suffering—an end that is certainly needed. Seeing more metaphorically, the desire for death as an end to suffering is a desire to make life more possible. What are we really hearing when we listen to fantasies of death? This is the energy—indeed, the paradox—I’d like to explore.


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.

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 d 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.

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