A student asked his teacher, “What is the Way?”
Master, “Living the meaning of ultimate meaninglessness.”
Student, “What is the meaning of ultimate meaninglessness?”
Master, “How can I help you?”
(Note: This essay is by no means intended as a therapeutic treatise, and does not attempt to serve as a means of diagnosis or treatment of cases of major clinical depression, particularly if they have a bio-chemical component requiring professional medical attention. Furthermore, it is not intended to address situations of intractable and unbearable physical pain. Certainly, if one is suffering from acute suicidal impulses, please seek appropriate professional care.)
As long as we are under the influence of the amnesia which accompanies human embodiment into the denser dimension of materiality that this life entails, we generally do not have access to the “bigger picture”. Consequently, we are not at all qualified to judge each other, and this essay certainly does not propose to do so. Nevertheless, the inner emotional turmoil that might spawn thoughts of self-destruction as a viable solution to one’s perceived predicament can be submitted to inquiry based on the conscious process of recognition and liberation, and it may be useful to do so, particularly in light of the rising rates of suicide in this culture. For example, from 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent. In fact, suicide is now responsible for twice the number of deaths as homicides in America.
The illusion of being in control is one of the last of our fantasies to go, and contemplating the possibility of putting an end to one’s own life might have an appeal for some of us in seemingly desperate and oppressive situations where there is no apparent hope of relief. It is often indulged as a final assertion of one’s personal will, of control over “my life”. When in conflict with any arising circumstance or condition, alternatives are commonly sought, even to the extreme point of self-annihilation. In fact, what are we always doing, in subtle or gross ways, but habitually looking for avenues around and out of the perceived discomfort, alienation, boredom, and confusion that weigh so heavily on our hearts and minds.
Regardless of how things may seem to be going in any given moment, the fact remains that there is stress, dissatisfaction, suffering, and hence the motive and motion to alleviate it. Everything is seeking. Birth and death are bookends to a chronic search for some tangible and even lasting happiness, or at the very least, some relief from the suffering that appears to be one’s fate by virtue of simply being born into this realm. Paradoxically, that relief is always projected just out of reach, and typically in the future — if only the right numbers come up, or the right mate, friends, house, job, investment opportunity, spiritual teacher, or geological location.
Seeking is all about the sense we have of being an independent and vulnerable individual, separated from true and lasting happiness. We imagine that we are somehow lacking or even deprived of the necessary ingredients that constitute real satisfaction, and may even perceive ourselves as victims of life, at the mercy of various external forces. In any case, it is this contracted thought energy which creates the endless loop of attraction and aversion that dominates consciousness and reinforces the story of “me” – an afflicted somebody searching for ways and means to endure the ordeal of existence itself.
Meaning-making is a subjective process, of course, and borrowed meanings never quite satisfy the longing for purpose, and yet the great Sages across the spiritual spectrum who have contributed to humanity’s wisdom legacy through the millennia have been fairly unanimous in pointing out the rare and precious opportunity this human birth offers as a vehicle for discovering what we are truly made of, and who we really are. They have also been pretty unanimous in discouraging physical suicide.
Self-destructive thoughts are typically a negative reaction to life in the form of extreme rejection, based on fixated identification with an oppressive sense of personal existence. However, this conflicted identification cannot be dispelled by destroying the body, because that act does not resolve the matter of personal identity, but merely changes venues, angles of vision. Just so, one cannot break the addiction of an alcoholic by breaking their bottles. They always seem to find ingenious ways to come up with more.
In that regard, it’s said that it takes a long time to get a human body. Buddhism uses the image of a turtle adrift at sea that only surfaces every 100 years. Now imagine there is a small ring in this vast sea. It is more likely for the turtle to accidentally poke its head through that ring than to be born a human being. That’s how uncommon it is, in all the multiverse, to get a human body, yet how many of us will use this rare and precious opportunity wisely, to discover who we are, and what we are really here for?
One main operational driver behind self-destructive thoughts seems to be a rejection or dissatisfaction with the way things are perceived to be, so much so that one would contemplate putting an end to one’s life experience rather than face more of the same dissatisfaction. However, that assessment is always a conditional response, filtered through one’s pain and unhappiness, and superimposed on the way things actually are. In other words, it is a fantasy of negative meaning (or lack of meaning), and can never amount to an accurate recognition of things as they actually are.
Things in themselves, the theatrical stage of “the world” and all its many props, are neither positive nor negative, good or bad, right or wrong. As Sri Nisargadatta notes: “Nothing you can see, feel, or think is so. Even sin and virtue, merit and demerit are not what they appear. Usually the bad and the good are matter of convention and custom and are shunned or welcomed, according to how the words are used.” It is our programmed mind which applies such judgments, and so the appropriate course to follow here would entail an investigation of our filters, our downloaded programs, which yield such judgments.
For example, if we are told early on that success is equated with the accumulation of monetary wealth, then we are likely to regard our life as a failure if we do not achieve a particular income bracket. In reality, true happiness has little to do with the attainment of financial prosperity, but if we have placed all of our happiness eggs in that flimsy basket, then we will likely be driven by that particular set of expectations, and reap the inherent disappointments that result from either not attaining our material goals, or even attaining them, only to realize that the anticipated happiness of doing so is fleeting at best, and that we are still dissatisfied at heart.
Such realization could drive one to despair, even to the extreme of contemplating suicide, or alternately could provide a moment of availability, in which one has the space to inquire into their programs about what truly constitutes happiness. Prior to the disappointment, one has little space for self-inspection, since the game is afoot and all the energy is committed to the goal. However, with the recognition that the program does not yield the promised benefit – happiness – then one has a window of opportunity to really investigate their motives.
To really come to a full and awakened appreciation of “things as they are”, all superimposed filters and emotional contraction must be seen through and released, and that is a lot of work. It truly is a daunting undertaking. Yes, it is difficult and challenging to clear away the accumulation of borrowed programs and second-hand beliefs about happiness, but if we are truly interested in seeing clearly, then there is no other option.
As mentioned earlier, I am not talking here about intractable physical pain situations, which are another matter, nor about suicide resulting from unmanageable clinical depression (which is a brain disorder by most accounts), but more about the emotional disturbance of an otherwise relatively healthy individual which might prompt self-destructive thoughts in reaction to the perceived unhappiness of one’s life. It is not my intent here (nor am I qualified) to address those in the throes of acute suicidal symptoms. Rather, I am speaking to that aspect within all of us, the sense of negative self-worth and its associated emotional turmoil and inner conflict. That emotional reactivity can be inspected, and through sincere and persistent investigation, and ideally in the company and with the compassionate support of true spiritual friends, the root contraction at the heart which spawns negative self-imagery and self-destructive thought energy can be revealed and subsequently transformed into a potent wisdom. That is, if we are both willing and able to do the necessary work.
For example, by investigating the restless waking dream we commonly take our life to be, we can come to recognize what a hopeless effort our clinging to the fiction of control truly is. In trying to maintain control – of life, of relationships, of environments, of the self-sense altogether — we suffer a chronic mood of separation and consequent dissatisfaction, even to the point of rejecting the gift and miracle of life altogether. Only when the strategy to maintain the illusion of control is revealed for the futile endeavor that it is, are we able to at last release the knot at the heart and allow our true nature, which is Love, to emerge from the background.
In that regard, if there is any activity that can lift us out of our chronic self-preoccupation, it is compassionate service to others. Indeed, yogis designate “Karma Yoga” (selfless service in action) as one of the chief means of liberation. Such love is a potent antidote to morbid self-absorption, but it must be genuine and true, otherwise it is merely going through motions, and will not have the power to resolve that compounded knot at the heart which generates negative self-fixation. It is out of love that we stay alive for each other, and that includes staying alive for the one we have yet to become. As the Existentialist writer Albert Camus said: “Life is worth living, this absurd strange thing should be witnessed and it’s vital that you have some respect for your future self, who is going to know things you don’t know.”
(Keep in mind that the above recommendation of service to others would be ineffective for those who are suffering from extremely debilitating mental disorders such as clinical depression, for which professional help should be sought).
To be human is to bear wounds. As Nisargadatta wisely noted: “We are the creators and creatures of each other, causing and bearing each other’s burden.” By submitting to a conscious process of recognition, a genuine compassion for each other may dawn, because we see that our wounds are not really different from others’. To realize our inherent oneness is actually the dawn of a truly healing love. Indeed, it is that very compassion, arising from having gone through the dark nights ourselves, that subsequently renders us receptive to others’ plight, others who may be beset by the same emotional turmoil of self-destructive thoughts. In the light of such sensitivity, we can serve as patient and understanding companions, capable of deep listening. Furthermore, we may even come to the recognition that there is no other – there is only one flesh to wound. At such a point, we become a true blessing in the world, even as we bear the world’s wounds within our humble, willing embrace.