Hamlet wonders, “To be or not to be,” but that is not the question. The question is, “How to be?”
Hamlet wonders, “To be or not to be,” but that is not the question. The question is, “How to be?” In a world where so many longings are not met with satisfaction, where so often there is physical and mental pain, how does one survive without becoming deadened before one dies? A Greek philosopher said, “The tragedy of life, my friend, is not that it must end. But that so many times before our natural demise, we must wish for death.” I know very few people who have not at one time or another thought that death was preferable to their present predicament. Indeed, it seems that death becomes an ever-present option within a few years after birth. Each year, thousands of grade-school children kill themselves. Among teenagers, suicide is one of the leading causes of death. It is not difficult to see that when pain and confusion arise in the mind, they are met by a strong desire for the cessation of that suffering. Indeed, suicide may be an attempt at taking control of what otherwise seems an uncontrollable situation. The only alternative to complete defeat. Suicide often arises not from a hatred of life, but from a lust for it, a desire for things to be otherwise, for life to be full when it appears not to be. Suicide may be for many the manifestation of a thwarted “will to life.” For others it may be that the pain has made life not worth living. I have been with many people dying from degenerative diseases whose contemplation of suicide is the first instance of their having taken death within, having seriously contemplated the possibility of not existing as they know it. For those in such enormous physical pain, it must be remembered that their death, like their physical experience, is wholly their own and is not to be measured or judged by any other. It seems there are various states of being who enter death willingly. One whose heart is wide open, not holding to the body, melting into the next moment with a “don’t know” openness to the unknown. Another, whose mind is weary and whose heart is frightened, jumping into death to escape the seeming unworkableness of life. And yet another who trades life for the benefit of other sentient beings—the selfless, the unswervingly merciful, the all-compassionate—such as Socrates or Jesus or the emergency rescue person in a burning building. They are each us all, equally due respect and loving-kindness, the prayers and acceptance of those left behind. The other day I heard the father of a boy who had committed suicide, during a momentary depression, say, “Everyone has a skeleton in their closet. But the person who kills themselves leaves their skeleton in another’s closet.” The grief and guilt that arise in the wake of suicide often leave a legacy of guilt and confusion. Each loved one wracks the mind and tears the heart questioning, “What could I have done to prevent this?” To acknowledge that beings must act within the context of their own life allows compassion for those who kill themselves as well as those left behind. The mind in its queasy rumblings brings up all the insecurity and fear of a lifetime when confronted with the suicide of a friend or loved one. All the moments of thinking we should have been a better person, that we ought to have loved more, float to the surface. “What could I have done? How could I have made life fuller for my loved one?” A sense of failure arises in the mind, no matter how unfounded Indeed, those who grieve after a suicide often contemplate suicide themselves. The desperation of “What’s the use?” or “Why bother?” is transmitted to those left behind—perhaps the same questions that propelled the poison or pulled the trigger. A feeling of impotence in the face of life’s uncontrollable changes. I think it is skillful, in the wake of a suicide, to practice meditations on forgiveness. Sending forgiveness to loved ones on the other side so they will not be tormented by the pain they imagine they have caused. Encouraging them to forgive themselves so that they will not repeatedly die out of guilt. And forgiveness for oneself, for unknowing, forgiveness for the mind’s incessant judgment and self-doubting, which makes each feel responsible for the acts of another There is no arguing with the mind. There is only the encouragement to let go, to open around the pain so that we do not recreate another moment of the mental suffering that was reflected in the suicide Forgiveness of ourselves and others allows life to continue, allows the heart to go beyond the mind’s guilt and hellish recrimination Indeed, when we work with those whose occupations put them in the position of “suicide counselor,” we remind them again and again that if it is not acceptable that others kill themselves, then they are probably in the wrong business To truly be a suicide counselor, you must have room for every alternative in another’s mind Or you will just be someone else who cannot be trusted, someone trying to impose your will on them To allow beings to enter into your heart, you can eliminate no part of them. Our conditioning is that suicide is a heinous act, even a sin. We think we know better than people who contemplate suicide. Yet we never touch the pain in their mind, because we are so frightened of the pain in our own Our desire to stop people from killing themselves just creates more separation. How will we be there fully for them if we think they are wrong? But if we acknowledge how painful our minds can be at times, we will be able to tune in to the pain of another We will not withdraw love just because the act that another is contemplating conflicts with our models. We must remember that many wish to die because the love they feel within has never been fulfilled. They are not getting what they want. It is not indifference. They kill themselves out of pain and unsatisfied desires. Of the hundreds who jump from the Golden Gate Bridge each year, all but the Pacific Ocean. Even in suicide, their relationship to the world they wish to leave behind is greatest. We must touch the desperation in ourselves if we are to encourage another to open to life It could be said that suicide is not so much “wrong,” as unskillful. Another opportunity for surrender, for letting go of the pain in the mind, not seen nor taken. The long conditioned aversion to the unpleasant acted on and reinforced once again. It is ironic that many who kill themselves after long depressions in which they have many times contemplated, even rehearsed, suicide, but simply did not have the energy or will power to carry it through, do so on the upswing out of that depression. Just as the energy returns, just as the light is beginning to dawn. Many kill themselves when they feel they are at “hope’s end.” But hope is born of fear, of wanting. Only when we are without fear will we be able to live without hope. Those who passed beneath the arch in Dante’s Inferno read, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” This was not a curse but a blessing. It says that all holding to future possibilities creates a painful inability to enter the present. Hope causes us to kill ourselves again and again. This is easy to say but difficult to transmit to those who wish to kill themselves. But when you have come to live your life so fully that you can abandon hope, then you will be able to transmit that fearless spaciousness to others so that they may have room in their heart for their suffering When we have let go of attachment to our fear, then we will become the optimum environment for anyone contemplating suicide. Then we will be the space into which they can enter and let go of their suffering as they wish and take the next small step, the next soft entrance into the unknown. Our long conditioned condemnation of suicide is put to the test with the image of the Buddhist monk whose picture many saw on the front page of their newspaper in the mid-1960s after he poured gasoline over his body in the streets of Saigon and immolated himself. There is a belief in Vietnamese folklore, quite outside of orthodox Buddhist thought, that the conscious dying of a pure individual can save the lives of ten thousand others. For many, the first recognition of the suffering of the peoples of Vietnam came with the photograph of that being setting himself ablaze in great stillness. He was not backing out of life or lost in some self-conscious heroic gesture. He was attempting to ease the suffering of other beings by allowing his own body to fall away. Is this suicide? Marahaji said, “Jesus gave away everything, even his body.” The being who commits suicide as a means of escaping life is a manifestation of the pain of us all Suicide is not the answer. But neither is a life of coping and holding to a hope that things will be different or that survival must be maintained at any cost. Do not ask, “To be or not to be,” but only, “What is being?” Investigate the pain in the heart and let it be met by a commitment to serve others, for the cessation of the suffering of all. Suicide is the killing of the body. Awareness is the rebirth of the mind. Love is the actualization of the unnameable.