compassion, buddhism, yoga + depression. at least 10 insights from Michael Stone
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 ahiṁsā—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.
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.