Heartbreak | Sitting with Suicidal Thoughts

I’ve kind of touched on the thoughts here in a recent post, but I thought they were important and weighty enough to address a bit more directly rather than abstractly. I’m hoping the vulnerability and sharing of process will support anyone else who needs it as finding the acceptance of friends and family has been crucial to continue sitting through these difficult feelings, whereas those who tell you you’re wrong, confused, or self-involved make it much more painful. I can only hope to give some companionship and feelings of being seen to those who need it.


I’ve honestly dealt with depression off an on throughout my adult life. It’s always around big changes and losses though – not the seemingly random nature of major depressive disorder, more the grief of the difficulties of a human life.

I’ve never really felt suicidal in depression, no matter how empty or meaningless life has felt. Not until this time. I’ve had the deep yearning to die regularly and escalating ideas of suicidal ideation since around mid-summer. It’s hard, and ultimately, it’s scary and tiring. Part of me has to struggle continuously not to sink into the abyss. Honestly, as someone deeply involved in existential psychology, I feel like it has to do with the famous quote: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How” (Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning). I’ve personally seen the withering away when a “Why” is lost. In many ways, this is precisely the problem of suicide that Camus lines out in his discussion of the absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus. Facing one’s existence and projects in life as meaningless is the ultimate existential angst. It’s facing the feeling that life wouldn’t matter if I wasn’t here. Rather than the Heideggerean state of being verfallen and covering over one’s death, it’s the inverse – staring life in the face and asking why you were even born at all while struggling to find any answer, as any you used to have have dissolved in your hands.

That’s all cerebral, but the experience is anything but – those are just philosophy riffs to explain the experience. The embodied experience is much more raw and crushing. I’ve thought numerous times how great it would be if I had the courage to jump out my window. I even had a sudden urge to stab myself with a knife recently, but ultimately, none of this has ever escalated to the point of having true plans, means, or intentions enough to where I felt I needed help, beyond some time to sit, cry, and be mindfully present for my feelings.

For me, it’s been all pulled forward by having attached to ideas of partnership and love – ideas that I didn’t fully realize were such a strong piece of my identity, desire, and meaning in life. Now, I’m just not so sure of those ideas, and ultimately, I don’t think the answer is to try to find them again with someone else, so it feels as though my life doesn’t really have something to aspire to, to build, to find meaning in.

Speaking of attachment – this is a klesha: clinging. Clinging to those ideas has caused such a traumatic crash of meaning and identity, and it doesn’t seem effective enough to take the existential, well, rather, Nietzschean, approach of building some new meaning/project/values, i.e. creating some new take on love or relationships. Instead, I’ve been inspired by the Buddhist ideas regarding attachment. I’ve tried to sit with the feelings of attachment and let them dissolve. Instead, I try to show up, connect with people, and provide my kindness and compassion for the struggles they go through, and ultimately, every time, it has led to gratitude and sometimes, even, growth in the engagement.

I feel that showing up to these hardest of feelings is like what I’ve posted about previously as a famous quote from Zen that before enlightenment you chop wood and carry water, while after enlightenment you chop wood and carry water. Facing the toughest moments of life is about mindfully sitting in them, realizing that it’s just more life. The world is as it was before. Your perception and emotional reactions are all over the place, but ultimately, the same billions of years of history are before this moment as in the past. The same world is there. It merely seems different because of that Wittgensteinian idea that the world of the sad person is different than that of the happy: i.e. your evaluations of it are different, but the aspects of living your life as a human being in your life and home are the same in the broader sense (this could very much be lined up with Stoic ideas as well, especially Epictetus).

Mindfully being present and being focused on showing compassion for others is a simple and yet deep shift in approaching the mystery of living in an existence that’s always greater and more mysterious than the meanings you find in your personal projects and interpretations. Being present and vulnerable in such a way offers the possibility of seeing life as precious, just as it is, just as painful and heartbreaking as it can be in its most samsaric of moments.

Which brings me to the greatest counter-perspective I can emphasize to that of the suicidal abyss: experiencing life as precious. I’ve recently been thinking of Atisha’s slogan practices from Tibetan Buddhism. The first slogan “First, train in the preliminaries” was key to facing my dad’s death a few years ago, and recent Buddhist classes I’ve been attending have been key to bringing these ideas back to the fore.

There are four “preliminaries”. I’ll attach a photo of a post-it note I wrote years ago with my own take of them to remember them by. It’s on my fridge. I took a picture of it before a recent trip because I was thinking about these suicidal thoughts and the counter effort I’ve been working on in seeing compassion and wisdom to pull me back into this more engaged mindset.

My summary of the preliminaries

I’ll speak of slogan practice more thoroughly in the future (hopefully), but I’ll summarize these points here. Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes how rare and precious it is to be born as a human being in a time and place where you can learn the Buddha’s dharma – the truths and wisdom that offer you the possibility of breaking free from the painful reactions that make life so difficult. In a way, this summary of preciousness captures the point of the other 3 preliminaries as well as the Four Noble Truths in one go. A sentient life is one of the pain, disappointment, and suffering of dukkha. It’s one of standard patterns of action, walking through life with the same conditioned ways of re-acting (writing that way because we think of it as action, but it truly isn’t – reactivity is the most passive of ways of being. The only truly active freedom is in being able to sit with challenges and see your inclinations and choose differently in ways that do not continue the reactive patterns of suffering in your life). Waking up to a different way of being requires seeing the opportunity and wisdom that is available to you, embracing it with gratitude, and rethinking your actions based on the outcomes and results you bring to yourself through them (recognizing the 3rd preliminary that all action is karmic), working now to embrace that opportunity because you see your time is limited (recognizing the 2nd preliminary that death is coming), and finally, doing all of this out of the understanding that there is dukkha (the first of the Four Noble Truths which opens the whole Buddhist path before you).

When I think of the samsaric pain of loss and meaninglessness that I’m going through with all the suicidal thoughts attached to them, in other words, when thinking of the fact that there is dukkha, I remember another Buddhist passage I’ve brought up before, the poetic lines from Dogen’s Genjokoan: “Therefore flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them” (Shohaku Okumura, Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo). Desire and aversion put us at odds with the changing circumstances of the impermanent world around us, but if we recognize those samsaric poisons within us, we can take pause and sit more patiently with the difficulties of life, allowing us to instead continue on with compassion for others and mindful presence for the moment at hand. We may no longer have the flowers of beauty, or we may need to contend with the weeds popping up, but we can be right in this moment, doing our best in it, and giving to all the others who are here struggling with their own pain at the changing circumstances they’re in.


May these words inspire and offer companionship to those who need them.

Gassho!

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