As I looked at the news headlines yesterday two papers reported different cases of young men who had killed themselves. This is not a topic we may find easy to address but it is the silence that makes it so difficult, as those who have these thoughts retreat further for fear of speaking. Over the last few years I have know several people who have killed themselves and I know that there are people who come to meditation from a place of deep struggle. Research published in 2014 found that more gay men in Canada die of suicide than HIV and that more gay men die of suicide than heterosexual, but that even among straight men they are more likely to die if they attempt suicide than women, so there is a higher rate of death among men in general. The article that discusses suicide among gay men makes the poiint that there is a belief we should not talk about it as it may encourage it – but that it is this very silence that makes it so hard for people as they have these thoughts and feelings to reach out and speak.
In my late 20s and early 30s I used to wish there was an off switch. I did not want any pain or struggle, but if I could have just flicked a switch and brought an end to the struggle and pain then I wanted that. Of course I did not explore any ways to do so and I think in part it was just the desire for peace that saw death as the easiest option but did not really want to go that way. But I felt I could not say this to anyone, and that made it all the more painful.
What I’ve seen is that the things that I felt were too overwhelming and too much to bear are now a memory. They passed. And one reflection that I use even now is “this too will pass”.Not to be living the life I am now due to ending it in my 20s would have taken from me all the experiences I now have, and all the friendships and interactions there have been. But at the time it can feel as if one is in a fog and that there is no way out.
I still have moments where this sense of pressure arises, this feeling of it all being too much. And I think it is important that in an age of manufactured perfection that Facebook and Instagram encourages we allow the struggle to be seen as well. We may not blaze this across our facebook page, but as we talk with friends being authentic and open about our rawness can be part of the healing – letting others know they are not alone in their pain, giving others permission to be authentic themselves.
Part of what got me though the difficult times of my 20s and early 30s was the Tibetan practice of Tonglen. Usually the feeling of suffering leads to a sense that it is all too much, the thoughts “I can’t bear this” and “I just want it to stop” increasing the sense of overwhelm. Tonglen is a way of gaining agency whilst suffering and turning it into compassion.
The practice starts by connecting to the breath. Then name whatever it is that is upsetting you – one time I had cut open my finger, another it was difficulty digesting when I started to eat more due to a form of anorexia which led to a year of pain after eating. Once the source of the suffering is seen, instead of going into the normal cycle of looking in: wanting it to end, telling oneself off for causing it, asking “why me” or feeling helpless, we look out. As we look out we consider from the heart how many other people in the world right now are experiencing this or something like it. If we feel our specific pain is unique to us we can know that there are others also feeling sad and alone.
Once we connect with this sense of others who like us are suffering, the practice is to imagine breathing in their suffering as a black smoke, heat, darkness or a sense of heaviness and then breathe out feelings of coolness, brightness, and light. Staying connected to our heart throughout.
There were times when I sat in my room feeling so low and alone that it was only by doing this practice that I could shift the feeling of despair. Instead even in my struggle and pain I could connect with compassion for others and slowly allow myself to bring that compassion to myself also.
A simpler way to do this practice is to say to your self:
- “this is a difficult moment”, as we name the thing we struggle with
- ask ourselves “how many people in the world right now are feeling just like me?”
- then breathe into and through the area of the heart, and breathe into any areas of intense sensation we feel in our body connected to the thoughts or emotions and then breathing out. Letting the breath breathe into the difficulty and surround it as if it were holding it with kindness.
The important thing with both these practices is that we are not trying to get things right or fix ourselves. We are allowing ourselves to feel broken and wounded and instead of telling ourselves off or saying “pull yourself together” or some similar judgemental inner dialogue we simply acknowledge: “this hurts and I see that just as I hurt so to do others…..I am not alone.”
You will know if this is an appropriate practice for you. If it makes you feel sad or more despairing then stop. The intention is to open up the heart to a feeling of compassion for others as they suffer, not to feel unhappy.
There are other things that can help and the following points offer some simple tips:
If you are feeling suicidal or depressed right now or know anyone who is, then I hope this helps. The main thing is to know that if someone is talking to you about their feelings, all we need do is listen and let them know they have been heard – not try to fix their problems. The power of someone knowing they have been heard is healing enough.