Please share this essay with anyone who you think may benefit from this alternative perspective on depression, breakdown, suicide and awakening…
“Take me out to Cypress Hill in my car. And we’ll hear the dead people talk. They do talk there. They chatter like birds on Cypress Hill, but all they say is one word and that one word is “live,” they say “Live, live, live, live, live!'” It’s all they’ve learned, it’s the only advice they can give. Just live. Simple! A very simple instruction…”
– from ‘Orpheus Descending’, Tennessee Williams
I was speaking recently with a woman who was planning her own suicide. She had spent the past few weeks sorting out her finances, paying off her debts, and trying to find foster parents for her young daughter, who would be left motherless after she killed herself. So many people had tried to intervene, but her mind was made up. She was definitely going to die. She had been threatening it for years, but finally it was coming true.
Her friends and family were starting to panic. I agreed to speak with her.
“That’s it. I’m done here. My time on earth is over”, she told me, point blank, at the start of our one-to-one session. Everything had become such a burden to her – her job, her so-called-friends, her failed relationships, her own brilliant but overactive mind, even her beloved daughter. It was all just too much. She was in so much pain, totally drained, fed up and exhausted from trying to help everybody all the time, and never getting anything back. She was the one who gave everything to everyone, but who ever gave anything to her? Where was gratitude? Where was love? Even her young daughter was just “take-take-take” – her demands were incessant. The only way out of this hell was death. Suicide was the logical solution to the problem of living. Her life insurance policy would be generous to her bereaved family.
I let her talk and talk. She had a lot to say, and I said very little. I simply got on her side, saw and felt things the way she did, allowed her to experience what she was experiencing, and allowed her experience to become mine, intimately so. It was easy, since I have known well that place of total exhaustion, that place where “I’ve been trying so hard to save others and have received nothing back”, that desperation to die (or at least to end the burden of living), and also the sense of guilt and terrible sadness that arises from imagining loved ones trying to go on without me.
I stayed close. I did not try to play ‘spiritual teacher’, ‘expert on suicide prevention’ or even ‘therapist’. I certainly did not lecture her about nonduality, the absence of the self, the perfect perfection of perfect awareness, or the non-existence of the ‘I’. We did not get into intellectual discussions about the Absolute and the Relative, the illusion of free will or the ins and outs of Oneness. I did not try to fix her, to mend her, or even to ‘save’ her. I simply listened to her. I wanted to learn from her, not teach her or feed her new beliefs. What was it like, exactly where she was, right now?
I joined the ‘Our Lives Are Exhausting And We Want To Be Free From It All’ Club. We were the exhausted ones, the unloved ones, the ones who nobody appreciated, the ugly ones, the overweight ones, the ones on the verge of collapse, the ones who wanted to die. The ones who nobody understood. I wonder if anyone had ever truly met her there before? I wondered if everyone she had talked to over the years about her desire to die – therapists, friends, family – had just been trying to save her, to fix her, to get her to stay alive and live in the old way, rather than meeting her in her pain and desperation and validating her present-moment experience. Had anyone ever truly met her? Or had they been driven away by her self-pity and anger, or perhaps their own discomfort and frustrated desires to help?
We talked for about three hours. The more we talked, the more I simply stood in her shoes, listening and seeing things from her perspective, being with her without trying to fix her or make her wrong or even right, the more she relaxed and opened up about her true longings and hidden dreams and desires. What became clear was this: Secretly, she did not want to die at all. She knew, deep down, that who she truly is – consciousness itself – cannot die. She knew that only the false can die. Only an image of herself can die. Only dreams can die.
What she really longed for was not physical death, not the death of the body, not the end of breathing, not the cessation of the heartbeat, but the death of the false self, the death of the pretence, the death of falseness and inauthenticity. The second-hand, limited ‘self’ she was pretending to be – the Real Estate queen, the selfless giver, the one who ‘fit in’ with others, the brilliant one with the “16 track mind” as she put it – was utterly false. Her life as it was playing itself out was suffocating her, and until this point, she had only seen death, and foster homes, and life insurance policies, and psychological escape, as the solution.
It soon became clear that this woman, although ‘dying’ on the outside, had a rich, creative inner life that had simply never been given expression. On the inside, she was so very alive, so open to life, so sensitive to everything around her, so “wide angle” as she put it, so “connected to everything and everyone”. She was a force of nature, a wild and free spirit that had totally limited itself over the years, constrained itself to ‘fit in’ to some second-hand idea of what is normal, or right, or proper, or true. She had been living “the wrong life”, so to speak, a dead and deadening life, a life of money and numbers and predictability, and it was crushing this inner explorer, this adventurer, this poet, this visionary, this seer, this spiritual seeker, this big-hearted pilgrim that she was.
The limited self longed to die, and the “Big Self” as she put it, longed to break free. And although this is not my language (I rarely talk about Big Self or Being Aligned With The Universe), I knew that to truly meet her, I had to get into her world, into her language, and stay there, and not flinch for one moment.
The more she felt heard and understood, the more she was met without judgement, the more she relaxed, and the more she started to talk openly about her secret longing to travel, to explore, to ride out into the unknown without a map. She talked with increasing passion about those times in the past where she had felt free and alive and unburdened. There was a longing to return to that simplicity. There was a fire in her, a raging furnace of love that had been suffocated all those years in her attempts to ‘fit in’.
Her suicidal depression had really been a signpost to life! The pain of life-suffocation had appeared to her as the raging desire for death. But it was not really the desire for death, was it? It was the desire for life! For more life! She longed to live, to really live, to no longer suffocate under the weight of the false image. Only one who longed to live could experience such an overwhelming urge to die. She longed with every cell of her body to end the pretence and the falseness and half-lived dreams and to open up to life in all its rawness and beauty – not to die, not to die, but to live in a real way.
What would real, fearless living look like? She had a brilliant mind, and a wide-open heart, all of which had been suffocated and wasted in the business of Real Estate. We started to explore the very realistic possibility of her selling her house and setting off into the unknown with her beloved daughter (“my angel, sent from heaven”). She had always longed to travel to New Zealand, to work there, to build a life there, to live a more simple and truthful existence there, and to expose her daughter to soul-enriching people and landscapes and possibilities. Could her dream become a reality? Was that possible?
She loved her little daughter so much, that was clear. She wanted her daughter to live and flourish and learn truth, that was clear. If she were to put her daughter into a foster home and then kill herself – which had been her plan for years, up until now – she would be teaching limitation to the one she loved more than anything. She would teach something false, something untrue. She would teach closing-off to possibility rather opening up. She would teach death, not life. She would not be teaching the deep truth of herself.
Suicide would be a false teaching, a false way of living and not living, and she knew this in the very depths of her being.
If she did not kill herself, if she let the body live, if instead she killed this inauthentic self, and stopped pretending to be the one she was not, and left this job and this life that was crushing her spirit, and set off into the unknown, and opened up to the mysteries of the universe, she may finally become the mother (and sister, and daughter, and friend, and lover) she always longed to be – the one who taught and lived fearlessness, and realness, and life, and never-giving-up, even when exhausted. She would no longer be the ‘exhausted one longing for freedom from all responsibility’. She would be totally, completely, unbelievably responsible in the full sense of the word – able to respond authentically to life, to herself, to her daughter. Able to answer the call that she had been denying for so long.
It was disregarding life’s call that had hurt so much over the years. Life will not be silenced. The longing for death, the certainty of suicide, was really life screaming at her one last time. “LIVE! LIVE!”
Would she listen to its scream, now, at the point where everything was nearly lost?
Suddenly, everything became so clear. There was no longer any choice. She knew what to do. She knew what life was telling her. She had always known. Yes, she was going to kill herself… but not in the way the mind had imagined. She was going to kill her old self, her limited self, her false self. That was the real suicide! That was the call of life! She was going to break up with a life that had become meaningless, empty, and most importantly not right for her and her loved ones – a life that had turned her into something she couldn’t bear – and set out into the unknown, with her beloved daughter, their hearts wide open to possibility. This was not a mental decision. This was not a conclusion based on fear. This was total relief. This was sinking into the deep truth of herself. This was a deep honouring of life. This was deep rest.
Her brilliant ‘mind’ had only been able to conclude ‘death’. It had thought there was a choice between ‘life’ and ‘death’, and it had chosen ‘death’. But what did it know? The truth of her being was saying only one thing: LIVE. The mind would never understand this.
There was no choice but to live.
The following morning, I learnt that her adventure had already begun. She was already finding herself boxing things away, making arrangements, selling unwanted possessions, preparing for a new life, a life of freedom and possibility and newness. She was no longer preparing for death, but for more life. It was still suicide, but a divine kind of suicide – the suicide of the false, by the false. She, however, had so much to do, so many plans to make, so much to sort out – much like before – but now she was no longer exhausted, no longer depressed by it all, since finally all of her ‘doing’ was truthful – she was doing what she loved, and she was no longer waiting for others to ‘give back’ to her.
Her relationship with her daughter had shifted overnight. It had become clear: her daughter was not – and had never been – an annoying “block” to her freedom, a drain on her energies, a reason for her suicide. Her daughter was her companion, her fellow traveller, part of this divine suicide! Her daughter was no longer “getting in the way” of the life she longed for – she was now part of that very life. It was no longer “my life” versus “her life” – there was simply life. This life. Our life.
I had not taught this woman anything. I had not really ‘done’ anything at all. I have no clever psychological theories. I had simply listened deeply to her, reminding her of what she had always known, reflecting her own deep truth back at her, so she could actually hear it for once. Out of devastation, out of total breakdown, her truth had been given the space to emerge.
It’s interesting that the word “depressed” is spoken phonetically as “deep rest”. We can view depression not as a mental illness, but on a deeper level, as a profound (and very misunderstood) state of deep rest, entered into when we are completely exhausted by the weight of our own (false) story of ourselves. It is an unconscious loss of interest in the second-hand – a longing to ‘die’ to the false. This longing needs to be honoured, not medicated, meditated or analysed away.
It’s amazing what can evolve naturally when depression and the desire for suicide (which is the desire for the deep rest of yourself) are truly honored, met, embraced, held, and you do not flinch from pain or turn away from it.
It’s amazing what can happen when you actively listen to the one in front of you from a loving place of non-judgemental acceptance, trusting the intelligence of life itself, and allowing the divine and loving suicide of awakening to weave its mysterious magic.
A few things come up for me here:
Jeff Foster was able to be with this woman in this way, at least partly, because he had been there himself. He had met and found peace with what she was going through in his own life.
Also, he writes this a bit black-and-white. In my experience, there may be a relatively sudden shift, as he describes, and it may put life in a different course. And yet, after a few hours or days or weeks or months, there is work to be done. What was seen so clearly may need to clarify further and brought into life, and all that requires work. It’s often a quite sobering process.
I also liked what he said about playing teacher. It seems that so many folks who take on a teacher or therapist role try to live up to whatever images they have about that role, or what images or expectations they imaging others may have about that role. It’s very liberating to meet someone who is more free around these images and expectations. For me, Barry is perhaps the one that seems most ordinary and free in this way. It’s even more liberating to find that clarity and freedom for myself.
Also, the way he is with this woman mirrors – I assume – how he is with himself, with what surfaces for him, with his own emotions, hurt, wounds, beliefs and so on. He has explored and become familiar with allowing it it’s life in his own life, that that makes it possible for him to be with others in the same way. It’s even inevitable. No techniques are required. Just what comes naturally from how he already is with his own life.
What he says about the suicidal impulse also reflects what I have found for myself. The suicidal impulse is not about the death of this human self, although it can take that expression. It’s an impulse for the death of suffering, of beliefs, of being caught up in painful thoughts about the world. It’s an impulse for clarity, and finding love for what is, for life as it is. And this frees us up to live with more passion, more free from the imagined constraints we may have put on ourselves, others and life.