Once, when I was young, I was helping run a summer camp with other young adults, and someone asked if any of us had ever thought about killing ourselves. More than half the people there raised their hands, and I wondered if the hands-down crowd also had experienced those thoughts, but weren’t able to admit it so publicly.

Note: This is a philosophical piece that’s not meant to serve as formal medical advice. If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts and/or plans, we suggest that you seek professional help by contacting your doctor or an organization such as the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the United States or the Samaritans in the U.K. If you’re looking for resources specific to a different country, please contact us via our General Inquiries form.

I suspect everyone one of us, every human being, has at least once had a thought along the lines of:

  • “I wish I wasn’t here.”
  • “I don’t want to be here anymore.”
  • “I hate my life.”
  • “I’d be better off dead.”
  • “I don’t want to live anymore.”
  • “I want to kill myself.”

There’s a difference between wishing and planning

No jumping off bridge sign - About suicideWithin the mental health field, we take into account the significant difference between wishing and planning. Those thinking about how, when and where are the ones we need be most concerned with. When a thought becomes a plan to take action, a red light is activated and the alarm bells ring.

Whether we’re thinking, “I wish I wasn’t here,” or also, “I’m going to do something about that,” what is it we’re trying to escape from? What is it that we don’t want?

There are those in physical pain, but for the majority, it’s emotional and mental pain. And even for those in physical pain, their thoughts and emotional feelings about their pain most probably make it much worse.

In all cases, it’s certainly thinking that decides it wants to die. We can only act on our thoughts, so if we don’t think about something, we can’t do it. We can only do what we think, so we’re all at the mercy of thought.

People who want to die want relief, but from what? In most cases, from their upsetting and distressing thoughts and painful feelings.

We torture ourselves with our distressing thoughts; or, more acutely, it’s thought that’s torturing itself with thought, and it thinks it’s you.

How do we endure being confined to the mind for a lifetime, having to experience the constant drip-drip-drip of one thought after another? Sometimes, the thought tap is turned on all the way, and we can be battered with a variety of racing thoughts that are negative, critical and judgmental, especially in relation to ourselves.

I have yet to find a person who isn’t harder on themselves than other people are on them, or than they themselves are on others. We really are our own worst enemies. That’s just the way we are.

We long to escape our painful emotions: depression, anxiety, guilt, shame and the self-blame and sense of failure that go with all of that. We think “I’m not good enough; I’m unlovable; I’m a failure; I’m stupid; I’m this and I’m that,” and so on. You fill in the blanks.

Suicide is the act of killing the body. But what did the body do? We kill the body to kill the mind, to kill those unkind thoughts and those negative emotions, for that’s what we want to stop. We want to stop the mind from torturing itself, so when all hope seems lost, and there seems nothing else left to do—when we’ve tried “everything” and failed—then the final desperate solution is to end our life. Sometimes, a sense of relief can come with that, for it’s at least a way out, but to where?

Another way “out” besides suicide

There’s another way to be free of our painful thoughts and emotions, though. Why don’t we kill our painful thoughts instead, and leave the body alone? If those thoughts die, the negative emotions that follow can no longer be produced.

The emotions we don’t want or need are those that arise from memories of the past, from fears about the future and from the harsh views we hold about ourselves.

We can continue to experience present-moment feelings in response to what’s happening now, for those feelings need our time, space and love. Those feelings need to be allowed to breathe and be. The emotions we don’t want or need are those that arise from memories of the past, from fears about the future and from the harsh views we hold about ourselves. When thoughts of that kind die, the emotions that go with them can no longer be born.

What’s left is present-moment thought and present-moment emotion, and a body (although, technically, everything happens in the present moment). Now, there’s no need to kill the body, because the reason for dying has gone.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that, because we can’t instantaneously decide to accept our thoughts, stop thinking about the past or the future, or stop comparing ourselves to others in negative ways. However, we can point ourselves in the right direction, and set an intention that supports our well-being. We can be on the right journey, travelling in the right direction, one step at a time. The journey is never over, and thought keeps on thinking, but it’s always all about what’s happening to you right now, in the present moment.

Those who think killing the body is a way to end suffering have got it all wrong, because what they really want is to kill thought, and that can be done without anyone having to kill the body.

Understanding thought for what it is

Young woman thinking while looking out window - About suicideFirst, we have to understand thought for what it is, and how it’s connected and attached to us. Try asking yourself the following questions:

  • Are you thinking, or is thinking happening?
  • Is a thought bigger than you, or are you bigger than each thought?
  • Are you within thought, or is thought within you?
  • If you can see that you aren’t thought, then who are you?

You can think about the “Who am I?” question for a million years, and you still won’t know who you are—or, at least, thought won’t know.

Can you know that you aren’t thought, and then rest in the not-knowing of that? For that is the way of peace.

Ask yourself, “Is awareness already here?” If not, then what’s here?

When you’re aware of this present moment, try to get out of it, and you’ll find that you can’t.

When you realize that it isn’t possible for you to get out of the present moment, then you’ll have found a peace that’s beyond the mind’s understanding. Yet, it’s ordinarily familiar, nothing new and something that was always already here.

Within this awareness, can you allow emotions to arise within you, exist for a while and then leave peacefully?

Can you allow thoughts to do the same—arise, exist and leave—without being attached to them, without taking them so seriously, without necessarily believing them and without thinking there’s a “you” thinking them?

Thought will never know what it is, and the best it can do is discover that it’s not you. The realization that you aren’t thought and that you’ll never know who you are can be enlightening, but this can be short-lived and very quickly followed by fear.

This realization can be scary, especially at first, because it taps into our fear of not existing. But once you’ve gotten used to it, then you may feel a sense of relief, and you may even find solace in it.

Sometimes we fear death and not existing, and at other times we want to die and be free of thought. So we want it and we don’t want it: just another example of the mind not knowing what it wants!

Don’t fear non-existence

Actually, death and not existing are nothing to worry about, because they can never be experienced in the present moment. Death and non-existence can only ever be a future fear that at some point in the future, we won’t exist.

But the good news is, in the same way that your thought-based identity doesn’t exist, the future doesn’t exist, either. So we’ll never arrive at a future in which we don’t exist. That’s impossible, because there is no future and we don’t exist in that way.

Existence and the “now” are bound together, they’re one and the same, and that’s who you are. You are an existence in the now. You’ll never know death, nor will you ever experience non-existence. If they occur for you, you won’t know it. On the other hand, if you do happen to experience death, then you won’t actually have died, as in some way you’ll continue to exist.

Ironically the thought “I want to die” usually occurs because we can’t stand being with ourselves anymore, with our internal (and external) thought-based suffering. It’s all too much, so we want to escape from it, to end it, to be free of our pain. We want rest and relief, but in death there’s either oblivion or something else.

When the body dies, what if something continues on, and what if the very thing we were trying to kill actually survives? Could it be that the death of our bodies isn’t an escape? Could it be that we can’t kill our minds or our consciousness? Perhaps the mind survives, but is no longer attached to an identity? But we don’t have to die for the mind to be free in that way, as we can realize this freedom in life.

Freedom from suffering, from internal torture, can be realized in life. We can realize who we are by detaching ourselves from thought.

If we aren’t our bodies and we aren’t self-identified thought, what’s left? Whatever is left isn’t physical, and if we aren’t physical, then we can’t kill ourselves, as we can’t kill the non-physical. It follows, then, that there’s no escape from who we really are, no escape for us from our true selves.

Which is worse: knowing that we’ll one day die, or knowing that we’ll live forever? Both alternatives end with us trapped in eternity, but either is true. The truth that can set you free is the simple realization that all of what’s happening is happening now, and there’s no more or less to it than your experience of that.

Freedom from suffering, from internal torture, can be realized in life. We can realize who we are by detaching ourselves from thought. The truth of who you are will set you free, and you don’t have to die for it—or, at least, your body doesn’t have to die.

The thought-self—not the body—has to die

It’s your thought-self, not your body, that has to die. It has to die to its own ideas about itself. It has to die to its idea of a self, a self attached to the past and future and to unfavourable comparisons with others, as well as with how you used to be when you were a younger, healthier, fitter and better-looking version of you.

Life is all about now, for that’s all there is.

Most of all, the mind has to die to the idea that it wants to die, because in reality, it was never alive—not physically. Thought is the problem, and since it’s not physical, it can’t be killed. So we kill the body to kill the mind, but does the mind go on after the body dies? How can we know? And in any case, it’s always possible to change the way we think and bring this thought-based suffering to an end.

So I wish a happy death to all your unnecessary unwanted thoughts and the painful emotions that follow.

May your body live long and be free of mind-made suffering.

And remember, only the body lives and dies. The rest of it is a mystery.

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