Walking To The Edge Of The Precipice … And Back:
An Essay On Suicide
EK ONG KAAR KAUR
An Essay On Suicide
EK ONG KAAR KAUR
For months, I have been meditating on how to write this essay. The matters I want to address require tremendous sensitivity when putting thoughts and feelings into words. The topic challenges our emotional depth as human beings. It profoundly tests our spiritual understanding as well as our faith.
However, last week, I read about a 19 year old Sikh living in Seattle, beloved by the sangat, who took his own life. This essay is being written in honor of those who loved this young man and are suffering from the circumstances of his death, as well as for all the people who have been touched by such tragedies.
I write from the perspective of someone who has struggled with darkness and depression off and on throughout my entire life. As someone who has come close to making the same choice that this young Sardar made.
I first experienced depression when I was around 12 - 14 years old. It was kind of a romantic darkness that descended into my life. An adolescent ennui that wondered - what was the point? Of life? Of living?
I checked out poetry from the local library that matched my mood. Roamed around cemeteries with my best friend, looking for gravestones that had our names on it. And I began investigating some of the more mystical aspects of our Catholic church, specifically the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement.
Looking back, I believe my inner spirit was trying to wake up, but felt blocked from finding a genuine place in the world where It belonged.
Despite the fact that all of this could be chalked up to the developmental phase of adolescence, the depression was not cute. It had a serious edge and darkness to it. I would fantasize about some terrible illness taking my life, and then being an angel during my own funeral - listening to everyone testifying how much they loved me and how much they were going to miss me. I would often go to bed praying to not wake up the next morning. And then feeling let down by God when I actually did wake up.
In time, however, the Divine heard my prayers and responded to me. Showing me It was there, that I could come Home if I wanted, but helping me realize how precious life is. So my first experience of depression led to the first of many powerful mystical experiences.
Through the thrust of that mystical touch, I broke through the depression for a time. But not forever.
This cycle would repeat itself every 18 months to two years like clockwork from my teenage years until my late 20’s. Each time the depression returned, it became darker and harder to fight. Fantasies about dying a tragic death turned into suicidal urges.
I never actually created a plan. Once, in college, I bought a lot of sleeping pills to have on hand, “just in case.” Yet each time the depression returned, some kind of mystical touch would pull me back from the edge. Show me a different road. And though I sought counselling during and after college for the condition, ultimately it was those mystical experiences that provided the relief I needed.
I became curious about suicide during those years. Not in the macabre way of “how to”, but trying to understand where those urges come from.
Suicide is one of the most taboo subjects in polite society, no matter what one’s culture or country. It is even more taboo than incest, rape or terminal illnesses. Historically, in the Christian west, suicide was considered such a deep sin that a person could not be buried in a church-owned or monitored cemetery if one had taken one’s own life. In the Middle Ages, horses would drag the body of someone who had committed suicide around, mutilating and humiliating the physical form as well as the memory of that person. The stigma attached to the family of someone who committed suicide was severe and life-long.
To take one’s life, then, was to be eternally damned to hell and to condemn your family to shame-by-association for the rest of their lives, with all of the social isolation that implies.
Today, when someone struggles with suicidal feelings, we have different responses to encourage them to not take that step. From the religious: “You will end up in hell if you commit suicide.” Or “You will have to begin the journey of 8.4 million incarnations from the very beginning if you commit suicide.” To the moral: “How could you be so selfish as to take your own life, and leave your loved ones with such a burden?”
To the physiological, “It’s brain chemistry. An imbalance in serotonin or dopamine. Medication can help.” To the psychological, “The wounded inner child is angry and in pain from not being loved. Therapy can help you heal.” To the exploitative, “If you commit suicide and take out a bunch of non-believers with you, you will be a hero, go to heaven and enjoy 70-something virgins.”
In other words, what we think about suicide, how we view it, emotionally react to it, religiously respond to it, all has more to do with the social-religious context in which we view the act than any empirical reason of what brings people to this point in their lives. All of these are constructs for how we, as a society, confront the shame and anguish that we feel when some members of our community can no longer stand the pain of being here anymore. When people we know would rather die than stay on the planet and in our company.
But what if there is a possibility that suicide is a biologically-encoded response to something? What if all of our religious, psychological, medicinal constructs are covering a much simpler, and starker truth? That suicide is a naturally occurring biological response to extreme deprivation and stress?
When I was in my 20’s, I learned something fascinating. Some dolphins, when in captivity, act in a way that we would term “suicidal.”
What? What does that even mean? How is it even possible?
Dolphins are exquisitely powerful and sensory creatures. In the ocean, they have hundreds of miles in which to swim, hunt, play, mate, and raise their babies. They have a natural sonar system called echolocation that can identify objects hundreds of feet away with incredible precision. From an evolutionary perspective, dolphins are creatures who have a fairly conscious relationship with and enjoyment of the ocean. They live and clearly enjoy life within the ocean’s bountiful waters.
Yet, in captivity, a dolphin can no longer swim hundreds of miles. They only have several yards of space to move. And if they are in a concrete pool, their natural sonar becomes a curse, rather than a blessing. The sound waves they emit to detect objects bounce from one wall to another, creating a “house of mirrors” effect. A continually repeating sonar image that is all-encompassing and distorted.
Dolphins need oxygen to breathe. They can swim for long periods of time under water, but they do not have the gills that allow other sea creatures to live under water. They are a kind of in-between animal - living both above and below the water at the same time. They break the surface to inhale oxygen, then descend below to swim, play, eat, travel, and explore.
So, in order to breathe, dolphins must swim to the top of the ocean, or pool, or whatever body of water in which they dwell, and take a breath. If they do not do this, they will die of suffocation.
In captivity, some dolphins exhibit what we consider signs of depression - a lack of interest in eating, listlessness, a lack of interest in play, activity or socializing. And then, some “depressed” dolphins, will sink to the bottom of the pool one day and lay there until they die. They refuse to come to the surface to take another breath.
In our human way of looking at it, these dolphins “commit suicide.”
Do dolphin souls go to hell? Did their dolphin parents not play with them enough when they were little? Do these dolphins experience a genetic problem that give them an imbalance in their brain chemistry?
Could you imagine dolphin therapists talking to the dolphins about practicing gratitude?
“Someone serves you dead fish three times a day. Can you be thankful for that?”
Or dolphin religious figures telling them, “If you just endure this life in a concrete pool, and be humble and surrender to it, then in your NEXT life, you will be born as a whale and be able to roam the ocean as freely as you’d like.”
It puts the whole conversation about suicide in a different perspective. I am not disrespecting theology or counselling or medication or any of the strategies that we humans use to keep ourselves from going over the edge. I, myself, have used all of them as life rafts to keep from drowning.
BUT I believe the dolphins give us an important mirror as to what the deeper problem is. And the deeper problem may be this.
That we are biologically built to experience joy, creativity, challenge and fun. And when we do not experience life in that frequency, when we have the opposite experience of slavery, imprisonment, confinement and dependence; then maybe, just maybe, there is an inner genetic impulse to turn the “Life” switch to “Off” in order to escape the dissonance and pain.
Some people may be more predisposed towards suicide because they have suffered trauma, or because of their genetic make-up, or for a host of other reasons. And those symptoms need compassionate, rational treatment such as therapy, medication, gratitude, meditation, nutrition, and exercise. There are so many things research shows us do help.
But I believe the core disease goes much deeper. The disease has its origin in the bridge between the spiritual and the physical. When a Spirit cannot find a way to authentically express its Being, to feel joy; and when the biological organism is in such disharmony with its environments that such an expression becomes impossible; then the inner rage, fear and grief create a time bomb of self-destruction.
That self-destruction may take the form of addiction. Or depression. Or risk-taking behaviors. Or suicide. The power to create and be joyful can turn into an equal power of being miserable and ultimately destructive.
This to my mind is the true problem we face. Not a psychological imbalance or a spiritual malady. But a psycho-spiritual crisis that comes from a fundamental misunderstanding that our biological existence is designed to manifest Divine Creativity and Joy.
“To be or not to be. That is the question,” muses Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles - and by opposing, end them.”
He is, of course, talking about man’s rational capacity to choose to end his life when the pain of reality becomes too great.
Around age 28, I met Singh Sahin Harbhajan Singh ji (‘Yogi Bhajan‘). That meeting took place relatively soon after the most crippling bout of depression I had faced to date. One where my therapist wanted to put me on medication, where I felt not only suicidal but also homicidal. Where my inner rage was so great I could totally understand how someone might just take a gun, go to a fast food restaurant, and open fire.
But I fought the darkness with meditation, herbs, nutrition, and exercise. And from that depression, I had a mystical experience that changed the course of my life.
After I met Singh Sahib, I moved to Espanola, New Mexico, USA and soon became a Sikh. My life transformed radically. I practiced yoga and simran a couple hours a day. Performed seva in the community on a regular basis. Transitioned to a vegetarian diet. Went to gurdwara, and sang shabads. Learned Gurmukhi, and, under Singh Sahib’s guidance and instruction, began to translate Gurbani into English.
All the while, I kept my inner eyes peeled, waiting for the darkness to return. The typical 18 month to two year cycle came and went. Nothing happened. 3 years, 5 years passed - nothing happened.
Wow - that’s pretty cool, I remember thinking. It’s been five years!
More years passed. I thought about the issue less and less. 7 years, 8 years. 10 years. 12 years. WOW! The depression was gone.
Had I beaten it? Was it healed? All the yoga, simran and seva - was that it? Would I never have to worry about it again? 15 years ...17 years ...coming close to 20 years …
AND … In 2016, a perfect storm emerged. Looking back, I can understand it now as a combination of contributing factors. My body was entering menopause. My thyroid function had dropped. I had endured a certain relentless stress in the community, in the years after Singh Sahib left his physical body. And that intense stress eventually overpowered my yoga and meditation practice.
When a particularly difficult emotional challenge surfaced in my personal life, that was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I lost control. My body/mind shifted into some kind of PTSD response that I had no power over. I stopped sleeping for five months.
It was as if Pandora’s box had opened. And 20 years’ worth of depression, hiding in wait, roared to life and ripped through my psyche in one monstrous show. It was doubly devastating because I believed the depression had been healed. I kept asking myself, “How can this be happening to me? After all the yoga, simran, seva and vichaar - how can this be happening to me???!!”
My self-esteem tanked as the idea I had held of “who I was” shattered in the face of that horrible darkness.
Still, I fought. Even though week by week, my condition got worse and worse. I started intensive therapy - seeing two different therapists at the same time. Rejoined a support group to which I belonged many years ago. Went to acupuncture. Tried different meditations and recited different shabads.
As the bottoming out continued, I went to see my doctor for sleeping pills. A psychiatrist for antidepressants. And when even those measures failed to stop the descent, with the love and support of family and friends, I checked myself into the hospital
There, one night, at my very lowest point, when I didn’t even have the will to take one more breath, the Guru blessed me with the single most powerful, important, and profound mystical experience of my entire life. And ultimately, that is what brought me back. Slowly, it brought me back.
Finding my way back from that edge has not been easy or pleasant. I have had to face issues within myself and my life that I had successfully suppressed for many years. My spiritual practice had simultaneously given me a taste of what a healthy, happy and “holy” life might look like. And then it had to give me the strength to transform my sense of “holy” into “wholeness.”
Which is the journey that I am on right now. Taking incremental steps in that direction every day.
And of course, none of this would even be possible without the powerful love and generous support of my friends, family, and especially my husband Patrick.
Going through such severe depression after 20 years of remission has given me new insights into the condition and some new questions to explore. I am convinced more than ever that we are not psychological beings, or spiritual beings, but psycho-spiritual beings. That we not only have I.Q (Intelligence Quotient) and E.Q. (Emotional Quotient) but we also have an S.Q. (Spiritual Quotient.) And how these three develop and interact with one another within each individual, and collectively as a society, is critically important to understand.
What is codependency? What is compassion? What is magical thinking, and what is mystical vision? What are poor boundaries, and what is the experience of Union?
Emotionally immature survival mechanisms can so easily be confused with emotionally and spiritually mature values. We need to consciously tease apart these terms to understand how they work within ourselves and within community.
During these last two years, I have also learned about the Sikh mystical stage called Bairaag - which may be termed spiritual depression. The inevitable psycho-spiritual crisis that human beings face and must cross through, especially when they are committed to a spiritual lifestyle and journey. In the Catholic faith, one might refer to this stage as St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul.
I remember something Singh Sahib once said about suicide. He told us in class, “If I had been raised the way you people raise your children, I would have committed suicide by the time I was three years old.”
The dolphin chooses to stop breathing. The two year old or three year old, when angry, threatens to hold his breath until he gets his way. Attempts to “leave the body by refusing to breathe” when they do not feel like they are being treated right.
During this coming year, with the indulgence of you, the reader, I would like to explore these questions of mysticism and madness; of emotional immaturity and spiritual maturity; and of the stage of Bairaag. My hope is that, through this exploration, we may find new tools and insights together about how to help ourselves and those we love, to make the choice to keep breathing. And to cultivate the true spirit of joy and creativity in our lives.
January 13, 2018
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