Buddhist approaches to working with suicidal thoughts

Posted by on Oct 8, 2012 in Buddhism | No Comments

Update: I just saw an article about a teenager in the Vancouver area who killed herself a few weeks ago because of cyberbullying. Her video is so moving. I wish she was still alive. People don’t realise how much pain they can cause each other. I’d like to say ‘kids’ not ‘people’. But adults can be just as bad.


This morning my train was cancelled due to a ‘passenger incident’. This usually means someone has thrown themselves under the train further up the line. It’s happened several times in the last year. It usually happens on a Monday morning.

I heard someone (who had attempted suicide in the past) call suicide “a permanent solution to a temporary problem”.

The thing is, for the suicidal person, the situation doesn’t seem temporary, and they can’t imagine that the future will turn out to feel anything other than unbearable. And so they leap.

I’m not a specialist. If you’re feeling suicidal right now, contact the Samaritans in the UK. In the US, here are some suicide hotlines.

Buddhist approaches to suicidal thoughts

Overwhelming feelings
Feelings and emotions can be so strong that they rip you apart. They overwhelm you so utterly that you devour you, and you can no longer bear to experience them. Or at least, you think you can’t.

It’s worth remembering that right now you *are* experiencing those feelings and you *are* bearing them. They are strong, they are unpleasant, but you are still alive. In the end, they are feelings and thoughts. They have no weight, no power to force you in any direction. And the one thing you can be 100% sure of: they are impermanent. You can take it. In the end, it’s only pain.

This too shall pass

It seems to be a characteristic of some thoughts and feelings that, when you’re in them, you can’t imagine things ever being another way.

Because of this, you need some kind of voice – perhaps from inside you, from your previous self in the form of some writing you did when you were well, perhaps from a friend, therapist, song, religious text or psychological study – that tells you this will pass. Just as every previous state of mind you’ve experienced up to that point has passed. Sure, it may come back again, but it will go again. It’s amazing how quickly EVERYTHING can feel totally different. You don’t need to kill yourself to experience that change.

Over-identification with feelings and thoughts

One of the ways that feelings and thoughts become overwhelming is when we think of them as self. Or rather, we *mistake* them for self. In this state, it’s not that I can’t bear my present experience, it’s that I can’t bear *me*. And that is a much stronger thought.

Developing mindfulness is a great antidote to over-identifying with one aspect of our present experience as self. It is a quality of mind that helps us to see that our mind is much bigger than we normally think it is. In fact, with a solid mindfulness, we absolutely *can* bear strong emotions.

In the story of the Buddha, on the night he attained awakening, the story goes that ‘Mara the evil one’ sent all manner of armies to prevent him. They threw spears and fired arrows, but the power of the Buddha’s mind transformed them into flowers and the fell harmlessly around him. Then he tried a bunch of other stuff, and that didn’t work either.

The story is a dramatised way of saying that the Buddha (or proto-Buddha, since he wasn’t enlightened at this point) experienced extremely strong negative emotions, but his mindfulness kept him safe. Anyone who has developed mindfulness to any level will know what this feels like. You don’t need to be on the verge of Buddhahood to have a mind that protects you.

Reflecting on what’s actually going on

Often there are big things going on in life that cause the feelings and thoughts and lead us down a path of self-destruction. We lose our wife and kids, we become disabled, we lose our work or our home, we have had extremely abusive pasts that won’t let us live in the present, sitting on our shoulders like demons. There are many things that can happen in our lives that are extremely painful.

Our minds become submerged in the traumatic experience until we can’t see or feel anything else. We become locked in.

It can be helpful to look around and see what is actually going on. Usually, we aren’t in the traumatic experience right now. We are sitting in a room, or on the street, or in a hospital bed. We are alive. We are probably safe, or safe enough. What is in the vicinity of our body right now? Can it strike you? If not, you are safe. The painful experience has happened, or it may happen, but right now, what you’re experiencing is your own mind.

That’s not to try to belittle what’s going on in your life. It’s a way to snap you out of your story for a moment, so you can look around. Then you can start to take the right action. To create change. Grieve, get the hell out of the danger, get out of your own mind and help others. Whatever you need to do, if you get a little perspective, you give yourself options.

Heroes don’t get it easy

Did you ever watch a film where the key character set out to do something, everything went according to plan, they got what they wanted, then the credits rolled?

I didn’t think so. More likely, the closer the key character gets to achieving success, the harder things get for them. Tension builds until it’s unbearable, and at some points all looks lost. But then there is a shift – they find some new resources, have a new idea, try one last thing – and it all turns around. Sometimes you have to lose everything before you find out how amazing you are.

That’s not just Hollywood nonsense. It’s a life archetype. We resonate with it because there’s truth there. That style of plot goes back way before Shakespeare.


When you’re in a terrible state, forget meditation. You can’t go from an extremely distressed state into formal meditation and get anything much from it. So you get an extra failure to deal with and feel even worse.

Chanting, on the other hand, requires voice, not mind. Just chant a mantra, or something else repetitive and positive: “This will pass”, “All the strength I need is within me now”, “Even as I sit here, everything is changing”, “Om mani padme hum”.

This will have a positive impact on your mind and your heart. If you keep it going, it will change the flow of your mind. And you are forced to become different. Instead of obsessing over the terrible stuff, obsess over a mantra. Don’t try it, just do it.



Did you know The Meditator's Handbook is out? It has everything you need to set up and maintain an effective meditation practice. Check it out!

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