Sally and James Colbert – USA
Herbert Hinden, M.D. reported on interviews with four suicidal persons who jumped off six story buildings. By chance these four had lived. Two of the four stated they had changed their minds on the way down. One wonders of the thousands that have jumped off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, how many of these changed their mind on the way down?
It is estimated that a million people each year worldwide commit suicide. Every culture, every country and every one of us has most probably encountered some experience with this act. There is a report that with each suicide there are at least six other persons directly affected. It is rare that a suicidal act only involves the person doing it.
It is said we cannot understand the awful terrifying loss to our being unless we have experienced it ourselves. One of the authors has had to go through these effects almost too personal to share. The other author most likely lived through some of this when starting his private practice as a clinical psychologist. When first opening his office, he received the first call for an appointment. It was a family who stated they wanted to meet with a psychologist in order to help their communication. We met for an hour and we seemed to make some progress. It ended with an agreement to meet the following week. Eight hours later a call was made from this same family saying their oldest son had hung himself to death. Not knowing really what to do, we immediately traveled to their home and we all held each other for a time. Later at the Catholic funeral we sat with the family.The people filed past the open casket to pay their respects. Again, we held each other with very few words. The impotence, helplessness, guilt and a kind of absurd futility of this senseless act swept through every part of our being.
If for no other reason than those given above, the tone of this article has a direction of compassion for both the victim of suicide and for all those that intimately share this experience. Theosophy has a lot to say on this subject and offers information that may be pivotal in the decision to take one’s life. If there is a reader who is drawn to this article and who is giving thought to suicide it is emphasized there will be resources listed at the end of the article that can be contacted to help.The same is true for families that are involved in these circumstances. There are some hints in the teachings that point to possible ways someone who has completed this act may be helped. This will be discussed.
Some of the central Theosophical ideas on suicide will be reviewed.The importance of psychological health and help are touched upon. In that Assisted Suicide, Euthanasia, self-immolation as in Tibet, and suicide bombers as in Iraq and Afghanistan are so much of the zeitgeist, these subjects are included. The final section will point to resources and a call towards compassion.
One of the most definitive theosophical views on suicide was written by William Q. Judge, “Suicide is Not Death” – an article originally appearing in the newspaper, New York World. The gist is killing off of the physical body does not bring a full death. He indicates the person who has taken his own life continues to have conscious awareness of the circumstances bringing him/her to suicide (on the astral plane) but can do nothing to alter the situation. In other words, he is really not dead, but is more helpless. In Judge’s words, “He becomes a shade; he lives in purgatory, so to say, called by the Theosophist the ‘place of desire and passion,’ or ‘Kama Loka.’ He exists in the astral realm entirely eaten up by his own thoughts. Continually repeating in vivid thoughts the act by which he tried to stop his life’s pilgrimage, he at the same time sees the people and the place he left, but is not able to communicate with any one……” And, it is emphasized, he must live out the natural term of his life except in a more helpless dreamlike state.
There may be some confirmation of this by those who have reported on Near Death experiences. Raymond Moody’s book, Life After Life, recorded NDEs (Near Death Experiences) associated with suicide attempts, “These experiences were uniformly characterized as being unpleasant . . . the conflicts they had attempted suicide to escape were still present after they died, but with added complications. In their disembodied state they were unable to do anything about their problems, and they also had to view the unfortunate consequences which had resulted from their acts.” “They felt a long stay in an unpleasant limbo state was their penalty for ‘breaking the rules’ by trying to release themselves prematurely from what was, in effect, an ‘assignment’—to fulfill a certain purpose in life.”
Annie Besant wrote an article entitled, "After-death Experiences of Suicides." It was reprinted in “The Theosophist,” (1932) The magazine's intention was that of “hoping to help arrest the epidemic of suicide caused by the present world depression.” Ms. Besant writes:
“It [suicide] is the deliberate or the hurried action of the man who is trying to get out of a trouble and escape from it. Yet he cannot escape from it. He has struck away his body, he is wide awake on the other side of death, exactly the same man he was a moment before, except that his body is thrown off; no more changed than if he had merely taken off his coat. The result of his losing the physical body is that his capacity for suffering is very much increased. He is subject to the same forces as those which may have driven him to suicide. There is, however, one peculiarity in relation to it-that he generally goes through in "imagination," as we call it (which is the most real thing of all), all that led up to the point when he killed himself, and that is repeated over and over again.
A great deal of the suffering depends upon that. The thing which drove him to suicide was mental or emotional, as the case may be. He has not got rid either of his mind or his emotions. All the part of him that drove him to suicide is there; it was not a mere bodily action. The result of that is that he has still in him every thing which made him commit the act; the consequence of this is that he keeps on committing it, going through the whole of the trouble that drove him up to the final act."
There is a sense in which the Theosophical description of the suicide caught in a state where he/she is really not dead but helpless to do anything about it, reminds one of a current teenage horror film called “The Undead.” Wikipedia’s comment on this theme, “Regarding ghosts, the spirit lives on after death, forming an intangible physical body that often mirrors the one the spirit had in life. Rituals propitiating the uneasy spirits of the dead were a feature of ancient Greek religion (keres), ancient Roman religion (lemures), and Hinduism.” (En.wikipedia.org.wiki/Undead)
The writings from H.P.B., although containing many statements about suicide (related to the descriptions of Judge and Besant above), does shows one article directly on the subject, “Is Suicide a Crime?” There are two areas we would like to give special attention to. One is that the after death states have multiple variations. We cannot say, nor judge, that it is likely a person will experience a special kind of hell for having killed themselves. She writes, “….and there is but one general law or rule for all suicides. But, it is just because the ‘after-states’ vary ad-infinitum, that it is erroneous to infer that this variation consists only in the degree of punishment.” And, “To treat exhaustively of all and every case of suicide and their after-states would require a shelf of volumes from the British Museum’s Library, not our Fragments.” The second area we give focus is her reference to “insanity” (the mental health term of that time). Her statement, “Anything is better- even being called a crazy philanthropist – then committing suicide, the most dastardly and cowardly of all actions, unless the felo de se is resorted to, in a fit of insanity.” We would next like to give attention to mental illness and suicide.
Mental Health and Suicide
Before deciding if the insanity is “out there” or in the person, an article by Butler Shaffer (LewRockwell.com) “Suicide and the Insanity of War,” might be brought into the discussion. There, Butler points out “more American soldiers are dying by suicide than in combat…..” Our soldiers are dying from suicide than by all the firepower of the “enemy.” This same point will be made when referencing the recent self-immolations of Tibetan monks later in the article. The insanity or mental illness can stem from our society as well within the individual.
The book, November of the Soul by George Howe Colt, to these authors, is the most comprehensive and well researched on the subject of suicide. There, one can find the following: “…current thinking maintains that about 90 percent of completed suicides suffer from some sort of psychiatric disorder…” The National Institute of Mental Health reports that of those who suffer from clinical depression have a suicide rate of twenty five times higher than the general population. “Although schizophrenia, alcohol and drug abuse, and borderline personality disorder, among others, all carry increased risk, the disorder with which suicide has most closely been identified is depression….” “While an estimated one in five people with major depression will attempt suicide, nearly one-half with bipolar disorder will try to kill themselves.” Also, it is a good idea to include: “Adults with a history of physical or sexual abuse in childhood are up to twenty-five times more likely to attempt suicide. The greater the trauma – duration, use of force, relationship of perpetrator to victim, whether or not penetration occurred – the greater the risk of suicide.”
Although the mental illness component is obviously important it is stressed that even though it increases the odds, it is only part of the equation. Despite exhaustive research related to what leads a person to suicide, nothing seems to hold as definitive. In short, putting all studies on this subject together there is no single cause that leads to this act. It truly is something involved with each individual. However, if we simply focused on those with major or even moderate depression we can do a lot. Best practice treatment modalities include both carefully monitored medication regimens and individual psychotherapy. Of course, at least in the USA, they are becoming less and less affordable.
Not necessarily related to depression there is an interesting approach by Maltzberger and Buie (Suicide risk: The formulation of clinical judgment.1986 -Maltzberger) – also reviewed by George Colt in his book above referred to as “psychodynamic formulation.” A part of this involves switching the dynamic of what would be the reason for dying to “what a person has to live for. “Most people live for all sorts of things –friends, a special person, work –and if they lose something on one front, they pick it up on another. But suicidal people are quite deficient in any capacity to keep themselves afloat on the basis of inner resources.
It seems clear the Theosophical teachings call our attention to our journey. Although friends, a special person, and work are extremely important, they do not constitute what we are really here for. Our purpose is to learn according to William Q. Judge in order to become more consciously aware.This is reflected in all of life. Perhaps knowledge of this could be influential in deciding between life and death.
Assisted-suicide is legal in several countries, including Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. It is legal in three states in the U.S. (Oregon, Washington, and Montana). Assisted Suicide is usually referred to when another, e.g., a physician, makes it possible for you to take your own life such as leaving medication on your bed stand. Euthanasia, on the other hand, is where the “other” takes an active part in your death such as an injection.
From the standpoint of the Theosophical teachings there would is no justification for assisted suicide or euthanasia. Death of the body through suicide or assisted suicide is not death. Although there may be variations of the initial after death state, the natural life term is to be completed. Death by suicide makes it so the individual cannot impact the circumstances the person is trying to escape from. It is suspected that the sensing of this by most all cultures and almost all religious traditions is behind the universal restrictions against any form of suicide.
If one reads the literature or history of assisted suicide it seems both bizarre and tragic. There is idealism, misrepresentation and misunderstanding, and a number of the players going to prison. Check out the stories of Jack Kevorkian, M.D. of the U.S. (now released from prison, Nicholas Reed (UK) associated with “Exit” (who completed his prison term) and Derek Humphrey (USA) of the “Hemlock Society.” The how to books: Suicide. Mode d’Emploi. Guide to Self Deliverance, How to Die With Dignity, and Medical Power and Medical Ethics are both scary and chilling. There seems to be a pattern with most of these efforts. They start out with good intentions, only suggesting services to the terminally ill who are experiencing pain and are requesting death. Further they usually build in safeguards (screening out those that a depressed and who have a verified terminal illness) so that “selection” is very careful. Soon, the safeguards fall by the wayside followed by a graduation to being actively involved in the decisions of those who want to kill themselves. The words “slippery slope” comes to mind. It is almost like there is a negative magnetism dragging those involved towards over control with compassion being left out of the mix.
The elderly and disabled are both targets and potential victims of the “movement.” The elderly because they are accused of taking too great of cost from the health care dollar (Euro?). Actually, this is not the case. Read Death as a Salesman What’s Wrong with Assisted Suicide by Brian J. Johnson. There you will find the research showing the proportional cost is not greater. He also has an important chapter on pain which attests to most all pain can be managed so that a person does not suffer. This strongly reminds us of when one of the authors was asked to consult with a patient who had cancer but in the eyes of his physician there was fear the patient was becoming addicted. The patient was another physician who had written pain prescriptions for himself but this medication was taken from the patient due to the fear of addiction. When we arrived at the hospital to talk with the patient, the patient had died. And, he died without the benefit of pain relieving medication. Just why was there concern about addiction when death was around the corner?
Those with disabilities are mentioned prominently in determining candidates for assisted suicide. The term “quality of life” is the buzz phrase for these considerations. But where is the cut off line between having enough quality to live and not enough when one should die? To quote Johnson (ibid): “People with disabilities are among society’s most likely candidates for ending their lives, as society frequently made it clear that it believes they would be better off dead, or better that they had not been born. The experience in the Netherlands demonstrates that legalizing assisted suicide generates strong pressures upon individuals and families to utilize that option, and leads very quickly to coercion and voluntary euthanasia.”
This is not to say that the Theosophical teachings provide a menu listing out what to do in all these situations. It is clear, however, that suicide of any kind is not a way out. One must complete the life term or complete it in the Kama Loka realm where one is really not dead. However, what is the life term? Do some heroic medical procedures make it so we go past a natural life term? How many have faced the decision of continuing medical treatment versus halting all procedures? One of the authors has. His mother was next door to death. The doctor said she needed another cat scan and medicine should be injected as she was spitting the pills out.The doctor said he had seen many come out of a semi state of unconsciousness and it would very possibly happen with her. She trusted her son implicitly. Others knew that it was her time and knew she wanted to go. Her son went along with the doctor. It was a mistake. She died shortly thereafter. How do you know what the right thing to do when a decision is required regarding life and death? One thing is for sure, you do not help someone to die. If anything, you try not to get in the way. You try to let compassion be your guide with the recognition the higher nature of each one of us really is in charge. This was true of mother.
The decisions of life or death are most likely to become harder for our society as the world’s population increases. The “old man’s friend” (pneumonia) is no longer friendly. Pneumonia use to be the easy way out of life. It no longer is. In 1900 (Blavatsky’s death was in 1891) the average life expectancy in America was age 47. In 2005 it was age 78. We have now added over 30 years to the program. Antibiotics and a host of other treatments have kept many alive past the “natural life span.” Of course, determining whatever is the natural life span is hard to say.
Suicide Bombers and Self Immolation
Suicide as a subject has to give some attention to suicide bombing and self-immolation which has become so much a part of the world’s attention. Although these topics would warrant books by themselves (there are a number) our review will be limited to possible Theosophical comments.
“As of 2005 more than 350 suicide bombings were perpetuated in countries other than Iraq…..In Iraq there have been 545 suicide bombings (2003 – 2007)…” “Education, Income and Support for Suicide Bombings: Evidence from six Muslim Countries” by Najeeb Shafiq and Abdukater H. Sinno. There have been 29 self immolations of Tibetan monks in their protests of the occupation by China of Tibet according to the site: http://www.savetibet.org/resource-center/maps-data-fact-sheets/self-immolation-fact-sheet.
Although suicide as a way of protest has occurred throughout all history, these current suicides are or should be in the consciousness of us all. The suicide bombings have been linked to martyrdom and by some to later rewards in a Muslim heaven. However, they are more clearly acts of desperation standing for patriotism and spiritual religiosity. The Shafiq and Sinno study (above), a study to determine attitudes of Muslim people towards suicide bombings, to this author, has a more profound meaning than what the study authors may have intended. In the study they sampled the populace with the variables of level of education (from college education to less than primary education) and level of income (from very poor to wealthy). The findings were mixed and varied from country to country. It was one of their questions, however, that had an impact on these authors. It was this: “Some people think that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets (in our country) are justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies. Other people believe that, no matter what the reason, this kind of violence is never justified. Do you personally feel that this kind of violence is often justified to defend Islam, sometimes justified, rarely justified, or never justified?”
Results indicate that in some Muslim countries violence “against civilian targets” many feel that violence against civilian targets is not justified. Startling, to us, however, was the numbers thinking it was justified (approximately from 60 to 10%). To us, killing yourself is one thing, but killing many innocent civilians is another (in order to make the point). Are the innocent civilians martyrs too? For respondents to feel killing innocent persons is justified does seem desperate. Have we really considered the degree of hatred in the Muslim world against the West? How in anyway could we decide that military force could ever bring about peace to our world?
The Theosophical teachings are that all of us (Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, etc.) are on this journey of greater understanding and the expansion of consciousness. Further, the outlines of the journey can be found in every spiritual system present in the world including Islam. Somehow, possibly finding this connection between us all would have greater potentiality towards peace than the billions spent on coercion.
Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, and described as the political successor of the Dalai Lama, was recently interviewed by a representative of the Huffington Post. The topic was “religious restrictions and self-immolations in Tibet. Reading between the lines, you can detect the degree of agony. To the question, “Does Buddhism allow self-immolation?” Part of his answer was, “Although suicide is violent and prohibited in Buddhism, some Buddhists believe it depends on the motivation. If you do it out of hatred and anger, then it is negative. But if you do if for a pure cause…it’s such a complex theological issue.You can’t go either way or have a definitive answer. But the action is tragic, so painful.” Conceptualize this for a moment. How does one douse gasoline all over oneself and light the fire without feeling hatred or anger?
The Theosophical perspective is that all acts of suicide do not really remove these persons. They are not dead. The implication is that these individuals are filling the magnetic sphere around the earth with the agony of repeating and repeating their acts until the natural life span of the life they were to live is complete. We all remain together.
Resources and Help
Before going to our closing part of the article it is important to know there are global or international help lines on a twenty four hour seven days a week basis. For a person needing to talk, they are excellent. One of your authors tried a few of them and was greatly impressed. Most of the counselors have communication skills in the language of the person calling. There are resources as well for relatives, friends or families who have lost someone by suicide. Two are listed here but there are many others by simply going to the internet and typing in Global Suicide hot lines. Or simply type in your browser: http://www.befrienders.org. It is noted that this organization has over 30,000 volunteers and in over 60 countries. Facebook has a site: http://www.facebook.com/help/search/?q=Suicide. We were also impressed with the International Association of Suicide Prevention http://www.iasp.info/resources/Crisis_Centres (IASP). There you place your mouse over just about any part of the global map shown and resources with phone numbers appear.
Approaches to Consider
There are numerous “methods” described to treat a person with a focus on suicide. It depends on the professional you contact. It is recognized that talking, sharing, and being there for the person with understanding is the most important approach to take and, this is, perhaps the only thing we can do. Sometimes just a minor change in one’s life can shift things in a positive direction. That a suicide act is more likely to occur during a crisis is probably true. Helping a person getting past a day or a week can change the nature of the crisis. If it is possible to make the theosophical ideas available to someone can be significant. That is, suicide is not death and only the physical body is lost. But, the other parts of our being continue on in a helpless state. That is, there is continuance of the problem leading to the suicide but no capacity to change the circumstances as change has to be done on the physical plane. Suicide, in effect, is not an escape from our circumstances and leads to greater turmoil. Suggesting, in a kind way, that this information could be considered can be helpful.
Is there a way to help the person who has committed suicide? In H.P. Blavatsky’s article, referred to above, she published an unpublished letter by Eliphas Levi that had some suggestions. Levi indicated that in addition to thinking of the person who committed suicide in a compassionate way, it is suggested that if there was something left undone by this person, one might try to do it for them. Their lives were incomplete. The suggestion is one might help in this completion. There is a book written Dore Deverell (Light Beyond The Darkness) a mother who was a student of Rudolph Steiner. Her son had committed suicide. IT was recommended to her that she read to her son every night meaningful to her, passages. She did this and felt a release that somehow her son was finding his way. Although this is not necessarily recommended, it did impress one of the authors that she held her son in her thoughts. The author had a client with similar circumstances with her son. She was in deep depression. Finally, she came to the office one day with a smile. She said she had a dream and in the dream the son had reassured her that he was at long last free and so was she.
The story of Quan Yin to express compassion for the victim of suicide and their families seems somehow to fit: She is: "One Who Hears the Cries of the World. She lived such a pure life that she earned the right to enter Nirvana after death.
At the gates of Paradise, she heard a tormented cry rise from Earth and turned away from her heavenly reward to help mankind achieve enlightenment (http://www.ehow.com).” To the millions who have taken this step their cries need to be heard by her and by each one of us.
Besant, A. (1932). “Talks with a class,” “After-death experiences of suicides,” The Theosophist
Blavatsky, H.P. (1981). “Is suicide a crime?,” Theosophical articles, Los Angeles: Theosophy Company
Colt, G. H. (1991). The november of the soul, New York: Scribner
Deverell, D. (2000). Light beyond the darkness, Clairview Books
Guillon, C., and Y. L.B. (1982). Suicide, mode d’emploi: histoire, technique, actualite. Paris: Editions Alain Moreau
Hinden, H. (1982). Suicide in america. New York: W.W. Norton
Johnson, B. J. (2011). Death as a salesman: what's wrong with assisted suicide? New Regency Publishing
Judge, W. Q. (1980). “Suicide is not death,” Theosophical Articles, Los Angeles: The Theosophy Co.
Maltzberger, J. T. (1986). Suicide risk: the formulation of clinical judgement, New York: New York University Press
Moody, R. (1976). Life after life, San Francisco: Harper Collins
Sangay, L. (May 21, 2012). “Self-immolation of tibetan buddhists monks,” Huffington Post
Shaffer, B, “Suicide and the insanity of war,” Lew Rockwell, Com
Shafiq, M. N., & Sinna, H. A. “Education, income, and support for suicide bombings: evidence from six muslim countries,” http://jcr.sagepub.com/content/54/1/146
Van Den Berg, J. H. (1978). Medical power and medical ethics, W.W. Norton & Co Inc. (Np)