I went recently to the wake of a young patient I knew from work, whose life ended on the 18th. Working in oncology, I see death more than many might. It’s not super pleasant, but the more familiar it becomes, the more you realize how personal death isn’t…. at least not inherently. Being born is like stepping into line at the BMV: at the start you grab a number, and in a completely logical and predictable and impersonal manner, when you’re number is reached, it’s your turn. I mean, it’s not any more personal than your fingernails growing.
Ummm….but sometimes it is. I’ll try explaining.
The first big reason death is impersonal is that it happens naturally to everything that is born. The crazy cycle here is that we all already know this, but because it’s such a part of life, we’ve become desensitized to it in a bizarre and perverted, forgetful kind of way. Because of this forgetfulness, we’re perpetually shocked by it. And so, we’re entirely unfamiliar with something that has been with us since we were born.
Secondly, almost all people die of some kind of “natural” thing. Think cancer, heart attack, stroke, old age. There’s nothing personal, in any way, about these. I can vouch that this is true, at least from a purely clinical standpoint. When cancer shows up in someone, it’s not a personal attack. I promise. The real problem here is that folks attach their sense of self to their body. Which is why people sometimes ask, “Why me?” Ummm….not you, dummy. Your body. Two different things. When you think you are your body, then you’re bound(as in “caught in the trap of…”) to take whatever happens to your body as a personal attack. Lame.
Thirdly, many folks take death to be so very personal because they view it to be an “end.” Life, though, is not the opposite of death. Birth is. This is why everything that’s born must die. Life can have no more an opposite, than can energy ever actually be created or destroyed. Simply not possible. It should also perhaps be noted that many many times, dead things are born. And so, congruently, birth also does not equate life.
Those are just three reasons I find suitable for a discussion as to why death shouldn’t be taken personally. There are lots more that could be gone into. I know many will disagree with me and I’m not disturbed by that.
However, there is an instance in which I think death is quite a bit more personal than it normally is. Care to guess?
This is how the young patient mentioned earlier died. He’d had cancer a number of times, beating it each time. He was healthy. Although he maybe didn’t stay cured for long, he was a survivor by most definitions. After the last “win,” it was determined that a stem cell transplant would benefit him, so he did it. He underwent the procedure, recovered, and then sometime after he seemed fully recovered and doing well he had a “nervous episode.” He was placed into psych care, I think, and was never the same thereafter. Eventually he was back into the normal swing of things, and functioned well-enough, but just… different. Same old kid, minus the sparkle he once had. We found out not long ago that he’d taken his own life, and tonight I went to his wake to say good-bye to his body.
For Hindus this word, suicide, is atmahatya. Culturally, atmahatya is frowned on. It’s viewed to be a violation of ahimsa(nonviolence or noninjury or non-aggression). It’s equal to murdering another. And according to lore, it leaves one to become a wandering ghost in the next life, punished in some kind of severe hell until the karma created by the act is spent-at which time the atma is reborn. The form taken is said to be either the form of an animal which is a level or two below humans, or a human life once again where certain karmas that weren’t fulfilled in the prematurely-extinguished life are given another try.
Umm… with all due respect to my chosen dharma, I think this is (mostly) bullshit.
I know for a fact that my religion, in certain cases, allows for suicide. The word we use for it is prayopavesha. Technically speaking, it’s a sanctioned form of starvation with all kinds of rules attached to it in regard to how and when and why it’s permitted. According to multiple sources, it’s meant as a controlled means of leaving this life for someone who has no ambition, no desires, and/or no responsibilities. It’s strictly regulated. But it’s still killing yourself, and herein lies the distinction. If suicide leads the jiva to wander as a ghost in hellish states of existence, then even the sadhu/monk/holy man who consciously ends his life is cursed in this way. Nonsense.
Stay with me.
If I take a gun and choose someone, and then shoot them. It’s murder. If someone comes at me and attempts to harm me, the very same action is labeled self-defense. The difference? The state and condition of my mind, as obviously influenced by my surroundings, when my finger pulls the trigger. Many would argue that the difference has more to do with the circumstance that caused the shooting. I’m certain it doesn’t. In this case and in all other cases, shooting a gun is simply shooting a gun. Doesn’t matter whether you’re in sun or snow, standing or sitting, murdering or defending. The action is literally the same. The only possible difference, as far as a person’s karmic patterns are effected, pertains to the internal landscape of the person when the shooting takes place. (This, among 800 million other reasons, is why emotions should never be any sort of governing force in a person’s life, and why bhakti is something to be chased slowly and in a very regulated manner instead of dove(dived?) into. If my emotions run everything, I’m incredibly more likely to react instead of act.)
My point is that the action itself isn’t what matters. It’s simply an impersonal aspect of that individual’s karma-phala. What does matter is the level and quality of awareness behind that action.
So, in the same way that death is simply death-nothing more, nothing less, I think so is “suicide.” The wisest way to approach this when someone encounters an instance of self-killing, is from a place of atmajnana/atmavidya. You have to know that the body and the person aren’t synonymous. You have to realize that the person and their mind and their emotions are also different entities.
Although there have been exceptions throughout history, most cases of atmahatya don’t occur before an audience. And truly, whether they do or don’t, it’s virtually impossible for anyone other than maybe the most advanced sages to know what’s going on inside that person. As such, it shouldn’t be assumed that the automatic result of suicide is a hellish, tormented, ghostly wandering of the underworlds until punishment has been exacted.
The young male patient, whose body I visited, has moved on- his future dictated by his karmas and self-realization. Aside from whatever karmas were already due to him, I don’t foresee that he’ll be punished for this act automatically. For reasons I’ll never know, and don’t need to know, the components of his past existence as a young man, a cancer patient, a son, brother, and boyfriend… his mind and emotions and physical body… they were done. Just done. The very same thing, literally, will happen to you and me in our own time, although perhaps not by our own hand. He’s quite literally non-different from you and me and shouldn’t be judged by us any more than we’re willing to judge ourselves. At any rate, given that we’re in Kali Yug, I’d wager that most of us hardly know ourselves as well as we should, let alone a young male cancer patient.
I suspect the only (real) tragedy here is that which my mind and emotions and attachments assign to it, which ultimately has little to do with Ultimate Reality.
Om Shanti, shanti, shantihi