When Richard Sylvester asserts as the title of a book he wrote ‘I hope You Die Soon’ he is not exhorting you to commit suicide. The ‘You’ he hopes will die soon is the small ‘you’, your ego seemingly bounded in space and time. It is born and dies, believes a story about itself including, for most, a specific gender.
Others, of course, hold different opinions about little ‘you’, based upon the opinions formed as a result their own egos.
When the certainty of your ego falls away you are left with a sense of unbounded knowing and not-knowing apparently occurring locally, surrendering itself in the people and objects that seem to manifest before you.
Richard puts it thus:
“When the sensation that I am in control of my life and must make it happen ends, then life is simply lived and relaxation takes place. There is a sense of ease with whatever is the case and an end to grasping for what might be.”
Few of us appearing as within our materialistic world think much about such a death; two hundred years ago each of us would have known siblings, if not a parent, who had physically died when we were children. Death was much more commonplace back then.
Today, dwelling upon death – particularly suicide seems the province of the insane, yet it’s simply the opposite side of what we call life. An analogy is to think of the moon. Most of us only get to see the hemisphere that faces us, yet we intuit it has another side even if we think little of it. I doubt if any of us seriously think that we live there, even in our imagination.
For some the prospect of death holds out the promise of release from the pressures of contemporary life. It may also be an escape from pain and, in the context of suicide, an ultimate act of self determination.
A number of noteworthy people have chosen to take their own lives, and arguably were of sound mind when they did so.
Donald Vaughan Sinclair (1911 – 1995), the model for Sigfreid Farnon in the books written under the pen-name James Herriott by James Alfred “Alf” Wight, OBE, FRCVS (3 October 1916 – 23 February 1995), ended his life by taking an overdose of barbiturates. His wife had died just two weeks earlier and his friend and partner Alfred Wright just a few weeks prior to her death. His brother, Wallace Brian Vaughan Sinclair (27 September 1915 – 13 December 1988), the model for Tristan Farnon in the Herriot books predeceasing him by a few years.
Arthur Koestler, CBE (1905 – 1983), a Hungarian-British author and journalist. Koestler was an energetic intellectual, a talented writer, and above all a survivor. His works include: ‘The Sleepwalkers’, (1959) in which he argued that modern science is trying too hard to be rational, and that faith and reason may co-exist; ‘The Act of Creation’, (1964) a book about processes of discovery, invention, imagination and creativity in humour, science, and the arts; and my particular favourite: ‘The Ghost in the Machine, (1967) an early treatise on System Theory as related to neurology.
Hunter Stockton Thompson (1937 – 2005), the American journalist and author, died at Owl Farm, his “fortified compound” in Woody Creek, Colorado, at 5:42 p.m. on February 20, 2005, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Nathan Gill (1960 – 2014) was one of the pioneers in a western movement that has come to be known as Neo-Advaida. He wrote a series of books on the nature of consciousness whilst continuing to work as a gardener. These gentle books still mischievously play in a reader’s topiary of awareness. They are titled: Clarity, Already Awake, and Being: The Bottom Line.
He claimed: ‘As Consciousness You are already awake and aware. . . . ; it’s simply that this is veiled by appearances, the story of ‘me’ as an individual.’
Not all suicides may be justified as a kind of sanity.
Robin Williams (1951 – 2014), the actor, had been suffering from severe depression, as well as dementia associated with Parkinson’s disease.
Terence Donovan (1936 – 1996), a photographer was referred to with Duffy and Bailey, nicknamed by another photographer Norman Parkinson, in the Sunday Times, as one of the ‘Black Trinity’, of innovative, if irreverent London photographers from the 1960s. Donovan was a black belt in judo and co-wrote a popular judo book, Fighting Judo, with former World Judo Gold medallist Katsuhiko Kashiwazaki. He was also a Buddhist. He took his own life in a state of depression; some say as the result of the side-effects of the powerful medication he was taking to combat a skin condition.
How do we separate sane from unsound suicide, especially in the context of non-duality?
When I was seventeen I was recruited into the Mental Health Department of the County in which I was raised.
As a Welfare Assistant I rapidly learned of the ways in which people suffer, both in youth and old age. To help me assist them it was arranged that I would attend some third year lectures in psychiatry offered to student nurses at the local psychiatric hospital, which in the days before ‘Care in the Community’ was the home of around six hundred souls, many of whom had lived most of their lives there.
These talks were both informative and unnerving. At the conclusion to each of them I became convinced that I suffered with Schizophrenia, Manic Depressive Psychosis, Psychopathy, or whatever the day’s topic under discussion.
Like many before me, I came to the conclusion that my symptoms came within a ‘normal’ scale of disturbance, whilst those of patients suffering mental illness were simply ‘special cases’ that occurred under specific physical, (including biological predisposition), and social conditions.
One specific condition we studied is known as disassociation, describes a wide array of experiences from mild detachment from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experience. Sometimes disassociation can include: a sense that self or the world is unreal (depersonalization and derealization); a loss of memory (amnesia); forgetting identity or assuming a new self (fugue); and fragmentation of identity or self into separate streams of consciousness.
Disassociation is quite different from the experience of those living through the lens of non-duality, or rather the lack of any lens at all. For the non-dualist the world is not only real, but imbued with a sacred intensity. The body and the mind are no less part of this munificence; it’s simply that we don’t accord them importance above any other feature of consciousness.
Examples of work made by patients in the Art Therapy Department were shown to me, at the hospital. Many seemed remarkably well executed, and although sometimes bizarre and disturbing, most seemed in sympathy with the prevailing art of the day that command today astronomical prices.
We must be cautious when examining the lives of artists. The really good ones reveal to us the deeper facets of what it means to live with intensity. However, the likes of Van Gough, Gauguin, or even Rothko, amongst us must be seen to manage the daily aspects of living, lest they be thought crazy and incarcerated for ‘treatment’.
I survived for less than two years as a Welfare Assistant without getting myself hospitalized. Late in my second year of employment I was promoted to being a Mental Welfare Officer, with statutory powers at my disposal to compulsorily admit people to psychiatric hospitals in specific circumstances. These are laid out in The Mental Health Act of 1959.
According to this Act:
An application for admission for observation may be made in respect of a patient on the grounds:
- (a) that he is suffering from mental disorder of a nature or degree which warrants the detention of the patient in a hospital under observation (with or without other medical treatment) for at least a limited period ; and
- (b) that he ought to be so detained in the interests of his own health or safety or with a view to the protection of other persons.
In addition to ensuring a patient, thus committed, got safely to the hospital it was the function of Mental Welfare Officers to represent a lay-person’s opinion, so no one got admitted to mental hospital simply because medical practitioners claimed they were mentally ill.
Although we were chosen to be the eyes, ears, and voice of reason in the face of technical psychobabble, I remain unsure to what degree any of felt free to keep sane individuals who were determined to kill themselves for good reason from preservation in hospital. We certainly had no influence once people became patients following admission. They were often subjected to Electro-convulsive Therapy, which marred their intellectual capacity.
The sections of the 1959 Mental Health Act that refer to compulsory hospital admission and treatment are superseded by a new Act in 1983. Amendments in 2007 broadened the range of professionals who may apply for such admissions, once they had received suitable training.
It’s been years since, as a professional, I thought about suicide. I stopped practicing psychotherapy in 2006, and speaking personally the most overcast days always seemed preferable to self-imposed oblivion. Too much radiant joy, seemingly within, resonates with dramatic sombre, brooding clouds in the skies above. I attempted to capture something of their quality in the Trees and Sky Exhibition back in 2010, and continue to be excited by dark weather because it seems pregnant with unpredictable possibility.
Suicide and Non-duality?
Rupert Spira, who is also a teacher in non-duality, once wrote a sensitive response to someone who was disturbed by the suicide of Nathan Gill. In it he explains that, “from a materialistic point of view, the body gives rise to the mind and the mind gives rise to consciousness.” In this model killing the body does away with the mind and so that is the end of suffering.
There are problems with this conclusion, however, even though it’s the way most think in western society. Difficulties arise because research into dying reveals a number of anomalies. People report being visited by dead relatives, and even angels, prior to death. Extant relatives report intuitions at the time close relatives die, even when these occur on other sides of the globe. Sometimes the dead appear in the dreams, as in the case of the man who drowned and appeared in his mother’s dream dripping wet, whilst assuring her that he was not suffering. These are not simply old wives tales, or fallacies, they are collaborated by contemporary research carried out by Dr. Robert Fenwick, a British neuroscientist with impeccable credentials.
Rupert Spira, in his response, goes on to explain: ‘from a spiritual point of view the body is an appearance in the mind, and the mind is made of pure Consciousness. Therefore, from this point of view, the death of the body is simply a cessation of an appearance in the mind; it is not the end of the mind itself.’
It follows from what Spira writes that in such a model suffering may continue after the death of a body, and that a mind may create a new body, within a new world, in which pain may continue.
The problem with Rupert Spira’s answer, even if well intentioned, is that it, ultimately, is rooted in duality. Body and mind are seen as separate, much in the same way that a single cell forms part of the make-up the body of a larger organism, rather than also being seen as an essence which also contains the organism.
To truly unify the life and death dichotomy we need to experience something like the Auguries of Innocence described poetically by William Blake.
‘To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.’
It’s difficult to describe such an experience in a scientific way, but we can say that Newton’s Laws of Motion are accurate within certain contexts, and may be regarded as examples of predictable results anticipated by of Einstein’s Theories of Relativity under specific conditions. Within Einsten’s Special Theory of Relativity, however, Space-Time is a unified concept, although, when described in Newton’s Law of Motion it appears as if Space and Time are discrete, separate, phenomena.
I think we may also claim that bodies, and the worlds they inhabit, may be considered as specific examples of mind precipitated into an apparent local awareness, with its concomitant objects, as a result of a self-reflexive process. The objects that we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell, and which are seen to travel through and decay in time, are no more than specific examples of life’s possibilities.
To claim, for them, substance greater than what remains unmanifested in our perception of space-time, is a misunderstanding. Whatever is missing from the manifestation before you is simply the other side of the moon; the limitless sacrificing to awareness a background, so that what appears seems like a universe composed of separate objects, including thoughts, and other bifurcations.
In other words, unmanifest is there simultaneously with the possibility that becomes an object as a perception within Mind. Without unmanifest there is no manifest. All, ultimately, are limitless, timeless, boundlessness.
The apparent you, living within your world as a personal entity is a shadow without substance; your movement, including thoughts and feelings, are specific instances of timeless, limitless, boundlessness, expression.
Does this mean, then, that all instances of suicide are both unavoidable and acceptable?
In my view the answer to this is an emphatic ‘no’! Whilst each of us expresses the timeless, limitless, boundlessness, in specific ways – a common way is to understand ourselves as separate from that clarity which perceives and knows our true identity.
Ralph Steadman, a long, close, friend of Hunter S. Thompson sums up the quality of his expression:
“… He told me 25 years ago that he would feel real trapped if he didn’t know that he could commit suicide at any moment. I don’t know if that is brave or stupid or what, but it was inevitable. I think that the truth of what rings through all his writing is that he meant what he said. If that is entertainment to you, well, that’s OK. If you think that it enlightened you, well, that’s even better. If you wonder if he’s gone to Heaven or Hell, rest assured he will check out them both, find out which one Richard Milhous Nixon went to — and go there. He could never stand being bored. But there must be Football too — and Peacocks …”
Thompson lived his life on the edge of death and, in doing so, probably experienced and knew more of what it means to ‘suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ than most. He experimented with drugs, and alcohol. Ultimately, he experimented with death as if it were the next logical step in the story of his life.
Steadman, and Thompson had designed the cannon that would shoot his ashes into the heavens at Woody Creek some time before his suicide. He once remarked: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
Hari Kunzru wrote, of Thompson whilst reviewing his novel ‘The Rum Diary’, that, “the true voice of Thompson is revealed to be that of American moralist … one who often makes himself ugly to expose the ugliness he sees around him.”
He died as he lived, a martyr to his cause.
George Mikes, in ‘Arthur Koestler: The Story of a Friendship’, wrote that Koestler more than once said ‘that he was not afraid of being dead but was afraid of the process of dying. He did not wish to suffer the indignity of losing control over his body or mind. His suicide was not unexpected among close friends.’ Shortly before his suicide, his doctor had discovered a swelling in the groin which indicated a metastasis of the cancer.
It seems, then, that Koestler chose to manage the form of the death of his physical body, and that somehow he had premonitions that he may have to face such a decision.
Koestler was someone of considerable intellectual prowess, who possessed considerable survival skill. He recognised, in his concept of ‘a holon’, what Blake had articulated in the Auguries of Innocence. No doubt he experienced his death as an expression of the survival of something essential to what had been his life.
Donald Vaughan Sinclair spent his life relieving animals of their suffering, either by helping them to heal or, where this became impossible, by killing them with an overdose of anaesthetic.
It was by this method that he chose to end his own life when those closest to him had all ceased to live. No doubt, he felt that it had been a good party but with the departure of the last guest it had come to an end.
All three of these men chose to die in the spirit that they had lived.
The same conclusion must be made for Nathan Gill, who saw clearly that his true identity was timeless, limitless, and boundless. As his body fell away he cooperated with the process drawing what had been his earthly identity back into the light of consciousness from which it had emerged.
Depression is a completely different way of being than that experienced by those preparing for sane suicide. It can only exist when experiencing separation, and in which both the world and the body are felt as unbearable burdens. Suicide, in this context, is never the end of the party or a celebration of life, but an attempt to escape living and, as Rupert Spira intuits, must ultimately be doomed to failure.
Psychosis also has its roots in separation. Those suffering delusions, and hallucinations, by definition feel themselves to be separated from any sense of completeness. They believe themselves to be ‘evil’, or ‘sent by a divinity’. Some hear disembodied feelings, or experience unexplained bodily sensations.
Depression and psychosis are expressions of timeless, limitless, boundlessness, but they do not occur in isolation from those witnessing them. They arise in the lives of therapists, welfare officers, nurses, and others, as well as those suffering directly. Working with such symptoms gives many a raison d’être, and may ultimately liberate therapist and patient alike.
In memory of Nathan Gill