A message from Lifeline: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. Call 1-800-273-8255
Recently, concern about the serious issue of suicide—especially in the case of very famous people who took their own lives—has been highlighted in the news. This booklet came to be because a Yoga teacher asked if Swami Satchidananda (the founder of Integral Yoga) addressed this issue and if so, what he had to say. Over the years he was asked many questions about suicide, what really happens to someone after death, and who we are beyond the body and mind. So, this booklet is a compilation of everything we could find that Swami Satchidananda has said on these subjects. We hope it will offer hope to those in need of this advice—whether they, or a loved one, is contemplating suicide. This is real talk from one of the most respected Yoga masters in the world.
TRIGGER WARNING: This contains information some readers may find distressing.
Question: Swamiji, my sister has tried to take her own life several times. She has been depressed for a long time. She says she just wants the depression, sadness, and suffering to end. Please help!
Swami Satchidananda: She may be suffering, but what is it that she is trying to avoid by suicide? The suffering? Remember, no one will ever, ever end their suffering by suicide. Their pain and suffering will be tenfold afterward, and it will be too late to change that.
Question: Why do some people seem to suffer so much more than others?
Swamiji: Sometimes, due to a past karma, difficulties come, suffering comes, diseases come. If you can’t cure or rectify it, undergo it. Accept it. Why do we face difficulties in life? It is to learn to face these things and to learn to handle them. If you have a lack of control over the mind, it’s easy for the mind to get discouraged, disappointed, and depressed. So, you get disgusted with life and want to destroy yourself. But the problem is you are not going to escape by destroying yourself. You may be taking your life, you may be destroying the body, but you can never destroy the mind that way. You cannot escape from that. The mind has to take on another body and face the consequences of destroying the body prematurely. Instead, gradually, gradually, gain control over your own mind.
Problems come to teach us, to train us to gain self-mastery. Know that nothing comes to you—whether good or bad, pleasurable or painful—unless it’s from your own karma. In effect, you are facing the result of past actions—either from this life or a previous life. This is not meant to be understood as something to be depressed about, or to encourage self-loathing and self-punishing. No, it is for you to understand that you are the doer. And, what you have done, you can undo by learning to become the master of your mind and emotions.
Question: But, why do we have to suffer?
Swamiji: Our suffering, our pain is to purify us. All pain is a purification process. Only with pain and suffering can we purify our bodies and minds. Pain and suffering are a kind of purging. You ate something wrong, and the doctor is giving you some medicine to help you vomit it out. Why should he do that? Not to destroy you, not to hurt, or punish you. It’s because unless you vomit, it will turn into poison inside your system and will ruin your health. Souls get purified through pain. When we know that we will make peace with our challenges in life.
Another example I could give is that of the laundryman. In those days in India, if you ever watched the village dhobi (laundryman), you would see him go to the river with soaps and scrub brush. He would place the garment on the rocks and then put the soap and beat the clothing this way and that. However expensive the material was, however much you loved it—even if it was your wedding gown—he cleaned it the same way.
What can you do? When something is dirty, you can’t wear it. You have to clean it. And unfortunately, the laundry man never realizes that you paid thousands of dollars and you wore it for the wedding. He has no mercy on it. He simply squeezes it, puts all the detergents in it and makes a big mess there. But, would you go to the river and tell him to take it out when it was halfway cleaned? No.
Question: Isn’t there something we can do to avoid pain and suffering?
Swamiji: Physical and emotional pain are caused by some problem. Imagine you have some physical pain and you take a painkiller. What happens? You don’t feel the pain anymore. Does it mean that you have cured the problem? Not at all. It’s something like cutting the wires of a fire alarm. It will stop the alarm immediately, but it won’t put out the fire. Pain is a messenger; it’s your fire alarm. We should find the cause of the trouble instead of finding ways to cover it up.
Pain is sometimes a part of the purification process. We don’t have to look for pain and suffering to inflict on ourselves, but if pain comes we should treat it like a messenger and try to understand the message. Contemplating suicide means that you don’t want to figure it out or face it—you want to escape it. There are several sayings that are useful to remember: “From the devil to the deep sea,” “Out of the frying pan into the fire.” What do they mean? You think you are getting out of a bad situation, but you are getting into a worse situation, and that is exactly true about suicide.
Question: What is the relationship with karma and suffering?
Swamiji: Your karma is the reason for suffering. And, the truth is that you cannot escape from your karma. Suicide unfortunately adds more karma. Your suffering will be multiplied. Why? Because killing is killing. Would you kill someone else? It is the same as killing yourself. The killing is there. Unfortunately, it’s only after you lose the body that you realize you shouldn’t have done that. You think that by suicide you can save yourself from your problems, but it’s not so.
Question: What if the emotional pain is too much to bear? Aren’t there some times when suicide is the only option?
Swamiji: If you are going to die naturally, you should not kill yourself. If you are in so much pain, don’t worry, the pain itself will kill you. Why do you want to take it into your hands? You don’t have to take your own life. If you do, you are interfering in your purification process; and then what happens? You go on with the same dirt. And, not only with the same dirt, with added dirt because you interfered in the nature’s process of cleaning you. You are left with the old pain; plus, the mistake of killing your body adds more pain. And you will have to face that. You cannot escape that. Another important thing is that when you die by suicide you are purposely destroying the body before it goes through its natural process, so there will be an interim period before you get another body. And that means you will be roaming around body‑less. That is worse than suffering in a body.
Question: Why doesn’t suicide end the suffering?
Swamiji: If you die by suicide, what are you killing? You think you are killing yourself. No, you are not killing yourself—you’re only destroying the body. Like sometimes when a couple gets angry and fights. Someone may throw a family heirloom and it breaks. The other person might try to break something else. Who is the loser? Both. There are no winners in this scenario. When you destroy your body, you are destroying something you need to complete your journey. If halfway through you break that, you stop that experience. Then, after destroying the body, you realize too late: What have I done? Now where am I to go? I don’t have another body ready now to continue my journey.
Question: Wouldn’t the same thing happen if someone died in a car wreck or was murdered? They couldn’t help either situation.
Swamiji: In the case of an accidental death or a sudden death that is not suicide, there’ll be another body provided very soon. But if you purposely destroy your body, there isn’t another body ready. So, what happens then? If those contemplating suicide knew even a little bit of the life after death they would never do that.
Question: What if the person doesn’t believe in reincarnation?
Swamiji: There is irrefutable proof that there is reincarnation. Even science has shown this in studying young children who remember past lives and who know facts that otherwise could not be known unless they had lived before. So, it’s very important that those contemplating suicide know that the soul is immortal. The soul goes through various reincarnations, gaining experiences. Every soul has to face the results of its past actions and purge out that karma. The soul still has to fulfill its journey. The body is a home for the soul. When you no longer have a physical body, how will it continue its journey? You become bodiless; and, until you get another body you have to roam about. When that happens, it creates terrible, terrible problems—even worse than the ones the suicidal person is trying to escape. Because you cannot run away from your karma or your soul’s journey. You can never escape.
To understand the soul and its karma, I’ll give an example. If you have ever eaten spoiled food and have gotten food poisoning, you know what happens: you will begin to vomit. Or, if you get a severe stomachache, the doctor may give you a purgative to help induce vomiting. What does this do? It purges out the undesirable food in the stomach. Sometimes it doesn’t feel good, but still you have to purge it out. The undesirable things should get eliminated from the system.
In a similar way, we accumulate bad karmas over lifetimes and those karmas bring sufferings—like food poisoning, in the example I just gave—that have to be purged out. If we do not know the truth we may think, Oh, if I take my life then I can escape from the suffering, which is not true. Instead of escaping the suffering, you’ll be given another body to continue your journey and continue to purge out your karma. Over time the burden of karma is lessened and purged.
It’s almost like when you want to get a college degree. When the question paper comes into your hand, you get puzzled, Oh, I don’t want to answer; I can’t take this exam, it’s too difficult. I just won’t take the exam and I’ll go to another college. So, what will happen? You’ll go to another college and they will also give you an exam. You can’t escape from that.
Question: What happens to the soul of someone who dies by suicide?
Swamiji: Unfortunately, it’s a very bad situation for the person’s soul. No one has the right to take their own life. Life is given to us. So, the person had the body to go through certain things and then, all of a sudden, they prematurely destroyed the vehicle (the body) through which they could experience things and purge out karma. Now they have to run around, without a body, as bodiless astral elements. And, it is only at that point—after they have destroyed the body—they realize what a sad mistake they’ve made. It’s something like being angry with your car because the engine wouldn’t start. You take a sledge hammer, break the car, and then it’s too late because you don’t have a car anymore. So, what happens? You are stranded on the road and you have to hitchhike. There’s nothing you can do but to try and hitchhike by using somebody else’s body. But, that is the worst thing you can do. You will be even more miserable and you’ll create a miserable situation for others as well.
Let’s continue the auto analogy: You hitchhike. When you hitchhike, normally you put your thumb out, and you have to wait to see if somebody cares to pick you up. Some drivers won’t stop or they’ll say no. And if nobody picks you up, you will get frustrated; and, right in the middle of the road, you’ll stop somebody and by force get into that person’s car. You will do that. That is what happens. After suicide, your soul—because it is now stranded when it doesn’t get a body immediately—tries to force itself into somebody’s body. There is a fight between you and the other person’s spirit for the same body.
Question: Is that the same as “possession” by a spirit?
Swamiji: Yes, that’s what you call “possession.” Unfortunately, in the West people think that when the body dies, that’s the end of it. No. We should know that the soul never dies. And each soul needs a body. And it has to possess a body, even if it has to do so by force. Such souls who lose their body prematurely and then realize that they cannot live without another body, try to look for a weaker person. Then they try to get into that person’s body. Exactly like that, you can force yourself into somebody else’s body because your soul has to continue on its journey. So, temporarily you put the owner of the body into the back seat. You use the body as long as you want or whenever you want. And then sometimes you may say, “Hello, I’m not going to do anything anymore. You take over.” Then, you get into the back seat and use the possessed person’s body.
There are two souls in the same body. How do you think that will be? Are you in a better situation? It will be more terrible than just living in the same body you had. Not only are you not you and not in peace after suicide, not only are you not enjoying a new life in a new incarnation, you are stuck in some other person’s life and you are also creating problems for the other person. That is why suicide creates the worst karma. It neither benefits you nor benefits other people.
Question: What can we tell people we know who are contemplating suicide?
Swamiji: Tell them that under no circumstances is suicide going to help their suffering. They should be told clearly what will happen if they die by suicide. Give them encouragement and courage, and tell them, “Nothing is impossible! We’ll face it together. Your body, your life, is more important than anything else. It’s only through suffering and facing the suffering that we get cleaned, that we purge out our karma. Be strong. We’ll all help you, and we’ll pray for you.” Give them confidence. If they don’t have strength, pray with them saying, “God, help me. Give me strength. Let me face it.”
When anyone is suffering, we should help them do whatever is necessary to alleviate it by facing it. Affirm: “Whatever it is, I’ll be strong enough to face it.” Tell them that if they are ready to die because of their problems, they are also ready and strong enough to face them—they just don’t realize that.
We have to be ready to face our problems in life. We don’t have to do that alone. Reach out to loved ones, to professionals, to God. Pray for the strength to face and purge out your karma. Sincere prayer brings help. Prayer doesn’t necessarily mean that the karma will be taken away or that you won’t be in pain. But it gives you the mental courage, the strength, to face it.
Question: What is the most important thing I could tell a friend who is suicidal?
Swamiji: The most important thing is to help the person understand that they are not their body or their mind. Help them learn about their spiritual identity. After all, the truth is that each person has a body and mind, but they shouldn’t confuse them with their true identity.
I like to explain this in terms of seeing your own face. Have you ever seen your face? You only know that you have a face because you have seen the reflection in a mirror. To see your face clearly, you need a straight, clean mirror with no distortion. If you look in a mirror that is unclean or crooked, you see a crooked face. Do you run to a doctor? No, you make the necessary changes in the mirror, making sure that there is no wobbly surface. Then you can see exactly what your face looks like. In the same way, if you want to see your Self, you should have a clean mirror. And, this is the problem. Those who are suicidal are looking into distorted mirrors; they are identifying with their emotions, their problems, and not with the true Self.
Nature has given us each a mirror. It is our own mind. To reflect your Self clearly, the mental mirror should be absolutely clean and steady, without any waves in it. All our efforts should be to make the mirror clean, the mind clean. That is Yoga. Create a well-balanced, crystal clear mind, and then you will see your Self clearly.
Question: Could you explain more about the Self, and how to understand who we really are?
Swamiji: If you ask someone, “Who are you?,” most people will answer, “I am Mr. So and So,” or “I am Ms. So and So.” They may add, “I am an American,” or “I’m an Australian.” Or, “I am a writer, I’m an accountant.” What do each of these answers have in common? “I am.” When it comes to questions about how you feel, you may give answers like, “I’m sick today,” or “I’m so depressed,” or “I’m really angry.” But, if I were to probe a little more deeply: “Are you sick? Are you depressed or angry?” If I continue to question you, you may come to understand that you are completely different from the body and from the mind, from its feelings, and its actions. If you feel sick, is it you or is it your body that is ill? Are you sad and depressed or is it your mind that is sad and depressed? How do you know that you are angry? The one who knows isn’t the angry one. The mind is angry. The knower isn’t angry. This knowing is called awareness or consciousness. The knower remains permanent and unchanging. The mental or physical fluctuations are what change. If you say, “I am happy,” or “I am unhappy.” What remains constant? The condition of feeling happy or sad? No. What is unchanging? The “I am.”
The true person, the true you, is constantly the same because there is no change in the essential part of you—the Self, the knower. You knew you were a child. Now you know that you are an adult, and you know you are going to be an old man or an old woman. The knowledge of childhood, adulthood, and old age is the same. You are only temporarily identifying yourself as the body. If I ask you what you are doing now, you can say, “I’m sitting down.” But you are not sitting. Your body is seated. When you say, “I fell down,” who is this “I?” Certainly not the real I. The changes in the body make your mind feel different, and you mistakenly identify yourself as the body.
Question: How can I recognize my true Self and not identify with my body or mind?
Swamiji: The process is self-analysis in which you cultivate this awareness, this witnessing of the fluctuations of the mind. Ask yourself, “Who is aware? What is this awareness? Who knows all these things?” That is You, the real you, the Self or Knower. You are totally different from your body, from your mind. You are the pure Self—the witness of the body and mind.
Meditation and mindfulness practices can help you to develop the witness or observing part of the mind, so you can realize that you are not your body or mind. You are not your body and mind because you are the one observing the body and the mind. Whatever it is that is bothering you, you can sit back and ask yourself, “What did I do? What was my thinking process?” When you analyze in this way you will see that your happiness does not come from outside of you. During meditation, you sit quietly, observe the breath, and observe the thoughts that rise in fall in the mind, without identifying with them. Like waves on the surface of the ocean, you simply observe them. This helps to cultivate awareness that enables you to stop identifying with the thought waves. This leads to more stillness in the mind, more balance in the emotions, and this carries into one’s daily life.
It is natural for mind and body to go through changes, just like the weather outside changes. It’s natural because the body and mind are part of the nature and they are supposed to go through changes. Everything changes in this world. But who we really are, the true Self, one’s peaceful nature, is never affected by these things. It is only when we forget our true nature and identify with the body or the mind that the clouds come and block our view of the sun—the true Self. The sun is always shining whether the clouds are there or not. We forget that. We don’t realize that the mind will pass through cloudy periods. As the knower, you can watch, observe, and even enjoy the show.
Question: I thought the goal of Yoga and meditation was to become very stoic, almost detached from life?
Swamiji: No, not at all. Being a spiritual person doesn’t mean you should wear some castor oil face or to be so serious. The purpose of all your Yoga practice is to help you to realize that you are the Self. The Self never undergoes any change. It is always pure and calm. It just is—right here and now. The goal of Yoga, and any spiritual path, is to feel your natural condition of ease, peace, and joy. It also doesn’t mean that sometimes you won’t feel unhappy or sad. That’s natural and there’s nothing wrong with going through changes. There’s no need to worry about that. Just let it go and enjoy the show. You can do that when you know who you are. If you could maintain this witnessing constantly, still knowing you are the witness all the time, you would reach Self-awareness or Self-realization.
Question: What can I do to develop that awareness more?
Swamiji: Be regular in meditation and mindfulness practices. Keep up mindful awareness in your day-to-day activities. When you are eating, when you are walking, and especially when you are distressed, you can observe your emotions rather than allowing them to control you. Then, you will begin to enjoy more and more inner peace. Through this practice you become the master of your own body and mind. You’ll walk through life with grace and balance, like an undisturbed sage.
Question: If someone has already died by suicide, what can I do or tell their loved ones to try to help comfort them?
Swamiji: Some people are so distraught when they lose a loved one to suicide that they become swallowed up by grief. I advise people that while it is natural to be sad and to mourn, it is not healthy to be consumed with so much grief that they ruin their lives. By grief, can you bring the loved ones back? No. So, neither can you bring them back, nor can you serve the people who need you.
Accept what has happened and pray for the soul: Wherever you are, may God go with you. May peace be with you. Think good thoughts, supporting thoughts, and encouraging thoughts for the person. Send thoughts like, Okay, even if you have made a mistake, you realize it now. Forget about that. Think of God. You will have a better life. And those souls will know you are praying for them. Tell that soul: “It’s all right, you have made a mistake. Don’t worry, we are here. We are praying for you. You will soon find a solution for your situation.” Remember that the soul can hear you. The soul can get comfort from that, because it’s only the body that has been lost. It’s not that you are talking to a void space.
When you think of a departed person, and if they have not taken another body, they will immediately listen to you. They are right there next to you. They will know that you are thinking of them, and they will feel: They are thinking of me. And what are they thinking of me? If you think helpful thoughts, the loved one will feel a great relief: Oh, I am glad. They are helping me. On the other hand, if you are buried in grief and crying all day long, the departed souls will even look at your grief, and you will make them sad and despondent. This will only add to their pain. So, send positive thoughts, not grief, and that will help them on their journey. Remember, the soul is still there and listens to us.
We can always pray for those who need our comfort, our prayers, and they will receive those good wishes and prayers. Daily, at the Ashram and our Integral Yoga centers, we repeat this prayer below, which has been translated into English from the Upanishads:
Happiness be unto all,
Perfect health be unto all,
May all see good in everyone,
May all be free from suffering.
God bless you and may peace be with you all. Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.
Special thanks to Reverend Prakasha Shakti Capen for consulting on and editing this article published in Integral Yoga Magazine.