Suicide and the Superficial Self

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Have you ever thought of committing suicide? It’s okay if you have. In fact, I’d venture to say that it’s a fairly normal thing for most people to have considered at some point in their life – at least in the theoretical sense of it. To consider what it may actually take to go through with it, or what it may actually mean that you would want to. If you’re like me, you may even have occupied that place where it seemed to be a real option; and, like me, actually taken that option a number of times, in a manner of speaking.

When a famous person, someone we know, or someone we’ve just been acquainted with commits suicide, naturally there’s the sadness that accompanies such a profound personal tragedy, followed by that sense of futility. But there may also be a deep, underlying identification with a troubled fellow voyager; the understanding of suicide as a viable solution to what seems to be an utterly hopeless situation.

“When you commit suicide, you’re killing the wrong person.”


Obviously, I didn’t really commit suicide when I thought of it, but having passed through that “dark night of the soul,” I do understand the impulse – and not as an overwhelming urge to for the absolute, but instead as an overwhelming urge for absolution.

The Urge for Absolution

After all, the desire to ‘end it all’ often isn’t a wish to actually die, just a wish to end things the way they are.

In this sense, the suicide urge is a completely natural impulse that arises simultaneously from both deep despair and a kind of optimism in the eternal, the idea that a spiritual solution awaits our return. We’re searching for the source of relief, renewal, and regeneration.

It can actually indicate a profound kind of spiritual sanity and practical wisdom – the desire to return our battered soul into the care of a loving power, and rediscover our spiritual freedom, away from a world where our human shortcomings and ineffectiveness are constantly imposed on our simple search for happiness.

But please – don’t get me wrong on this point!

I’m not urging anyone to commit suicide. At least not in the way you may usually think of it.

Our misunderstanding of the suicide ‘process’ has a lot to do with our unwillingness to properly define death itself. As a person who’s unintentionally experienced a kind of reincarnation myself, I can tell you that we do live and die many times over–and not just in the physical sense of it.

For example, the child you once were – that innocent, playful, awakening soul – died outwardly in a sense, when the need to create an egoic interface to “the grown-up world” (and biological chemistry) raised its ugly head, all too soon. Likewise, your teenager was sacrificed to the demands of a life of responsibility. And as you get older, the young adult you once were has given way to a being of lesser physical ability (that’s one I really miss). The body I’m in now is heading down a stretch of road dotted with signposts for another turn-off up ahead. There’s always some form of death approaching. That’s just the way it is.

“Without dying to the world of the old order, there is no place for renewal, because…it is illusory to hope that growth is but an additive process requiring neither sacrifice nor death. The soul favors the death experience to usher in change. Viewed this way, the suicide impulse is a transformational drive.”

James Hillman

Suicide and the Soul

The author of that quote, James Hillman, (my late uncle, by marriage), was a brilliant (and very funny) guy – a teacher, author, Jungian analyst, former director of the Jung Institute in Zurich, and the creator of Archetypal Psychology. That quote is from his elegant, utterly amazing little book, Suicide and the Soul (Harper Colophon, 1964), in which he describes a lot of what I’m talking about here far more eloquently than I ever could, based on years of working with patients in states of personal crisis. Elsewhere in the book, he says,

“To put an ‘end to one’s life’ means to come to one’s end, to find the end or limit of what one is, in order to arrive at what one is not – yet.”

James Hillman

Personally, this required a number of very uncomfortable moments in my own life, where who and what “I thought I was,” lay in broken pieces on the ground before me. When my life, as it was, no longer made any sense – where it no longer worked. The person I was had stopped being a viably effective participant, and living that way doomed me to repetitive collisions with my own self-created obstacles to happiness and fulfillment. That’s a dark place, where the suicidal impulse arises. Naturally, I required a deliverance – a death – to make room for my own personal renewal.

So, I committed a kind of suicide – and I’ve done it a few times – the sort that I propose you embrace if you ever reach that impasse yourself. Not to actually physically kill yourself, but to set about killing the part of you that no longer works.

That false egoic interface – often the same one we constructed first as kids – has to be destroyed to allow a more authentic self to emerge and arise from the ashes like the mythical phoenix. That’s an archetype Uncle James may have liked.

While my late uncle speaks metaphorically, as an analyst, I speak as a ‘near death experiencer,’ so in what I know as a real, spiritual sense, we do live and die and live and die – on and on. Our deaths are necessary for our soul’s growth; every death is a suicide, of sorts, fashioned over time by our own designs. Life can be quite ruthless in pointing out the biggest flaws in those designs, but the awareness we gain is the gift that pain gives us. It becomes our job to change. This is the case at every level.

Fractal Motivation

We are all the creators of our own deaths, individually and collectively, and the suicide urge itself is a kind of fractal motivation – an urge that lives within every expression of consciousness taking part in our mysterious spiritual evolution. From plants, to animals, to us, to our earth, there is that sacrifice to growth, to our return, imprinted in our very core.

Meanwhile, our soul – the same playful soul of a child – continues to live on in wonder, willingness, and absolute surrender, even as we must slough off sheaths of outer lives. With that willingness, that faith, we can sacrifice our overly serious superficial selves; with our soul’s knowledge that our true self is never abandoned, we can bury “who we were supposed to be”– even if we don’t know who we are meant to become yet. It’s an uncomfortable state of grace, like the chaotic mess inside a chrysalis just before a butterfly emerges.

Kill the Right Person

So, please, don’t ever actually kill yourself – it’s a “permanent solution to a temporary problem.” But if you insist on it, make sure you kill the right person. Kill only the part of yourself that causes pain; the part that prevents you from being the creature of light and love you are truly meant to be. Bury your superficial self, christen a more authentic you, rise up, and spread your new wings.

The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell Now More Relevant Than Ever

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Making sense of our consciousness can be difficult, and in our materialist, western world we try endlessly to objectify that experience. But over the course of the past century, there have been a number of intermediaries reminding us to reconnect with elements of the spiritual journey.

Names like Alan Watts, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Deepak Chopra have sparked a renaissance of interest in the nature of consciousness, meditation, and mindfulness. They remind us of stories and lessons learned over the course of our history, and within these, we find recurring themes of transcendent truth.

But there is one liaison between the old world and the new, who bridged these philosophies and connected the ancient esotericism of the east to the pragmatism of the scientific west, through archetypes and allegory.

Joseph Campbell defined this thirst for truth over a lifetime by examining artists, psychologists, writers, and philosophers. He referred to the lessons in their mythos as the Masks of God, and the protagonists within those stories as the Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Campbell consumed as much of their wisdom as possible, voraciously reading nine hours a day for years at a time. He absorbed the work of great western minds like Carl Jung, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, and Sinclair Lewis. Through these lessons, he connected the dots of contemporary consciousness with the timeless teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, Greek mythology, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

In those years of study, he found lessons that applied to man and society at large – overarching narratives that struck a universal chord, particularly the sense that at some point in our lives, we find there is a call unanswered, a void in the spirit that must be fulfilled.

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls. The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”

– Joseph Campbell

The Hero’s Journey

Campbell said you can never be at peace with yourself if you do not answer that call. The call to adventure that forces the hero to remove himself from the ordinary world and face whatever it is that threatens his safety, comfort, and way of life.

At first, the call is refused when fears and second thoughts arise, or the comforts of the home seem too difficult to abandon. But eventually, the hero finds a mentor who pushes them and provides the tools needed to confront their tribulation.

When one considers the “Hero’s Journey,” Luke Skywalker, Arjuna, or even Hamlet could fit the role, but these stereotypes are meant to convey a general truth about finding the fulfillment we all seek. The personal ordeals that confront us can be difficult to face, causing us to relinquish a part of ourselves and take solace in a place that feels safe, while we remain oblivious to what could be learned by challenging those fears.

For some, it may be a vice; an addiction that keeps us trapped in some behavior or lifestyle. Campbell looked to the Tibetan Book of the Dead to confront this type of ordeal, learning that the scripture taught one to strive for the opposing virtue of whatever your vice may be; to overcome what he called the “inmost cave.” By cultivating the antithesis of your vice, you will find the self-actualization that defines your being.

This sentiment has been echoed many times over the ages, and Campbell summed it up when he said, “Gods suppressed become devils, and often it is these devils whom we first encounter when we turn inward.”

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