Like Clouds Before the Sun: Mindfulness and Suicidal Thoughts

Too often, people who think of suicide regard their thoughts as truth. They believe them. In a twist on the famous saying “I think, therefore I am,” suicide’s lie is, “I think I should kill myself, therefore I should kill myself.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. You can learn to mindfully observe suicidal thoughts without believing them or acting on them.

The Practice of Mindfulness

In general, the practice of mindfulness involves observing your thoughts without buying into them. You label your thoughts as just that – thoughts. Not necessarily truth. Not necessarily a call to action.

If you have the thought, “I should kill myself,” you can then observe, “I just had the thought that I should kill myself.”

If you believe the thought, you might tell yourself, “I am believing the thought that I should kill myself.”

These subtle changes in wording shift the focus from “I should kill myself” – a supposed truth – to “I think…” or “I am believing…” – which in turn highlights that your thought or belief may not be true. 

Try it with something innocuous. If you say, “I think I left my keys at home” or “I believe I left my keys at home,” that implies doubt. It may or may not be true that you left your keys at home. On the other hand, the statement “I left my keys at home” leaves no doubt that, in fact, your keys are at home.

Thoughts are Transitory

Mindfulness enables you to recognize just how transitory thoughts are. They come and they go, like clouds before the sun. Clouds leave, but the sun is still there. It is always there, even when it is completely hidden by the clouds.

That is how you are. Your true essence is always there, untouched by the suicidal thoughts that may hide it for now.

There are other metaphors besides that of clouds. In Buddhist teachings, people who meditate are instructed to observe their thoughts as leaves on a river.

Watch your suicidal thoughts as they float by. You don’t need to grab one and hold on to it. More thoughts will come. More thoughts will go.

Another metaphor is to think of thoughts, including suicidal thoughts, as the cars of a train. You can watch them roar by. Just don’t jump on one and let it carry you away.

Remaining Curious about Suicidal Thoughts

Being curious about your suicidal thoughts is another part of mindful observation. If you have the thought, “I should kill myself,” how does it affect the thought’s meaning to then tell yourself, “Hmm, I wonder why I just had the thought that I should kill myself?”

Mindful curiosity treats suicidal thoughts for what they are: a symptom, not a truth. They are a symptom that something in you needs healing. What might that be?

Suicidal thoughts can be a symptom of many things. To name just a few, the cause of suicidal thoughts might be deep emotional pain, an out-of-control addiction, external circumstances that need to change, or a mental illness that could respond to medication.

In this way, you might respond to suicidal thoughts with the following:

“Isn’t it interesting that I am having the thought that I want to die?”

“I wonder why I am having the thought that I want to die.”

“These thoughts are a symptom. What are they telling me?”

Remember, suicidal thoughts aren’t necessarily true. Be careful not to believe everything you think.

Books on Mindfulness

I did not come up with these ideas on my own. Over the years, I have read many books on mindfulness and meditation. Some key readings on mindfulness that have shaped my thinking include:

The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh  

Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn 

Start Where You Are, by Pema Chodron  

Also, several types of psychotherapy, most prominently Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), incorporate mindfulness and acceptance.  

An excellent self-help book using ACT principles is Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, by Steven Hayes, the founder of ACT. 

To read more about DBT, see The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook, by Matthew McKay and others.


Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, is the author of “Helping the Suicidal Person: Tips and Techniques for Professionals,” a psychotherapist and consultant, and an associate professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work.

© Copyright 2013 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All Rights Reserved. Written for Photos purchased from

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  1. Heather says:

    Thank you for your continued efforts in trying to prevent Suicide.
    As one who is struggling, I find your knowledge and insight so refreshing. I honestly feel somewhat understood for the FIRST TIME.
    You are an Godsend.
    I wish you the best.
    Take Good Care,

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:


      Wow, you submitted your comment at a time when I was overwhelmed with comments on this site, and I missed this one from you. Quite a few years later, please allow me to say (very) belatedly, thank you!

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