Facing Our Demons

From Tibetan Buddhism comes the story of a yogi/saint named Milarepa who lived about a thousand years ago. There are many legends about him. In one particular story Milarepa is living as a hermit in a small cottage on the side of a mountain. He would go out for long walks every day, and one day when Milarepa returned home he found that while he was gone seven demons had moved into his home! His first response was to demand that they leave, for this was his home and they had no right to be there! He cried out in a loud voice, and immediately three of the demons disappeared. But four remained. He once again shouted for them to leave. Still, the four demons remained.

He then realized that he needed a different tactic, so he smiled and said to them, “Welcome to my home, all that I have is yours;” whereupon three of the four demons disappeared. But the last demon, the biggest and the ugliest of them all remained and continued to rampage through his house.

At a loss for what to do, Milarepa finally said, “You may have not only my home, but my life as well;” and he walked up to the demon and proceeded to place his head in the demon’s mouth. The final demon then disappeared!

This story gives us some good clues as to how we can work with the “demons” in our own life. Our demons can come in many forms. They may range from a mild nuisance to a life-threatening condition; but they are each some form of suffering. And each one is rooted in craving, aversion, and delusion.

Some demons can be banished fairly quickly once they are recognized. These may include the myriad of stories that we create about “how awful life is” because of some condition. Unrecognized these stories can cause much suffering; but when recognized we can simply choose to “not go there this time.” These demons may be defeated rather quickly if we are alert. The Buddha would sometimes vanquish the demon Mara simply by looking him in the eye and saying, “I see you Mara!”

But some demons do not disappear quite so quickly. Some will disappear only when we open our heart and meet them with equanimity. This is often true with certain emotions or mind states. If we resist sadness, anger, fear or loneliness they can seem to last forever. But when we meet these states with an open heart and an open mind they will eventually dissolve. If we meet them without identification, without resistance, and without acting them out they will eventually disappear and we may discover the hidden gift that each one brings.

And then there are the REALLY BIG demons! These are the chronic issues that can seem to plague us for a lifetime. It may be an addiction, depression, anxiety, chronic illness or low self-esteem. To vanquish this demon we must offer all of who we are. The only way to “destroy” this demon is to die to who we believe ourselves to be.

I am not suggesting an attitude of resignation or despair but simply a willingness to face our deepest fear and to “die to the self” in order to become free. In Twelve-Step recovery programs one admits his or her powerlessness over an addictive substance or behavior. The addict must be willing to die to their former self and to be reborn into sobriety. This process includes taking “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of one’s character and one’s past behavior. This can feel like a process of dismemberment!

In Tibetan Buddhism is a practice called chod in which one imagines oneself dismembering one’s own body and feeding it to a demon of samsara. This practice is a poignant example of “putting one’s head in the mouth of the demon.” But what’s most important is not a specific technique but the willingness to completely surrender the ego again and again.

In your daily life practice notice the appearance of the demons of craving, aversion and delusion. Some of these demons may disappear immediately simply by taking a deep breath and refusing to engage in a familiar story. Some demons will disappear only over time with the practice of equanimity, allowing the experience to be just as is for as long as it is present. Some demons will disappear only when we are willing to “die” to our present sense of self and to repeatedly surrender fully into the present moment with no attachment to results.

This can take a lot of courage, and even more patience; but freedom is possible when we stay fully present in the moment and allow life to unfold as it does. Every demon can sooner or later be vanquished because each is impermanent and appears real only by delusion in the mind. Clear and sustained awareness dissolves these delusions. The bigger the demon the greater the freedom on the other side of it!