In Tibetan tradition there is a story about the great cave-dwelling yogi Milarepa that illuminates the bumpy road we all travel when we try to make peace with ourselves.
One day Milarepa left his Himalayan cave to gather firewood, and when he returned he found that his cave had been taken over by demons. There were demons everywhere!
His first thought was, “I have got to get rid of them!”
In the story, he lunges toward them, chasing after them, trying forcefully to get them out of his cave. But the demons are completely unfazed. The more he chases them, the more comfortable and relaxed they seem to be.
Realizing that his efforts are failing miserably, Milarepa tries a new approach and decides to teach them his religion. If chasing them out won’t work, then converting them is the answer. So he takes his seat and begins teaching about existence and non-existence, compassion and kindness, the nature of the spiritual life.
After a while he looks around and realizes all the demons are all still there, staring at him with their huge bulging eyes; not a single one is leaving!
At this point Milarepa lets out a sigh of surrender, realising that just maybe, these demons have something to teach him! So he looks deeply into the eyes of each demon and bows, saying, “It looks like we’re going to be here together. so I open myself to whatever you have to show me.”
In that moment all the demons but one disappear. One huge and especially fierce demon, with flaring nostrils and dripping fangs, is still there. So Milarepa lets go even further.
Approaching the final and largest demon, he offers himself completely, holding nothing back. “Eat me if you wish.” He places his head in the demon’s mouth, and at that moment the last demon bows low and dissolves into space.
One of the things I love about this story is how it doesn’t feed our romantic vision of spiritual life.
We sometimes imagine that if we can lead our spiritual life the “right” way, we won’t suffer and struggle. We will be on a direct path to ever-increasing tranquillity and joy.
We are not prepared for all of our unfinished business being exposed, and all our unresolved trauma pushing up from the unconscious depths like a fountain of black sludge.
Milarepa’s story feels much closer to the truth.
Working with all that has been pushed down and ignored in me is pivotal to the spiritual journey. And when those demons appear, it’s impossible to simply relax and let go.
A female Tibetan teacher Machig Labdron (1055-1145 CE) suggested five slogans to deal with our demons:
1) Confess your hidden faults to yourself. 2) Approach what you find repulsive in others. 3) Help those you think you cannot help or those you do not want to help. 4) Let go of anything you are attached to. 5) Go to the places that scare you.
Embracing our deepest fears is often our salvation.