Facing and embracing our Demons

Down the Hatch by Aaron Johnson, 2007, Courtesy of Stux Gallery.

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.

Radical Christ 26 – Dying to find Paradise

Lets face it, we all want to go back to paradise.
That idyllic, virus, tax and crime free place, where we can walk with God in the cool of the day. Where a heavenly being caters to our every need and all we have to do in return is not think for ourselves and blindly follow the rules. If you study the Judeao-Christian story, living in paradise meant living forever too. What a bonus!
Philosophers, psychologists and all students of human consciousness have speculated on this universal human desire for paradise. Perhaps it’s a primal memory of the carefree nine months we all spent in our mother’s wombs, when all had to do was feed and grow. Until that terrifying moment of contraction and constriction when were thrust headlong into the life we are living now!
The tipping point for our mythological proto-parents Adam and Eve, was when they chose consciousness and independence over unconscious dependence on God. By eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they set themselves up to go it alone against the harsh and life-threatening environment outside the gates of paradise.
In the story it is only after their expulsion, that human life is bounded from an eternal to a fixed term deal. Yet despite it seeming a curse, our limited lifespan is actually a gift for those who still choose consciousness over an unthinking life. Sages throughout the ages have realised that our mortality is a blessing and inspiration, not not a curse.
Pema Chodron a Tibetan Buddhist uses a simple three phrase statement as her ethical measure for skillful action, “Death is certain. The time of my death is uncertain. Knowing this, how should I live now?” A simple focus on reality.
Jesus knew this secret too. He said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Medieval thinkers used the phrase, “Memento Mori – Remember your death” as similar inspiration.
Life coaches recommend we develop our “Future Self”, and I understand the intention. Goal setting and visioning are critical life disciplines.
But I would offer one essential condition. Please bear in mind that your ultimate Future Self is a corpse!
Our present self is that grain of wheat Jesus spoke about. Filled with life and generative potential, we thwart our destiny if we cling to self preservation above sacrifice.
We are designed to die with all other seeds so that our species, our children and their children’s children may continue the cycle of life, death, germination, fruitfulness and harvest.
Paradise is forever lost and we cannot go back. Life in this present is all we have.
It is our greatest legacy, well worth living for, and then, worth dying from when our time is complete.
Ultimate fruitfulness is to live sacrificially for the future, but in this moment.
That’s the true, accessible paradise.