Embracing Our Demons

by Rev. Sarika Dharma
Dharma talk given on August 20, 1995

This morning I'm going to talk a bit about embracing our demons and relate it to our own lives, today. We have all kinds of demons that besiege us. When I first started practicing, someone told me that the Tibetans say, "Embrace your demons." I never studied Tibetan Buddhism, so to this day I don't know what techniques they use to encourage this action of embracing demons. But the phrase stuck in my mind, and I began to take a look at the demons I face in my own life and how I might change my approach to dealing with them.

We have all kinds of demons. One of my personal demons is the fear of looking foolish and doing something stupid and suffering the consequences. Yesterday, I did one of the most embarrassing things any experienced meditator can do, which is stand up after zazen when your foot is still asleep. I fell down and sprained my ankle, which was especially embarrassing because I was leading the meditation. So here I am with my ankle wrapped, sitting on a chair. I could hide in my room until it's better but I guess I just have to admit that I wasn't being mindful. When I say it aloud, it doesn't seem so overwhelming. I can embrace my foolishness and have compassion for this human being who makes mistakes, as we all do.

The demons that we talk about in Buddhism are many-fold. One of the founders of Tibetan Buddhism, Padmassambhava, is honored for taming the forces of nature contained in demons. He turned them into Dharma protectors, which we invoke here at IBMC when we do our opening ceremony for the three month summer training. We walk the edges of the compound, place incense to mark the perimeter, and call on the Dharma protectors to keep us safe while we stay within the temple grounds for intensive practice.

What are these demons, that they can be both demons and Dharma protectors? How can we relate with them in a way that transforms them from one to the other?

These demons are part of traditional Buddhist cosmology; they're called "asuras" or evil spirits. They are lower modes of existence--enemies of the gods--who dwell on the world mountain Sumaru. They belong to the realm of sensual desire, a place where a lot of our demons are. So there's a whole history in Buddhism of something out there that can lead us astray. Of course in Buddhism we understand that it's not something outside of ourselves. It's something we contain already.

When the Buddha was on the verge of attaining his enlightenment, Mara, the tempter, came to see him. Mara represents the passions that overwhelm us as well as everything else that hinders our progress. Such a being would not want human beings liberated from suffering. And essentially Mara said to the Buddha, "Who do you think you are? What makes you think you're so great?" I think this is a demon we all have to face. We must learn to believe in ourselves, in our own Buddha nature, and not be pulled astray by the temptation of such ideas.

Demons are created by either/or thinking, by thinking about things as opposites. If one thing is good, then something is bad. If there are angels, then there are devils. If there are demons, then there are Dharma protectors. But wait a minute, we just said they are the same thing! If they're the same thing, we need to take a whole different approach. If we truly contain everything, then these demons are also part of us. I'm sure most of you know that when we battle with our parts, with the ways we approach the world, we don't get very far. We're just in this constant fight. We're very tense and we can't relax.

But if we can embrace those demons and make them less awesome and less powerful, then we will probably "win." Of course we don't really want to win, because that creates a condition of opposites: if we win, then someone else has to lose. If we're battling with ourselves and we win, we lose too. So that's not really what we want to look at. We want to look at integrating our lives and learn to not be pulled away from our objectives--from our practice, from our harmony in living--by these kinds of battles.

I think that our demons arise especially when we're alone and there's nothing to distract us. Sometimes when we can't sleep at night we're full of demons. These demons can simply be thoughts that keep coming back into our mind and fill us with worry and concern. Thoughts similar to what Mara said to the Buddha: "Who do you think you are? Why do you think you're worthy? What makes you think that you deserve to be happy?" Those kind of demons.

When we feel beset with them, we either fight them or we run away. If we fight with them, we end up in a battle that has no winner. If we run away from them, we simply push them down--repress them--and they get stronger. They grow and they come back and then they truly besiege us. Even though we may believe for our own selves that we've conquered them, I don't think so.

I was talking to a friend about this, and she suggested that in order to embrace our demons, we have to first identify them. These are our personal demons. We can identify the demons that exist in our world, but for our own selves we have to be able to identify what it is we're battling with. What is our particular demon? Because unless we can identify them, we can't go any further. It's too vague. We can sit and sit and sit and become very centered and become very aware of what's going on, and yet still be a little too scared to take that extra step of seeing our demons, identifying our demons, and working with them. Working to embrace them and allowing them to be part of us, since they already are.

What are these demons? What kind of demons do we have? Does anyone have a personal demon they're willing to mention?

"The one that says 'not good enough' all the time."

So the judgmental demon. Anyone else?

"Thinking that I'm more clever than I really am"

Yes, that's a popular one. Well, you know, we are clever sometimes, but we get carried away with it, that's all. Anyone else?

"Enteman's chocolate cake."

Ah ha, the true demon! Chocolate.

Okay. I've made my own list, and I think that all of these demons get down to fear. At least for me they do. Fear of not being worthy, fear that we're not as smart as we think we are. Certainly we all share the fear of getting older and having to deal with the problems of physically getting older or of being ill.

That's a big demon, one that I've had a lot of experience with because I have a chronic illness. When I became ill, I went through many stages. First, I didn't want to have it, so I denied it. I didn't get too far with that since it was manifesting itself quite strongly. Then I got very angry about it, because it totally changed my life. I couldn't do the same things that I could before. I was helpless. There was no way I could surpass that. There was no way I could get it to go away, because there's no cure for it. And the treatment involves constant attempts to balance things out, so it becomes an everyday battle. Or an everyday embrace. And certainly the embraces are not yet. I have not yet overcome the battles.

But the interesting thing is how we go through a process, and how we can move in that direction. If I get up in the morning and I don't feel real well and I can't jump out of bed and I start to grit my teeth about the whole thing, that just makes it worse. Then I really have to fight. If I just try to be in the moment with what's happening---by reminding myself that just as I have bad days I also have good days, that it's not going to go on forever, by saying to myself, okay, this is a day in which I'm going to just take a little more time for myself, this is a day when I'm going to rest a little more--that's a way of welcoming the demon in. And it's no longer a demon. It's just a part of me. It's just a part of who I am and how I have to deal with my life.

Now, everybody has these situations whether you have an illness or not. You may have gotten older to the point where you've had to slow down a little. Because that does come with age--not healing as fast, really getting knocked out by the flu--whereas when you were younger you just took a couple of days and then you popped right back. All those kinds of things can happen as we age.

And then there is the demon of death. Fear again. The fear of death. The fear of not being here any more. The fear of not being able to participate in this life.

There's two kinds of fear, really. There's the kind of fear that happens when you walk out on the street and see a lion coming at you. And then there's the kind of fear that happens when you stay at home thinking, "If I go out in the street, maybe a lion will come at me." Very rarely do we encounter the first type of fear in our lives. If in some way your life is threatened physically--if a car is coming at you or if a mugger's on the street with a gun--then yes. But most of our fears aren't those. Most of our fears are about situations that haven't happened and aren't likely to happen, at least not in the way we're planning them. So to a large extent we are actually creating our demons.

Clinging and grasping--wanting to hold onto things when they're already changing, when they've already changed--is another demon. Everything is impermanent. Sometimes the whole situation has changed but we continue to live as though it hadn't. A good example of this is in relationships, where your relationship with the other person is no longer satisfying. Maybe you've grown in different directions, but you still don't want to let go of it. It may be too scary to think of not having that in your life anymore, even if it's not working for you at this moment. And sometimes we go on even beyond that. If you break up a relationship and still cling to who you were in terms of that relationship, you go on with the same mindset--clinging to what doesn't even exist anymore and what isn't beneficial to pay attention to.

What we really need to pay attention to is what's going on in the moment. What is happening now? As long as we keep on looking at what we don't have, clinging to what we do have, worrying about what might happen, analyzing what did happen, we can't be in the moment. We can't be in the moment, and if we're not in the moment, we can't fully live our lives.

We have to be able to let it go. We have to embrace all these demons. And just be there to really live fully.

When I say embrace our demons, don't get me wrong. Don't think that I mean you should keep them as demons. It doesn't mean waking up in the morning saying: "Hi, good morning fear, how miserable can I feel today?" Because it's true that sometimes people hang on to the pain, hang on to the conflict in their life.

I don't know why this is, but most of the time when I talk with people they can tell me everything that's wrong with their lives. But how often do we take the time to watch a butterfly, or smell a flower, or check out the birds in the aviary? We focus more on the pain. We watch television; there's lots of pain on television. It gets us thinking in that direction.

And then of course there are movies that are made about problems, and the media's emphasis on problems. Some time ago I saw a newsreel at a Japanese movie theatre. During the course of the newsreel, the reporters were in a garden looking at plants and flowers. There was a little music in the background, and that was all there was to it. In the West, people would be asking, "What is going on here? What news is this?" But that's really the news. That's the stuff we need to pay attention to. In every moment, there are all of these possibilities. In every moment, because we do contain everything. We can find that.

So it's true, we need to embrace all of it. We need to accept all the stuff in our lives, not just the good and not overemphasizing the bad. Because that's what reality is. We have all of it.

But we can choose what we want to manifest, and we can choose how we want to spend our time. I think it comes down to the fact that if we resist things we become separated from our experience. Resistance doesn't allow us to be fully in our experience. If we can accept things, then that is the first step to letting go of them. And, of course, letting go is what ultimately leads us to finding our True Selves, to being conscious, to being happy in the world.

I have found this an interesting search on my own. I recommend that you try to see what your demons are. Maybe just one at a time, don't get too rambunctious! Try to see what it is that bothers you the most, and try not battling with that. Try accepting it.

This doesn't mean that if you find yourself thinking about doing something that's not a good idea that you should go with it. You still need to make your judgments. But understand that this is part of who I am. There is this in my psyche that comes up over and over that I really need to deal with because that's what it's all about. The whole search is about finding out who we really are, about knowing how our minds work. Because if we know how our minds work, then we know how Buddha's mind worked, and how everybody's mind works. And we get that much closer to connecting with our True Selves.