Embracing Our Demons
Rev. Sarika Dharma
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
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
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?
I'm more clever than I really am"
a popular one. Well, you know, we are clever sometimes, but we get
carried away with it, that's all. Anyone else?
Ah ha, the true
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.