We all have at least some part of our psyche that we struggle with in some way. It is that that dark side within – negative mindsets and feelings that often come to visit us in the middle of the night. This inner darkness can be seen as demons within us: the negative thoughts and feelings that plague us day-to-day. Some examples of demons in Buddhist philosophy are ignorance, anger and greed (especially ego-fixation). It is natural to feel like you want to rid yourself of your demons – you’re probably pretty sure that your life would be better without them. The funny thing is that when we try to push away or ignore our inner demons, they tend to get stronger. If nothing else, mine like to visit me in the middle of the night, especially if I’ve ignored them during the day.
It takes courage to meet your demons. It’s not easy to look at the aspects of ourselves that we’d rather not have. It can feel easier to pretend they do not exist or even to resort to self-loathing and simply hate that part of ourselves. Allow me to propose an alternative: meet your demons head on, face them. name them and accept them. Start to recognize your demons as merely a part of who you are. There are many things that make you the amazing person you are and your demons are a part of you too.
There is a Tibetan Buddhist practice called “Chöd” that involves “accepting willingly what is undesirable, throwing oneself defiantly into unpleasant circumstances, realizing that gods and demons are one’s own mind, and ruthlessly severing self-centered arrogance through an understanding of the sameness of self and others.” Through the practice of meditation, one is able to see the self in all of its glory: the good, the bad and the ugly. It may seem strange but this is part of why I love longer retreat practices – spending many hours each day in meditation allows me to observe my mind in a closed environment and see clearly that I have so much within me: incredibly bright and enlightened thoughts and little petty and judgmental demons.
I’ve gotten to know a few of my demons over the years. Some are relatively minor and visit me on a regular basis, some were larger and much scarier in years past while others remain like Sith Lords working behind the scenes in the back of my mind. I will share with you how I work with one that I like to call “The Imp.” I’ve come to recognize that this is simply a “feature” of my personality but I can be incredibly pedantic at times. As a youngster, I would drive my mother crazy by correcting her pronunciation and use of words. I am absolutely that person who will correct you for saying Pike’s Place when referring to the fresh food market in Seattle. The Imp just loves to point out and punch on tiny pointless details and has no problem picking a fight with another person over a grammatical or spelling issue. The funny thing is, I know that my own speech and writing isn’t perfect but that doesn’t stop the Imp from pointing out the problems with other people. I am able to hold this part of myself lightly now but it has actually caused me major problems in my life. Believe it or not, I have lost or severely damaged friendships thanks to this “Imp.”
Learning to face your demons and accept them as a part of who you are doesn’t make them magically disappear but it does give you something to practice with day to day. When you’re unwilling to even acknowledge your demons, it is impossible to work with them. Learning to face them, name them and get to know them gives you the starting point for working with the darker and harder parts of yourself. I had to first acknowledge and own the Imp as a part who I am before I could start working with it. I had to understand what motivations and desires were driving my actions. Why did I feel this need to correct other people? By taking the time to get to know my demon, I came to understand that my actions and punchiness were actually driven by love and caring. I wanted to help the other person but the Imp came out instead. In a misguided attempt to “help,” I found myself criticizing a person and making them feel defensive towards me. Now that I’ve come to accept this pattern of behavior in myself, I am able to see it for what it is and not immediately react when that Imp punchiness comes up for me; I can give myself a bit of space and recognize the demon when it rears its head in my life.
There are different methods you can use to recognize and work with your demons. Basic mindfulness practice is incredibly valuable for helping you see yourself and your life more clearly. I’ve written before about different personality types and the greatest value I’ve gotten from really understanding my best fit type has been gaining clarity on my strengths and my not-so-great qualities. For particularly tricky demons – especially related to fear and anxiety – I have used visualization techniques to create a mental image of the demon that I can face and “talk” to. The first step is always the same: own your darkness, shine a light on it and claim it as a part of who you are. From there, get to know your demons: how do they manifest in your life? What triggers your demons to rear their ugly heads? Once you get to know your demons, you can learn to manage them appropriately.
I’ll share one quick example of visualizing a demon related to the feelings of fear and anxiety I felt in the early weeks of my second pregnancy. It wasn’t that I had a history of pregnancy complications or problems, I just had this nagging fear that had settled in on me. I decided to sit down with my fear, visualize it and let it express itself. I sat on my meditation cushion and visualized my fear as some sort of a creature. I allowed it to really take form in my minds-eye and then I allowed it to freely express itself. For a short controlled period of time, I simply let my mind express it’s fear without pushing it away. After that intense meditation session, I was able to recognize this demon of fear when it appeared from time to time throughout my pregnancy. I learned to meet my fear when it arose and how to allow it to pass away through my thoughts. Getting to know that demon and owning it as a part of me helped me work through those scary days and weeks. My son was born healthy and is a happy little toddler today.
We all have demons within us – our fears, sadness, anger and grief can plague us each day. Learning to accept this darkness within us as a part of what makes you who you are is the first step in making peace with those difficult aspects of yourself. From there, you can learn to recognize your demons and make them a part of your life.
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