Freedom and The Demons

White Heron in Open Sky photography by Lisa Ernst

White Egret in Open Sky
photography by Lisa Ernst

I often encourage practitioners who are struggling, tied up in knots and feel stuck with nowhere to run, to surrender and put their heads in the mouth of the demon. Its one of my favorite teaching metaphors because its so vivid and unambiguous. From some this image draws stunned silence or a wince; from a few others a slight smile and a nod. Even though many practitioners reach an intellectual understanding, I’ve found that only a few fully experience the liberation that comes from an intimate view inside the demon’s mouth

This metaphor arises from an anecdote about the Tibetan yogi Milarepa.  Here’s the story from Tara Brach in her book, Radical Acceptance:

The great Tibetan yogi Milarepa spent many years living in isolation in a mountain cave. As part of his spiritual practice, he began to see the contents of his mind as visible projections. His inner demons of lust, passion, and aversion would appear before him as gorgeous seductive women and terrifying wrathful monsters. In face of these temptations and horrors, rather than being overwhelmed, Milarepa would sing out, “It is wonderful you came today, you should come again tomorrow … from time to time we should converse.”

Through his years of intensive training, Milarepa learns that suffering only comes from being seduced by the demons or from trying to fight them. To discover freedom in their presence, he has to experience them directly and wakefully, as they are.

In one story, Milarepa’s cave becomes filled with demons. Facing the most persistent, domineering demon in the crowd, Milarepa makes a brilliant move—he puts his head into the demon’s mouth. In that moment of full surrender, all the demons vanish. All that remains is the brilliant light of pure awareness.”

Most of us have ingrained responses to painful and difficult challenges. Usually these patterns involve resistance and struggle, which worsen our suffering.  As the noose tightens, the problems may grow into unfathomable monsters that we must avoid at all costs.  We create an “other” out of our suffering or we create an “I.” Either way, we start to view these conditions as problems we must solve or personal afflictions we must vanquish.

 As committed practitioners, over time we become more skilled at meeting these challenges. Gradually we’re less fearful of our demons, at least some of the time. We have the space to explore them with less reactivity, maybe inviting them in for tea once in a while. The intensity of our suffering diminishes and the demons disperse. Yet at other times, a particularly menacing demon may return, bearing down on us with full force. At moments like these we may feel that nothing can save us.

The demon is staring us in the face and we’ve got nothing to stop it. We’re sure the demon will devour us if we don’t find a way to protect ourselves or escape. Fear consumes us. At this juncture I’ve found that the full act of surrender, of putting my head in the mouth of the demon is the true way to freedom. It’s not really something I do as something I let go of. I release my need to survive, to protect or preserve the idea of myself in any form at all. I’m willing to let what I dread devour me.

Although this might sound scary, ultimately it’s the opposite. The moment I let go, when the demon has entered me and I have entered it, the demon dissolves into open space.  I dissolve into open space. There’s nothing inside or outside, only the sweet, unobstructed stillness of this moment. Gradually wisdom arises out of this emptiness. The situation reveals itself; the delusion dies.

There’s an important place for compassion in this process.  Sometimes we’re just not ready or able to move closer to the demon or even invite it in for tea. Taking a step back and offering lovingkindness to ourselves and to the fear, even the demon, can soften us. When we’re truly not ready to meet the darkness directly, we need to soften our hearts and minds into kindness and compassion. Then gradually we’ll find our way to the next step, of giving all of ourselves to the demon. At last we see it’s all a grand illusion and the demons of suffering and fear transform into equanimity and openness.