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Adventures in personal growth
In other traditions demons are expelled externally. But in my tradition demons are accepted with compassion. ~ Machik Labdrön
It would be lovely if being on a spiritual path somehow meant that nothing would bother us anymore. We’d either become immune to the things that used to make us angry or sad or scared, or else maybe they wouldn’t even happen to us anymore! I wish.
I’m as averse as the next person to going through painful and uncomfortable circumstances, but I’ve come to know that wishing (or pretending) them away never works for long. In the end we’re forced to confront them head on and simply submit. The Buddhist story of Milarepa and the demons is a wonderful illustration of this:
Milarepa was a Tibetan yogi who lived in a cave. (You could definitely say he was on a spiritual path.) One day, when he returned from gathering firewood, he found his cave filled with horrible demons. First, he did as we all do and tried to chase them away. Predictably, this did not work.
Next, he tried talking with them sweetly and reasonably, trying to persuade them to leave. This is the strategy of “spiritual bypass,” when we try to convince ourselves that we really aren’t bothered by the demons – we’re above that, right? If we can just stay Zen and use our affirmations, surely the demons will leave and we won’t really have to deal with them… But they didn’t.
Finally, Milarepa realized that they were not going to go away and leave him in peace. Looking each one in the eye, he bowed to it, accepting it as his teacher. At last, they disappeared... All but one.
The most ferocious one of all remained. It was terrifying! Milarepa would have given almost anything to avoid doing what he knew he had to do, but – and this is the truth for all of us – he really had no choice. The only way out is in. Surrendering completely, he placed his head in the slavering mouth of the demon, and it too disappeared.
Once we truly turn and face what scares us most, it no longer has any power over us. We learn that we can actually bear the discomfort. This is real spiritual maturity – not to be without pain, but to face pain (fear, sadness, anger, boredom, loneliness, embarrassment, rejection) without running, fighting, or pretending we’re above it.
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