I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that no matter how much I have learned, how far i’ve come, or how woke I feel on a given day, demons can always arise, seeking dominion over the nooks and crannies of my mind, heart, and body.
In Introduction to Tantra, Llama Yeshe, describes how attachments, aversions, and addictions are the chains binding human beings to the wheel of Samsara, to suffering and enslavement. To me, these internal forces are the quintessential demons wreaking havoc in personal realities the world over.
So, in this sense, demons are an omnipresent part of human experience, but the standard range of resources on offer to someone in the business of wrestling demons can seem rather impoverished (gosh darn this cynical world). Personally, the cultures i’ve lived in have tended more towards perpetuation of destructive forces than their understanding and/ or transformation.
The Experience of Demons
Over the years I have tangled with many different attachments, aversions and addictions. I have invented destructive characters to inhabit, developed fears around abandonment, rejection, isolation, harm, and violence. I have soothed said fears with food, tobacco, drugs, booze, people, sex, and creating the illusion of control. I’m good at this. I’ve had practice.
However, much as I understand that feeding the poisonous demons in my psyche can make life pretty complicated, it isn’t always easy to know what else to do with them. The temptation is to give the bastards a little something to shut them up. Even though the ‘little something’ is usually a destructive behaviour of some kind.
So, I think it is useful to pull together different perspectives and practices from various directions that consider what demons are and what to do with them. Like peering into the same hell pit from multiple angles- you do get hit with the same sulphur, but you are better equipped to handle that pungent yellow vapour.
Now, I want to be clear that I know that dealing with demons, by which I mean attachments, aversions, and addictions, is not a straightforward procedure. A batch of quick ‘how tos’ will not do the job when you are in the grip of a compelling, apparently sane and logical, craziness with big fuck off teeth.
So, i’m not out to gas light anyone who is struggling with the pain of being possessed by an urge that has no satisfaction, a fear with no remedy, or an identity that hurts, and through which you become increasingly broken down and despairing. Demon wrangling requires a certain amount of presence of mind, which is not available in every moment, and when it’s not there, you can’t just wave a magic wand and make it appear at will.
However, when presence is available, there are various ways in which demons can be understood and interacted with, and every tiny little step in the direction of demon taming is an achievement. So, I want to examine three different approaches to demon wrangling:
- The spiritual narrative treats the demonic experience as communication from the shadow, rippling through consciousness like spilled ink, dripping from a poison pen;
- The psychological version of demonic presence involves delusions, addictive voices, doubts, and painful, fatalistic spirals of thought;
- The physiological demon story looks at how unanticipated pleasure and learning can turn into a spiral of craving and compulsion.
Each mode of understanding gives a different perspective on what is going on, and offers insight into practices that can be brought to bear when wrestling with a particular demon.
The Spiritual Approach
Spiritual awareness offers a path of self compassion and open heartedness to demonic entanglement. Many names and forms are given to the demons that pass through our inner worlds, and one such figure is Mara.
Tara Brach tells the story of Buddha and Mara:
“One of my favorite stories of the Buddha shows the power of a wakeful and friendly heart. The night before his enlightenment, the Buddha fought a great battle with the Demon God Mara, who attacked the then bodhisattva Siddhartha Guatama with everything he had: lust, greed, anger, doubt, etc. Having failed, Mara left in disarray on the morning of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
Yet, it seems Mara was only temporarily discouraged. Even after the Buddha had become deeply revered throughout India, Mara continued to make unexpected appearances. The Buddha’s loyal attendant, Ananda, always on the lookout for any harm that might come to his teacher, would report with dismay that the “Evil One” had again returned.
Instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge his presence, saying, “I see you, Mara.”
He would then invite him for tea and serve him as an honored guest. Offering Mara a cushion so that he could sit comfortably, the Buddha would fill two earthen cups with tea, place them on the low table between them, and only then take his own seat. Mara would stay for a while and then go, but throughout the Buddha remained free and undisturbed.”
The spiritual practice of ‘having tea with Mara’ is one of allowing your shadow side to be present, to be welcomed, but to neither be feared nor indulged.
I find Mara shows up for me when I am tired or down, and points out just how alone, misunderstood, and isolated I am. And that I am also a worthless human being. I feel Mara in a wobbly place behind my belly button that churns uncomfortably when I am scared or small.
I recognise the feeling and focus on the sensations in my body, my breath coming and going. I bring my awareness to the place I am feeling afraid or vulnerable. I focus on the ‘me’ that is the space holding that awareness. I am vast. All of this fits easily within my arms.
In the breadth of my grasp, a gap opens that was not there before, a modicum of distance between Mara, the feeling, and the bounds of my conscious mind. Enough space to give me an ounce more perspective, to breathe a little more, to notice that Mara is taking space, but has no direct power. As long as that space exists, it’s up to me and my free will whether to offer Mara my power. And I free bloody won’t.
I’m accustomed to Mara. I don’t have to mind Mara nor banish him. I don’t need Mara to go away forever and ever. Mara can come and go. But it’s just tea, no power.
The Psychological Approach
The window of psychological awareness offers thought recognition and resilience in the face of a demon aka an anxious or addictive voice.
Belle Robertson writes about one such voice, Wolfie, and his attempts to convince her to drink large amounts of alcohol:
“If you can picture booze like a Big Wolf With Black Eyes, he represents the voice in your head. Now you have to very calmly starve the wolf. Or better yet, you have to dehydrate him by not giving him anything to drink…
The wolf will throw temper tantrums… When is this sober thing finished? Can I drink in a few more days? When exactly can I drink again?”
You’ll say I’m too busy snuggling with my husband, staying awake for conversations, i can see the look in his eyes, how proud he is of me, how supportive. i would never want him to look at me any other way, wolfie, don’t you understand that one glass of red wine does NOT equal my marriage? I pick my marriage…
The wolf will…be dehydrated. He’ll try a few more last-chance, desperate attempts. “You’re broken,” he’ll snarl. “you bitch, you can’t be fixed, you’ll always be a fuck-up, you suck at this, you might as well quit now.”
And you’ll say: You want to fight? I’ll win. I’ve got so much more energy now that i’m sleeping through the night. I can outrun you wolfie. I’m light on my feet now. I’ve got so much more spunk, clearer thinking. I’m planning to take over the world, wolfie, me and my clear-headed genius.
What is that? Sorry I can’t quite hear you. Your voice is so quiet wolfie. are you nearly dehydrated? you’re going to dry up and turn to dust.“
There’s a lot of parallels between having tea with Mara and addictive voice recognition: Both require inaction as opposed to action; both involve being present to one’s internal experience, but not identified with it; both can be practiced anywhere in any situation.
I love Catherine Gray’s description of her addictive voice in ‘The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober’, who she names Voldemort, and lists the many reasons ‘he’ offers to get her to drink. This varies from telling her that vodka would be the best cure for a tooth ache to saying she is broken and worthless. These insidious, pseudo rational suggestions can be so hard to spot, can even seem like self care, until they are revealed to be every bit as destructive as vindictive self slanging. That voice which says, ‘I love you’, ‘I’m here for you’, ‘just drink/smoke/shag/buy/bet this, and you’ll see how nice you’ll feel’, comes in so many forms. Addictive voices are tricksters all, working to secure their own survival in an uncertain world.
Though it might be splitting hairs, it seems to me that having tea with Mara offers a way of sitting with our difficult emotions without becoming fully identified, while recognising addictive voices offers a means to cope with the cravings and attempts made by your mind to rationalise the perpetuation of addictive behaviour.
The Physiological Approach
On a physiological level, demons are no longer characters or voices, but learned processes that unfold within the mind and body. These processes are both necessary and helpful because they motivate us to go in search of food and potential mates, thus ensuring our survival and opportunity to procreate. However, in a world where sources of food, sex, and all kinds of other rewards are abundant in various forms, and where we are constantly encouraged to consume, it is easy to form habits of craving and having, which do not serve our health.
It is important to make the distinction between unanticipated and anticipated pleasure: having an experience of actual pleasure versus having your physiology contrive to replicate the circumstances for you to re-experience a previously enjoyed pleasure by creating a cycle of wanting and having. Unanticipated pleasure is the thrill of the first experience, of novelty, the illusive initial high, and is intensely rewarding, whereas anticipated pleasure is the attempt to replicate the first high, which often doesn’t work as well as one would wish.
The first time I got drunk was an insane and heady experience, the likes of which my teenage brain had not yet known. My brain learned that drinking is super fun and makes worries like social anxiety, self consciousness, and self criticism disappear. Poof! Gone. How fabulous.
So, years later, when I am in the grip of some creative frustration which has snow-balled into a huge self pity party, or am manic from driving tired, cranky children around and fantasising about escape, then my brain goes ‘I know what to do to make all this go away! Time for liberal alcohol. Yay!’
My body knows that wine is a quick route to shutting down psychological pain when life seems crap. After all, wine is easily obtainable, reliable in its capability to numb difficult feelings, and marketed as a consequence free fun bucket. Never mind the mood destabilising hangover or blood sugar plummet or broken sleep or overtaxed liver that will come as a result of applying wine to negative states.
My body anticipates that wine will make bad things go away, so any time that doesn’t work as anticipated, my body’s solution is to drink more wine. Then, to compensate for the further diminishing returns of wine when it comes to alleviating angst, to drink more wine with extra wine to achieve the desired result. Naturally, this doesn’t work out too well in practice, so this process I have learned ends up being an addictive cycle of wanting, having, but not liking or deriving benefit.
In the physiological sense, the demon here is a behaviour shortcut that I have trained into my body through repetition, and which has been reinforced many, many times by my own actions or messages regarding particular actions in my environment.
On The Best Brain Possible site, Debbie Hampton does an excellent job of explaining how our neuroplasticity is the key to both establishing and recovering from addiction. Both creating and breaking an addictive cycle involves learning new things, the way we learn new things is by becoming motivated, and we become motivated because we have a positive experience and want to replicate it. Therefore, the way that we create either a destructive or virtuous cycle is rooted in the exact same neurological apparatus.
There is much work that needs to be done in the field of addiction recovery, because it is far form clear what should be classed as an addiction, why certain people are more susceptible to developing addictions, and why some people find it harder to recover once addicted. However, the current research points to a broader and more empathetic understanding of addictive compulsion and its treatment aka demon wrangling.
Linking back to the spiritual and psychological approaches to taming your demons, there is evidence that both compassionate awareness and addictive voice recognition are practices that help rewire innocent yet destructive physiological shortcuts, because they can interrupt the learned process of craving, seeking, and consuming.
When considering the physiological view of the demon experience, it is possible to see why spiritual and psychological approaches can be effective when it comes to learning new habits and disrupting patterns that hurt us. The most important factor appears to be having the motivation to seek different, less instant, but ultimately more beneficial modus operandi for coping with difficult feelings and for welcoming in the experiences that give genuine positive reward.
Overall, the three levels of understanding offer intertwined, indications about how demons can be understood and coped with. Through practicing openness and compassion, addictive voice recognition, and cultivating the motivation to take positive action, a set of tools are created. These tools allow demons to be acknowledged, accepted, and allowed to change without causing so much havoc.
So, curious, how do you understand demons? How does it look to you?
Lots of love,