Reproaching Your Demons

Practice of the Week
Reproaching Your Demons

Category: Slogans to Live By: Practices for everyone to keep in mind and pay attention to. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time. Just have the intention to grow stronger in each of these areas as you go about your day, and sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling. The titles of these practices are guiding slogans to live by.

There’s a popular saying, “embrace your demons.” Accepting the reality that they exist is necessary -- and acknowledging that in some ways they may have done some positive things for you can be helpful. But if, on balance, they are doing you more harm than good, then its time to reproach them for that.

If we are honest we have to admit that we have a lot of bad habits that keep appearing over and over again, despite all our good intentions. Of course! Look at all we’ve been through! Look at our crazy parents! Look at this troubled world we’re living in! If we are wrecks inside, it’s no mystery why. It’s the most natural thing in the world. But it’s OK, because we know that underneath that, we have a sacred noble human nature. In that spirit and with that knowledge we can correct ourselves without brutality or aggression. We can complain to ourselves (“Hey, you did it again! Cut that out! Stop that! What’s the matter with you?”) and still maintain a gentleness and sense of humor.

Judgmentalism becomes problematic when it aims at our own, or other people’s, essential character. But your bad habit, or greed, or anger, or selfishness isn’t your essential character. Think of it as a person in its own right – a demon who comes to visit you more often than you’d like. It’s the bad habit, not you, that needs reproaching.

Your practice (and your life) isn’t about – and has never been about – you. As long as spiritual practice (and life) remain about you, it is painful. Of course, your practice does begin with you. It begins with self-concern. You take up practice out of some need or some desire or pain. But the very self-concern pushes you beyond self-concern. “To study the way is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self” (Dogen). When you study yourself thoroughly, this is what happens: you forget yourself, because the closer you get to yourself, the closer you get to life and to the unspeakable depth that is life, the more a feeling of love and concern for others naturally arises in you. To be self-obsessed is painful. To love others is happy. Loving others inspires us to take better care of ourselves, as if we were our own mother. We take care of ourselves so that we can benefit others.

First, try to become as familiar as you can with some of your most popular bad habits. Take jealousy, for instance. Instead of being spun around by jealousy, confused and full of passion and self-blame, as if the jealousy were somehow a substance ingrained in your essential character, study the jealousy. Be curious, almost scientific about it. How does it feel inside? How does it cause you to think and want to act? Study the jealousy until you can see it as a kind of entity, as if it were an independent person rather than a part of yourself. Then you can reproach the jealousy: “Here you are again, my skillful, silly old opponent. Many times you have fooled me and taken me in, but not this time! I reproach you with all my heart! I see you, but I am not taken in!”

Your jealousy is not you. It is simply something very disadvantageous that is arising. You don’t have to be so convinced by it and you don’t have to take it so personally.

The great Tibetan master Trungpa Rinpoche spoke of making speeches to our various bad habits: To our selfishness, for instance, we could say, “You know, you are a terrible person. You have caused me so much trouble. I’m so tired of you. And you know I just don’t like you anymore! It’s all because of you that I have all of these problems, and you know what? I’m not going to hang around with you anymore! And who are you anyway? I’m fed up. Go away! I have absolutely no use for you at all.”

To be able to address your own selfishness like this is no easy thing. This is the opposite of how we usually view our various faults. We don’t think of our selfishness as being an opponent, an adversary in its own right. Instead, we think of it as ours and that we ought to be ashamed of it. The idea that my selfishness is an independent entity that I can reproach and disidentify with doesn’t come naturally to me.

And yet, if I think about it for a moment, why not? My experience shows me that my life consists of experiences that are constantly coming and going. Even my sense of self is something that comes and goes – there is no place it exists and no particular experience or substance I can point to that is “me.” I can think this through, but even more, my daily meditation practice has given me the visceral experience that it is certainly so. There is no essential me. Things are coming and going, here, within the sphere of what I call my consciousness, and that is all. So it really is true – my jealousy isn’t mine and isn’t me. I am responsible for dealing with it – which I do by reproaching it. But I am not responsible for its being there; it just arises, and it isn’t really mine.

If you don’t completely grasp this point, that’s OK. Full understanding is not necessary. You will grasp it eventually, little by little, as you keep up the practices of training in compassion. The training itself will slowly make clear that you don’t have to take everything so personally. You can have a much more flexible and even humorous attitude toward yourself and your many faults than you ever thought possible. And once your attitude loosens up, everything becomes much more workable.

For Journaling

Pick one of your "bad habits." Write a letter to it in your journal voicing your reproach. Acknowledge the ways that it might be trying to protect you and keep you safe, but be clear why you don't need it (anymore).

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For list of all weekly practices: "Spiritual Practice Directory"

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