Don't Make Gods Into Demons

Practice of the Week
Don't Make Gods Into Demons

Category: Slogans to Live By: Carry these reminders at all times. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time -- but they will slow you down a bit (and that's a good thing.) Resolve to get stronger at living by these slogans, day by day. Sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling.

There’s more to life than pleasure, but don’t overlook the pleasure. There are pleasant things in your life. There are nice aspects of yourself. Appreciate them!

"Don't make gods into demons." Sometimes we may be prone to make the pleasant things in our lives into burning hells because of dissatisfaction and complaining. Sometimes we demand so much of ourselves and our circumstances, or so much of others, that we lose sight of the positive circumstances and aspects. When you try to be perfect, or even to be good, you usually come up short. Grousing about this, you may fail to notice how well you have been doing and how fortunate your circumstances are. Sometimes all we can see are our problems.

At the Zen Hospice Project, one of the clients was a man in a really miserable situation. He was all alone, had no family, was in pain, was bedridden, had accomplished very little in his life, and now he was dying. If he had wanted to construct a hell for himself, he certainly had plenty of materials to work with. And yet he didn’t do this. Far from turning the heavenly into the hellish, he turned demons into gods. He found things to appreciate, even in the middle of his dire situation. He had plenty to complain about, yet seldom complained. Instead, he praised: he praised the view outside his window on sunny days, when flowers were in bloom; he praised the sponge baths the attendants gave him; and above all, he praised the cool, clean sheets that he got into after the sponge baths. I always remember this because since then I have made it a practice to notice how pleasant clean sheets are when you first get into them, especially after a shower or a bath.

I sometimes wonder how people in really bad situations, wars or famines or severe natural disasters, manage to survive. But I then reflect that no matter what is going on, there are always small moments in which we can find some joy or relief, if we are open to them. When there’s a lot of pain in your body, you really do have something to complain about. But if you look closely, you will notice that pain isn’t ever constant: it gets worse, it gets better, and sometimes it is even almost gone. I know this because I have experienced it personally, and more than once. If I can take in the moment of relief, when the pain subsides, I have a lot more patience for the pain when it comes back.

If in the aftermath of an earthquake – even when your house has been knocked down – you can appreciate the warm bed relief workers have provided for you in the shelter and the beauty of the sky or a child’s face, then you will have been victimized once, but not twice, by what has happened.

Adapted from Judith Lief, "Don’t Make Gods into Demons."

It is possible to take the very best and turn it into the very worst. When we first encounter the dharma and the mind training teachings, we are so open and excited. It is so refreshing to encounter practical guidelines for developing wisdom and compassion and to find teachings we can actually apply in our everyday activities. But the more we practice and the more we become familiar with the teachings, the more tempted we are to close down and check out. Instead of appreciating the power of the practice, we begin to insert the heavy hand of ego.

At first meditation and compassion practices seem so beautiful and gentle. We feel enriched and nurtured. But as we continue, we begin to encounter a more threatening and provocative side to mind training practice. It makes us feel unmasked and exposed, embarrassed by our own mindlessness and the puny nature of our compassion for others.

As the practice begins to bite or to be more challenging, when it is no longer simply an add-on to our regular way of going about things, but a call for personal transformation, we feel threatened.

We reach a crossroads where we can either continue to open or we begin to shut down. At this point, we may simply stop practicing or we may co-opt the practice so that, rather than challenging our ego, it nourishes it. We keep the feel-good part and reject the rest. In doing so we are beginning to turn dharma into anti-dharma.

It is quite simple. In one approach, we are trying to consume the dharma. We are trying to fit the dharma into our small-mindedness, and in the other, we are dissolving our small self into the vastness of the dharma. When we try to feed on the dharma, instead of becoming more open and gentle, we become more closed-minded and arrogant. We have succeeded in turning the dharma, a path that is designed to make us more humble, flexible, compassionate, and awake into a kind of demon, feeding our worst qualities. Making the teachings into a credential for our ego is a perversion of the dharma. We are using our attachment to our superficial version of the dharma to destroy what true dharma is all about. It is turning a god into a demon.

Practice. In your encounter with the teachings, how have you changed? In what ways have you become more appreciative and open and in what ways have you become more opinionated and closed? How can you identify with the dharma without making it into just another credential?

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