Skillful Ways to Deal with Your Demons

Steve Goodheart Essay

Recently, on Facebook, I posted a Photo to my Wall with a comment about working with “demons.” As I said at this Photo post: “Demons are not bloodthirsty ghouls waiting for us in the dark; they are the forces we find inside ourselves that fabricate around ego-clinging and that we project “out there” on others, because we can’t look at our own fears, angers, and dark places.”

I had such a good response to this Facebook post, I thought I would also share some other skillful dharma teachings on this important subject.

Whether we call these mental knots and wounded energies “demons,” or “mind parasites,” or “neuroses,” or harmful “memes,” dealing with them is at the very heart of liberation. In a certain sense, spiritual practice is all about dealing with the “shadows”—those aspects of being we have consciously and unconsciously blocked off and denied, even as they wreak havoc with our lives.

Here are some especially helpful articles I’ve shared here at Metta Refuge before. The first two posts are a pair and use the metaphor of a raging elephant for our untamed mental denizens, our “habit energies,” as Thich Nhat Hanh calls them:

Can the Power of Love Stop an Elephant?


Taming Elephants-How To Transform Negative Habit Energies

Another especially helpful post is:

How Insight and Loving-kindness Free Us from Mental Parasites

In “How Insight and Loving-kindness Free Us from Mental Parasites,”  I really get into specifics of practice and share some more skillful teachings from my heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, as well as Zen teacher Cheri Huber. I also share some of what I’ve learned from my own practice of dealing with “habit energies” and “mental parasites.”

Another teaching that has been very helpful to me comes from the Tibetan tradition. I first came upon this skillful means in a great article in Tricyle magazine by Lama Tsultrim Allione.  In this article she said:

“In my own process of learning and applying the practice of Chöd, which was originated by the eleventh-century Tibetan yogini Machig Lapdrön , I realized that demons—or maras as they are called in Buddhism—are not exotic beings like those seen in Asian scroll paintings. They are our present fears and obsessions, the issues and emotional reactivity of our own lives. Our demons, all stemming from the root demon of ego-clinging, but manifesting in an infinite variety of ways, might come from the conflicts we have with our lover, anxiety we feel when we fly, or the discomfort we feel when we look at ourselves in the mirror. We might have a demon that makes us fear abandonment or a demon that causes us to hurt the ones we love.

Demons are ultimately generated by the mind and, as such, have no independent existence. Nonetheless, we engage with them as though they were real, and we believe in their existence—ask anyone who has fought an addiction or anxiety attacks. Demons show up in our lives whether we provoke them or not, whether we want them or not. Even common parlance refers to demons, such as a veteran who is home “battling his demons” of post-traumatic stress from the war in Iraq. I recently heard a woman say she was fighting her “jealousy demon.” Unfortunately, the habit of fighting our demons only gives them strength. By feeding, not fighting, our demons, we are integrating these energies, rather than rejecting them and attempting to distance ourselves from disowned parts of ourselves, or projecting them onto others.”

Artwork by Andrew Guenther from Tricycle “Feeding Your Demons”

If you find this idea of “feeding” your demons as intriguing as I did, then give this high skillful, imaginative practice a try.  The article explains the basics in some detail, but for a more thorough explanation, you might want to get Lama Allione’s wonderful book, “Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Dissolving Inner Conflict.”

I hope these articles I’ve shared here help you with your own personal demons—the really hard emotional and mental stuff that repeatedly defeats your efforts to express a full humanhood and be free from mental hindrances.

The fact is, we all have our “demons,” big and small, but the good news is that we also have the capacity to transform them and liberate our blocked energies for our own benefit and the benefit of all beings.  So, don’t be discouraged when things get hard—and, they will!  Sometimes it can feel like we may never break free of old mental patterns.

Don’t give up! Be compassionate and patient with yourself.  Just learning how to pay attention to what is going in our hearts and minds on is a huge step forward.  As we practice these skillful means, we will gain insight into our angers, our fears, our hurts. This compassionate, wise understanding opens up our hearts and frees us as nothing else can.


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

3 Responses to “Skillful Ways to Deal with Your Demons”

  1. Had this post saved on the computer for a while. It seemed the right moment to read it and thank you so much for posting. Always there for me dharma bro. Metta and happiness to you my friend ♥♥♥


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